Digital Anthropology: You could get with this, or you could get with that

Last week I reported from #AAA2014 on the emergence of digital anthropology as a growing theme in our discipline and one in need of some legitimacy relative to anthropology’s traditional domains. Readers posed questions interrogating the worth of digital anthropology. What is it good for? What does it add? How should we define it?

I’ve been mulling over this question of what digital anthropology can do that is different from digital sociology or digital communications studies and the answer I came up with is problematic because it points back to these questions of jobs and disciplinary legitimacy. The next frontier for digital anthropology should be participatory design with the added challenge of translating participatory design into conventionally valuable works of scholarship.

I mean, anthropologists and ethnographers can also forward an innovative agenda of the study of cyberworlds and the way people use information technologies to mediate their social relations/ relationship with the natural environment because our training, our canon, the questions we ask are anthropological. Once you drink the anthropology Kool-Aid it really does change the way you see the world, or so I believe. There’s something special about us that makes it essentially different from sociology or communication.

But at the risk of sounding bratty this is kind of the same justification used in tourism anthropology. Let me say here that I LOVE TOURISM ANTHROPOLOGY. My dissertation is in tourism. I’ve got a lot of respect for those folks. Tourism studies also made a huge splash at the AAA’s this year, go back and check your program. It was everywhere! And that is a good thing, it is incredibly important work: it’s probably the biggest service industry in the world and one of the most relevant ways in which people of different cultures come into contact with one another. Tourism is a really big deal globally, but it is not held in high esteem in the discipline. There’s not a lot of innovation in the field. There’s performance/ performativity, host and guests, work and leisure, cultural imperialism, discourse but its not enough. It’s not taking those old ingredients and mixing them into a new dish that brings people to the table from outside tourism studies.

One area where digital anthropology is well positioned to make big waves is via participatory design. For example, working with communities to compose digital representations of themselves, addressing “cultural” gaps between users and developers particularly when those users are “other,” delivery of social services online/ open government. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that this is applied research. It is seldom done within the academy and when it is it places the added burden upon the anthropologist of translating that product into something of academic value. Thus it is not enough to produce a website for a Buddhist monastery or create a video game that teaches an endangered language to children. No one gets tenure in anthropology for website design. You have to write an article about the website, you have to write a book about your video game.

This is going to be a major challenge. How do you write a fascinating, page-turning account of producing a website? Not only do you need the ethnographic skillz to execute the participatory design. Not only do you need the chops to talk to the IT people who will collaborate with you (or even more rare, write the code yourself). But you also have to be an eloquent writer that can communicate to readers why it took weeks of effort to settle on the background color of your homepage in a way that makes them care.

As strange as it may seem, it is absolutely necessary that digital anthropologists continue the reproduce disciplinary jargon so that our colleagues value what we’re doing. I disagree that this is some indicator of disengagement with the real world or our students for professionals to speak with one another in specialized language. True reaching broader publics is a pressing issue for all of anthropology if not all of academia, but that is something bigger even than digital anthropology however privileged/ high profile we might be among students currently. After all students become doctors, lawyers, and architects despite those professions having outrageous jargon too. But who will find a job in digital anthropology?

Digital anthropologists won’t be in academia unless we learn how to translate what we do into the language and genres of acedmia. We’ll all be working for design firms, libraries, museums, or in communications. That’s going to take some mid-range theory. We need people who can cite Claude Shannon and Bruno Latour in the same sentence. Here’s an interesting example, look to what “multispecies ethnography” has been able to accomplish: reinvigorating cultural ecology by injecting some post-structuralism. And that mattered because it engaged contemporary disciplinary debates.

Maybe we should go back to the thread Kelty laid down with recursive publics? Maybe we should talk to the activist anthropologists about how community engagement becomes an ethnographic object? Maybe we need to make inroads to the Society for Applied Anthropology? We need to take stock and anticipate: what have we learned from the study of cyberworlds that speaks to everyone, to archaeologists and linguists and physical anthropologists and the high flying theory heads, that is relevant beyond the confines of our little clique?

And if our train goes off the track/ Pick it up pick it up pick it up.

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.

One thought on “Digital Anthropology: You could get with this, or you could get with that

  1. Matt, this is a great, great post. Instead of staking out a position, it advances a conversation. In that spirit, let me add a few thoughts.

    You go straight to the heart of the matter when you write that our answer when asked what we bring to the table is the claim that we have something special to offer is, “because our training, our canon, the questions we ask are anthropological.” But what do we mean by that? It isn’t our theory or jargon, both of which are mainly borrowed from European sociologists (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Bourdieu) or philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, et al). What it could mean is 

    *Breadth of perspective — a trained awareness of variations in human behavior that only reading lots of ethnography and doing fieldwork provide.

    *Depth of perspective — Trained to ask questions about culture, language, artifacts, ideals in relation to human biology, anatomy and evolution, from prehistory to the present. 

    *Training in how to put it together — Holistic perspective is a Holy Grail. Not being God, none of us will get there. But the habit of asking how does this fit with that, which cuts across the disciplinary boundaries of the other social sciences and humanities. That is a very big deal, indeed. 

    Consider diffusion, for example. It is a problem of vital importance in today’s world, to marketers, epidemiologists, in politics, religion, and war. It is one of the central topics examined in social network analysis. It is also, of course, a topic that anthropologists have grappled with since the field began to take shape in the early 19th century. Archeologists still remember this stuff because it is their bread and butter, examining fragments of this or that and trying to determine whether they represent diffusion or independent invention, a known style or something new. 

    Perhaps if we were to spend less time critiquing and dismissing our field’s ancestors and more time asking how the questions they raised relate to those raised in other fields that study the twenty-first century world, we might have something to offer besides our readings of stuff that other people read, too.

Comments are closed.