“The Digital” as major theme at #AAA2014

As I settled in to browse the conference program for the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (just hours before I was scheduled to leave, natch), I was immediately struck by a common thread running through a slew of paper panels and workshops. This year anthropologists convincingly demonstrated that they have wholly embraced the Digital, it was everywhere from topics to methodological choices, technologies and communications.

Here’s a sample of what conference goers had in store:

  • ACTIV(IST) DIGITAL SCREENS: THE POLITICS OF DIGITAL IMAGING ACROSS CULTURAL BORDERS
  • DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY GROUP (DANG) BUSINESS MEETING
  • DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ETHICS
  • DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, TRANSPARENCY, AND EVERYDAY FORMS OF POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT
  • CONFLICTED FANTASIES: ANTHROPOLOGY AND AFRICAN MEDIA CULTURES IN THE DIGITAL AGE
  • DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND CAREER MOBILITY: DO THESE GO HAND-IN-HAND?
  • SEEING ARGUMENTS: VISUAL ARGUMENTATION AND PRODUCTION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
  • DIGITAL DIASPORAS: AFRICAN MIGRANTS, MEDIATED COMMUNICATION, AND TRANSNATIONAL IDENTITIES
  • DIGITAL MEDIA AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGY: A DISCUSSION ON VISUAL ETHICS (PART 1: PRIVACY, ACCESS, CONTROL, EXPOSURE)
  • ANTHROPOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE: ACCESS, CREATION AND DISSEMINATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
  • DIGITAL MEDIA AND THE PRODUCTION OF ANTHROPOLOGY: A DISCUSSION ON VISUAL ETHICS (PART 2: ANONYMITY, VISIBILITY, PROTEST, PARTICIPATION, IDENTITY)
  • PRODUCING STORYTELLING IN THE DIGITAL AGE: NEW CHALLENGES
  • ON THINGS IMMATERIAL: DATA, USERS, AND PARTICIPATION IN DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES
  • THE LIFECYCLE OF ETHNOGRAPHIC INFORMATION – CHALLENGES IN THE PRESERVATION AND ACCESSIBILITY OF QUALITATIVE DATA
  • NAPA Workshop: (FREE) Software for Writing and Managing Fieldnotes: FLEX DATA Notebook for PCs
  • RESEARCHING ANTHROPOLOGY AND ORIENTALISM IN THE ERA OF BIG DATA: ROUNDTABLE ON THE ARAB STUDIES Institute’s KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION PROJECT
  • SMALL-SCALE, BIG DATA: A NETWORK SCIENCE APPROACH TO PRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY IN SMALL-SCALE FOOD SYSTEMS
  • PRODUCING DATA, CRACKING DATA CULTURES
  • THE BIG DATA REVOLUTION AND THE FUTURE OF SOCIOCULTURAL WORLDS
  • MAKING ISLAM IN MULTIPLE MEDIA: INTERNET, THERAPY, ROMANCE, AND SCHOOLING IN THE FORMATION OF MUSLIM IDENTITIES
  • TEACHING ANTHROPOLOGY ONLINE: BEST TOOLS AND PRACTICES FOR E-LEARNING
  • Writing Ethnography: Experimenting on Paper, Experimenting Online
  • CASTAC BUSINESS MEETING (COMMITTEE ON THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND COMPUTING)
  • SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY WORKSHOP ON UTILIZING FACEBOOK FOR ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH
  • SOCIETY FOR HUMANISTIC ANTHROPOLOGY WORKSHOP. BLOGGING BLISS: WRITING CULTURE IN THE BLOGOSPHERE

Add to this the #AAA2014 tweet-up, constant updates on social networks and blogs (not to mention the email and instant messaging we all take for granted) and it is clear — there is no part of our professional lives that is untouched by the online. Research, fieldwork, methods, teaching, scholarly communications. Digital anthropology is a major development in our discipline and rightly so, humanity, our bread and butter, is potentially redefining itself in relation to these technologies. We can’t not study this stuff!

Moreover, our public loves digital anthropology. People come to these panels, especially the students. Digital anthropologists themselves are an incredibly diverse bunch, I met several international folks who were making the journey to the AAA for the first time to speak on digital studies. The presses know the topic sells books. In the exhibition halls there were stacks of books for sale like Digital Rebellion: Birth of the Cyberleft, Oral Tradition and the Internet, Digital Anthropology, and Human No More.

Despite all these strengths it was not uncommon to hear students tell of being discouraged by faculty advisers from going into this area. Too many of our colleagues still limit “real” anthropology to villages and developing countries. Perhaps there is a kernel of wisdom in their obstructionism. Look to the senior voices in digital anthropology and they all started out in something else.

Its an unwritten rule that you have to begin your career in one of anthropology’s “traditional” areas of expertise then, once you’re established, you can branch out into Facebook fieldwork. That’s a shame. It’s the same double standard that plays out in Open Access. Make your publications available to everyone… unless you don’t have tenure then you need to chase the top titles in your field. It leaves the students who want to focus on this incredibly important aspect of what it means to be human right now out in the cold because despite its popularity (or, perhaps, in part because of it) digital anthropology is lacking in legitimation.

