Digital Anthropology Group Is Happening Now

This post is an attempt at a formal-ish sounding mission statement for our collective of anthropologists engaged, in many different ways, with digital concerns be they methodlogical or topical. If folks want to leave feedback in the comments section that’s always appreciated!

You will notice that this statement says nothing about our organizational structure. We are proceeding with the plan of becoming an interest group under the AAA. From the looks of it that hasn’t stopped SOYUZ from including non-AAA members and nurturing ties with other professional organizations, so I’m optimistic that we can follow in their footsteps.

Note that we do not need formal by-laws like what is shown in the SOYUZ link, nor am I suggesting that this statement or any other needs to be set in stone. Basically we’re just looking for a place to start, so evaluate this as provisional and not final.

We have yet to settle on a name. I’ve created a Survey Monkey with all the suggested names so far. It also has a text box where you can leave additional name ideas, you know, just in case you’re sitting on a brilliant name and haven’t told us yet. The field is wide open now, but we’ll narrow it first and then have a run off. I use the name Digital Methods in the mission statement below just as a place holder. Also note that the t-shirts could look like the “Crystal Method” and would be awesome. Just saying.

I am now creating the charter membership list. Joining is free. Please email me at MDTHOMPS @ ODU.EDU with the name and contact information you’d like for me to use in future communications. AAA members will have to use the name and email address that the AAA has on file. In late April we will have a more thorough and proactive membership drive, right now I’m just trying to get enough people to launch the group.

The next order of business will be putting together an OA themed panel for the AAA annual meeting. Giovanni has already said he wants to be involved, Tom Boellstorff in a previous post seemed interested, I was thinking we could ask Jason Jackson too, maybe we could rope CKelty into it. What do others think? Anybody want a piece of this conference action and/or take it over from me?

Okay, so recap:
1. Comment on this mission statement (below)
2. Respond to Survey Monkey about name
3. Email me with contact info to join
4. Chime in about OA panel/roundtable idea
5. Share this widely

Statement of Purpose

The Digital Methods Group is a network of anthropologists interested in how Internet driven platforms of social exchange are challenging the way research is done, how anthropology is taught, and how anthropologists communicate with each other, the public, and our subject communities. Organized as an interest group under the American Anthropological Association it acts as a forum for sharing ideas, promoting online activities, and advancing our professional concerns.

Our aim includes seeking out connections with similar efforts in other disciplines and professional associations who are interested in promoting the professionalization of online activities. We envision creating and maintaining an online presence through multiple formats including a website that will archive all of the interest group’s work and serve as a hub where anyone can freely participate, access material and information, and communicate.

The goals of the Digital Methods Group include:

• To make connections across all major subfields of anthropology by examining how researchers are using digital methods in data collection, analysis, and storage as well as their application in peer-reviewed publications.

• To consider how anthropology courses, classrooms, labs, and field schools at the undergraduate and graduate levels might be transformed by the introduction of net platforms in lecture, seminar, student collaboration, and course assignments.

• To encourage communication among anthropologists through blogging and online social networks, promoting the good work already being done and recruiting others to join the conversation.

• To raise anthropology’s profile among the general public through online communication.

• To document how net platforms might impact the ways in which anthropologists nurture long term ties with subject communities, research participants, and other stakeholders.

• To discuss and refine ethical use and best practices for the above by hosting workshops and roundtables that consolidate our experiences, successes and failures, and spread the technical knowledge necessary for using these platforms with ease.

• To promote the professional interests of its members by framing discourses within the discipline of anthropology concerning digital methods of research, teaching, and communication so that the practice of using such net platforms becomes more widespread.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

38 thoughts on “Digital Anthropology Group Is Happening Now

  1. I have been reading about your initiative for awhile, and am writing to show my support. It’s a great idea, and I’m glad you are calling it Digital Methods Group (to distinguish it from those of us who practice digital anthropology, i.e. research how others engage with digital media and virtual worlds).

    I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

  2. Hi, my name is José Serrano. I am writting from Colombia and I just ran in with your webside, I´ve been interested in Digital Anthropology sins almost a year and I would like to be part of this proyect, colaborating with my ideas about this topic. If you want to know more about what I have been doing, check out my facebook page: and my Blog is The content is written in spanish but i am in the process of translation.

    Ill be specting your answer and if you like my profile I would be very glad to contribute to this proyect. Thanks

  3. Its a little too insular and reflexive isn’t it? Must it be for and about anthropology, its methods, and fetishes? Why isn’t there anything about the study of networked sociality, techno-science communities, and others other than other anthropologists?

