Saturday, July 16, 2022

Book Review: Played Out – Difference and Repetition in Classic Board Games

I published this review with "TheGeekAnthropologist" - such an interesting, important blog! Please click on the link to see the review in its entirety. Book Review: Played Out – Difference and Repetition in Classic Board Games

Patkin, Terri Toles (2021). Who’s in the Game? Identity and Intersectionality in Classic Board Games. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. After taking a beating from video games, table-top games have made a startling come-back over the last twenty years, buoyed by a strong growth of Eurogames, imaginative indie titles and by a gaming world looking for variety. In academics, table-top games studies has also experienced sharp growth – albeit with a time lag. Like tabletop games themselves, the academic explosion of interest in tabletop gaming builds (at least partly) on the institutionalization of digital game studies in the academy (Booth 2021; Woods 2012). And, like their digital counterparts, indie games have received considerable academic attention focused on cultural significance, design, writing and narrative, and educational possibilities. There are international associations (The International Board Game Studies Association), journals (Board Games Studies Journal), meetings, colloquia, and college classes. Yet much of this scholarly attention has focused on new games. But what about the previous games that are points of departure – or outright rejection – for many of the indie games today? If many indie titles are critiques of the heteronormativity, capitalism and colonialism at the heart of older board games, then what about those earlier games themselves?

Monday, June 6, 2022

20th Anniversary of HBO's "The Wire"

In 2011, we started a project entitled "Anthropology By the Wire" with participants drawn mainly from community colleges in the Baltimore area. Our goal was to collaborate with neighborhood-based groups in Baltimore to make anthropologically informed representations of their communities that they could utilize for their own purposes. My co-PI for the project, and my co-author, Matt Durington, explains the whole process in this 2011 video on the YouTube channel for the project. We meant it as a critique of "The Wire"--or, at least, the way "the Wire" had come to stand in for documentary truths about the city. Circling back to the series 20 years, and our project 10 years later, I find that not much has changed. The series continues to have this representational hegemony and, in many ways, still pushes to the sides other representations of Baltimore not grounded in policing and heavily demonized images of drugs and crime. "The Wire" presented audiences with a superbly acted, nuanced portrait of Baltimore - certainly the most complex mass media representation to date. But it was, in the end, mass media grounded in a white perspective that wants to see Baltimore as a spectacle of abandonment and violence. Yet there were moments when the city seemed to exceed that perspective - when neighborhoods themselves took the stage. Those were our favorite scenes. I know that the camera "wanted" us to see the boarded up houses, weeds and trash - but there are times when we saw the small-scale intimacy of neighborhoods and the interpenetrations of lives in "Smalltimore." As anthropologists, what "The Wire" made us realize is that communities could represent themselves. Also, as time went on, technologies (smart phones, social media) that would help people do that became more and more available. "Anthropology By the Wire" was about building collaborative media with people in neighborhoods to tell stories they wanted to tell in ways that made sense to them. It was piecemeal, production values varied, and, of course, there was no script. In that sense, it was the opposite of "The Wire." But it was still generated in the space opened up by "The Wire."

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Ghostly Encounters on Google: Spirit Photography, Reverse Image Search and Urban Critique in Baltimore

