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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Walkabout pt 1

Well I had high hopes of blogging every day while I was down here, but that hasn’t happened, partly because i’ve been too busy and partly because I’ve not had great access to wifi ( i spent 40 quid accessing my emails on my phone last week!).

I have had a great time, and I’ve met 6 people from four universities (Sydney, Newcastle, UNSW and RMIT) so far. I haven’t got time to give a detailed report, but I thought I’d post a few observations on Australian HE so far.

One striking thing is the scale. So far the universities I’ve looked at are big. The UNSW campus is physically imposing (on a hill), and Newcastle’s is a big campus. Some of the buildings I’ve seen at RMIT are architecturally bold and sydney was very pretty (and apparently home to the largest library in the southern hemisphere, australians seem to like their random claims to fame).

Also both UNSW and Newcastle were very keen to show me their centres for aboriginal studies. Newcastle had the Wollotuka Institute and UNSW had Nura Gili which had a collaboration spaces designed according to aboriginal principles, which apparently include a clear line of sight, so there were glass internal walls (i didn’t get to see this as i was in a hurry to my next meeting!).


Some boomerangs at Newcastle


This focus on the importance of design was taken up with my visit to RMIT where I saw a really fantastic building with heaps (!!) of student learning spaces. Every room had windows facing outside, which sounds unremarkable, until I saw a lecture theatre with windows showing people walking past, who could see what was going on inside (should they want to), which was definitely quite weird (but shouldn’t be really). Also the lecture theatre was full.

Openness was a big recurring theme, and the building I’m checking out tomorrow has a massive glass wall enabling the local community to see every room, and the research that is taking place there.

At RMIT the public, including primary and secondary school children are invited in and come and play around with the cool stuff, which sounds like a great way of making university accessible and appealing to non-traditional entrants.

My last observation so far picks up on this. I have learnt quite a lot so far about the kinds of programmes that they have here to widen participation (often called student equity). I’ve heard about some really interesting programmes. Having just had our Foundation Year Network I’m starting to think that the diversity we have in provision in the UK is only the tip of the iceberg, there’s some really interesting stuff going on here, and I hope to come back to learn more one day!

I’m here in Melbourne for a couple more days before heading on to Canberra and then I have a holiday! I’ve been working a lot harder than I’d anticipated, but that ‘work’ has been meeting interesting people, and hearing about so much stuff that i think I will be months digesting it when I get back.

Apologies if I’ve made any errors or omissions, i’m still pretty frazzled!

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Computational Anthropology Workshop – Sept 4th, Durham

One part of my SSI fellowship which I’m particularly excited about is the opportunity to support Digital Anthropology. For a flavour of the kinds of stuff being done in this fairly niche area (I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fairly luddite practices within cultural anthropology) have a look at a recent special issue of Social Science Computer Review.

You can see that there are anthropologists creating and using software to do some pretty interesting stuff, modelling kinship patterns , using graph theory to map burials or GIS techniques to analyse the patterns of burials plus plenty more.


Here are some of the software packages, that are, or have been, used:



CSAC Kinship Editor

CSAC Fieldnotes Editor


Kinship Algebra Modeller

CSAC ImageInterviewer

Knowledge Elicitation Tools


These projects use software that has often been developed by anthropologists, and made available to the community on sites such as SourceForge, but the take up by other developers has not been as hoped. This is exactly the sort of sustainability issue that the SSI was set up to adress, and this workshop will hopefully help create a community of users and developers to further anthropology research.

The aim of this one day workshop is to bring together anthropologists who use or are interested in using software  better suited to anthropological data production, management and analysis problems in the field, the lab and the office. Members of Durham University and the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (Kent) will present brief accounts of software tools designed or adapted by anthropologists to address complex issues arising in anthropological research.

Participants in the workshop will contribute to identifying a range of problems encountered by anthropologists in research and brainstorm to develop a prioritised wish list of software capabilities to address these issues. One of our goals is to ensure that development of software tools for anthropological research is driven by research priorities in anthropology.

If you are interested in coming to the workshop get in touch with me, and if you know other software that’s not in the list above, post a link in a comment below!

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Going Walkabout

This time next week I will be in Sydney at the start of a trip around Australia. I will be spending 10 days on a 3 city tour (Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra), meeting lots of interesting people and learning about how higher education operates down under.

I’m going there thanks to two projects I’m currently involved in, the SPIRES project is the reason I’m heading to Melbourne (more here) and my SSI fellowship, which is why I’m meeting people who produce software in academia, and those they try and support.

