Digital Anthropology’s To Do List

At the 2012 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association we hosted the first business meeting of the Digital Anthropology Group. I ran the meeting like a focus group and the forty or so anthropologists in attendance, from grad students to senior professors, participated with gusto.

Growing out of conversations about Digital Anthropology here on Savage Minds the focus questions were arranged around six prongs. I know forks usually have four prongs… but DANG is a really big fork, okay? The purpose of the exercise was to discover what DANG’s mission should be for each theme and to come away with an actionable project.

You can access the notes on the topics we discussed via 01anthropology:

  1. Cyberworlds/ Digital Studies
  2. Blogging
  3. Public Anthropology
  4. Teaching
  5. Open Access
  6. Field Methods

In the coming weeks I’ll share with you our observations about the information we collected and reproduce the suggestions we came up with. In opening up the conversation to the Savage Minds community I am hoping to revive interest in a Digital Anthropology by including more voices.

I am also hoping to cheer, flatter, and shame my colleagues into contributing their time and talents for the future success of the Digital Anthropology interest group. Without a doubt my top priority at this juncture is to keep the momentum we gained from meeting in person from dying out before we meet again in Chicago, 2013.

To move from success to success we should find where the excitement is. So let’s start where there seemed to be the most energy. One of the reasons I love Internet people like us, is that we can all pitch in a little time and work together to achieve something that would otherwise be a lot of work.

The study of online communities and Internet culture/ sociality
Of all the topics we discussed at the business meeting the cohort of anthros interested in the study of online culture was the most energetic. I observed that they were mostly younger individuals and they were joined by a representative from the Society for Visual Anthropology. She came bearing the news that the SVA was interested in offering DANG an invited session for 2013.

Two goals were suggested in this important area of anthropological study. First was the creation of a code of ethics for Internet research and for the use of new technology in “traditional” fields of study. In addition it was suggested that we take steps to create a lexicon, ala Keywords, to collect important terms in order to facilitate professional communication by codifying terminology.

We have a great opportunity to create an invited session with the SVA for the 2013 annual meeting and maybe those papers could grow into full-fledged articles as a special themed issue of something.

Blogging, tweeting, and their kin
A number of seasoned bloggers congregated around the issue of how the Internet was changing the way professional anthropologists communicate, share, and collaborate. After the brain storming session, it was suggested that we create an anthropology blog aggregator that could use the popularity of high profile bloggers to bring more clicks to lesser known authors by putting them in juxtaposition on the same page.

It was also suggested that we create a venue for some kind of blog award. Every section and group in the AAA brings attention to itself and its subject by highlighting their best work. We should do this too as a way of getting more anthropologists to blog and to heap praise and CV lines upon deserving bloggers.



We talked about more than this, but let’s start here. Anyone interested in hooking up with SVA? Opining on ethical concerns of digital anth? Making a Keywords for social science on the Internet?

How about starting a greatest hits aggregator? Or setting the criteria for blog awards?

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.

10 thoughts on “Digital Anthropology’s To Do List

  1. Apologies for the tardiness of this DANG report. I did write it about eight weeks ago and never pressed the publish button. But my wife just got tenure and she’s been a bad influence on me ever since!

  2. Thanks for this report, Matt. I enjoyed the meeting at the AAAs a great deal. The main question I thing that DANG needs to deal with organizationally is its relationship to CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing ( It would be a shame to split our efforts unnecessarily and at both the CASTAC and DANG meetings this past AAA, there were many shared topics of conversation and almost no attendee crossover or mutual awareness (i.e. it didn’t seem like most people at CASTAC had any idea the DANG meeting was going down or vice versa).

    My suspicion is that DANG gestated during the recent time that CASTAC was rather dormant, and that they exist separately not because of any fundamental difference in topic, but due to administrative coincidence. (It seems like, if you had to name it, DANG refers to a subset of the phenomena covered under CASTAC, but certainly you could pose this a number of ways.) In any case, unless CASTAC and DANG can sketch out distinct missions from each other, it seems crazy to me that we divide up anthropologists interested broadly in “stuff that happens on and with computers” like this. It seems like maybe what defines DANG specifically is not so much digitality (fun acronym be… damned), but rather the internet and networked computation, as both objects and media for scholarship. Thus the difference may be academic generation, with CASTAC bearing the history of an “old guard” anthropological interest in STS and DANG being the upstart internet thing, with suitably cheeky acronym (note that these differences in academic generation don’t necessarily, or actually, correspond to the ages of participants themselves).