  4. I think this is an interesting proposal. I hope you don’t mind a question about the scope of the group. (I’m a bit of an outsider–a philosopher of science with an interest in anthropology, and sometime AAA member.) Is the focus of the group mainly on methods in which the Internet plays a central role? What about off-line computer graphics, or computer simulations used to model social and cultural interactions? Does “digital” encompass statistical methods applied to anthropological datasets? What about mathematical models of social and cultural change?

    (Most of the text seems to reference use of the net in some way, but some of the items don’t, and “digital” is pretty broad. A precise definition of the group’s scope would presumably be unhelpful, however.)



  5. @Josh – yes, we’re counting on students getting involved!

    @Adam – the group is not so much the “anthropology of cyberworlds” but more like “anthropology as cyberworld,” so the focus is less on social networks as an object of study but the implications of social networks on studies of all kind regardless of object

    @Jose – thanks for bringing your blog to my attention, we certainly do want you to join too

    @Marshall – if someone wants to provide leadership in the area of quantitative studies, modeling and such that would be great, but I’m far too ignorant in this regard to speak with authority

  6. I agree with Sarah – my preference is to call it Digital Methods Group (to distinguish it from those of us who practice digital anthropology). I also think Adam makes a very valid point…must it just be for and about anthropology?

  7. Perhaps I misunderstood Adam’s point. Yes the group will be about anthropology, but insofar as anthropology is about virtually everything (we’re not just stones ‘n’ bones, you know) I don’t see that as being especially limiting.

    Folks who like a particular name, can you register your opinions on the Survey Monkey? Thanks!

  8. @Matt, you got my concern and answered it in the first go-round.

    Personally, I am less prone to be explicitly engaged in an interest group focused on methodological and pedagogical issues of networked communication technologies as opposed to studying networked sociality, cultural processes inflected by digitalization, and the like.

    Really, if one of the projects is a public anthropology mediated through networked communication technologies, are we going to just be promotional pawns for translating four-field textual anthropology for a digital audience? Or thinking about the neat consumer digital platform we could sell to our students?

    A little quotidien and secularly disciplinaire, no?

    Anthropologists talking about anthropology doesn’t seem like a pregnant future to me.

    I am more prone to be an explicit participant in an interest group inspired to investigate the possibilities and implications of producing and promoting studies of digital sociality as it interfaces with popular cultural studies, state policies, economic metatheories, and other things we anthropologists do so well.

  9. I am very excited about this interest group. Digital methods seem vital to the future of anthropology as a discipline both in disseminating our research findings and in its potential in the way we do our research and connect with people in the communities we study. However, like Adam, I am also interested in the study of digital communities and how people use digital communication and social networking. Could we add a bullet point under the “The goals of the Digital Methods Group include:” for promoting the study of cyberworlds, social networks, and digital communication? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the sole or primary focus of the interest group, but it would be helpful if the AAA interest group could also help organize anthropologists who are working in this line of research. Is there any organizational reason to avoid mixing methodology and area of research interest? I suppose it might be slightly confusing for people outside the group. Would others be interested in including a promotion of studying cyberworlds, social networks, and digital communication?

  10. I agree with Adam’s and others’ concerns above. I think it is limiting to create this group just to look at how the digital world impacts anthropology and its methods/dissemination. I would much rather be part of an interest group that also promotes the engagement/understanding of these phenomena.

  11. @sydney – I would be interested in including a promotion of studying cyberworlds, social networks, and digital communication.

  12. I have to say that in the comments there looks like a split between people who want to study digital worlds (I am surprised that there isn’t already such an interest group in AAA) and people who are interested in the digital environment as an infrastructure for doing anthropology, though of course both could be hosted in such a group. I am writing to suggest that as written, the statement of purpose looks like it should, but does not as yet, contain any indication of how digital objects created in the ways suggested would be preserved as records of practice, research, etc. I am presently working with a student on archiving the digital records kept by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference at the National Anthropological Archives, and it’s clear that not only SEAC but also the NAA have not gone very far down this path (I supervised an intern at NAA who inventoried their digital holdings, which so far are not many) in spite of the fact that most of the inscription technologies now in use are digital.

