Anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures, has always been a dynamic field. As society has evolved, so has anthropology, and with the rise of digital technology, a new subfield has emerged – digital anthropology. Digital anthropology explores the intersection between humans and technology in the digital era. It studies how people interact with and use digital technology, how it affects their behavior and culture, and how it shapes their perceptions of the world.
The importance of digital anthropology cannot be overstated. We are living in a world that is increasingly dominated by digital technology. From social media to virtual reality, technology has revolutionized how we communicate, work, and live. Digital anthropology helps us understand the impact of this technology on society and culture and provides insights into how we can design technology that is more human-centric and inclusive.
Definition and Scope of Digital Anthropology
Digital anthropology is a relatively new subfield of anthropology that emerged in the late 1990s. It is the study of the relationship between humans and digital technology. Digital anthropologists study how people use and interact with digital technology, the impact of technology on culture and behavior, and how technology shapes people’s perceptions of the world.
While digital anthropology is often associated with online and internet technology, it encompasses a broader range of digital technology. This includes social media, mobile devices, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies.
Digital anthropology is distinct from other subfields of anthropology, such as cyborg anthropology, which examines the interaction between humans and machines, and techno-anthropology, which focuses on the impact of technology on society.
The scope of digital anthropology is vast and includes the study of online communities, virtual and digital worlds, digital labor, digital identity, and more. Digital anthropologists use various research methods such as ethnography, participant observation, surveys, and text mining to understand the relationship between humans and digital technology.
What is a Digital Anthropologist?
A digital anthropologist is a professional who studies the impact of digital technologies on society and human behavior. They combine the principles of anthropology, sociology, and psychology to analyze how people interact with technology and communication media and how these interactions shape our culture, values, and beliefs.
Digital anthropologists research various aspects of digital culture, such as online communities, social media, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. They use various qualitative and quantitative research methods to gather data, including participant observation, interviews, surveys, and data analysis.
Digital anthropologists may work in various settings, including academic institutions, research organizations, technology companies, and marketing agencies. They play an important role in helping organizations understand the impact of technology on their users and develop more user-centered products and services.
Relationship to Cultural Anthropology
As an applied subfield of anthropology, one could argue that digital anthropology is a subfield of cultural anthropology, though others might argue it is a subfield of applied anthropology. Either way, the field builds on the principles and methods of cultural anthropology, applying them to the study of digital culture. Like cultural anthropologists, digital anthropologists use the ethnographic approach to understand human behavior, albeit online, and use core theories and concepts from cultural anthropology, such as cultural relativism and holism.
Methodology of Digital Anthropology
Digital anthropology uses various research methods that combine traditional anthropological techniques with digital tools to study human behavior in the digital era. The challenge of conducting digital fieldwork is understanding and interpreting sociocultural phenomena emerging in digital environments. Anthropologists who study online communities often participate in these communities to learn about their customs, beliefs, and worldviews. They use ethnography, a qualitative description of their experience, and analyses backed by private interviews, historical research, and quantitative data to document their findings.
Some anthropologists and social scientists gather research emphasizing data from websites and servers. However, academics often face difficulties in accessing user data on the same scale as social media corporations like Facebook and data mining companies like Acxiom. There is a disagreement among scholars regarding the methodology of digital anthropology. While some argue that it is possible to conduct research exclusively online, others believe that research should encompass both online and offline contexts.
Applications of Digital Anthropology
Digital anthropology has several applications, including adapting and improving technology through anthropological research, understanding online communities and their cultural practices, and using digital anthropology in the workplace and academia.
Anthropological research can help designers and technologists adapt and improve the technology by better understanding user experience. For example, anthropologist Genevieve Bell conducted extensive user experience research at Intel, informing the company’s approach to its technology, users, and market. By studying how people use technology and the social and cultural dimensions surrounding it, anthropologists can help develop technology that is more accessible, user-friendly, and culturally appropriate.
