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Computer Mediated Anthropology

Computer Mediated Anthropology



An Online Resource Center. Computer-Mediated Anthropology examines the intersections between anthropology and computing. CMA Introduction, Part 1: THE IMPORTANCE OF CMA

by Noah Porter, July 2004

David Hakken raises several compelling reasons why the study of cyberspace is important:

[Advanced Information Technologies] really are capable of mediating cultural reproduction in profoundly different ways from previous ITs (e.g., interpersonal conversation or the book);
AITs have come to mediate so heavily the lives of so many of the people whom anthropologists study that we can no longer ignore them;
So many people are convinced that contemporary societies currently experiencing a "Computer Revolution" that, despite difficulties in documenting it, the perception itself is worth studying;
As representational devices, computers raise fascinating questions about how culture is generated and reproduced;
Since a great deal of anthropology is about cultural change, understanding computerization is at the center of anthropology's interest in contemporary social formation and reproduction; and
Field studies of AIT in use, like Ratheje's "garbology" (Anthropology Newsletter 1981), provide an opportunity to evaluate methods for analyzing other cultural transformations that can only be studied indirectly-such as through archaeological field study, linguistic reconstruction, or studying the current residue of changes which first occurred long ago (diffusion of industrialism/capitalism). [Hakken 1999: 44]

While more anecdotally supported, I believe there are other reasons to focus our attention on cyberanthropology. I'd like to start off by sharing a few anecdotes about anthropology and the Internet.

For instance, I know a student at respected anthropology department, who was looking at the course catalog, deciding what to sign up for next semester. She saw an anthropology course entitled: "Culture and Technology." When she saw who was teaching it, she said to me: "Oh, that's funny. He can't use the projector. Or the computer, or the slides. The irony." Bemused, I thought: "A technophobic anthropologist is teaching culture and technology?"

Second, my advisor, Dr. S. Elizabeth Bird, told me that when supervising doctoral student Jim Milne's dissertation on blogs, she became very aware that, although clearly this was a cultural phenomenon, most of the relevant literature came from outside anthropology. Indeed, colleagues from other disciplines believed that anthropology's contribution to the study of such phenomena was negligible .

Third, I ran across this message on a virtual community: "I'm starting into my senior year as an anthropology major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And, well, it's time to start thinking about graduate school. I want to do my grad work specializing in online communities, how they form, what holds them together, etc. Does anyone have any ideas of who would have a good program? No one here at this school seems particularly interested in this field, and I'd like to go somewhere where I can have a good advisor who can help guide me through all of this. Thanks!" The responses to her query were revealing: "You might want to look into communications programs instead of anthropology for this"; "Your best bet is to read the literature, see whose work you like, check which school they're at and go from there. If you're willing to consider switching disciplines, check out sociology as well. We're doing lots of things with online communities these days"; "as the previous people have commented, the best idea would be to look in communications programs... but specifically 'New Media' programs, or the like. some information technology courses may have a humanities twist to them, just as an anthropology course might. almost every discipline that involves studying people has tried their hand at this 'people using the net' thing, so it's a bit odd to say pick just one area"; and finally, a response from an anthropologist: "I'm doing an MA project on online communities in anthropology but it's not something anyone in my department specializes in... since my subfield is medical anthropology that's who I'm working with. I prefer it this way because I think some of the communications approaches (those I'm familiar with, anyway) to online communities are kind of dodgy. That's not just disciplinary snobbery, either. I'm much happier with looking at online interactions as just one "node" in a network that includes the real world, something that Deborah Heath (a medical anthropologist) has written about, and I'm sure other people as well."

These anecdotes, while perhaps not representative of the discipline as a whole, may suggest that certain problems exist with the current state of the anthropology of the Internet:

1. Anthropologists may lack knowledge of Computer-Mediated Communications (and computers in general)
2. Scholars from other disciplines may not see anthropology as having much worthwhile to say about the Internet, if they are even aware of any anthropologists engaging with the subject
3. Anthropology students interested in the Internet (and other anthropological computer usage) may receive little in the way of specialized guidance from their department faculty

My intention in creating this page is to create a resource that may help rectify these regrettable situations.

Here are a few choice quotes by anthropologists who would seem to agree:

"In comparison with...early communication systems, the Internet is a great improvement. Putting computers to work together as a team has a potential that has hardly been realized. Based on this principle, the World Wide Web has had a tremendous impact, but there is much more that could be done or that has not yet reached public awareness. The limiting factor is social organization" (Dow 1999).