  13. Does Pat Galloway (above) have it right? – I suspect she does – that this distinction is between applied and academic takes on the topic? It would be a shame to have this old rift hamper the intellectual ambition of such an interest group. Shouldn’t these two necessarily go together in a robust epistemology? Aren’t Adam’s (above) “methodological and pedagogical issues of networked communication technologies” themselves a kind of “networked sociality,” or a cluster of “cultural processes inflected by digitalization?” Perhaps the statement can be revised to explicitly speak to both of these facets, and how they interconnect, and then the whole could be covered by the name: Digital Interest Group (DIG)?

  14. I’m going to go out on a limb. What makes the study of digital worlds different from the study of the actual world is that practitioners are forced to use digital methods. Otherwise, until true machine intelligences arise to become our informants, it’s still humans on the other end of the wire.

    I like “Digital Methods Group”. It has the right kind of old-school sound.

  15. Could we go a bit further and observe that while virtual worlds can be visually and aurally exciting, they remain literally antiseptic, lacking the smells, tastes, and haptic sensations that make fieldwork in a real world field site a totally different experience. I am thinking here of the work of Paul Stoller and his critique of scholars who write about embodiment but retain ethnocentric visual and textual biases. I think, too, of a young Korean scholar I met at the most recent Sunbelt network analysis conference. Thoroughly sophisticated in the use of digital technology, she has also done a year and a half of on the ground, lived-experience fieldwork with prostitutes in South China. Her slides evoked scenes and sensations I recall from fieldwork in Taiwan in the late 1960s. I wonder what they meant for those who will never actually be there, with the stinks, the smells, the flavors and textures I recall so vividly.

  16. @John – I think its wrong to try and define digital anthropology (if that’s what we’re calling it) in terms of what it lacks.

    While it is true that there are some studies hermetically sealed within the digital realm it is more important to recognize that the parts of the “real” world that are not porous with the “virtual” are increasingly scarce. Even anthropologists engaged in conventional studies are going to have at least some non-meatspace interactions as a part of their research. This has been the case for a very long time, its just that no one talks about it.

    For example, how many people have interviewed an informant over the phone? I’m guessing pretty much everybody. Okay, now how many people received training in their methodology courses for best practices during phone interviews? I would guess very few. Is it necessary in the writing phase to label phone conversations as not occurring face-to-face? I don’t know of any instance of this even being a topic of debate. If anyone knows of anthropological ruminations on telephone usage in the field I would be very curious to read it!

    Digital worlds are not inherently separate from the tangible ones Stoller describes so eloquently. I suppose that many anthropologists interacting with informants through digital channels are doing so with persons that they already know in the “real” world and/or are meeting people through online social networks first and then interacting with them in person later.

  17. @Matt

    I wasn’t trying to define digital anthropology. I was responding to John Hawks’ remark that,

    “What makes the study of digital worlds different from the study of the actual world is that practitioners are forced to use digital methods.”

    I was also responding at one remove to some of Adam Fish’s comments. It is easy for me to imagine digital anthropology becoming hugely popular because, let’s face it, it is far cheaper and easier than the old-fashioned down, dirty and stinky kind. I can also imagine it becoming indistinguishable from what all sorts of folks with equal access to web crawlers, digital analytics, and digital imaging tools do.

    In so far as cultural anthropologists once had something special to put on the table. it was that “We’ve actually been there and spent a substantial amount of time living what we’re describing” thing. Other social scientists might have better quantitative methods. Other humanists might have deeper knowledge of languages and literatures. But they didn’t have that.

    Maybe Adam is right. Maybe it doesn’t really matter any more and the smart move, career-wise as well as intellectually, is to be intellectual chameleons, ready to take on whatever coloration academic and cultural marketplaces demand. I’m cool with that. Hey, I work in advertising.

    Still there is something in me that isn’t quite ready to let go of the old-fashioned notion that actually sharing lives in out of the way places with strange food, odd smells, and people who behave in genuinely unexpected ways because they aren’t netizens like us still has something important to offer.

    I’m not saying that you, or anyone else, has to do it this way to have what you do count as anthropology. But if counting as anthropology actually has any meaning it all, it might be worth thinking about how digital anthropology relates to the other kinds.

  18. I did all that stinky real-world anthropology. I’m also Facebook friends with about dozen of my informants and I’ve “liked” a handful of local institutions on the reservation. What’s going on with that?

    On a hunch I’d guess there’s many who are in a similar situation as me and in the future there will be even more.

  19. @Matt

    Good for you. I in no way want to put down what anyone has done or is doing, and I think that the Digital Interest Group is a great idea. If I sometimes raise uncomfortable questions, I do so to provoke some thinking before someone less sympathetic to the enterprise as a whole does.