Understanding online communities and their cultural practices is another critical application of digital anthropology. Online communities establish social norms, practices, traditions, storied history, and associated collective memory. These communities can be studied to understand how they form, evolve, and interact. Anthropologists can use their expertise to identify and explain the cultural practices, behaviors, and values that underpin these communities.
Digital anthropology is also increasingly relevant in the workplace and academia. It can inform business practices and strategies in the workplace, such as market research and consumer behavior. In academia, digital anthropology can contribute to a broader understanding of human behavior and culture and generate new insights into how we interact with technology and each other in the digital era.
Digital Anthropology vs Digital Ethnography
Digital anthropology and digital ethnography are related but distinct concepts. Here are the key differences between the two:
- Scope: Digital anthropology is a broader field encompassing the study of digital culture and its impact on society, whereas digital ethnography is a specific research method used in digital anthropology.
- Methodology: Digital ethnography is a qualitative research method that involves observing and interacting with people in online communities and digital environments to understand their culture and behavior. It typically involves prolonged engagement and immersion in the digital space being studied. Digital anthropology, on the other hand, may use a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods to study digital culture, including ethnography, surveys, interviews, and data analysis.
- Focus: Digital anthropology may examine various topics related to digital cultures, such as online identity, social media, gaming, and virtual reality. Digital ethnography, on the other hand, focuses specifically on studying digital communities and their cultural practices.
Emerging Trends in Digital Anthropology
As the field of digital anthropology continues to evolve, there are many emerging trends to watch.
- Artificial intelligence (AI): Digital anthropologists are exploring the cultural implications of AI and machine learning. They are studying how these technologies change our understanding of intelligence, creativity, labor, and their impact on society.
- Algorithmic bias: Digital anthropologists are examining the impact of algorithmic bias in areas such as online advertising, hiring practices, and criminal justice. They are exploring ways to reduce bias and ensure digital technologies are used fairly and equitably.
- Digital activism: Digital anthropology is increasingly focused on the role of digital technologies in social and political activism. Researchers are studying how online communities organize and mobilize and the impact of digital activism on social movements.
- Virtual reality and augmented reality: With the increasing availability of virtual and augmented reality technologies, digital anthropologists are exploring the cultural implications of these immersive technologies. They study how people use virtual and augmented reality for entertainment, education, and social interaction.
- Digital health: With the rise of wearable technology, mobile health apps, and telemedicine, digital anthropology is increasingly focused on the intersection of digital technologies and healthcare. Researchers are studying how digital technologies change how we approach health and wellness and impact healthcare delivery and outcomes.
- Digital globalization: Digital anthropology explores the cultural implications of global digital networks and platforms. Researchers are studying how digital technologies change our understanding of culture and identity and how digital platforms reshape global power dynamics.
- Digital inequality: Digital anthropology examines the digital divide and the uneven distribution of digital resources and opportunities. Researchers are studying how digital inequality affects access to education, employment, and civic engagement and impacts social and economic mobility.
- Digital identity: With the increasing importance of digital media in our lives, digital anthropology examines how people construct and manage their online identities. Researchers are studying how digital identity affects self-presentation, social relationships, and cultural norms.
- Digital memory: Digital anthropology explores the cultural implications of digital memory technologies such as social media and cloud storage. Researchers are studying how these technologies affect our sense of identity, memory, and history and impact cultural heritage and preservation.
- Digital art and creativity: With the rise of digital media and technology, digital anthropology examines the cultural implications of digital art and creativity. Researchers are studying how artists use digital technologies to create new forms of expression and the impact on cultural production and consumption.
- Digital addiction: Digital anthropology explores the cultural implications of digital addiction and its impact on mental health and well-being. Researchers are studying how digital technologies affect our attention span, social relationships, and sense of self-control.
- Ethical considerations in digital research: With the increasing amount of online data and the need to protect individual privacy, digital anthropologists are paying more attention to ethical considerations. They are exploring ways to obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality, and avoid harm to research participants.