I don’t understand why this is the case. Anthropology wants desperately to be relevant, it wants to get its message out to broader publics. This is the stuff that fills classrooms and gets covered in the press. How can we advocate for the legitimacy of digital studies?

Read the job ads in cultural anthropology and most of them are going to make reference to some geographic region that their potential hire must fill. Does a digital anthropologist have a hope of being hired by an anthropology department?

What is it that they want, those who hold the prestige? How can we move this scholarship forward from Trendy Topic to the next STS or the next Queer studies? Because what the digital anthropologists do is not new. The traditional features of anthropology wholly transfer because the Internet is humans. Its humans all the way down.

ORGANIZING AROUND THE DIGITAL
This was the year DANG (the Digital Anthropology Group) met CASTAC (the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing) and exchanged ideas about how we can support and enhance each others’ work. In the future I hope these two groups grow closer together, support each other in conferences and on the web, and complement each others’ strengths. CASTAC is a committee within the General Anthropology Section: what can they do that DANG cannot? DANG is an interest group, more informal and perhaps more agile, how can we play our free form structure to CASTAC’s advantage? If you are interested in contributing to DANG, or just want to learn more about the group please check the Digital Anthropology Group tag below, or email me directly.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger currently working to describe a collection of approximately 14,000 photographs produced by the Army Signal Corps during WWII. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

5 thoughts on ““The Digital” as major theme at #AAA2014

  1. Thanks for this post — I noticed this trend as well, especially the increased presence of anthropologists and other scholars on Twitter. Really glad to see DANG and CASTAC in conversation, since there’s a lot of overlap, but as you point out, also different strengths and capabilities in terms of focus and structural organization.

    To add to the list was a panel I co-organized with Angela VandenBroek:

    ACCIDENTALLY BY DESIGN: PRODUCING DIFFERENCE AND INEQUALITY THROUGH TECHNOLOGICAL DESIGNS

    You can read the Storified version here: http://ak.vbroek.org/2014/12/07/storify-accidentally-by-design/

    Another upcoming project to keep an eye out for is eFieldnotes: Makings of Anthropology in a Digital World — so far, there have been two conference panels, at AAA 2013 and SFAA 2013, but an edited volume is in the works. Podcast from last year’s SFAA here:
    http://sfaapodcasts.net/2013/03/25/efieldnotes-makings-of-anthropology-in-a-digital-world/

    I do think there are quite a few recent PhDs and PhD candidates doing this kind of digital anthro work, but there still aren’t many jobs for us (of course, there aren’t many jobs for anyone these days). It remains to be seen what will happen, but from my experience, there’s a LOT of interest from students in studying these topics anthropologically.

  2. Digital anthropology is a major development in our discipline and rightly so, humanity, our bread and butter, is potentially redefining itself in relation to these technologies. We can’t not study this stuff!

    I agree. But allow me to play the devil’s advocate. First, what does anthropology bring to the study of digital culture that cannot be found in other disciplines? This is a serious question. I just did a Google search for “digital sociology” that produced 61,300,000 hits.That leads to my second question.

    I can understand why people already invested in anthropology would insist that anthropology pursue this new opportunity. But thinking of people we know here on Savage Minds, both Rex and Tom Boellstorff have followed the path you describe, starting with projects in geographically alien spaces, Melanesia and Indonesia respectively. Chris Kelty and Adam Fish have found employment outside of traditional anthropology departments. If I were an undergraduate contemplating an academic career and asked myself how best to follow the Kelty and Fish examples, why would I choose digital anthropology instead of digital sociology or science and technology studies or digital humanities — all of which pursue comfortable ignore-the-rest-of-the-world paths to focus on developments in on or off-line spaces that require no direct encounter with a truly “Other” way of life, let alone immersion in lives that requires acquiring new dietary habits, learning difficult languages, etc. — the stuff that old-fashioned anthropology, whose rite of passage is that kind of experience, brings to the table?

  3. Thank you for the summary. As a researcher on games from an STS perspective, I think that creating another binary division between offline and online (anthropol/x-)ogy misses the perspective on the future. The summary shows what happened in the past 20 or so years: people realized that there is a digital world. However, there is not distinct digital world that some have to discover or construct as separate. The only reasonable thing for anthropology is to treat some parts of the world that engage with digital systems as what they are: not distinct but combined worlds of digital and non-digital elements. Why? Well, look at the developments in pervasive gaming / computing. That said, I am curious about arguments that try to convince why it makes sense to look only at the digital side and forget about the non-digital side of the digital (computer hardware, satellites, cables, etc.). I still collect opinions for my defense next year : – )=

  4. This reads to me like Anthropology is hopelessly out of touch. Many children from around the world have the ability to reach multitudes more people than Bourdieu and Foucault could collectively dream of annnnnd, because of this, the only people who would be interested in reading something along the lines of, “Making at Emoji: Interrelations of High Context Image Based Emotional Communication Amongst Adolescents in Dallas, TX,” are out of touch anthropologists(or people who listen to NPR). Is anyone in anthropology talking about how the institutionalization and language of Anthropology are probably some of the greatest turn-offs for young people or anyone even remotely interested in anthropology? Or that, sadly, the greatest draw to anthropology is still the prospect of traveling the world to explore the “other?”

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