  20. Right. So getting back to our agenda, we shall include some language so that anthropologists who take up cyberworlds as an object of study can find a welcome home in the Digital Interest Group too.

  21. “I wonder what they meant for those who will never actually be there, with the stinks, the smells, the flavors and textures I recall so vividly.”

    Wow, that’s worth a lot of thought. Anthropology began at a time when travelers’ reports were rare and — although Europe wasn’t as antiseptic as now — most of the “theorizing” was done by armchair philosophers. The field became more empirical as it matured, with all the key players engaged in distant and prolonged fieldwork.

    Until it turned inward and reflexive. Now, if no one needs to go to the field, if they can work from a console, the field may really be returning to its pre-ethnography roots.

  22. @John Hawks

    Serendipitously, I am rereading SF novelist Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, about half of which is speculative reconstruction of the lived worlds of pre-H. Sapiens primates, all the way back to Purgatorious, a contemporary of the dinosaurs. I wonder what someone far more expert than I when it comes to biological anthropology would think of those reconstructions. Have you by any chance read it?

    I say serendipitously because one of the things that makes the book so compelling is vivid accounts of worlds shaped by a more acute sense of smell than we modern humans have.

  23. Ditto John and others – “what Juris said”. While I appreciate the desire for the foregrounding of focus on how digitally mediated communications impact anthropological research methods, addressing that without the simultaneous consideration of what we know (or theorize) about cyberworlds, networked sociality, etc. seems unsatisfying. On the other hand, keeping the predominance of focus less on the “of” and more on the “in” seems worth endeavoring to preserve.

  24. This is great! I’m sharing with the National Association of Student Anthropologists (NASA) listserv.

  25. I’m in as well. I study sound and food (digital but not occularcentric in the least). I also think that it’s important not to fracture – four fields, interdisciplinary and studying both the pedagogical use of digital methods and the anthropological study of digital environments, it makes us that much stronger. Anthropology often discourages collaboration (at least at the dissertation level) and I think this is the perfect venue to recognize how these approaches and disciplines can work in tandem and be of greater value to the public.

  26. I agree with Leigh, the focus here needs to remain very much on the four fields etc., so as to encourage greater awareness and collaboration. Digital methods in anthropology have bounded ahead in recent years, in terms of the collection of field (and other) data as well as how he we analyse it and how we communicate results with interest groups. I’m really fascinated in learning about how others are using these new(ish) methods in such contexts, however the theoretical / conceptual work is critical to understanding these methods and the role of digital technologies in human life-worlds.

    Let’s not privilege either theory or method/applied work, as Matt suggests, since that will turn people away.. I wonder if having ‘methods’ in the group title may give the wrong impression?’ Digital Interest Group’ is good, and as an archaeologist the acronym works for me 🙂

  27. I am not sure if this is entirely within the scope of the group, but myself and another student were recently discussing the current use of technology on sites and in field work. In particular, we are looking at the potential to record, and then access information remotely, specifically with the intent of having information accessible by subject experts across the globe. One of our focus points was enabling the accessibility of cheaper technology in developing countries while allowing access to the wider knowledge base.

  28. Our AAA roundtable will need to be reviewed by a section. Any suggestions? In the future, once we’re recognized as an interest group we can have invited roundtables but since we won’t officially exist until after the submission deadline we need an already existing section to be our ally.

    Who might be sympathetic/interested in our project?

  29. Thanks for continuing to push this effort forward, Matt. One thing that I think we could add to the goals: maybe the DMG could be a sort of bridge within the AAA to non-US anthropologists, associations, etc? I think it’s a good idea to work within the structure of the AAA…but I also think it would be good to make it known that this group is also about extending connections beyond that one association/institution. This might help invite more participation and interest from non-AAA folks. Also, it could be a good tool for opening up the AAA from the inside.

    Also, I really like “Digital Methods Group,” but I am wondering if the word “anthropology” needs to be in the title? Maybe I am being to simple about this though. I’ll be interested to see the results from the survey.

    Thanks again, Matt, for all your work with this. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

  30. On this first note it might be helpful to meet with the people in SOYUZ and see what they are doing to make it work for their non-AAA members. For example the host their own annual meeting. We could make that idea our own by putting together an online, international, cross-disciplinary meeting. Or whatever! The whole idea is to come up with some shared activity that everyone can participate in.

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