As the field of digital anthropology continues to evolve, these trends will shape the discipline’s future and its contributions to our understanding of the digital world.
Ethical Issues in Digital Anthropology
Digital anthropology poses new ethical challenges for researchers. Online fieldwork offers unprecedented access to communities but raises concerns about privacy and informed consent. The American Anthropological Association’s ethics guidelines emphasize that researchers must ensure that all members of the community they are studying know they are being researched and have access to the data produced.
However, many online communities operate publicly, and their interactions may be archived online for years. This raises questions about the extent to which researchers should “lurk” in online communities and sift through public archives. Researchers must balance their desire to learn about these communities with their ethical obligations to protect participants’ privacy and act responsibly with the data they collect.
Additionally, researchers must recognize that their ability to collect and store digital data is a privilege and that they have an ethical duty to store this data responsibly. This includes taking steps to protect the identity of participants, sharing data with other researchers, and making backup copies of all data.
The Role of Digital Anthropology in Industry
The role of digital anthropology in the industry is becoming increasingly important as companies seek to design and develop more user-centered and culturally appropriate technology. Digital anthropologists can play a critical role in this process by researching how people use technology and how cultural norms and practices shape their interaction with technology.
One of the main ways digital anthropology is used in industry is through user experience (UX) research. UX research involves studying how people use technology and identifying opportunities to improve the user experience. Digital anthropologists are well-suited to this type of research because they deeply understand how culture shapes behavior, which can help them identify design elements that are culturally appropriate and user-friendly.
Another way that digital anthropology is being used in industry is through market research. Digital anthropologists can help companies understand the cultural and social factors that influence consumer behavior, which can help them design products and services that better meet the needs of their target audience.
Digital anthropologists can also help companies develop more inclusive and culturally appropriate products and services. By studying how different cultural groups use technology, digital anthropologists can identify design elements that may exclude certain groups and suggest ways to make products and services more inclusive.
In addition to working directly with companies, digital anthropologists can contribute to industry research through academic partnerships and collaborations. For example, companies may partner with academic institutions to research how digital technology is changing consumer behavior, and digital anthropologists may be involved in this research.
Prominent Digital Anthropologists
Several researchers have made significant contributions to the field, in both industry and academia, including:
- Genevieve Bell: an Australian anthropologist who conducted user experience research at Intel, informing the company’s approach to technology, users, and the market.
- Tom Boellstorff: conducted a three-year study of the virtual world Second Life as an avatar, emphasizing the importance of engaging with subjects “in their own terms.”
- Gabriella Coleman: has done ethnographic work on the Debian software community and the Anonymous hacktivist network.
- Diana E. Forsythe: was a pioneer in medical informatics and examined the relationship between medical professionals and technology.
- Heather Horst: studied mobile phones and social media use in urban Papua New Guinea.
- Mizuko Ito: has conducted extensive research on young people’s use of digital media, mainly social media, and gaming.
- Nancy Mauro-Flude: conducts ethnographic fieldwork on computing arts and computer subcultures.
- Daniel Miller: has written extensively about the role of social media in shaping our understanding of the self and community.
- Mike Wesch: has researched digital technology’s impact on culture, particularly concerning YouTube and social media.
These researchers have used a range of methodologies, from traditional ethnography to digital fieldwork, to understand better the relationship between humans and technology in the digital age. Their work has helped shape the digital anthropology field and will continue to influence research in this area for years.
Digital anthropology is an emerging subfield of anthropology that examines the, and the relationship between humans and digital-era technology. It is a crucial field of study in the modern era, as digital technology continues to shape how we interact with each other and the world around us.
It uses various methods to study online communities and their cultural practices. Ethical considerations are also paramount in this field, as digital anthropologists must protect the identity of participants and the responsible storage of data.
Looking forward, digital anthropology has the potential for many applications, such as improving technology through anthropological research and understanding online communities and their behavior. It is an exciting time for this field of study as it continues to grow and evolve with the advancement of digital technology.