On Forming a Digital Anthropology Group

The Back-In Lede

Over at Savage Minds, Matt Thompson posted Alright, how about a Digital Anthropology Interest Group? earlier this week. The comments are up to twenty-eight, and I want to discuss here Matt’s outline for an interest group within the American Anthropological Association institutional framework and the many suggestions and ideas that people provided.

I have written more on digital anthropology in the past year than I expected, most recently on the AAA’s stand against Open Access (followed by a quick almost-retraction) and an overview of Digital Anthropology: Projects and Platforms.

My own ideas about a digital anthropology group date back to the #AAAfail controversy over science, and the letter a group of anthropologists (including myself) wrote to the AAA leadership. It finished:

We encourage the Executive Board to consider how to support anthropologists working online, and to encourage further online collaboration and dissemination among AAA members. This will strengthen the discipline, and also permit more timely discussion and engagement among AAA members…

We view our online role as anthropologists as contributing a valuable service to the discipline we love. We are hopeful that this episode in our shared history will prove to catalyze important and inclusive dialogue regarding who we are as anthropologists as well as the channels we use to communicate with one another. We encourage the EB and the AAA membership as a whole to participate in this online community, to hear and join with the voices that are coming from within our discipline. This is an opportunity to move past marginalization and work together toward rebuilding a truly interdisciplinary anthropology based on mutual respect.

My thoughts below have also been shaped by Greg’s contributions onsite, in particular his pieces Blogging for Promotion: An Immodest Proposal (take getting credit by the horns!) and Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity!

The Digital Anthropology Interest Group – Proposals

What should a Digital Anthropology Interest Group look like? What is its purpose? What will it do? These are important questions raised by Matt and by many commentators, in particular John McCreery.

Matt proposes three basic functions:

(1) Form a common meeting place, both at the AAA conference and online
(2) Compile and communicate important information
(3) Raising awareness and being proactive within the AAA, while connecting to other groups outside the AAA

In terms of the comments, I will highlight four strands:

First, Ryan Anderson writes about an interest group that it should be about “making connections, making things available, and creating places that help direct people (teachers, students, general audience, etc) to the kinds of content that is being produced.”

Second, Danny Miller points to a forthcoming edited volume, Digital Anthropology, that focuses on research on the digital. Besides critiquing the parochialism of a AAA group speaking for digital anthropology coded large, Miller points to how research, training, and funding form a defensible intellectual program within anthropology.

Third, Megan McCullen (among others!) highlights a push for open access and the creation of new platforms and digital repositories for research and dissemination: “a hub for Open Access Anthropology Papers. This is potentially a general repository, possibly one that has some level of peer review, perhaps something that includes both.”

Finally, John Hawks stakes out a different space for the group, one that is not about digital anthropology research but about the presentation of open data, incorporation of digital tools in research, and other digital means for doing research in public and disseminating results in novel and often broad ways. “As I’m reading, it seems that ‘digital anthropology’ engages different audiences in different ways… There clearly is a ‘digital anthropological genetics’ unfolding today, using many of the social media tools that are developing for other kinds of online communication and community building.”

The Digital Anthropology Synthesis

In the Savage Minds comments, John McCreery repeatedly challenges the group to present a coherent vision and purpose for the group. So here goes, a second draft building on the Savage Minds post. Hopefully it will lead to an even better final draft. And an actual formation of a AAA interest group!

The Digital Anthropology group should do three things:

-Foment change
-Focus on research
-Foster communication and networking

Together these can drive strong growth in the group and its broader impact, and have the dynamism and openness to avoid being a “one issue” interest group that might quickly rise and just as quickly fall.

The Digital Anthropology group should foment change both within and outside the American Anthropological Association. It should both support and critically examine open access initiatives, with a focus on how to achieve greater access to anthropological scholarship while having a sustainable business model. It should promote blogging and other forms of online dissemination and public engagement, and argue for greater recognition and accreditation of online scholarship. It should promote outreach across the sub-disciplines in anthropology and between academic and applied anthropologists, while actively working to connect with anthropologists and organizations working outside the American Anthropological Association institutional framework. Finally, the Digital Anthropology group should recognize that inequalities of all sorts recreate themselves online, and that inside and outside the discipline, problems in representation and access will take new forms that need to be addressed both directly and indirectly.