    In any case, as someone whose research could easily fit in with either group’s mission, I don’t think anything would necessarily be lost if they were to be combined. I’d be interested in hearing from people who think otherwise, though: why do you think you fit with DANG and not CASTAC or vice versa?

  3. Great post to keep the progress moving Matt! Sorry that I wasn’t able to catch the meeting in SF. But this plan does look quite promising.

    One suggestion regarding keywords though, is to be cautious about codifying American-centric phrases. The one that sticks out in my mind is tweeting. “Tweeting” refers specifically to the posting of information using the Twitter platform, which is a copyrighted American brand. The formation and use of this word is quite different than say the word “blogging” which is the action one takes to place information on a blog (the shortened word for weblog). In place of “tweeting” I would recommend the more commonly (well common outside of the U.S.) used word “micro-blogging” so that such activity includes users of Weibo, Tumblr, Google+ or even Facebook’s “status updates”, which seems to have inspired Twitter and Weibo in the first place. I would be interested though if people can think of ways to explain the other kinds of actions that happen on social networking sites like Facebook, Hi5, Orkut and Myspace, where both blogging and micro-blogging are possible. For instance how do we describe the uploading of pictures and videos onto these sites? It seems we should avoid using phrases such as “youtubing” “photobucketing”, “facebooking” and even “googling” (For the first two I don’t have any suggestions, but I think “social networking” and “querying” or “web searching” are equivalent for the last two, yes?)…but I say this only in the context of codification for ease of analysis and communication across cultures. Obviously though we shouldn’t change these words if our informants use them, in that sense they are a fascinating set of sociolinguistic data.

    With regard to Nick’s comment above, it does seem like the “Mission” of CASTAC would facilitate DANG. But I have two questions:

    First, has DANG actually established a broad mission statement such as that found on the CASTAC website? I see that there is this post by Matt over at 01Anthroplogy ( and his previous post on SM in March (/2012/03/22/digital-anthropology-group-is-happening-now/) but not sure if there’s anything final.

    Second, is the bulk of DANG research directly engaged with STS? From the CASTAC website, it is quite clear that this committee was created due to anthropological engagement in the “science wars” debate. I would argue though that not all research on Science, Technology or Computing necessarily has to engage with that discourse. For instance, this is also true for some of the work commonly presented at panels hosted by the Society for Anthropological Science (which is also younger than CASTAC) but would also fit within the CASTAC mission statement. If DANG research does not directly engage with STS literature, would CASTAC still be amenable to allowing DANG research (oh acronyms, why are you so fun) to be included in their panels and publications?

    That’s my Tencent ;-p

  4. @Nick – Thanks for bringing CASTAC to my attention, we definitely should consider combining forces where possible and I will be reaching out to them promptly. A “committee” is a different sort of entity from an “interest group” and a quick review of the AAA’s active committees does not include CASTAC, so your guess as to our timing and active energies could very well turn out correct!

    @Edwin – You make some fine points about the need to keep anthropological terminology global and inclusive. Can I interest you in volunteering for a hypothetical Keywords project?

  5. @Matt – Sure, I mean even though this is way beyond my area of expertise and my advisor will think I’m nuts (probably too late for that anyway), I’d be happy to help with something like that. It seems like constructing a wiki site might be a good way to start. Perhaps we could model this online Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary of Anthropological terms ( Especially once I’m done with exams this would be kind of fun to work on in the field (when I have internet 😉 Drop me an e-mail and lets chat about where we could find a place to host something like this.

  6. I would like to see DANG take up the idea we talked about earlier regarding having a kind of Kahn Academy for Anthropology. The name is bad because it won’t be anything like Kahn Academy, except for being a database of short lectures used for teaching. I registered the domain “” but the project has stalled. Omeka recently released version 2.0 of their archive software and I think it would be perfect to use for such a site – but we need people to help build and maintain the site.

  7. @Edwin – I’d love to help out with the keywords project. Let me know when you and Matt have a chance to connect on it. Thanks.

  8. @Sherry, will do! Let’s shoot for a group chat perhaps over skype to brainstorm hosting ideas in April (after my exam :-/) But definitely keep a list of your favorite keywords in the meantime!

  9. @Edwin – From what I see on the website (and I was at the same meeting Nick Seaver was at at AAA 2012), CASTAC historically formed as a space for doing anthropology and STS together. The website, however, lists this as history and explains that CASTAC’s mission has broadened. There were at least 5 people I personally remember who engage technocultures more from media studies or even communication studies angles. There’s nothing in the process of the meeting that limits the group’s work to STS. The meeting functions like how DANG sounded — a space to network people and let them self-organize into collectives around discovered topics of mutual interest while eating overpriced bagels ordered through some pooled funding.

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