Anthropology and data science may seem like disparate fields at first glance, but in a recent episode of the Anthropology in Business podcast, I explored the intersection with Nathalie Béchet, a digital anthropology researcher at L’Atelier BNP Paribas.  In the episode we discussed how the relevance of digital spaces in our lives, the user of digital methods, and why Nathalie earned degrees in both anthropology and data science.

The Draw to Anthropology

Nathalie’s interest in anthropology stemmed from a desire to understand the social norms and constructs that shape society. “I started anthropology because I was a very anxious child,” she explains. “I had a hard time with norms. I found comfort in social sciences, which provided explanations for why things work the way they do.” For her, anthropology offered tools to make sense of complex human behaviors.

Initially, Nathalie focused on topics like religion and urban environments. However, she quickly realized traditional anthropology wasn’t addressing many contemporary issues brought on by technology and globalization. She explains, “I didn’t have any classes that helped me navigate global warming or the housing crisis, digitization, online spaces.” This disconnect led her to pursue data science.

Gaining Data Science Skills

To bridge anthropology with the digital world, Nathalie pursued a master’s degree in data science and digital sociology. She gained technical skills in areas like data collection, processing, analysis, and visualization. This training equipped her to study online spaces through an anthropological lens.

Nathalie explains she didn’t become a software engineer but learned enough to communicate and collaborate with them effectively. “I know enough, and I remember enough, so I can have conversations now with the computer engineers I work with,” she states. Her role involves advising on data collection and analysis while engineers handle the technical implementations.

The Role of Data Visualization

Data visualization plays a crucial role in Nathalie’s work. As she explains, “It helps represent and analyze digital data.” However, she emphasizes the need for caution – just like any data representation, visualizations can perpetuate biases if not created carefully.

“You have to be cautious, and you can always manipulate it to show what you want to show,” she notes. Anthropologists must ensure any data visualizations accurately reflect the underlying information without introducing additional biases.

Questioning the Obvious

When asked about the value anthropology brings to businesses, Nathalie responds, “Anthropologists are like anti-biased machines.” She explains how anthropologists constantly question the status quo and challenge assumptions.

“We always put our fingers on things that no one wants to talk about or question what’s supposed to be obvious,” says Nathalie. This ability to uncover blind spots and hidden biases makes anthropologists invaluable in avoiding costly mistakes.

Emerging Technologies: Risks and Rewards

Part of Nathalie’s research focuses on emerging technologies like the metaverse and blockchain. These often face backlash and skepticism. However, Nathalie argues for an open perspective to understand their potential.

“It will take time for researchers to formalize those spaces and show the opportunities within them,” she states. Through her work, Nathalie found these technologies enable new forms of creativity, self-expression, and social mobility. There are certainly risks to address, but the possibilities warrant an in-depth exploration.

The Outlook Ahead

As digital spaces expand, organizations require professionals like Nathalie, who traverse both anthropology and data science. Her ability to analyze digital data while questioning biases and assumptions is invaluable. The future will involve even greater collaboration between these disciplines.

Anthropologists bring unique human-centered perspectives that data science alone often overlooks. Meanwhile, data science skills help anthropologists navigate and draw insights from the digital world. By merging these two worlds, we can build a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary society.