The Digital Anthropology group should focus on research. The group will support anthropologists who focus on digital mediation and engagement – on digital anthropology as an object of research – using a range of anthropological approaches. Anthropologists can also use digital forms to enhance research in other ways, from tackling large data sets to fostering ideas and using social media to improve how research is done. Finally, the Digital Anthropology Group will support researchers in their attempts to do research in public, from making data accessible to the building of repositories for data sets and publications.

The Digital Anthropology group should foster communication and networking. One of its primary purposes will be to provide a common space, both at meetings and online, to communicate and interact among members of the group. The group will also actively pursue ways to provide resources, ideas, examples, and critiques on using digital initiatives and social media in teaching. Given how digital concerns can bring people together in novel ways, the group will draw on digital anthropology as a way to create the flow of ideas and relationships across sub-fields within the AAA, between applied and academic anthropologists, and across international boundaries. Finally, the Digital Anthropology group will actively promote way that digital communication can enhance interactions with the many communities we serve and reach the broader public.

The AAA Digital Anthropology Interest Group – In Brief

The Digital Anthropology Group will provide a common forum so that members help move anthropology to embrace how digital forms of communication, interaction, and research increasingly mediate what we do as anthropologists.

Foment Change
-Open Access
-Online scholarship and accreditation
-Outreach within the field, with practicing anthropologists, and with anthropologists outside the AAA
-Addressing inequalities of access and representation, from indigenous groups to political economic disparities to gender and race online

Focus on Research
-Digital anthropology as a focus of research
-Using digital tools for data and for improving the creation and execution of research
-Support research done in public, including repositories for data and publications

Foster Communication and Networking
-Offer a forum to communicate and interact among members
-Provide resources, ideas, examples and critiques of digital initiatives in teaching
-Draw on digital anthropology as a way to create the flow of ideas and relationships among anthropologists inside and outside the AAA
-Embrace the ways that digital communication can reach the broader public

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19 Responses to On Forming a Digital Anthropology Group

  1. Very nice. Still not quite sure what “digital anthropology as a focus for research” implies: research on online communities, research on using digital tools to enhance anthropology….

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    • daniel.lende says:

      Think of it as a fuzzy set! I hope for an inclusive view of research under the broad label of “digital anthropology.” That can include what Danny Little, Michael Wesch, Alex Golub, Tom Boellstorff and others do – a largely sociocultural/linguistic approach. But also work by people like Colleen Morgan, and how she brings the digital into archaeology, and Jeff Snodgrass and his work on the neuroanthropology of video games and John Hawks and his “digital anthropological genetics.” A holistic approach, in the AAA sense of the word.

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  2. Gil says:

    Well said!

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  3. Megan says:

    Thanks for your synthesis Daniel. I’m mulling over the fact that research is in it’s own section and not also mentioned in the communicating/networking section (where you mention teaching) – since I think part of the group’s goal can be to show interested parties how to create data sets that are useful to others (I’m thinking of Keith Kintigh’s work on trying to create comprable archaeology data sets at http://www.tdar.org/ ). So that isn’t just doing research using digital tools, but introducing folks to issues like MetaData.

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    • daniel.lende says:

      Great point, Megan. Definitely something that should be included. I hope the group can be expansive, rather than narrow, and that’s what I went after in my attempt at categorizing… I did get the big data issues into the research side, which hadn’t been discussed much on Savage Minds. But communicating and fostering interest and engagement with this type of analytical approach is important for the group, and very important for the future of anthropology.

