In This Article Digital Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Early Work
  • Edited Volumes
  • Review Essays
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Methodology
  • Ethics
  • Social Network Websites
  • Mobile Devices
  • Online Socialities
  • Games and Play
  • Communication and Language
  • Social Organization
  • Non-Western Contexts
  • Design, Activism, Hackers, and Piracy
  • Governance
  • Economics and Labor
  • Sexuality and Emotion
  • Youth and Education
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Medicine, Embodiment, and Disability

Anthropology Digital Anthropology
by
Tom Boellstorff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0087

Introduction

Digital anthropology is an emerging field focused on the Internet-related transformations that make possible a whole array of new social phenomena (including, notably, Oxford Bibliographies Online). Research in this exciting domain demonstrates anthropology’s relevance and provides valuable perspectives regarding the relationship between technology and culture. As currently used, “digital anthropology” overlaps with terms such as “virtual anthropology” and is in conversation with other fields, including media anthropology and the anthropology of science and technology. Digital anthropologists draw mostly from sociocultural anthropology; there is some influence from linguistic anthropology but little thus far from archaeology or physical anthropology. As befits a young field, it is profoundly interdisciplinary, shaped by conversations with a range of disciplines including (but not limited to) art history, communications, design, informatics, media studies, museum studies, and sociology. Indeed, many of the scholars cited here would not describe themselves as digital anthropologists, nor would they always be seen as such by others. This article emphasizes ethnographic research and does not include primarily quantitative, literary, historical, or philosophical scholarship. It includes older work (which, in the case of a young field such as this, means “before 2000”). Many of the cited works could have appeared under multiple headings, and the listing of the topics is heuristic. The goal is to provide an initial examination of some key themes and works in the still-nascent domain of digital anthropology, for almost any future fieldwork project will involve studying persons who use digital technologies in their everyday lives. Additionally, anthropologists increasingly recognize the importance of attending to online cultural contexts that cannot be simply extrapolated from physical-world socialities. Throughout the history of anthropology, scholars have produced valuable insights based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in small-scale societies, sometimes with only a few hundred members. There is much to learn from the study of smaller online social networks as well as larger ones. Particularly in an era where “big data” can make quantitative methods appear to have a privileged vantage, digital anthropological work can offer simultaneously detailed and expansive studies with an attention to novel and consequential logics of selfhood and culture.

Early Work

Because digital anthropology is a relatively new domain of study, it is particularly important to take its history into account. Of course much of that history extends and predates the digital, including work on pre-Internet technologies as well as scholarship on embodiment, exchange, games, mass media, and a range of other topics. This section focuses on key early research on digital socialities. Given that this work was published before 2000, the notion of “early” is obviously relative (additional examples of earlier work appear in other sections of this bibliography). Several important early works were produced not by professional anthropologists but by journalists and designers of online environments. Taken as a whole, this early work addresses themes of enduring interest, including Communication and Language (Cherny 1999), Social Organization (Curtis 1997, Damer 1998, Dibbell 1998, Morningstar and Farmer 2008), Medicine, Embodiment, and Disability (Stone 1995), Methodology (Paccagnella 1997), identity (Turkle 1995), and infrastructure (Star 1999).

  • Cherny, Lynn. 1999. Conversation and community: Chat in a virtual world. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cherny’s ethnography of ElseMOO is an early example of studying online socialities “in their own terms,” in that she did not attempt to interview any of her informants offline (p. 307). Cherny focuses on questions of turn-taking and register, making this an early study of communication and language online.

  • Curtis, Pavel. 1997. Mudding: Social phenomena in text-based virtual realities. In Culture of the Internet. Edited by Sara Kiesler, 121–142. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    Curtis was the key designer and manager of LambdaMOO, one of the most influential text-based virtual worlds, which first went online in 1991. Originally published in 1992, this overview of LambdaMOO is remarkably insightful, noting emergent online social conventions that scholars continue to explore in virtual worlds and beyond.

  • Damer, Bruce. 1998. Avatars! Exploring and building virtual worlds on the Internet. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit.

    E-mail Citation »

    Damer’s study includes everything from theoretical analyses to how-to guides for building virtual worlds; the book even included a CD-ROM with software that readers could install on their computers to enter a range of virtual worlds. As its title suggests, special attention is paid to questions of avatars, representation, and embodiment.

  • Dibbell, Julian. 1998. My tiny life: Crime and passion in a virtual world. New York: Henry Holt.

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    Dibbell provides a detailed and influential study of the text-only virtual world LambdaMOO, including the chapter “A Rape in Cyberspace” (pp. 11–32), an early account of antisocial behavior in a virtual world context. He also explores a range of ethnographic topics, including community, trust, desire, and economics.

  • Morningstar, Chip, and F. Randall Farmer. 2008. The lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1.1: 1–21.

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    Launched in 1985, Habitat is generally considered the first online graphical virtual world. In this article, first published in 1991, its creators provide a prescient analysis of the cultural norms that took form in Habitat, norms that continue to shape digital culture in the broadest sense.

  • Paccagnella, Luciano. 1997. Getting the seats of your pants dirty: A methodology for ethnographic research on virtual communities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3.1.

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    Drawing on ethnographic research of an Italian-language virtual community based in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), this early discussion of methods for online ethnographic research addresses a range of enduring issues, including questions of context, ethics, and participation.

  • Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. The ethnography of infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43.3: 377–391.

    DOI: 10.1177/00027649921955326E-mail Citation »

    Star’s ethnographic exploration of questions of infrastructure has had a significant influence on a range of digital anthropological work. In the context of digital anthropology, infrastructure represents one key aspect of the often unspoken background of everyday sociality and has ramifications for governance, political economy, and power. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. 1995. The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Stone’s important early study of life online pays particular attention to questions of embodiment, as well as sexuality and emotion. Issues of intimacy and social experience are also central to the analysis.

  • Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book brings together ethnographic and psychological methods to provide an influential early examination of how selfhood is shaped by engagements with the online. There is a particular focus on how the “interface” shapes how persons experience social contexts on the Internet.

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