Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Anthropology and the Twitter Challenge

For many of us in anthropology, the advent of “big data'' represents a threat.  Why, after all, spend months developing rapport and interviewing 100 people when you can run sentiment analyses on 40 million tweets in a matter of hours?  Still, I agree with Tricia Wang, who urges us to engage big data and complement that work with our own “thick data.”  In “thick data,” the depths of our insights into meaning and interpretation, “the native’s point of view,” could act as a corrective to billions of data points that may “speak for themselves,” as Chris Anderson claimed, but not, perhaps, for people.  Ironically, this move to “thick data'' was enabled by the gradual choking off of data access to social media APIs.  Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - one by one social media platforms began limiting third-party access to their data, under the cover of protecting users from infringements on their privacy.  Well, not all third-party access.  Corporations and select researchers still manage to maintain access to the “firehose” of user data in social media, while the rest of us have to make do with whatever limited sets of data we can access.  For some platforms, (e.g., Facebook), access has ceased altogether.  You can still gain access to much of this proprietary data through scraping, but that’s not an ethical research practice for anthropology.  So, I’ve worked towards my “thick data,” using the limited data I can download from platforms like Twitter to broaden the “deep” data I’ve been getting from more traditional, ethnographic methods. 

This has proven useful for community-based ethnographic work, and I've applied it to studies of neighborhoods in Baltimore, in Seoul, and elsewhere, resulting in articles and a co-authored monograph (“Networked Anthropology”) explaining the advantages of this mixed-methods approach to community-based, participatory research strategies.  I’ve also worked on multiple grants with the National Park Service using the same approach.   There, the park itself is the focus of social media investigation, with the ultimate goal being the identification of community stakeholders and their connections to the park.  

However: in early 2021, after the introduction of a new API interface, Twitter allowed academics to apply for an academic track with access to 10 million tweets per month.  While this is not full access, it certainly moves my possibilities more into the realm of big data.  And this raises all sorts of new problems and possibilities.  While my work has utilized some basic metrics (centrality measures, word frequencies, descriptive statistics), the scale of data I now have access to requires a different set of empirical tests and, perhaps, a different class of questions.  Ultimately, I wonder if it is possible to even ask similar kinds of questions of these data.  Can they tell me, for example, about the meaning of place?  About the ways people interpret their worlds?  The challenge for me is to bridge “thick” and “big” data.

But the big challenge (and opportunity) here is to anthropology.  While no stranger to quantitative methods, we still generally do not work with larger data sets.  These have been inimical to the “small societies” approach that characterized anthropology in the early twentieth century.  So what will anthropology become in this environment?  

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Abstract for a paper-in-progress: quarantine and sentiment analysis.




A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: sentiment analyses of new connections and communities in a COVID world.



Quarantine re-makes the city around us, re-defining “inside” and “outside,” “home” and “neighborhood.”  “Staying home” means complying with a socially and politically constructed bubble that delimits not only who or what can move from one side or another, but the protocols to be followed when that barrier is breached.  Moreover, transitioning from one to another is not just a matter of spatial movement, it also involves a shift in identity, from the one quarantined to the one not quarantined.  Finally, quarantine is a temporal state: fourteen days, or until the city lifts the quarantine measures.  Under these conditions, what does “home” mean?  What does “inside” mean?  And when one is quarantined, what do more collective identities like “community” and “neighborhood” mean?  Under these circumstances, “home” can have a negative valence—it can be isolating and alienating from the people around you.  On the other hand, “home” can be a source of new realizations of self, and new formed of connectedness and solidarity.  In this project, I utilize a large set of Twitter data gathering thoughts on quarantine from different countries at different times, from March to September.  Mostly urban, the tweets originate in cities undergoing quarantine from around the world: Seoul, Paris, New York, each instituting different quarantine protocols at different times.  Using sentiment analysis and textual analysis, I examine Twitter as 1) a source of positive and negative valuations of quarantine; and 2) as a record of activities and relationships forged under quarantine.  On the one hand, preliminary results would seem to validate dire predictions from Durkheim, Simmel and others with regards to alienation in the city.  And, indeed, many people use Twitter to bemoan their isolation and their truncated lives.  On the other, many Twitter users explore the possibility of new connections with self and with community amidst physical separation.  In this, quarantine’s temporality plays an importance role by allowing people to construct visions of community and togetherness as a future temporality.  This paper explores the possibilities for building urban community in a pandemic world through an exploration of the way “home” and “neighborhood” have been re-conceptualized.  Ultimately, what comes from this research are insights into being together while being apart, and “home” as a staging area for the construction of community.  The essay ends with hopeful speculations on a post-pandemic city that retains communal solidarity while maintaining distancing.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Review of The Anthropology of the Future, by Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight

