Digital anthropology

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Digital anthropology is the study of the relationship between humans and digital-era technology, and extends to various areas where anthropology and technology intersect. It is sometimes grouped with sociocultural anthropology, and sometimes considered part of material culture. The field is new, and thus has a variety of names with a variety of emphases. These include techno-anthropology,[1] digital ethnography, cyberanthropology,[2] and virtual anthropology.[3]

Different approaches

There are a number of different approaches to digital anthropology.

  1. The study of cybernetic systems of humans and technology.
  2. Using technology as the basis for a wider discussion on what it means to be human.
  3. Study of emergent, technology-based communities
  4. Using anthropology to better understand and optimise our use of technology.
  5. The use of technology as a tool for anthropologists both in teaching and research.
  6. The study of the practice and experience of digital technologies in comparative cultural context
  7. The contextualization of digital technologies: the social and cultural frameworks that produce them and into which they emerge
  8. The study of digital technology as a form of material culture

Cybernetic systems

Some academics focus their study on the culturally informed interrelationships between human beings and technologies. These interrelationships include the attempts to fuse technological artifacts with human and other biological organisms, with human society, and with the culturally shaped environment.[4] As a sociocultural subfield of anthropology it is distinct from both media anthropology and visual anthropology in that it is informed by cybernetics.

Humanity made visible through technology

Cyberspace itself can serve as a "field" site for anthropologists, allowing the observation, analysis, and interpretation of the sociocultural phenomena springing up and taking place in any interactive space.

A number of academic anthropologists have conducted traditional ethnographies of virtual worlds, the most prominent being Bonnie Nardi's study of World of Warcraft,[5] and Tom Boellstorff's study of Second Life.[6]

Emergent communities

A number of national and transnational communities, enabled by digital technology, establish a set of social norms, practices, traditions, storied history and associated collective memory, migration periods, internal and external conflicts, potentially subconscious language features[7][8] and memetic dialects comparable to those of traditional, geographically confined communities. This includes the various communities built around free and open source software, on online platforms such as 4chan and Reddit and their respective sub-sites as well as more politically motivated groups like Anonymous, Wikileaks, or the Occupy movement.[9]

Academic Gabriella Coleman has done ethnographic work on the Debian software community,[10] and the Anonymous hacktivist network.

Use of anthropology in technology

The traditional techniques of anthropology, such as ethnography, participant observation, and acknowledgement of reflexivity, can be used by designers to adapt and improve technology. Notable companies that have included anthropologists in technical projects include Intel, whose director of interaction and experience research, Genevieve Bell is a particularly prominent example.[11]

Use of technology in anthropology

For most anthropologists, technology now has a tangible presence at the research stage, "in the field", and during the review and publication process.

DANG, the Digital Anthropology Group within the American Anthropological Association,[12] has five (of six) stated goals that relate to the use of digital technology to further the discipline of anthropology. This includes the use of blogging, engagement with the public, new teaching practices, open access, and modernised field methods.[13]

Current debates


In terms of method, there is a disagreement in whether it is possible to conduct research exclusively online or if research will only be complete when the subjects are studied holistically, both online and offline. Tom Boellstorff, who conducted a three-year research as an avatar in the virtual world Second Life, defends the first approach, stating that it is not just possible but necessary to engage with subjects “in their own terms”. Others, such as Daniel Miller, have argued that an ethnographic research should not exclude learning about the subject's life outside of the internet.


Theoretically, the debate is about what it means to be human, a problem that has direct implications to the discipline of anthropology since humanity (anthropos) is what frames anthropology as a discipline. This argument, arriving from postmodern theory, has been contested through the argument that the Internet did not create virtuality since culture exists intermediating our understandings of the world.[citation needed]

University courses

Numerous universities offer modules that cover the general area of digital anthropology, and some universities offer dedicated courses in digital anthropology (under various names), including University College London, Kansas State University, Binghamton University, Aalborg University and University of Colorado at Boulder.

Prominent figures

See also



  1. "Techno-Anthropology course guide". Aalborg University. Retrieved 14 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Knorr, Alexander (August 2011). "Cyberanthropology". Peter Hammer Verlag Gmbh. ISBN 978-3779503590. Retrieved March 14, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Weber, Gerhard & Bookstein, Fred (2011). Virtual Anthropology: A guide to a new interdisciplinary field. Springer. ISBN 978-3211486474.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Carvalko, Joseph (2012). The Techno-human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap. Sunbury Press. ISBN 978-1620061657.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Nardi, Bonnie (2010). My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0472050987.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Boellstorff, Tom (2010). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691146270.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Word usage mirrors community structure in the online social network Twitter, EPJ Data Science, 25 February 2013
  8. Rodrigues, Jason (15 March 2013). "Twitter users forming tribes with own language, tweet analysis shows". The Guardian.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Abstract of 'The social construction of freedom in free and open source software: Hackers, ethics, and the liberal tradition'". FlossHub. Retrieved 11 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Thompson, Mark (17 August 2012). "DANG in San Francisco". DANG, the Digital Anthropology Group, official blog. Retrieved 12 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Thompson, Matt (22 January 2013). "Digital Anthropology's To Do List". Savage Minds. Retrieved 12 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Budka, Philipp and Manfred Kremser. 2004. "CyberAnthropology—Anthropology of CyberCulture", in Contemporary issues in socio-cultural anthropology: Perspectives and research activities from Austria edited by S. Khittel, B. Plankensteiner and M. Six-Hohenbalken, pp. 213–226. Vienna: Loecker.
  • Escobar, Arturo. 1994. "Welcome to Cyberia: notes on the anthropology of cyberculture." Current Anthropology 35(3): 211-231.
  • Fabian, Johannes. 2002. Virtual archives and ethnographic writing: "Commentary" as a new genre? Current Anthropology 43(5): 775-786.
  • Gershon, Ilana. 2010. The Break-up 2.0: Disconnecting over new media. Cornell University Press
  • Ginsburg, Faye. 2008. Rethinking the Digital Age. In The Media and Social Theory. Edited by Desmond Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee. New York: Routledge
  • Hine, Christine. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage.
  • Horst, Heather and Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London and New York: Berg
  • Kremser, Manfred. 1999. CyberAnthropology und die neuen Räume des Wissens. Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 129: 275-290.
  • Ito, Mizuko, Sonja Baumer, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Rachel Cody, Rebecca Herr-Stephenson, Heather A. Horst, Patricia G. Lange, Dilan Mahendran, Katynka Z. Martinez, C.J. Pascoe, Dan Perkel, Laura Robinson, Christo Sims and Lisa Tripp. (2010) Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Paccagnella, Luciano. 1997. Getting the seats of your pants dirty: Strategies for ethnographic research on virtual communities. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 3(1).
  • Sugita, Shigeharu. 1987. "Computers in ethnological studies: As a tool and an object," in Toward a computer ethnology: Proceedings of the 8th International Symposium at the Japan National Museum of Ethnology edited by Joseph Raben, Shigeharu Sugita, and Masatoshi Kubo, pp. 9–40. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology. (Senri Ethnological Studies 20)
  • Wittel, Andreas. 2000. Ethnography on the move: From field to net to Internet. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1(1).

External links