I expect to be blogging a lot while I’m down there, probably most days, and the people I’m meeting range from those interested in supporting researchers, teaching mature students, learning and teaching more generally and social media/ technology more broadly. So far I have firm plans to meet 7 people from 7 different universities across the 3 cities, which will hopefully give me a good idea of how things operate across the spectrum. Although I’m always keen to add more meetings to my itenerary!


As well as meeting lots of people I’m also interested in hearing about how people manage to organize their work over a long distance and fairly long period of time. As you can see I’ve found a physical map quite a useful tool for visualising my trip, but I’m already having some problems trying to arrange my itenerary over Outlook in multiple time zones (although I’m getting the hang of this). Any tools or tips for keeping on top of the day job?

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Web scraping workshop report

web scraping

A couple of weeks ago Iwas delighted to able to invite Chris Hanretty up to Durham to deliver a web scraping workshop. I’ve already blogged about how happy I was with the popularity of the course, it filled up in a matter of hours, but I on the morning I guess I was still nervous to see who would turn up and what they would get from the day.

On the day 25 people turned up, and there was a big variety of people. There was people from Law, Anthropology, Education, Psychology, Archaeology and Modern Languages amongst others, as well a couple of STEMers. There was also a wide range of computer experience, from people who already did some coding, so those who had never seen html tags before. Chris’s materials and teaching style were very well recieved and by the end of the most of the participants were working on real scripts scraping stuff off the web, a massive achievement! I happened to bump into one of the anthropologists who was there afterwards who had told me that he was fiddling with some web scraping code the following night, which was great to hear.

I think there is a real appetite for this kind of stuff at Durham. One participant commented that they would like a similar course looking at Visual Basic, which I think could be really useful too, although I think ‘real’ coders turn their noses up at it. I wonder what other ‘low hanging fruit’ there are that could entice non or less technical minded people to use simple coding scripts to help make their working lives easier??

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Tracing a false fact in wikipedia

There’s a college at Durham University named after  campaigning feminist Josephine Butler, and so one afternoon I found myself on wikipedia looking her up. I was quite surprised to read the following ‘fact’


I happen to be from Southend. Royal Artillery way (or to give it it’s less fancy name, the A1159) is a short stretch of dual carriageway. I looked it up on google maps to check, no museum there. I googled it more broadly, no mention of the museum (except for the wikipedia page, and people who had cut and pasted it (a total of 77 hits!!). Most worryingly there is no link to any evidence for the museum’s existence on the wikipedia page, which is supposed to be one of the rules of wikipedia.

So after a bit of faff (the IP address of my office desktop was blocked) i managed to log in to wikipedia and try and find out when this misinformation was added. It was added on 20th October 2008, just shy of 5 years ago, and the original edit included some more information about the museum.


Now this is more obviously untrue, lazers is misspelt for a start, but a few weeks later somebody with a different account name, embellishes it further


This was obviously a step too far for somebody, and a couple of weeks later it was edited back to the ‘fact’ that i stumbled across (and have now deleted) nearly 5 years later.

I think this raises some interesting questions about wikipedia in general. Why did the original person only delete half the false fact and leave half? how did this unlikely fact last so long? Was it left alone because it sounded vaguely plausible once the more puerile stuff was deleted? How many other plausible untruths are there on wikipedia? And perhaps most importantly, why Southend? Any other town and i wouldn’t have checked and who knows how long that ‘fact’ would have lasted?

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Web scraping for arts, humanities and social sciences workshop

Web scraping is a versatile tool for taking data from websites and putting them into a spreadsheet for analysis. The potential is there to get a large amount of useful data, which can then be analysed. For example I’m thinking of scraping the IMDB database to look for zombie films, when they were released, the box office takings etc. to see if there are any interesting patterns over time. I did something similar to this manually in the past, with web scraping it can be automated and I can tinker with the parameters easier (e.g. what counts as a zombie film?)


As part of my SSI fellowship I’m delighted to be inviting Chris Hanretty up to Durham to deliver a workshop on webscraping, something he uses in his politics research.

The workshop is on July 1st, and all 25 places were filled within hours of the workshop’s announcement, which is a great indication of the pent up interest in this tool. I even got a couple of emails from people who couldn’t make it, but were really supportive of the idea. I’d be really interested to hear about the different potential applications across the arts, humanities and social sciences. So much stuff is online now, the potential for web scraping is enormous!

