Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Coming to Terms with Networked Anthropology

Samuel Gerald Collins
Matthew Slover Durington

It’s happening on your campus now—students in your classes are uploading media about their varied ethnographic projects. Sometimes these photos, films, audio and text end up on blogs, YouTube and Flickr accounts. Some of it ends up on Facebook. Search YouTube for “ethnographic interview,” and marvel (and shudder) at the vast array of student interviews that have been uploaded. But why take student projects seriously? Because it’s not just our students who tweet and update their Facebook pages; the communities with whom we work are networked as never before. Like so many, numerous student goals for the future are tied to their investment in social media.

To us, this looks more and more like the emergence of a different kind of anthropology. It’s where the academy meets the community, not in the style of the well-choreographed, collaborative anthropology that is one of the triumphs of applied anthropology, but something altogether messier: a networked anthropology. What is a networked anthropology? An anthropology undertaken in the age of multimedia social networks, one in which all of the stakeholders—ethnographers, interlocutors, community, audience—are all networked together in various (albeit powerful and unequal) ways.

Networked anthropology generates ethnographic data in multiple media. Here it overlaps with similar advances in different subdisciplines, including visual anthropology, public anthropology and action research. The difference is that a networked anthropology produces data that is simultaneously media to be appropriated and utilized by the communities with whom anthropologists work in order to connect to others (other communities, potential grantors, friends and family). And the opposite is also true—anthropologists are only generating data for their research in the space of their engaged commitments to communities to assist in their efforts to network to different audiences. We firmly believe that a networked anthropology is not appropriate for many fieldsites anthropologists might encounter. But whether or not we engage it as a distinct methodology, networked anthropology is lurching forward with or without us—with students and para-ethnographers stepping in to represent communities, and people in communities stepping in to represent themselves.

Piloting Networked Anthropology in South Baltimore

Several years ago, we became interested in the possibilities and problems of a networked anthropology, largely through the interests of the communities in which we work. Since the fall of 2006 we have worked collaboratively with members of the South Baltimore community of Sharp Leadenhall on a variety of projects. This historic African American community has undergone a series of urban renewal processes that have decreased its population and socioeconomic standing in a fashion unfortunately reminiscent of many urban centers throughout the United States since World War II and continuing in the 21st century. Throughout, we have tried to have student researchers participate alongside us throughout the fieldwork process, with the ultimate goal of producing tangible outcomes for community members in the form of archive creations, volunteer opportunities, entrepreneurial endeavors and multi -media creation.

While there have been inevitable hiccups along the way, the effect on both community members and students has been positive following a principle of debt incurred. One fieldwork moment and eventual ethnographic epiphany came during the fall of 2009 while university students interviewed and worked alongside community members at a concession stand operation mutually created in partnership to benefit different youth programs in Sharp Leadenhall. While all consent and IRB processes were followed by students in their interviews, we were taken aback when students and community members began “friending” each other and field research spilled over into shared media on Facebook and YouTube. Although not part of our initial research design, we nevertheless decided that these unintended networks were entirely appropriate as they were generated by the excitement of collaborative fieldwork and civic engagement. But we needed to re-frame our methodological and ethical considerations to include these networks.

Certain communities and fieldsites such as our collaborative work with the Sharp Leadenhall community are amenable to a networked anthropology such as this. For others, the networked sharing implied in this method may be entirely inappropriate. It works best when reciprocal sharing is at the heart of the relationship: anthropologists would like to generate ethnographic data using a variety of multimedia tools, while interlocutors would like to appropriate multimedia for their own purposes.

Next Steps for Networked Anthropology

Anthropology by the Wire

A screenshot of the Tumblr blog for our networked anthropology project, “Anthropology by the Wire” (anthropologybythewire.com). Image courtesy Samuel Gerald Collins

As we undertake other collaborations, we have been guided by our previous efforts, and we have worked to cultivate relationships with groups who hold similar interests in networked content. One of the current collaborations we are pursuing originates in our National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant entitled “Anthropology by the Wire.”

Anthropology by the Wire places students in a number of collaborative research possibilities with residents of Baltimore. One of these has been to document the impact of a program entitled “City Uprising” sponsored by the JACQUES Initiative to expand free HIV testing at multiple sites throughout the city. The role of student researchers and videographers is to work alongside clinicians, counselors and other volunteers to document the life histories of staff, volunteers and individuals facing or dealing with a possible change in status due to testing. These testimonies are compelling and are key to JACQUES’s mission in the community; producing multimedia around them is an important step in their efforts to attract volunteers and support. As our relationship with JACQUES continues to evolve, we hope to provide regular support for their outreach efforts and to eventually sign an MOU cementing that relationship.

But for this kind of network anthropology to work, IRBs had to be filed at different institutions, and multiple consent protocols followed. But, what if similar kinds of life story testimony had spontaneously emerged between students and residents in Sharp Leadenhall at a football concession stand? Our collaboration with the JACQUES initiative presents a host of methodological and ethical concerns that we need to continuously interrogate.

Lessons for the Future

Network graph of Anthropology by the Wire City Uprising video (in red) showing its modest connectedness (by degree and by centrality) to other video content documenting City Uprising. Image courtesy Samuel Gerald Collins

Anthropologists have always known that people agree to ethnographic research for a variety of reasons, and that these reasons might shift over time. Multimedia anthropologies enjoin projects made up of an assemblage of different interests: community self-identity, communication to different constituencies, building up a profile in order to secure grants and donations. In addition, all kinds of audiences may be consuming these media on social media sites for their own purposes, and these become an oftentimes highly visible form of secondary production.

Networked anthropology engages groups of people and communities that are already savvy producers of media, and that already have structures in place for self-representation. As in any ethnographic research, networked anthropology demands an ongoing process of informed consent, but the communities involved in multimedia anthropology may already have robust (though perhaps misinformed) ideas about how their goals might be advanced through social media.

Unlike traditional, text-based production, networked multimedia continues to multiply and mutate even after the anthropologists have packed up their iPads and gone home. Once materials go online, the networked life of those materials cannot be predicted, although it can be channeled. Careful metadata descriptors, narrative descriptions and creative-commons licensing at least work to constrain future appropriations.

Despite its pretensions to large-scale universality, most web 2.0 applications are not viewed by millions; the vast majority of web 2.0 content circulates among small-scale networks of users, and that’s fine with us. In fact, this is one of the characteristics that separates networked anthropology from the work of marketers and publicists; the point is to make useful connections and build a network of interested parties around a specific project or a series of local issues. And this is an ongoing process. Multimedia anthropologists are really building institutional commitments with communities: networked commitments with multiplying nodes and edges.

Samuel Collins is professor of anthropology at Towson University. He researches information society and information and communication technologies in the US and South Korea. His present work examines the urban as the confluence of people and social media.

Matthew Durington is an associate professor of anthropology and director of international studies at Towson University. He specializes in visual and urban anthropology with research on indigenous land rights, race, housing and other issues in both Southern Africa and the United States. 

Copyright 2012 American Anthropological Association, originally published on Anthrosource.

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