This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.
In his foundational 1955 article “The Structural Study of Myth,” Claude Lévi-Strauss outlined the program for a structuralist, cross-cultural study of mythology. The basic premise is prototypical structural anthropology: to analyze myths, one must decompose them into their constituent units (or “mythemes”). Thus decomposed, hidden mythical patterns can be made evident. These patterns are the real “content” of myths, according to Lévi-Strauss — they persist across different tellings of the same myth, and they reflect the inner structures of the mind. More important for the structuralist project, they recur in different myths, cross-culturally, reflecting the psychic unity of mankind.1
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The fundamental requirement of anthropology is that it begin with a personal relation and end with a personal experience, but […] in between there is room for plenty of computers.
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, epigraph to The Use of Computers in Anthropology 1
Recent years have seen the growth of what we might call “alternate universe anthropology.” People with little or no training in anthropology are taking on big sociocultural questions, and they’re doing it with computers. We find PhDs in Electrical Engineering trying to algorithmically define musical genres, computer scientists modeling family ties in social networks, and autodidact software developers designing “content discovery” apps around their own theories of cultural influence and flow. If sociocultural anthropology didn’t already exist, people might reasonably assign the name to this stuff.