The fundamental requirement of anthropology is that it starts with a personal relationship and ends with a personal experience, but […] in the middle there is space for many computers.
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, epigraph of The use of computers in anthropology 1
The last years have seen the growth of what we could call “anthropology of the alternate universe”. People with little or no training in anthropology are taking on big sociocultural issues, and they are doing it with computers. We find Ph.Ds in Electrical Engineering trying to algorithmically define musical genres, computer scientists who shape family ties on social media, and self-taught software developers who design “content discovery” applications around their own theories of influence and cultural flow. If sociocultural anthropology did not exist, people could reasonably name this material.
To academically trained anthropologists, these computer projects may appear to come from another planet. Anthropology, we know, is the stuff of notebooks, close friends, and handkerchiefs tucked into their lenses. The social theories that emerge from companies like Facebook and the cultural analyzes produced under the banner of big data are typically objects of contempt among anthropologists. We do not see them as if we could see the “cultural” theories of the members of an Amazonian tribe or the “social” theories of the members of an ethnic enclave in southern Europe. We see them simply as incorrect.
However, the fact that we are competent to produce accounts of culture and society should not surprise us: as Nicholas Thomas wrote, “the objects of anthropological knowledge […] have never been exclusively of anthropology” 2. It could be argued that the definition The epistemic characteristic of sociocultural anthropology is its necessary coexistence with conflicting explanations, both from the study of anthropologists and from those who study it.
I conduct my own field work with developers of algorithmic music recommendation systems in the US. USA (Think of Pandora, iTunes Radio, etc.) and my goal is to research your theories on “culture,” how you think about those theories, and how to mediate between the idea that culture is intrinsically subjective, while algorithms are intrinsically objective. In trying to tell stories from the field with other anthropologists, I find that we tend to see this cultural theorizing as the work of uneducated intruders who are only motivated by financial or technical concerns.
This is a case of selective memory: for almost as long as computers have been around, there have been anthropologists using them.3 In my attempts to make sense of the knowledge practices I find in the field and to remember my own discipline that Computers did not come from some distant land to cause us problems, I have been studying the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology. Although it has changed a lot in terms of hardware, software, and popular computer imaginations since we started playing with them in the 1950s, there are some remarkably persistent debates that continue to emerge: about formalism, quantification, and the division of research work . among others. In many cases,
Going back to some of our past disciplinary confrontations with computers can help us think about how we envision the limits of our discipline, and can help us make sense of this strange world of “anthropology of alternative universes,” where the ideas of culture that we have emitted have been collected or reinvented. Over the next two weeks, I will post a series of sketches of this story. They are by no means exhaustive, and they lack a lot of interesting work, 4 but I think they are instructive. I hope that you, dear readers, take the comments to point out gaps and oversights and hopefully share your own stories and experiences of the commercial zone between computers and anthropologists.
A hint of what’s to come:
Structuralism: thinking with computers: Structuralists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach were fascinated with digital computers as metaphors for cultural processes and as tools that could fulfill the methodological promises of structuralism.
Ethnoscience: Being a Scientist with Computers: As the scientific position of sociocultural anthropology was debated in the post-war period, computers engaged in broader debates about the merits of quantitative and formal methods.
Cultural Ecology: Computer Modeling: For cultural and cyber ecologists, analog computers offered models for feedback systems in the mind and the environment.
Personal Computing: Ordinariness and Materiality: The introduction of the personal computer allowed computing to happen in the field, leading to a number of new problems related to dirt, humidity, and the typing of field notes.
Computing: Method-to-Object: In the late 1980s, when computers moved to anthropologists’ traditional field sites and those fields expanded to include “high-tech” configurations, computers became primarily a tool to be an object of study. their own right. With computers as objects and tools for anthropological research, we are pushed into the clutches of reflexivity, and hopefully not so bad.
1. Dell Hymes, ed., The Use of Computers in Anthropology (New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation, 1965).
2. Nicholas Thomas, “Becoming Undisciplined: Anthropology and Cultural Studies.”, In Anthropological Theory Today, ed. Henrietta Marks (Cambridge: Polity, 1999), 262.
3. Although I will focus on electronic computers, computer historians like to point out that “computers” used to be people, mostly women, who did calculations for their employers. In line with that story, one of the first computers mentioned in the American Anthropologist was actually a woman named Amy Barrington, hired in 1907 by Francis Galton to work with Karl Pearson on a eugenic study in England.
4.In particular, this story runs out long before the contemporary growth of various flavors of digital ethnography and anthropology, and neglects the work done with computers during the 1990s.