Notes from Compuational Anthropology workshop


As ever I was not disappointed. I always enjoy hanging out with Anthropologists, before the workshop had even started the small talk was about the evolution of Batman’s face in comic books and how this might reflect different images of masculinity, and monkey fossils.

Stephen Lyon and I gathered together computationally minded anthropologists, from Durham and Kent and from pretty much the full spectrum of anthropology, but there was still clear evidence of an anti-computational bias in some areas, with one participant noting that you get “burned as a witch for using computers in social anthropology”, and anthropologists know about witchcraft!

Whilst the carefully orchestrated programme quickly flew out of the window the wide ranging discussions had 3 clear themes, and some familiar echoes to my previous work in e-science (a fairly long discussion of ontologies for example, although the specific word wasn’t used as it has specific meaning within anthroplogy).

So one of the key themes were about social network analysis, something which has been going on in anthropology long before Friends reunited, Myspace or Facebook, or the internet for that matter. This included a memorable and relevant quote for SNA types today “one does not study networks, one uses network methods to study anthropological questions” from Sanek 1974. Replace anthropological with economic, geographic or whichever discipline, and I think that there is a useful reminder to a lot of people working with online social networks, who can get a bit overly focussed on the networks, rather than the underlying questions to be answered.

Another theme from the workshop was the fact that anthropologists in the field collect all kinds of messy data. Qualitative analysis tools such as NVIVO or Atlas.ti can now deal with multimedia content, but anthropologists need to be able to access and analyse their disparate datasets (family trees, field notes, images, videos, objects) through the people mentioned in them, as well as the themes. And obviously the people involved in a long term ethnographic investigation will be related to one another in all sorts of ways (relating to the previous theme). There is definitely scope here for some sophisticated tools, an anthropologist may publish from their initial fieldwork for the rest of their career, and others may re-analyse somebody else’s data set to come to some interesting conclusions (such as this paper).

The last theme was about the role of simulation in anthropology, which suprised me. My first degree was in economics, and my PhD meant interacting with plenty of transport researchers, so i’m quite familiar with simulations, how engrossing and absorbing they are to the people working on them, and how useless they generally are at predicting things (although in both economics and transport, the important thing is to have some sort of forecast, almost irrespective of how accurate it is).

Michael Fischer who has been programming in academic since 1976 gave a really interesting talk about the role of simulation within social anthropology. The key thing wasn’t the simulation itself, but the role such simulations play in knowledge elicitation in ethnography. The most memorable example was for Mambila Spider Divination. In a part of Nigeria/ Cameroon the movements of spiders, in a set layout of leaves and twigs is used for divination purposes. This project included a digital simulation of the process, which was a helpful tool in conversations with the diviners in getting at the complex knowledge embedded within analysing the movement of spiders. That the simulation is optimised to run on Netscape also hints at the sustainability issues which were discussed as the workshop drew to a close.

After a brief discussion the participants agree to focus on the second theme, a disparate data field notes management tool for future development and we will be putting in a bid under the SSI’s Open Call. Then, as after every workshop with anthropologists that I’ve ever attended, we all went to the pub to continue such discussions well into the night.

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About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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