The Future of Technology and the Future of Anthropological Field Work

“You don’t want to be seen with such a high-tech device when you meet local people and talk to informants” said the faculty. Our conversation had begun with the iPad, and we were contemplating if it was feasible to take the device to do field research this summer. The concern is certainly valid. Yet without doubt, we are subjected to a constant flow of new gadgets and technologies that continue to emerge and become part of the researchers’ as well as the informants’ lives. Surely, they must affect the landscape of anthropological fieldwork. But how?

Digital tools can increase efficiency. Online questionnaires, for example, have relatively low cost, and allow for fast and if necessary large volume data processing. Recorded interviews provide more detail than written notes. Increasingly smaller and mobile devices can become part of the interview. For example, it is possible to pull up Google Earth on the iPhone and point out particular locations. Ethnographers have begun to make use of online or social networking sites as tools to conduct research. Blogs have been described as democratizing force in the ethnographic process that scrutinizes researchers.

This, of course, has its flip sides. Arguments have been made, like the faculty’s remark above, that technology distances the ethnographer from the informant. “A few years ago I was excited about the possibility to take large amounts of digital pictures in the field. Then I realized how impossible it was to manage thousands of photos” is what another faculty mentioned to me. And aside from those rather practical considerations, we should also expect qualitative consequences for anthropological field research.

However, new digital technologies not only offer new tools for the way fieldwork can be conducted. Technologies also become to varying degrees part of societies and cultures. This has two major consequences: (1) digital artifacts can enter as objects of research and (2) online environments are potential sites for field research. Both equally affect the researcher and the informant. Where then, do those developments meet the challenges of anthropological field research?

Anthropological field research, at its core, is about interaction with people. In the 80ies, one of the critical debates drew attention to the authority of the researcher. Digital technologies have the potential to empower informants, participatory mapping is an example, as is the use of blogs mentioned above. And increasingly, the researcher also needs to understand the technologies informants use. Others issues include: how to collect information, how to show different perspectives and do so in multiple languages, how to create an immersive experience of a culture or a place, or how to facilitate interactions with and within communities.

If we envision today’s undergraduate students, growing up as facebook generation, conduct research as senior anthropology professors, that’s what we should probably think about.

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