In 1866, Alfred Russell Wallace proclaimed a “new branch of anthropology” premised on the Spiritualist movement that was then exploding in popularity in England. For Wallace, that anthropology would revolve around a growing body of highly disputed evidence of life after death. While séances were one major site for the evidence of spirits, other technologies were also important to the new religion, including spirit photography, where ghostly figures or more amorphous, ectoplasmic emanations would appear in photographs next to (living) humans sitting for their portraits. Although these photographs brought solace to those missing their loved ones, they were also windows onto a future utopia; after all, the afterlife was a place where humans would continue to grow and develop into more perfect beings, beings who had come back to help guide their still living compatriots. While these photos appear to us today to be clumsy double exposures, they suggest—along with their twentieth-century counterparts in Dadaist montage—a source of social critique. And, indeed, Spiritualism was readily embraced by social progressives of the day for just these reasons. Interpellating other images onto a photograph both breaks the illusion of objectivity in realist photography which is grounded in the indexicality of the photograph (first discussed by Charles Saunders Peirce) (Peirce 1894: 4). In so doing, spirit photography anticipates the challenges digitization, manipulation and algorithmically generated images raise to the indexical truth-value of the image.1 In this essay, I extend Wallace’s “new anthropology” to urban applications of reverse image search, where search engines apply a combination of indexed images, neural networks and machine learning in order to identify the same or similar images across huge databases. Although mostly utilized for locating copyright infringement, uncovering catfishing or identifying locations, reverse image search also suggests a series of alternative “spirits” to photos of urban spaces. In Baltimore, where my research has concentrated on issues of urban gentrification and abandonment, reverse image searches of Baltimore’s spaces reveal other possibilities—alternatives to urban divestment. For example, a search based on a photo of a boarded-up block of stores in West Baltimore generates images of bustling mercantile districts in cities all over the world. Each of these images, in turn, is an argument against the neoliberal algebra that has laid waste to cities and compounded poverty and segregation. By overlaying images of Baltimore streets and facades with these ghosts of other urban possibilities, I attempt to summon an anthropology of critical future possibilities. In so doing, I identify another role for digital technologies: one that conjures absent possibilities into urban presents through regimes of Big Data that would otherwise be used for surveillance. The end of the essay finds me revisiting Wallace’s “new branch of anthropology,” not to revive his call for the study of ghosts, but for our work to include spirits of the future in our critiques of present inequality.
Just published in Semiotic Review

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A piece for Anthropology Day

Margaret Mead Imagined Different Futures

By Samuel Gerald Collins

In the face of climate disaster, a continuing pandemic, and endless global conflict, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future. Researchers in psychology have marked a sharp upswing in “eco-anxiety” among young people. Surveys show that most people in the U.S. believe life will get worse over the next 30 years. None of this is surprising. The future isn’t shaping up to be something many people look forward to.

When the status quo seems threatened—for example, by climate disaster—some turn to “technological salvation” in the form of new consumer products and engineering innovations to solve the problems. Technological fixes seem to offer comfort through the promise that life can continue as it does today. Yet when these solutions don’t work, people are left in the grips of anxiety over an oncoming apocalypse.

While conditions are undoubtedly dire, some of the anxiety-induced panic many of us feel may be due to the difficulty we have imagining alternatives. From its advent in Enlightenment thought in the 18th century, “progress” has come to mean increase: faster, bigger, richer. If the future doesn’t deliver “more and more”—or if this idea of progress leads ineluctably to ruin—then it doesn’t seem like much of a future at all.

However: There can be alternative futures. And anthropology—unlikely as it may seem at first glance—can help take us there. Anthropologists are deeply invested in making other worlds possible, as I know from 20 years of researching and writing about anthropology’s future orientations.

At its core, anthropology is the study of the past and present for the future, and its methods can help us imagine different futures than the ones that haunt us now.

The future-orientation of the field was evident from the very beginnings of contemporary cultural anthropology in the U.S. That became clear to me when I started learning about Margaret Mead’s long and legendary career, starting with her doctoral studies in anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict in the 1920s, through decades of her work as a public intellectual until her death in 1978.

In 1928, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa captivated general readers with descriptions of Samoan adolescence and sexuality. After its release, some reviewers were scandalized by the frank discussion of promiscuity, especially among young girls. Decades later, critics attacked the accuracy of Mead’s ethnographic data. As an anthropologist, these controversies surrounding Mead’s work were familiar ground. But what intrigued me most upon closer inspection was Mead’s future-facing cultural critique.

Read on, from the archives: “The Life and Meaning of Margaret Mead

Coming of Age in Samoa ends in a curious way. While most of the ethnography is devoted to portrayals of Samoan life, the final sections take on an entirely different subject: the problems faced by young women in the United States. If Samoan adolescents had a (comparatively) easier time adjusting to their maturing sexuality, as Mead claimed, couldn’t people in the U.S. raise their children in a similar way? Mead quickly dismissed that idea, but then offered up another possibility: Familiar U.S. ideals of freedom and liberal tolerance needed to be extended to adolescent women as they explored their own sexuality.

“They must be taught,” Mead concluded, “that many ways are open to them, no one sanctioned above its alternative, and that upon them and upon them alone lies the burden of choice.” In other words, alternative ideals of sexual freedom were already present within pluralistic U.S. society—just withheld from most of the middle-class women Mead addressed through her work.

