What is Digital Anthropology?6 min read
Here at Anthrotechnic there is a common question we are often asked: What is Digital Anthropology?
There are glib answers to this, such as: “it’s the study of humans and digital technology”. But this is as unsatisfying as the stock answer given to the question of what Anthropology is: “The study of what it means to be human”.
These answers are unsatisfying because they merely open up more questions than answers. Instead, let us take a moment to define what we might mean by the terms digital and anthropology.
Once we have examined these terms in isolation, we can then recombine them and see what Digital Anthropology is, and could be.
What is digital anyway?
In the 80s it was something of a marketing ploy to refer to everything as digital, conferring the object in question with some mythic power. For example, watches became digital - ignoring the fact that they were always concerned with digits.
Digital, in this case, meant that it contained some kind of transistor or microprocessor. A transistor is a simple (far from simple if you ever look into the history of transistors) electronic component that can either be in an ‘on’ or ‘off’ position, like a switch. So in the case of the digital world we say it can be a 1 or a 0 - on or off.
This means that when we talk about digital, we are referring to objects that are in some way concerned with binary (a form of counting using just 1s and 0s, as opposed to our normal base 10 counting scheme). Most high technology today has some form of binary component, as it will contain computer chips (chips being massive collections of billions of transistors) or be powered by chips - think of the internet in all its diverse forms.
This broad definition of digital (Horst & Miller, 2012, p.3) is effectively saying that we (as Digital Anthropologists) are concerned with technical objects containing or formed by these chips. Phones, cars, smart cities, social media, the cloud, computers, games and so forth.
But Digital Anthropology is not particularly interested with the simple functioning of these objects, and this is where the Anthropology part comes in.
What about Anthropology?
Anthropology, as mentioned in the introduction, is concerned with what it means to be Human. As Tim Ingold has said, it’s ‘philosophy with people in’ (Ingold 1992, p.696)).
But, what makes Anthropology ‘Anthropology’ is not the study of humans, there are plenty of disciplines that also claim that ground: Psychology, Human Biology, Archeology (although some argue that this is part of Anthropology - particularly in the US), Philosophy and so on.
These disciplines, however, do not do what Anthropology does - they are mostly concerned with particular framings of the human: the mind, the body, the past, the conceptual underpinnings etc. Instead, Anthropology has a ‘commitment to holism’ (Horst & Miller, 2012, p.4) (holism in Anthropology is subject to critique and I use this in a specific way here, based on the reasoning of Horst & Miller). In this case, holism is not concerned with the annihilation of difference, or the generation of synthetic difference. In other words, we are not trying to make universal claims about all things from a culture, or that culture X is so because of factor Y.
Instead, this form of holism is concerned with a specific methodological approach. An approach that seeks out culture as it is - wherever it is found. The method in question is participant observation across and through boundaries. Participant observation is what makes Anthropology Anthropological. Anthropologists go see and do in context, generating what is referred to as ‘Thick Description’ (Geertz, 1973).
But it is more than a purely descriptive act (that would just be observation), it is instead, also the distortion of the observer by the act. As Ingold (2013, p.3) suggests, Anthropology is not so much concerned with the notions of documenting things but is instead concerned with ‘studying with and learning from’ things, it is an act of transformation (ibid, p3). Here I am in agreement with Ingold, in that Anthropology is not primarily the extraction of knowledge from other cultures, instead it is the nuanced and humane concept of learning with those cultures.
Therefore, Anthropology as a discipline is concerned with humans as they are, where they are, and following where those threads may lead - with the humble position that our participants are not just our informants, but are our teachers and guides.
What makes Digital Anthropology?
Having looked at the Digital and the Anthropological, what happens when we bring them back together?
If digital is the messy canvas where we go to find people, then Anthropology is the technique which we use to understand them, and learn with them where they are found.
Historically, Anthropology was conducted in far away places, with far away people, but Digital Anthropology is concerned with much closer places and things. It is concerned with the uses of, and our encounters with, digital objects in their many forms. But it is not just confined with how a thing is used, but what meaning is made by its use - how that meaning exists in practice, and how we make meaning with digital things. Not in an abstract sense, but by observing and tracing the contours of our participants lives and actions, in context, and with an openness to be changed by the experience.
From this unique perspective, Digital Anthropology is in an excellent position to keep the human at the centre of our digital objects, and attend to what we may learn from the diverse practices that arise around these objects. Ultimately ensuring that we unleash human potentials, cast a critical eye over the worlds enabled by the digital, and mitigate the deleterious effects of new technologies. Digital Anthropology is a discipline of empowerment and hope - of empathy, understanding, and of human connection as equals - suffused with a spirit of respect and mutual growth.
Geertz, C. (1973), “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”, in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, p. 3–30.
Miller, D. and Horst, H. A. (2012). “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” in Digital Anthropology, London: Bloomsbury, p. 3-35.
Ingold, T. (1992). “Editorial.” Man (N.S.) 27 (4): 693–96.
Ingold, T. (2013). “Knowing from the inside”, in Making, London: Routledge, p. 1-15.