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Master Cultural and Social Anthropology

Boris Dongelmans: 'The power of anthropology depends on good quality research'

Alumnus testimonial

Boris Dongelmans, graduated in Cultural and Social Anthropology, specialisation Anthropology of China, and Organisational Anthropology, in 1997.

Boris Dongelmans
Boris Dongelmans Photo by: C. Baumann

My first job was at the Dutch embassy in Beijing. As a project officer I oversaw a portfolio of development project managed by the embassy in fields related to environmental protection, human and social right, education, private sector development and institutional capacity building. I was a small element in the machine through which the Netherlands tries to contribute to the healthy development of China and Mongolia. 

Later I moved to Cambodia and went on to become a consultant for development projects. Instead of working for a funder I was more involved in the design and evaluation of project and worked for different NGOs and multilateral organisations like UNDP and the World Bank. The good part of this type of work is that you see many different things and work often quite closely with the people who are the beneficiaries of the project. I spend a lot of time in rural Cambodia and work often together with local consultants bringing international and local experience together. As a consultant you switch most of the time between short term projects so you never work for an organisation which has its advantages but it also means you are always hunting for new projects and work. One of the NGOs I’ve worked at a number of occasions is The Asian Foundation (TAF), on one of their program related to women at risk of being trafficked or sexually exploited. It’s often financial problems that lead women into being trafficked, so TAF provides them with alternative ways of earning an income. Finding economic activities was very challenging due to the stigma these women had and how economic activities are organized in rural settings.

Think of your studies as a training course

When I went to University I wanted to go into Social Sciences, and I chose Anthropology. I was already drawn to Asia, and China in particular, so it didn’t take me long to figure out what I wanted to specialise in. My studies included a variety of subjects, such as Visual Anthropology, Organisational Anthropology, and one on China. It was useful gaining all this specific expertise, but what I really got from studying Anthropology has more to do with attitude and learning to look at things in a certain way. You gain a particular kind of discipline in your thinking. That can sometimes be a weakness of anthropologists too: you can be inclined to adopt an overly relativist position, when the reality is that sometimes you do need a clear, critical view. That’s why it’s helpful to understand and use the power of other academic disciplines.

It’s also good to keep building up your CV and to start on that while you're still studying, by doing volunteer work or an internship.

Think of your studies as a training course. It's a useful way to work out what your skills are, which skills you've learnt through your studies, and where you still need to improve.  Studying isn’t necessarily so much about the subject itself and your interest in West Africa, for example, but about your range of skills. It’s important to create a clear personal profile, both for yourself and for your future employers.’

The essence of Anthropology

I think Anthropology has helped me enormously in terms of doing research and studying things from different perspectives. Consulting isn’t so much about specific problems, but about the things that drive people. It also allows you to bring in a variety of perspectives, draw parallels that others might not see, and tie things together. That’s really the essence of what it means to be an anthropologist in the development sector.’