While new media can foster participatory ethnography and enhance access, one also has to reflect on the implications of the Internet’s openness and availability. This was one of the lessons of a session at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association about new media and anthropology according to Inside Higher Education.
Kate Hennessy, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, described an online exhibit on the indigenous culture of the Doig River First Nation that she helped to develop for the Virtual Museum of Canada. It makes songs, photographs and video of the Dane-zaa people freely available to the general public, in what Hennessy described as “a form of repatriation” — the term for returning objects and artifacts to the cultures from which they came, although here the term was used in a virtual sense.
Over the course of several meetings with community elders, the team came to realize that, according to the Web site, “it is not appropriate to show Dane-zaa Dreamers’ drawings to a worldwide audience on the Internet. Even though the drum is central to this website, in order to ensure that the Dreamers drawings are treated properly and with respect, no images of Dreamers’ drawings or the drum that we describe here are shown.”
(T)he online exhibit project extended discussions about when the display of cultural heritage crosses the line into appropriation, and how giving communities access to digital tools can provide a means for self-representation.
For more news on the AAA meeting see Circumcision: “Harmful practice claim has been exaggerated” - AAA meeting part IV, “The insecure American needs help by anthropologists” - AAA-meeting part II, and Final report launched: AAA no longer opposes collaboration with CIA and the military - AAA meeting part I
Folklore Forum, a journal that is produced by graduate students at the Folklore and Ethnomusicology Department of Indiana University, has gone Open Access. From now on, 39 years of scholarship, debate, and exchange of ideas are freely accessible for everybody in the freshly digitized archives of Folklore Forum.
Their most recent volum focuses on Folklore and the Internet and includes articles on urban legends that circulate in chain letter-form as anonymous emails, and on icons and avatars as cyberart and examples of the development of folkloric art forms online.
Folklore has has always had an ambivalent relationship with mass media, Editor-in-Chief Curtis Ashton writes in the editorial:
Salvage ethnography to recover oral texts would be unnecessary if print were not invading 19th century Europe and America and depriving the Folk of their lore. (…) Though the trend has been shifting in professional meetings and journal publications, folklorists do tend to avoid the world of computers as a field for enquiry, either because of a lack of technical training or just a lack of general interest.
But as this volume demonstrates, the web has much to offer for folklorists:
I encourage our readers to consider how we use the Internet in our work as folklorists, as a object of study in an of itself, with its own discourse of traditional motifs; as a field for ethnographic research into the virtual, networked community; as a means for scholarly communication and publication; as a storage facility for the digitally compressed knowledge of the past; as a presentation space for the mutual benefit of both ethnographer and informant; as a means for reflection, rethinking how we do our work, what draws us to it, and why.
As a sidenote: In the most recent entry here on antropologi.info I wrote about how folkore can enrich anthropology, see “Take care of the different national traditions of anthropology”
It all started when anthropologist Andreas Lloyd (University of Copenhagen) was browsing on the Internet looking for a new laptop computer and ended up installing the free Windows alternative Linux. Two years later, he finished his master thesis “A system that works for me” - an anthropological analysis of computer hackers’ shared use and development of the Ubuntu Linux system.
The thesis is a study of the Internet Gift Economy. Linux is developped by computer geeks saround the world, collaborating over the Internet, building a computer operating system in their spare time, which can be downloaded, installed, used and modified completely for free. It is among the biggest and most complex engineering projects ever conceived and built:
Based on more than 2 years of daily use of the Ubuntu Linux system and 6 months of online and in-person fieldwork among the developers working to develop and maintain it, this thesis examines the individual and collaborative day-to-day practices of these developers as they relate to the computer operating system that is the result of their labour.
A group of Spanish computer scientists measured the size of a Linux system similar to Ubuntu, and found that it contained around 230 million lines of source code. When they translated this into the effort spent on writing this code using a standard software industry cost estimate model, they found that it would correspond to almost 60.000 man-years of work (Amor-Iglesias et. al. 2005). By comparison, it took an estimated 3.500 man-years to build the Empire State Building in New York, and 10.000 man-years to build the Panama Canal. This immense effort makes modern operating systems such as Ubuntu among the biggest and most complex engineering projects ever conceived and built.
So the anthropologist was curious to learn more about how the hackers collaborate to build such an intricate system, and to learn why they were doing all of this work just to give it away for free.
How do you do fieldwork among hackers around the world? He explains:
I joined the Ubuntu on-line community on the same terms as the Ubuntu hackers, contributing to and using the same system, sharing their experiences with the system, and meeting them in-person on the same terms as they do at the conferences at which they gather, experiencing the same social and technical means and limitations through which they develop the system.
In order to do participant observation in this on-line space, I began contributing to the system by writing the system help and documentation, rather than the system itself due to my lack of technical understanding. In this way, I could take part in shaping Ubuntu alongside other community members while slowly developing a feel for the everyday exchanges and work in the community.
His thesis is by the way neither dedicated to any girl friend nor his parents:
In the true digital spirit of this work, I dedicate this thesis to Rosinante, the laptop on which I first experienced the Ubuntu system, and which was my faithful companion during my fieldwork and the writing of this thesis, only to bow out a week before tsafe for so long.
(Links updated 11.1.17)
Their language is nearly dead. Maybe a new website can revitalize Kahtnuht’ana Qenaga: The Kenai Peoples Language in Alaska? For more than two years, the two anthropologists Alan Boraas and Michael Christian have taken pictures, navigated through HTML and digitized old audio recordings of Native writer Peter Kalifornsky in order to present vocabulary, grammar, stories and place names in an interactive Web site that went live last month, the Peninsula Clarion reports.
