In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnography Apps and Games

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Future

Anthropology Ethnography Apps and Games
Samuel Gerald Collins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0230


Although there are numerous precedents in the history of anthropology, the presence of apps and games in ethnography has been a relatively recent development in the field. This essay looks to contemporary examples of apps and games in ethnographic methods and ethnographic dissemination, and contextualizes their growth in that of multimedia and multimodal anthropology. Their inclusion in the ethnographic process reflects a realization that traditional forms of public dissemination (articles, books, and films) may not be the only way to engage anthropological publics, both in the field and in the classroom. In this way, they suggest powerful alternatives to other media structured along asymmetrical relationships between anthropologists and their interlocutors. Accordingly, this essay looks to both the possibilities and pitfalls of apps and games for emergent anthropologies.

General Overviews

Anthropologists have been relatively quick to incorporate new technologies into their research. Film, photography, and sound recordings have been part of the field from its inception. As Stocking 1992 explains, early ethnographic work such as the Torres Straits expedition (1898) utilized multiple media—including sound, film, photography, “magic lanterns,” and drawings—both to record data and to disseminate that data among audiences in the field and in England. Similarly, Clifford 1988 and Sullivan 1999 demonstrate how Marcel Griaule’s 1931 Dakar-Djibouti mission as well as Margaret Mead’s and Gregory Bateson’s fieldwork in Bali were steeped in multimedia. Mobile apps had a similar fate in the field: anthropologists have readily adopted a number of apps into their work, and it would not be too much to suggest that fieldwork as we know it today would not be possible without the smartphone. That said, anthropologists have been less reflective about what these technologies mean for anthropological research. The situation seems very nearly opposite with games. From the beginning, games have been part of the anthropologist’s purview. For example, E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) each introduce multiple examples of games in order to explain magic, religion, and child development, among other things. Today, the explosive growth in digital media has made games even more prominent. These changes have meant new areas of research. Games studies is now a prominent subfield in cultural anthropology, and anthropologists publish regularly in games studies journals, including Games Studies, Games and Culture and many others. But the notion of adopting games (in whatever platform) into anthropological methods has been slower to catch on. Famously, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson designed a “Democracies and Dictators” card game in 1940 in order to help foster more democratic ideals in a world overtaken by autocracy and fascism. Ultimately, their game was never published, and anthropologists seem to have abandoned the game as a form of anthropological dissemination until the 1990s. Yet, if the lives of people with whom we study are bound up with digital apps and games, then we also have a responsibility to engage them through these media. In the same way that anthropologists have turned to blogs to reach a public unlikely to pick up the monographs and the paywalled journal articles that make up the usual forms of anthropological dissemination, so do anthropologists need to consider other platforms for their anthropological work (Stoller 2018). Accordingly, this essay will engage these possibilities for anthropological methods and for dissemination and public anthropology more than apps and games as objects of anthropological inquiry.

  • Clifford, James. 1988. The predicament of culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvjf9x0h

    This collection of essays played a pivotal (and controversial) role in establishing “the postmodern” in anthropology. For Clifford, this meant reflecting on anthropology’s under-appreciated affinities with surrealism, literature, and painting.

  • Frazer, James George. 1890. The golden bough. London: Macmillan

    Frazer’s kaleidoscope of vaguely documented rituals and artifacts was an inspiration to 20th-century surrealists, but there are a surprising number of games in the work which are used to illustrate magic and religion.

  • Games and Culture.

    An interdisciplinary journal of game studies, the journal contextualizes games in political economy and identity.

  • Games Studies.

    An open-access, interdisciplinary journal covering all elements of games and game culture, Games Studies covers a robust, cultural studies of games.

  • Powdermake, Hortense. 1950. Hollywood, the dream factory. Hollywood, CA: Little, Brown.

    Powdermaker’s study of film production in Hollywood was a landmark in both what was to be called “production studies” in cultural studies as well as in “repatriating” anthropology.

  • Stocking, George. 1992. The ethnographer’s magic and other essays in the history of anthropology. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    As the pre-eminent historian of anthropology, George Stocking’s essays develop an understanding of developments in anthropological methods and theories. He also gestures to various untapped potentials in anthropological history that inform our understanding of new possibilities today.

  • Stoller, Paul. 2018. Adventures in blogging. Buffalo, NY: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    This book is an anthology of blog posts Stoller wrote for the Huffington Post, from 2011 to the Trump era. It’s a great introduction to this variant of public anthropology and testament to Stoller’s capacity to engage a general audience about anthropological issues.

  • Sullivan, Gerald. 1999. Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and highland Bali. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Sullivan analyzes the huge photographic archive amassed by the two anthropologists during their joint fieldwork in Bali.

  • Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1871. Primitive culture. Vols. 1–2. London: John Murray.

    Tylor’s broadly comparative ethnology is rejected today as a relic of anthropology’s colonial past, but anthropologists (however critically) still engage his thoughts on animism and magic.

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