Mead’s critical commentary on nuclear family structures features heavily in the short documentary “The Family Lifestyles of the Future,” which aired in 1971 as an episode of the Canadian television series Here Come the Seventies. Biophily2/YouTube

This is an early version of Mead’s futurology—her exploration of anthropology as a resource for the study and planning of the future. Coming of Age in Samoa serves as a textbook guide for how to approach cultural critique anthropologically: Start with an insistence on cultural relativism, the general idea that cultural practices need to be understood within their cultural contexts. Then move from that to a recognition of what I would call “relativism within”: the search for alternative value systems and ways of life already present in our own societies. The trick is turning the anthropological gaze inward to question the ways the status quo obscures alternative possibilities, as Mead did when she pointed U.S. women to the choices they had regarding sexual freedom.

In many ways, Mead’s life was a touchstone for the struggle for a different, more open future. On one hand, she capitalized on privileges accorded elite, White women at the time, siding many times with the status quo on a number of social and political issues.

On the other hand, her romantic and sexual relationships with both women and men, and her critical analysis of 20th-century ideologies of family, suggested alternatives to the present. In her own way, she created room for a different future through the relationships she forged with the people around her.

By the 1960s, Mead was writing about the future across multiple institutions: the future of family and sexuality, certainly, but also the future of science, of space travel, of the environment, and of global peace. As Mead broadened the scope of her anthropology to speak out on public issues of the day, her thinking shifted more and more toward evoking these alternative futures. In fact, she was present at one of the pivotal events that forged the future horizons we see before us today.

Mead and her then husband, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, were unlikely additions to a series of landmark meetings on cybernetics sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation between 1946 and 1953. The Macy conferences brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists to consider an emerging language of information, feedback, and neural networks, with the underlying goal of reunifying the sciences.

Insights from those conferences would, in many ways, pave the way for the world we’re experiencing: the manipulation of information, the interest in “controlling” the environment, the development of smart cities. Mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener, often credited as the founder of cybernetics, defined the field in 1948 as “the science of control and communications in the animal and machine.” Cybernetics, according to Wiener, was the discovery of a language that could control the world.

Anthropologists are deeply invested in making other worlds possible.

Yet Mead and Bateson (to Wiener’s chagrin) were less interested in the “control” dimension of cybernetics than the “communication” aspect. For the anthropologists, the Macy conferences were an opportunity to not only understand how people interact with the world around them, but also to think about new worlds that might emerge from these relationships. Bateson, for his part, expanded cybernetics into the study of human consciousness. He famously explained that the “mind” extends beyond the human brain to the body, to the body’s tools, and to the natural world with which the brain, body, and tools interact.

Meanwhile, Mead was compelled to speak out further on pressing issues of the day. In the context of environmental crises and the nuclear arms race, she articulated to scientific societies and to civic groups around the world her hope that people would choose a different direction for the future. She called for a “human-oriented society” where people were “willing to recognize our basic nature as one which shares the fundamental properties of life with all other living things.”

For Mead, the first step toward a more harmonious future was recognizing that the seeds for a genuinely different way of living with nature existed in the present moment.

As I think back on Mead’s legacy, I wonder what world we’d be living in if this version of cybernetics had come to pass.

Mead’s version suggests a very different future from the one many find themselves imprisoned in today. In this alternative scenario, humans recognize our common lot with life around us and then communicate and listen within these shared systems—all through the same mechanisms of feedback and information sharing that cyberneticists hoped would allow them to dominate and control the world by regulating how those systems act.

It’s worth noting that neither Mead nor Bateson wanted to spell out exactly what such a future of communicating and listening might look like; they just knew it would mean a different world.

And this, ambiguity and all, is the anthropological contribution. Mead and her generation of anthropologists knew that when we study other peoples and their worlds, whether those are geographically close or far from our homes, anthropologists can uncover alternative futures in the making.