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  4. George J. Myers, Jr. says:

    I worked in some of the early digital uses for archaeology in particular when Intel 387 chips allowed complex trigonometric processing in hardware. While at Grossman and Associates in NYC we had the use of the then developing Rolleimetric 3D photo recording system allowing aerial photogrammetry “brought to earth” so to speak for many types of investigations, ours, the “least contact” recording of a HAZMAT Superfund site in Cold Spring, NY. Measured and drawn from a digitizing tablet the 3D digital information was traced from from field photos, using a documented camera, lens and reseau. Other uses were where wall-mounted maps could be recorded for further digital overlays, i.e., aerial photos, digital maps, digitized historic maps, etc. Other uses have been reported for petroglyph recording, sculpture design, i.e. “Crazy Horse” monument, “as-builts” for historic preservation plans, underwater shipwrecks, etc. The quick exposure and treatment of human remains might be also so documented for further research with these digital tools. Not sure if this fits the AAA idea however.

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  5. very, very quickly (because I’ll post some more robust comments when I have a slice of time to do so). In thinking of this, we should really cast our gaze to the Digital Humanities community. They’ve adressed many of these issues/questions/challenges for several years (and continue to do so). There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel, as there is much prior art (at least in DH) that could greatly inform this discussions.

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  6. Ashley says:

    I am a MA student in Public Anthropology. I have just started to dive into some research that is greatly tied with digital anthropology. This group would be AMAZING. Finding research on the area I am interested and people to network with/bounce ideas off of with similar interests (queer theory and its applications in the ‘digital world”, culture and id protection, ethnographic approaches to digital media studies) has been more or less so slow going. While there is information out there I don’t think I ReaLLy need to say what a group like this would do for me…not just me be others that are interested in this area as well:-)! Consider me a supporter:-)

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  7. I think that this is a great discussion to be having right now, but I do want to return to a point that was brought up in the conversation on Savage Minds: the distinction between “the digital” as an object or domain of research and the issues surrounding digital technologies and communication, publishing and so on (open access, blogging etc). While there are obviously many important connections here (not the least of which is that ethnographic research into uses of “digital technologies” is a great basis for formulating concrete proposals for change in the discipline), I also think that we need to have a thorough discussion about whether these two potential functions of an interest group really belong together. I worry that framing the issues around open access, blogging as a form of communication/dissemination and online data or publication repositories exclusively under the rubric of “the digital” risks cutting these conversations off from the larger contexts that they need to be taking place in. For example, years of conversations have more than amply demonstrated that we can’t substantively discuss OA without thinking about the business models of academic journals and the AAA itself. Sometimes this also gets us into discussions of peer review (and various new models being tried out) and how scholarly significance, impact or value are judged (largely for purposes of promotion). Same thing goes for conversations about blogging and online fora as alternative/new modes of communicating both within and outside the discipline. My point is simply that these issues are about nothing less than how we exchange and communicate knowledge as researchers, teachers and scholars — and that framing them under the banner of the digital risks limiting both the recognition of this significance and the scope of the conversation.

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    • Matt Thompson says:

      This is my take on it too. Imagining how to get the AAA to turn around, however slowly, and embrace an OA publication regime is what really interested me in the first place. Now that the proposed interest group has this “digital” moniker it seems more popular than ever, this is an encouraging development in that it hints at the potential voting bloc we might mobilize. But it suggests two chores that need to be done.

      First is that a lot of these folks who are jumping on the “digital” bandwagon don’t really know what OA is, why it matters, and that unless we do something about it the AAA is going to embrace it. Second is that the people who don’t study cyberworlds are a little apprehensive (and rightly so) that they will be subsumed by the other crowd, and need a clear reason why they should choose to form this coalition.

      The first concern could be addressed, I think, with a little research into what has already been said. Jason Jackson’s oft cited pieces could be distilled and pitched to this crowd.

      The second concern might be reformulated by giving the cyberworld researchers a necessary but adjunct role. They are the ones who can help us formulate best practices for teaching, research methods, and communication. They can help everyone understand the consequences of these technologies/ platforms and how they’re changing the discipline.