 Just published, and not behind a paywall.  You can find it here, in the Spring 2020 issue of Anthropological Quarterly.  Update - now it is!  Uggh - what the hell did I expect. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Impoverishment of the COVID Future

From Wikimedia Commons

As I complete this essay, the quarantine imposed on Baltimore stretches into its second month, and I continue teaching online amid terror and despair.  Blog posts and newspaper articles forecast a new era of education in the age of social distancing, a new kind of virtual conference in the absence of travel, and new research without the face-to-face interactions that have heretofore been the bread-and-butter of ethnographic fieldwork.  All of these may be prognostications, but they are not, I would submit, really about the future.  Instead, each “future” describes a present--online education, virtual meetings, digital anthropology.  None of them are really “new” at all.  Just the opposite, they are part of a process of what Escobar (echoing Tony Fry) describes as “the systematic destruction of possible futures by the structured unsustainability of modernity” (Escobar 2018: 117).  Here, the COVID pandemic ushers in a future, but it is not a real future.  Instead, a “de-future,” a truncated present where face-to-face relationships disappear and only online connections remain.  As Deleuze wrote in his essay on Bergson's duration, “The possible passes into the real through limitation, the culling of other possibilities” (Deleuze 1991: 187).  Shorn of alternatives, the COVID future ushers forth an impoverished dystopia of distant relations, multiplied inequalities, Mad-Max guerilla capitalism.  Prognostication in the age of the pandemic has been about the way our future will be an attenuated present: less social interaction, less economic well-being, less life.  It it was a tv miniseries, I don’t think I would want to see this future.  

Of course, it’s worth asking why it would matter if I would watch such a dystopia.  Isn’t this the way it is?  Yes, and no.  Yes-the disruption and loss of life have an undeniable, terrifying reality.  But at the same time, no: we can look to alternatives that acknowledge pandemic realities but also sketch alternatives to capitalism, to the bourgeois rentier class, to precarious employment (Wolff 2020). We can sketch alternatives to a digital divide education where people with a fast broadband and the latest laptop get access, and everyone else survives on asynchronous, canned powerpoints (Aschoff 2020).  Finally, COVID underlines the failures of neoliberalism at almost every level.  And, in that failure, raises alternatives that are already implicit in the practices and institutions of people in many of the places where anthropologists have worked: all kinds of cooperatives, land trusts, community health centers.  As anthropologists, we need to elaborate those alternative futures, to engage in a “futuring” that will spell the end of a fait accompli modernity.   


Deleuze, Gilles (1991).  Bergsonism.  NY: Zone Books.

Escobar, Arturo (2018).  Designs for the Pluriverse.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Networked, Not Virtual: ethnography when you can't go there

(from our storymap)

In my capacity as a fellow in our faculty research center, I've been doing a lot of support work for the unexpected shift to learning-at-a-distance.  At my uni, very few of us have experience teaching online.  The faculty (generally) aren't especially enthusiastic, and there hasn't really been a lot of institutional support.  So, I wasn't surprised when most of the questions I was fielding took the form of: "I do X in my class.  How can I do X online?"  Not surprised because that's the ideological frame distance education has relied upon: an exact homology between offline- and online teaching, with the physical classroom replaced by the discussion board, the lectures by videos.  But actual online courses (not our band aid efforts to stitch together something in a few days) are structured very differently than their physical counterparts.  The best classes maximize their digital affordances and don’t try to simply "reproduce" face-to-face education.