We may be 100 years out from Coming of Age in Samoa, but this is the approach to the future that we still need now. We need to be reminded that we can be different in the future because we are already different—if we only open our eyes to the possibilities.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Where's #Anthropology? Hashtag mayhem at #AAA2021Baltimore

The American Anthropological Annual Meeting has come and gone after a year hiatus. But, courtesy of the continued pandemic, it was not business as usual, and a combination of uneven face-to-face/online hybridity and a buggy app meant continued confusion throughout the conference. Adding to that confusion was the multiplication of conference hashtags, a continuing source of ambiguity that I have chronicled on this blog over the years. This year, #AAA2021Baltimore was joined by numerous, other hashtags: #AAA2021, #AAABaltimore, #AmAnth2021. Here’s a sociograph of different hashtags:

In the lower left of the graph, you can see #AAA2021Baltimore, the “official” hashtag, mostly deployed by @AmericanAnththro--accounting for the “hub and spoke” pattern of that cluster.. The largest clusters, though, belong to the AAA--that is, the Asian Artist Awards--and, in particular, the popular vote category, which generated at least 80 percent of Twitter traffic around AAA2021 (congratulations Kim Seon Ho!) in Korean, Japanese and Thai. Other hashtags referring to the Awards likewise commanded large numbers of likes and retweets, and anthropology was fairly occluded under the white-hot glare of K-Pop fans.

Here are the top Twitter accounts by “betweenness centrality”: top betweenness: starnewskorea jonah_writer unitedmongjis_ anneekarika yoonbwii gummy88888 tsukicooky fkfkfk_kfkfkf korb_blog weareoneexo yukaseon18 nuestnews jseolhee 1exoklwkn americananthro kimsoen08051986 biancaphd Wickedwitcheso1

Note that @americananthro was the only anthropology account in the top counts.

Here’s the top anthropology tweet by re-tweet counts: “Interested in reaching a wider public with your research? Join us and @SAPIENS_org on Friday in Baltimore at the @AmericanAnthro annual meeting for our public scholarship event! Looking forward to learning and sharing ideas with you! @NapaAnthro @WennerGrenOrg #aaa2021” While here’s the top tweet by “likes”: “Speaking of sanctuary spaces she has found/created within anthro, Dr. Harrison says (and I paraphrase) "If I had to depend on a department of anthropology for my sense of self, I wouldn't be an anthropologist today!" SAY. THAT. AGAIN. #AAA2021Baltimore”

In terms of the resulting network of meaning, this resulted in a AAA with a distinctly KPOP feel to it. Here’s a semantic network that classifies tweets according to otheir overall theme:

“Obfuscation” is a term that Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum have used to describe the political mobilization of hashtags and other techniques to dilute messages, hide data or otherwise re-direct people for political ends. “Obfuscation is the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection” (2015: 1). Brunton and Nissenbaum document the first instance of obfuscation in Russian attempts to quell protests over the 2011 parliamentary elections. By flooding the hashtag “#Triumfalnaya” (a Moscow public square where protests took place) with messages extolling Russian nationalism or just nonsense words, the Russian government rendered the hashtag useless as a rallying point and reference to protests resisting the Putin/Medvedev government. More recently, KPOP fans around the world have used to same technique to flood white supremacist hashtags with concert clips and KPOP news. But, here, we have the American Anthropological Association in essence obscuring itself through its dogged insistence on the “#AAA” hashtag, with AAA already a casualty of twentieth century efforts to select names that would appear first in the alphabetical yellow pages listings (AAA Bailbonds, anyone?).

Why does the AAA continue with this hashtag? I think it ultimately comes down to brand identity--in other words, placing the organization over the imperatives of its members who might use hashtags to build solidarity among anthropologists. And it also has to do with a firm misunderstanding of the way Twitter works. Events are temporal. Even though Twitter breaks the strict chronology of its feed with older tweets (“In case you missed it”), conference tweets are not going to persist more than a few days. And what is the goal? To communicate with anthropologists, or to increase the visibility of the American Anthropological Association? If it’s about anthropologists, then what about hashtags like “#Anthropology2021”? There’s no reference here to AAA at all, and the hashtag could be used by any anthropology conference. Why not? Are we afraid that this will compete with other anthropology conferences in late November? At a time when hybrid formats seem likely to persist, why not use hashtags to build links around the world to other anthropologies?


Bunton, Finn and Helen Nissenbaum (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

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.