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Special Research Environments and Spaces – ATC, Swinburne University of Technology

What makes a great research environment? What kinds of technological, social and physical factors support interdisciplinary collaborative research? This is the focus on the  EPSRC funded spires project. As part of my trip to Australia later in the year, and thanks to a little bit of extra dosh from spires, I will be visiting the Advanced Technologies Centre at Swinburne University, Melbourne.


It’s a pretty snazzy building, and the press release from it’s opening a couple of years ago makes some bold claims.

“Researchers from a mix of disciplines have moved in and will be conducting their work behind transparent walls. According to Dr Andrew Smith, Director of Swinburne’s Facilities and Services Group, this approach was taken to ensure that the university’s intensely technological endeavours were on show and not hidden in a back lot.

“It is about the university inviting the public to gaze in and participate for a moment in Swinburne’s long-standing love affair with the technology needs of industrial and post-industrial societies,” he said.

“Alongside the laboratory are social and teaching spaces, […] Interlinking the cluster of buildings is a series of hanging bridges, cobbled alleyways and landscaped lanes that give the feel of inner city Melbourne”

I’m hoping to visit the building for a couple of days in early August, have a look round and speak to a few people. It will be interesting to see how the building has bedded in and how effective it has been in creating a great research environment.

Although at the moment I’m still not particularly sure what a great research environment is, especially for social scientists? I’m thinking that a pub is a good starting point!


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Sociology and Software


As part of my SSI fellowship I’ve started to have a think about the role of computer programming in sociology. I thought I’d blog about them and invite comments from the wider community!

Sociology is a pretty broad discipline, at Lancaster the department included a number of anthropologists (e.g. the excellent Lucy Suchman  ) while here at Durham the sociology department is more quantitative. It’s actually quite hard to imagine an anthropologist in the Durham sociology department, or a quants person at Lancaster’s (with apologies if I’ve overlooked anybody who is!).

A future blog post will look at anthropology and coding, so for now I will limit myself to (the rest of?) sociology, which still includes theoretical and empirical (qualitative and quantitative). Clearly sociologists will use a variety of tools, especially in their writing.

I’ve heard about Professor Bob Jessop’s personal handcoded database for managing his reading and references which he’d developed decades ago, although use of Endnote is more widespread (my brief flirtation with Mendeley a few years ago seemed to suggest that there weren’t many social scientists using it at the time).

Qualitative tools such as NVIVO NUDIST and ATLAS are used throughout the community to code qualitative data (although this isn’t the same as computer coding, which does lead to some confusion!), and quantitative tools such as SPSS MATLAB and R are commonly used for Quant data. Each of these has a coding interface which is much more similar to computer coding.

The question I’m left to ponder though is who is developing these tools? Is development driven by the community? And are there coder/ sociologists developing new and interesting tools that are pushing the boundaries of what sociologists do? I’m aware of some e-social science projects, although that never really felt that driven by the wider sociology community, and i’m not sure of the ongoing impact…

I feel that this is quite advanced in areas that are using online data but less so elsewhere. In fact I hope to put on a workshop later this summer about web scraping which will promote social scientists to work with online data scraped from the internet.

It would be great to hear about examples of sociologists who code, either in their own time or as part of their role, especially if this is looking at data and areas which aren’t wholly online already.

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Sociology and Public engagement, ESRC festival of social science

The ESRC festival of social science has recently put out another call for proposals for events this November. There’s up to 2k available for events which appeal to non-academic audiences.

In the last couple of years I’ve been successful in getting support for a Zombie film screening at the Newcastle Lit and Phil, and a night in a pub exploring pub quizzes

In each case the event was a great opportunity to meet and connect with people that I would not have engaged with otherwise. The Zombie event attracted lots of zombie fans and helped with a zombie related book chapter I have written (the book is out soon! check it out, Zombies in the Academy). I also ended up being interviewed by various media outlets, which was a great experience.

The pub quiz night was good fun, and was featured as an ESRC Podcast, and that was a great experience to be a part of. I still think there is a Radio 4 program there!


At the foundation centre I work with colleagues from a range of disciplines, including quite a lot of natural scientists. They are actively involved in lots of public engagement type activities such as Durham’s Celebrate Science which is a great event (I even volunteered!).

I think that as social scientists we have an especially great incentive to engage with the public, they should be interested in what we’re working on. I teach introductory sociology classes and it’s a great feeling to be the person to introduce sociology to a new cohort each year. The ESRC festival of social science is a great opportunity to promote the range of social research that is undertaken across the UK, I’ll be applying again this year, and so should you! (I’m happy to respond to any queries if I can).

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