Computational Anthropology workshop 2013

4th September 2013, Calman Learning Centre, Durham University, UK

By Nick Pearce, SSI Fellow and Teaching Fellow, The Foundation Centre, Durham University


A highlight of the event was the clear evidence of a community of people with issues of interest to the SSI. Here were researchers who have been developing tools to help in their work, but those tools were not being maintained and were rapidly degrading. There is clear opportunity here for the SSI to support a very different group of researchers from a very different disciplinary background, but who share concerns and interests with the wider SSI community.

Event report

(I wrote a blog post on the workshop.)

Stephen Lyon (Senior Lecturer in the Anthropogy dept. at Durham) and I had 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). 

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.