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  8. Pingback: Digital Anthropology…? « sydneyyeager

  9. Giovanni da Col says:

    It seems there are divergent interests between both commentators and Savage Minds and here. Why you don’t simply have an interest group with two sub-sections 1) Open-Access and Digital Publishing; 2) Digital Anthropology as field of research or teaching resource. Both Daniel and Matt could alternate their role as conveners (one year each).

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  10. John Hawks says:

    May I suggest? Collectively we already have influence through our successful use of digital media. Seeking greater influence over the means of production of the association is worthwhile, but the fact is we can put out an effective scholarly product in a small fraction of the time it would take in the society journals.

    Can we find a group of enough (say, 8) people to commit to write a 2500-word article on digital anthropology in a short (say, 2 months) time? Or a collection of 4 short essays coupled with 4 review articles pointing to what we think is excellent digital anthropology work?

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    • Megan says:

      John, I assume you mean separate from a AAA group? Because AAA IGs are not allowed to create publications. (Hrmph)

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      • John Hawks says:

        Of course. That’s one of the problems of a AAA group, since the association wants to control the means of production. Yes, I’m talking like a Marxist. Our revolution should be international!

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    • John Hawks says:

      Erp. My 8) above is supposed to be an “eight” with a “closed parenthesis”

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  11. daniel.lende says:

    Just wanted to add my two cents. I do hope that broader digital initiatives will come out of this discussion. It seems that there are already a wealth of them happening out there, and that the people involved in them are finding ways to communicate and collaborate and generate change.

    With respect to a AAA interest group, I think it’s an interesting idea to see the interest group as representative of something larger. Hopefully that will take shape. Still have to get the AAA group going, though…

    With whether to have two interests groups – one on digital anthro as an object of research, one on open access – I do think there is a conversation that needs to happen there.

    I’m personally not that interested in just an OA group. I think moving the AAA towards open access is not the task for an interest group alone, and will need a broad and coordinated presence to take up the many issues, historical and financial and organizational, involved in the many publications the AAA produces.

    But I am interested in “greater access,” and how digital technologies facilitate that. And in that sense, full open access does represent one gold standard, a traditional journal that is accessible to the public. But I don’t think it’s the only model for how to disseminate and evaluate our scholarly publications.

    On other side, I worry a bit that limiting digital anthro to largely cultural anthropologists working on how digital technologies increasingly mediate many of the things we do is also problematic. It makes the group more about one sub-discipline of anthropology, while one thing that is interesting to me is how digital involvement promotes common interests across sub-fields and offers the potential for new interactions and collaborations.

    I do see your point, Eugene – “these issues are about nothing less than how we exchange and communicate knowledge as researchers, teachers and scholars — and that framing them under the banner of the digital risks limiting both the recognition of this significance and the scope of the conversation.” And I think that is a powerful framing in itself – the digital does get at these core issues of research, teaching, scholarship, outreach and the like. But I might make the opposite point, that by challenging us in precisely these ways, the digital forces us to confront and take seriously these very basic things we do. And, yes, you’re right, to do that effectively we need to bring in more than just a digital moniker, that suddenly everything is virtual and 2.0. But I am hopeful that the interest group, and the scholars already involved in that, would successfully negotiate these tensions.

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  12. Michael Marshall says:

    I’m a grad student in sc anth and have become increasingly disillusioned by our subdiscipline’s lack of public scholarship. We have a responsibility to share and discuss our knowledge and research to the public. I’m always excited to find scholars in Anthropology who believe in this but it seems (to me thus far) to be a small minority. This is a terrific idea and I’d love to support and contribute.

    I was wondering why not take this further? Why even bother with the AAA at all? The AAA is basically dominated by cultural anthropologists and the leadership seems to be interested in moving the discipline into the humanities (we socio-cultural folk seem to forget about the other subdisciplines. whoops!). The whole thing seems unfair. Why not create a separate organization? I think the discipline as whole would benefit.

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  13. Pingback: Digital Anthropology/Open Access interest group? | Open Access Anthropology

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