"One of the problems in the early years of electronic communication was that the communicators were primarily interested in the technology rather than in the subject of communication. Most of the communication traffic dealt with computer technology. It was almost impossible to get anthropologists interested enough in the technology to be able to use it for their work. This is still a problem."(Dow 1999)

"The role of the computer in the analysis of field date therefore remains unsettled and, for some, unsettling. Many anthropologists are incredulous that computers should become central to the discipline; others have feared that the introduction of the computer to the center of the field will inevitably decenter the anthropologist. However, it is very clear that anthropologists at one level or another increasingly face problems that make the use of computing imperative for many aspects of their craft." (White & Truex 1988: 481)

"The considerable loss of computer-trained anthropologists is particularly regrettable at this stage of development in anthropological theory and method, when anthropology has so much to contribute to our understanding of a dramatically changing world" (White & Truex 1988: 493)

"The most obvious barrier to the development of computer-based scholarship is of course the reluctance or inability of anthropologists to learn to use and develop this new technology" (Schwimmer 1996: 566)

"The Internet as a topic has taken over our professional lives as much as the Internet as a reality. Its application to anthropology deserves a timely and thorough exploration" (Ogburn 1997: 286)

"The Internet is a powerful new medium that can be of great benefit to applied anthropologists: indeed, to applied social scientists of all disciplines. Not only can it increase efficiency and access to knowledge, it allows scientists to share their own information with a larger audience. It is hoped that this Bulletin will assist applied anthropologists with background, practical information, and ideas to make the best possible use of the Internet" (
Redding 1999)

"As a terrain of struggle whose characteristics are as yet undetermined, the cultural construction of cyberspace is open to deliberate intervention. As public intellectuals, anthropologists have a stake in maintaining broad access to cyberspace for everybody. Indeed, our capacity to persevere through our current disciplinary crisis depends on our ability to reach a broad public whose access to participation in public discourse is itself increasingly computer-mediated. We have a responsibility to intervene on the side of open access, in line with our general claim to humanism. "(
Hakken n.d.)

"Why would anthropology routinely ignore one particular field site? After all, this site is populated by almost 600 million people of all ages, classes, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, personal interests and professions. This unique place has its own rules, its own cultural norms, its own educational centers, its own clubs and associations, its own economy, its own political movements, its own terrorists, and its own news organizations, and yet it is totally decentralized." (Forte 2002)

"Traditionally oriented ethnographers may be surprised (perhaps appalled) at the notion of conducting ethnographic research in virtual communities in cyberspace. Yet many scholars have shown that these communities are complex, organized, and worthy of study" (Constable 2003: 33)

"For an organization, group, business entity or other collective to refuse media involvement is to commit suicide-through-invisibility." (Milne 2004: 1)

"Understanding any aspect of American life now requires understanding how it plays out on the Web as well." (Milne 2004: 5)

"Traditionally framed as a rite de passage through which all anthropologists had to pass, the idea of fieldwork carried with it certain definite obligations, for instant that it had to be conducted over a calendar year and that it take place in an exotic locale in some sort of bounded community... This conceptualization of fieldwork, as venerable as it might be, is no longer adequate to the reality of shifting boundaries and migrating cultures. People don't stay in one place anymore--if they ever did--and the notion that the terms culture, community, and place are more or less synonymous cannot be sustained" (Edwards 1994: 346).

"...few instructors or institutions have been prepared to devote the time and resources to embrace the new pedagogical world possible in cyberspace. Furthermore, we still live with the hoary old stereotypes of educational technology, the tired litanies which proclaim that, if unchecked, technology will replace human beings, that our students will become automatons and education totally anonymous. People who believe this are hopelessly out of touch with both their students and pedagogical reality, and are often the ones who want to spend the absolute minimum time on their teaching" (Fagan 2000: #).

"In writing the history of anthropology, the technological -- as against methodological -- dimensions are apt to be underemphasized, even marginalized." (Houtman and Zeitlyn 1996: 1).

But why CMA? Why connect what is known as Internet anthropology, anthropology of cyberspace, "internetography," and/or "participant webservation" with other anthropological computer usage? My answer: Because all components of CMA are interconnected. Professors need computer knowledge to teach it to students. Students can use computers to find anthropology departments that will fit their interests in CMA. Both professors and students can benefit from electronic communication with other scholars, and from web-based literature reviews. Virtual ethnographies can be done by both students and professors to document the explosion of virtual communities as more and more people go online. Computers can also aid ethnographic data analysis; since virtual ethnographu general collects data that are in text format already, it can benefit from this especially. Online publishing opens up a world of new opportunities and problems for anthropologists.

In sum, I believe that the components or CMA, when working together in harmony, will become more than the sum of its parts. Each part will be enriched by a symbiotic relationship with the other parts.

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