“I hope people of all ages go to it and gain insights into both the language and the culture,” Boraas says. This project is the latest in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s endeavor to revitalize their Native language. Finding people who actively speak the Dena’ina language is one of the most difficult parts of revitalizing it. The credit for much of the Dena’ina revitalization goes to James Kari, who spent 30 years working on a dictionary.
Is Internet making any significant difference to the governance of an multiethnic middle-income suburb of Kuala Lumpur? Anthropologist John Postill has been on fieldwork there and sent me a working paper about his research Field theory and the political process black box: analysing Internet activism in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.
The suburb is renowned in Malaysian ICT policy circles for its rich diversity of ‘e-community’ initiatives - and it was the vibrant Internet scene that attracted Postill to the locality. In his paper he discusses several approaches within media anthropology:
In recent years Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory has received increased attention from sociologists, anthropologists, media scholars and others (Benson and Neveu 2005). (…) Yet instead of adopting Bourdieu’s field theory wholesale I concentrate on an area of field theory that is underdeveloped in Bourdieu but has an earlier history within political anthropology, namely the field-theoretical study of political processes such as social dramas undertaken by Victor Turner and other Manchester scholars.
On his website, Postill has published lots of related papers.
Culture Matters points to “exciting” working papers by the Information Society Research Group about the social and economic benefits of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in low-income communities in Jamaica, India, South Africa and Ghana: “These working papers strongly re-enforce the benefits of an ethnographic approach for the wider world".
One of the most convincing papers is according to Culture Matters written by Daniel Miller and Heather: Horst juxtaposes conventional ICT policy making in Jamaica with ethnographic findings and uncovers that the assumptions concerning internet use held by the government as well as international NGOs diverge hugely from the realities.
Culture Matters juxtapose some of the current policies with Miller’s and Horst’s recommendations:
- Instead of more computers in secondary schools invest in post-educational training for young adults
- Instead of investing into expensive high-end computers invest in low-price computers without gaming facilities
- Instead of creating their own content at high costs, a lot of money can be saved by creating portals which identify useful and high-quality web resources
- Instead of investing in community computers, offer Internet access via individual mobile phones
Also fascinating according to the blog: the reports from Ghana by Don Slater and Janet Kwami:
Again, ethnography unveiled a huge gap between policy assumptions and actual usage. On the one hand there is the widespread belief amongst governments and NGOs that the Internet is a tool of development through information distribution.
Yet all Internet users in the Accra slum studied used the internet only for chat with foreigners (as well as some diasporic family members and friends). “There was exceptionally low awareness of even the existence of websites”. In internet cafes everybody is chatting with unknown foreigners, largely in the North but also in Asia, with a view of accumulating actual and symbolic goods (either on IM (Yahoo or MSN) or in Yahoo chat rooms).
Internet access, although widespread and popular in Accra, is not cheap - one hour costs much more than the average kid’s lunch money – but many teenagers come several times a week, for several hours, solely to chat with foreigners.
More and more Tibetan folk songs are disappearing. Led by anthropology professor Gerald Roche, the Tibetan Endangered Music Project (TEMP) uses digital media to capture tunes that are being lost. The volunteer-run program aims to put all the digital songs they collect online, as a way of archiving the material for future generations, the National Geographic writes.
So far the students at Qinghai Normal University have recorded more than 250 songs, including melodies for herding, harvesting, singing babies to sleep, and coaxing yaks into giving more milk. "The goal is to digitalize the songs we record and return them to our communities," said 20-year-old student Dawa Drolma. "We want to record as many songs as possible."
"It is quite remarkable how much they have been able to accomplish from such a remote place, thanks to the Internet and digital recording technology," said Jonathan C. Kramer, a professor of music at North Carolina State University who has worked with the students. "It is hard to imagine such a project even 20 years ago."
“One of the biggest challenges that we face at the moment is how to return the music to the communities it comes from,” says Roche, as there are few Tibetan communities with Internet access. “Putting it online is a start, but just a small start.” Tsering Lhamo from Ngawa, Sichuan suggests, “the music we have recorded [could be] taught in primary schools of Tibetan areas in order to preserve them.” according to That's Beijing.
TEMP is remarkable for many reasons according this blog: its ease of growth, use of existing technology with no budget, a method of preservation by people from the culture itself, and a prospect for real use by both local and global communities.
The Tibetan Endagered Music Project has its own website at YouTube with currently five videos.
You can light virtual candles for Shabbat, teleport to a Buddhist temple or consult the oracle for some divine guidance. In Second Life, an online virtual universe with 3.7 million users, religious diversity and participation have skyrocketed. For some people, Second Life is their only chance to participate in religious rituals according to the Washington Post.
Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff is going to publish a book on "cybersociality" in Second Life called "Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human." The avatar of the anthropologist (Tom Bukowski) has an office there, "Ethnographia," where you can visit him. These emerging virtual worlds pose fundamental challenges to anthropological theory, he writes on his website. "We are witnessing the birth of a significant new modality of human interaction."
He expected -- but hasn't found any evidence -- that Second Life would foster relationships among far-flung members of minority faiths. But the game does seem to be sparking community among followers of more mainstream faiths like among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Washington Post also writes about Yunus Yakoub Islam who is writing his dissertation on religion in Second Life and runs Second Faith, an educational resource about religion in Second Life. Islam believes he's the only Muslim in his village in England and uses Second Life to interact with more than 200 members of the game's Islamic Society.