This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.
The introduction of portable personal computers significantly broadened the scope of computing in anthropology. Where centralized mainframe computing had lent itself to large calculative tasks and team research projects, PCs fit more readily into the classic model of the lone fieldworker working primarily with textual material. Through the 1980s, computers achieved a certain ordinariness in anthropological work — the use of a computer for data collection or analysis was not limited to a vanguard group seeking to redefine anthropology, but was rather becoming a typical fact of university life (and, increasingly, life outside the university as well). This ordinariness set the stage for the explosion of social scientific interest in computers that was to come with the introduction of the world wide web and its attendant mediated socialities.
Computer applications for anthropologists were the object of a variety of reviews within the major journals of the discipline as well as specialized publications on computers and the social sciences through the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to reviewing the latest programs (from qualitative analysis software to word processors that could handle unusual scripts), many of these reviews contained some editorializing on the state of computing vis-à-vis anthropology. From a review of these reviews (primarily in American journals), I’ve identified some common themes that emerged as computers became ordinary.
One striking feature of these reviews is their concern with the materialities of computing. While an emerging literature in critical theory explored the virtualizing potential of computing technologies — their ability to confound traditional boundaries and decorporealize cultural experience — these articles focused on the mundane pragmatics of ethnography conducted with the personal computer. In a 1987 article in Current Anthropology:
Fischer was quite surprised by the lack of problems using floppy diskettes in the very dusty environment of the Punjab. The primary base was a small house with open doorways and windows, and the only precautions taken were to face the disk drive away from the wind and to store the diskettes in dust-proof boxes.
In a note in the 1986 Bulletin of Information on Computing and Anthropology:
It is really very sensible to take back-up copies of the software: Roy sent a tape in his briefcase through the security x-ray machine at Gatwick (i.e. in the first hours of his journey), and wiped the tape. Fortunately he had another copy in other luggage…
Other concerns included the weight of computers that had to be carried in backpacks, the unreliability of power mains in non-Western urban centers and the unavailability of electricity in more remote areas, necessitating batteries with solar chargers which had to be moved inside and outside with the passing of rainclouds. The material particularities of computing brought into relief the dependence of these technologies on contextual supports that were not available in many of the places anthropologists conducted fieldwork. In a way, computers were not only tools for supporting the obvious tasks of ethnographic data collection and analysis; they served as instruments for reckoning local infrastructure, as difficult mismatches made clear that computers were technologies designed for use in certain places rather than others, computing’s specificity to particular ways of life became evident.
PCs made it possible to take some methods for formal data elicitation and analysis out of the lab of “white room ethnography” and into “the field” proper. This move placed the computer at a crucial juncture in the tacking back and forth between “field” and “home” that characterizes anthropological knowledge production. Bringing the lab to the field could facilitate strong knowledge claims,1 but it also brought into question an idealized vision of “the field” as free of advanced technologies like the computer and the analysis stage of research that it represented.
This period also saw computers starting to be used for storing and analyzing textual data — from one’s own field notes to interview transcripts or local newspaper articles — in addition to the numerical (or categorical) data they had primarily been used for. As Bernard and Evans wrote in 1983, “We have learned that computers can crunch words just as handily as they crunch numbers, and there are interesting things ahead.”2 These qualitative data analysis programs built on earlier formalized methods for analysis such as grounded theory. Many of these methods came into the anthropological toolkit from the humanities, which had focused on textual rather than numerical applications for computing since the 1950s.
Reviews of computing applications for anthropologists evince some anxiety about the material rearrangement of fieldwork around these new tools — for instance, how much time one spent in front of the computer rather than in the village or how teams of researchers could format their data so that it could be effectively combined in a computer representation. Work was required to make PCs “fit” in these new settings they had not been designed for — both in terms of humidity or dust and the epistemology of fieldwork.
Anthropologists typically incorporated PCs into their existing fieldwork practices, using word processors to collect field notes, to do basic statistical operations when they had quantitative data, and, when back from the field, to prepare manuscripts for publication. Many of their uses for calculation were so ordinary that many publications that appear to have used computers don’t even mention it. For anthropologists more interested in computing, this failure to take advantage of the unique and potentially transformative capacities of computers was a disappointment — using “new tools for old jobs” — and it led some to advocate for a “move from computing in anthropology to a true anthropological computing.”
This concern echoed the earliest discussions of computing in anthropology, centering on the question of whether the computer was truly transformative or just a more efficient tool to conduct business as usual. In principle, the digital computer is not capable of doing anything that couldn’t be done by hand with enough time. In practice, computerization of scientific research programs from physics to sociology generally only occurred for methods that had already been configured as “computational,” even when computerization was considered post facto to have been a transformative tool. We might remember Hymes’s point from 1965 that computers, if they didn’t herald a transformation in what it was to do anthropology, at least encouraged a research ethic of explicitness and formalism that could be an end in itself.
The desire for novelty in method resonates with the broader discourse about the PC “revolution” popular among technologists at the time: figures like Ted Nelson posed the PC as a liberatory technology that made it possible to break free from centralized mainframe computing and its supporting social and corporate structures. However, as PCs were taken up, they became ordinary rather than transformative — as Bryan Pfaffenberger put it, “the personal computer revolution was no revolution,” but rather a slow process of building on existing understandings of what computers could be. For large computer companies like IBM, the “freedom” offered by personal computing was no real threat, and networking was already anticipated to draw these individual machines back into a relationship of centralized control.
- This is essentially the argument Bruno Latour makes in The Pasteurization of France about Pasteur’s research practice. ↩
- From the same article: “It is now reasonable to think of little computers as if they were telephones: that is, just as it is not necessary for the user to know about laser optics in order to make a transatlantic call, many tiresome tasks can now be handled on microcomputers without knowing how the machines or the programs work. Even more important, many tasks that could not have been handled at all can now be made short work of. Purists, of course, will argue that programming skills are essential if you want to get the most out of computers, and they are right. But we feel that many new and clever uses of microcomputers will come from new and clever ways that nonprogrammers use available software.” ↩