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Computing: From Method to Object

Display system, from Shigeharu Sugita’s 1987 “Computers in Ethnological Studies: As a Tool and an Object

This post is the final part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.

The 1980s marked a significant shift in the history of computing and anthropology. Up to this point, computers were primarily considered tools that could be incorporated into anthropological methods. Georgina Born has described this instrumental attitude as “modernist,” based on the assumption that computational tools are basically rational and thus “a-cultural.” A number of coincident developments during the 1980s complicated this assumption, shifting computing from an anthropological tool into an object of study in its own right. With the spread of PCs, computing left university or corporate mainframes, entering and influencing traditional anthropological field sites as well as newer ones, such as the workplace. With more anthropologists heeding Laura Nader’s 1969 call to “study up” and the increasing influence of science and technology studies on anthropological research programs, the scope of anthropological interest also spread, incorporating “high-tech” sites where computers had already become well-established tools. Along with the increased interest in the cultural politics of method heralded by the reflexive turn, these moves brought computers into the frame for anthropology — to serve not only as ready-to-hand tools but as present-at-hand objects of anthropological interest. Anthropologists began to encounter computers not only as tools that they might use or avoid, but as cultural artifacts to be studied anthropologically.1

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