Something similar has happened with ethnography.  I have read dozens of semi-panicked posts: if I can't go into the field, perhaps I can go into the digital field?  Well - there have been several, thoughtful posts from digital anthropologists on this sentiment, including a recent one in GeekAnthropologist.  Reading these, though, I can't help but notice that these would-be digital anthropologists don't really want to be digital at all.  And they're not really proposing digital anthropology.  If you're studying the lives of people in their (physical) communities, can you really do digital anthropology?  In other words, if people are undertaking online/offline lives (whether under quarantine or not), are those lives best understood through digital anthropology?  Or are you talking about what my colleague, Matthew Durington, and I have called "networkedanthropology"?

In networked anthropology, we acknowledge the skein of digital and physical connections in people's lives, and we try to recognize and enable the capacities of people to represent those lives through networked, media platforms that make sense to them.

In a quarantined world, what's missing from the social scene?  With regards to the production of ethnography, at least one element is missing: the anthropologist.  But only that.  Even without the anthropologist, social and cultural life continue.  And more than that--the documentation and theorization of social and cultural life continues as people record and comment on the things that happen in their lives and in their communities.  In this sense, networked anthropology is about capitulation--perhaps we really weren't that important anyway?  But we can certainly help people in their own efforts to represent and communicate their identities and communities, and this is, I think, what (at least some) of our colleagues should be doing.

Last summer, we worked on a project in a small neighborhood in Baltimore undergoing rapid gentrification that was leading to the displacement of a long-standing community of African American residents.  Collaborating with children at a community center, we helped them (co)produce maps, photographs, video and audio interviews that we put together for an app tour, an exhibit and a performance.  It was a great project to work on, and the article that we are submitting on this includes all of them as co-authors.  In light of our present pandemic, and in the interest of protecting communities from us, it occurs to me that we (me and Matt Durington) didn't really need to be there at all.  Sure - we needed to talk to people and see what they were up to.  In the end, though, the images and interviews are produced by people in the community.   My point: if we never actually stepped foot in that neighborhood, that would not make it digital anthropology.  We would just be doing networked anthropology - anthropology with people who were physically (not virtually) in their communities.  

I don't know when the infection rates and death toll of the pandemic will subside.  But it seems likely that we will not be able to undertake our in situ research for some time.  Even if we can go into the field, it may be in fits and starts, with pandemic flare-ups mandating our social distancing once again.  But just because we are not in situ doesn't mean that people in the communities where we work aren’t in situ!  By now, we are all used to that peculiar hypocrisy in anthropology that decries colonization and its authorizing gaze, but that still seems to insist on presence in order to undertake anthropology.  Perhaps enough of that? 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Future of Social Media in Anthropology

From the conclusion to my contribution on "Social Media" in Wiley's "The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology:"

Anthropologists are still coming to terms with social media and its impact on every
level of our lives.  No matter what new SNS platforms develop, though, it is certain that
social media will continue to be a source of controversy in the field. The reasons for
controversy may vary, but they will all pivot on the essential liminality of social media.
By definition, it occupies spaces between worlds: between people, between online and
offline, between official and unofficial, between private and public, between resistance
and accommodation, between horizontality and verticality. For all of these reasons,
anthropologists are unlikely to be entirely comfortable with the social media they and
their interlocutors utilize, whatever new platforms may develop in the future. But that
discomfort can also be a source of strength, one that can help to highlight and perhaps
help to overturn persistent inequalities in the field, all the while revealing dimensions
of our work that may have been suppressed or sublimated in the past. 
 And I think I still agree with that-- social media continue to be leaky and messy: the dishes you haven't yet washed in your intellectual sink.  

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction,

My review of the tremendously exciting collection of translated South Korean science fiction: Readymade Bodhisattva.  It's the first of its kind in English, and serves as a tremendous introduction to SF that is really quite different than that of neighboring China or Japan.