Heather Horst and Daniel Miller (Eds.)
(Berg Publishers, 2012) 328pp. £17.99. ISBN-13: 978-0857852908
Reviewer: Mona Abdel-Fadil
Fafo Institute for Applied International Research
‘The digital, as all material culture, is more than a substrate; it is becoming a constitutive part of what makes us human.’ (Horst and Miller, p.3)
Digital Anthropology edited by Heather Horst and Daniel Miller is divided into five parts: Introduction, Positioning Digital Anthropology, Socializing Digital Anthropology, Politicizing Digital Anthropology, and Designing Digital Anthropology. The term ‘digital anthropology’ features in the titles of all sections of the book. The most pressing question in terms of a volume like this, then, is whether a reader can expect to understand what ‘digital anthropology’ is by reading this book. In my opinion the answer is yes – and no. Reading this anthology led me to reflect on anthropology, on studying the digital and indeed on anthologies in general.
It has always struck me as both admirable and disquieting that many anthropologists are so quick to dub their particular form of study as ‘an anthropology of’ something. It is admirable, in my view, that scholars try to specialize in particular subfields of anthropology. When studying the particular, as most anthropologists do, it might be an immense bonus to immerse oneself in a specific theoretical and perhaps even methodological framework suited for this particular object of study. That said, there is also a danger that the label remains a catchy phrase with little theory or methodology to back it up, at its worst making this ‘anthropology of so-and-so’ non-applicable and less than useful to other scholars seeking to conduct a study within the same sub field.
So, just what is ‘digital anthropology’? Is it something distinct? And – more importantly – what does ‘digital anthropology’ bring to the table in terms of added theoretical or methodological value for those who want to conduct studies of the digital?
The introduction entitled ‘The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology’ by the editors Horst and Miller is, I believe, one of the most interesting contributions to the volume. ‘Digital’ is defined as:
that which can be ultimately reduced to a binary code but which produces a further proliferation of particularity and difference. The dialectic refers to the relationship between growth in universality and particularity and the intrinsic connections between their positive and negative effects. (p.3)
This may well be poetry to the eyes of some. For me, however, it is a bit difficult to grasp. A ‘hands on’ definition of what kind of cultural products are considered ‘digital’, and how the anthropological study of these can be considered ‘digital anthropology’ – and why – could perhaps serve as a better starting point for the discussion of ‘dialectics between universality and particularity’. Still, the six principles of digital anthropology introduced in this chapter hold potential:
1) ‘the digital intensifies the dialectical nature of culture’
2) ‘humanity is not one iota more mediated by the rise of the digital’
3) ‘commitment to holism… the anthropologist focuses upon life as lived and all the all the mess of relevant factors that comes with that’
4) reassertion of ‘the importance of cultural relativism and the global nature of our encounter with the digital, negating assumptions that the digital is necessarily homogenizing and giving voice and visibility to those who are peripheralized by modernist and similar perspectives’
5) ‘the essential ambiguity of digital culture with regard to its increasing openness and closure’
6) ‘the materiality of digital worlds, which are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them’
Several of these principles reflect general anthropological insights and approaches to the phenomena studied. It is true that these insights might be quite unique to anthropology. The conceptualization as the digital being ‘not one iota more mediated’ than any other cultural phenomenon is indeed a point that has often been overlooked by non-anthropologists. Still, this is not a handbook of digital anthropology, i.e. it is not a guide on how to do digital anthropology. Instead, the various chapters provide somewhat of an epistemological exploration of the concept of ‘digital anthropology’, with reference to a handful of digital ethnographies from around the globe. I am quite certain that aspiring digital anthropologists would benefit from attempting to engage with Horst and Miller’s six principles. I believe these six principles can be further developed, empirically studied and theorized in future anthropological studies. I wish that such a discussion could have been a more integral part of the book. A couple of the chapters do feature good discussions of just what digital anthropology is, how it can be defined, utilized and practised, but references to the six principles are only made in passing.
One of the recurrent themes is the observation that many scholars who label their work as ‘digital ethnography’ in fact only conduct a few interviews and swish in and out of the field in a matter of weeks, days or even hours. This is in stark contrast to anthropologists’ longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork, which entails a much longer and more holistic level of research commitment, where even a year of fieldwork is considered a bit on the short side. Still, this is not a novel point applying only to digital anthropology. Critique of the misuse of the terms ‘ethnography’ and ‘ethnographic’ surfaces in discussions of the methodologies of many forms of qualitative study, digital or not.
Studying the digital
Discussion of the dystopian vs. utopian approach to all things digital is blissfully absent from nearly all contributions. Moreover, several of the authors have interesting and promising theoretical contributions to make to the study of the digital.
One of the more ambitious claims of this subfield is that without digital anthropology we will only get ‘descriptions of change’ from scholars trained in other disciplines. The strength of anthropology is that it is founded on the empirical study of something very particular, yet aims to develop theories about human existence (Boellstroff, ch. 2). This book argues that this is a most suitable framework for studying the ways in which digital media are incorporated into our lives. The method of ethnography is designed for the study of this kind of complex subject. Indeed, many of the chapters demonstrate that one of the strengths of a digital anthropology may lie in theorizing and developing concepts that can better describe and analyze humans’ complex interaction with digital worlds. John Postill, for example, suggests that the notion of ‘field’ may assist in making sense of a ‘set of social relations and practices that… are inextricably entangled with digital technologies’ (ch. 8, p. 171). In a humorous fashion, Postill argues that sociologists so far have only come up with two terms, ‘communities and networks’, a highly inadequate framework:
the vast diversity of social and political formations found among humans –ranging from predigital nuclear families, associations and organizations at one end of the spectrum to digital-era formations such as Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and mobile phone contacts at the other – can hardly be captured with two terms. This is akin to expecting that a team of biologists embarking on a survey of Amazonian biodiversity make do with the terms plant and animal (p.178).
Boellstorff also argues that the digital is astonishingly under-theorized (ch. 3). He provides a compelling deconstruction of the scholarly notion that ‘the virtual and actual are fusing into a single domain’, which he finds to be ludicrous (p. 40). The deconstruction of this postulate is a most welcome enterprise, as it has dominated a wave of studies.
While I immensely enjoyed reading many of the chapters in this book, I found myself wondering why these particular chapters were put together into one book. This is a problem I often have with anthologies. I often feel a lack of a coherent whole. In this particular case, I believe that the six principles of digital anthropology introduced in the introduction by the editors could have been used more actively in the rest of the book, to draw chapters together, to structure the whole, and to demonstrate the applicability of the principles. Indeed, a more explicit and continuous discussion of the six principles could have functioned as a sounding board for further reflection on the merits and perils of this proposed sub discipline of anthropology. This might have left the reader with a stronger impression of just what ‘digital anthropology’ is. As it stands, perhaps digital anthropology’s greatest contribution lies in considering the digital as ‘a constitutive part of what makes us human’.