Electronic archives and technology in anthropological research
The occasion for writing this piece was the editorial labour in preparing an online version of BICA The Bulletin of Information on Computing in Anthropology
which is now available on the Internet.1
The original BICA was a pioneering serial,2
edited by John Davis, which appeared intermittently from 1984 to 1988. Its early editions are of continuing interest for a variety of reasons, as attested by the citation of its articles in mainstream journals.
BICA was originally published on a more or less samizdat
basis. It was not sold, but distributed to about 500 subscribers. Its primary purpose was to promote the use of technology in anthropological research. Topics ranged from discussions of the use of expert systems to elucidate marriage patterns and musical improvisations, to the general problems of using computers in the field (the importance of peanut butter as a means of extracting pests from within a computer is not to be overlooked).
The early issues of BICA date from the beginning of the current phase of computing in anthropology. Although they are a reminder of the technological progress which has been made since the 1980s, they serve also to underline the extent to which some fields of anthropology remain marginalized. Consider the position of sound-recording and visual anthropology. These technologies have been used from the earliest days of anthropological fieldwork, but their importance has not been generally recognized. There is an odd stasis in reviews of anthropological technology. Polunin's summary of the state of visual anthropology in 1970 could serve for computing in the 1990s3
. In the future, it is to be hoped that sound and visual records will be treated as primary, rather than secondary, data, and computers one of the means for helping in its analysis. This aim is reflected in the work being undertaken at Manchester's Grenada Centre, and also forms one of the themes of Morphy's 1993 Malinowski lecture (published in 1994). I do not think it too fanciful to draw a parallel between the status of computing in anthropology today and that of photography and film in the early 1960s. Technological developments of devices such as small portable cameras and, most importantly, the portable cassette recorder have radical implications for the conduct of anthroplogical research, although this is rarely discussed in print.
Computer technology now easily available facilitates the publication and dissemination of visual and aural data on a scale not previously possible. Sounds and images can be transmitted on the Internet or on disc as freely as text. However, computers can do far more than transmitting sounds and images.
Electronic mail aside, there is a valid and irreplaceable role for computers in anthropology. Computers, despite what has been claimed for them, do not provide new answers to new questions. They can, though, enable answers to old questions by achieving tasks which were previously impossible in practice because the amount of labour involved (for example, number-crunching, or the production of dictionaries and concordances). In addition, computer-assisted techniques promote intellectual and logical rigour: they make us re-examine our premises. This is not to say that vague or ill-defined premises should never be used in research, but that when they are they should be recognized as such.
There is a good argument that the results of visual and computer-assisted anthropological research should be available in mainstream anthropology journals. A prime example is the work of Eugene Hammell, a pioneer since the 1960s of the use of computer models in demographic simulation. However, in practice little other research of this nature has been so prominently published.
The major advantage of the Internet, on the other hand, is that it makes possible the distribution of material which would not be accepted by mainstream publishers. Dissemination can be made, to the world-wide community of anthropologists and other consumers of anthropology, of information which complements research results published conventionally. It provides a means to distribute research data that mainstream publishers deem financially non-viable, and a way in which colleagues can read and comment on drafts of work-in-progress (which may later be published conventionally). Some examples illustrate the point: among papers of the late Edwin Ardener is a Bakweri dictionary on file cards. There is still little data available on this Cameroonian language, and it is only becoming available to researchers with the help of St John's College, Oxford: the file cards are now being typed up (using a phonetic font) for electronic distribution. Another anthropological researcher, in collaboration with a linguist, has been able to prepare and circulate a draft dictionary of Chamba. The easy interchange of information which is achieved by the use of computers means that anthropologists are better able to help colleagues such as linguists, and vice versa. Versions of papers are made available on the 'Language and Culture' online archive. A review is posted and this is followed by an email discussion of the paper in question.
It is hoped that examples of electronic publication such as BICA, will be followed by other researchers who have material that is potentially of interest to others in the world-wide community of anthropologists and the readers of their work.
Morphy, H. 1994. The Interpretation Of Ritual - Reflections from Film on Anthropological Practice (The 1993 Malinowski lecture). Man
Polunin, I. 1970. Visual and sound recording apparatus in ethnographic fieldwork. Current Anthropology
Rowe, J.H. 1953. Technical Aids in Anthropology: A Historical Summary. In Anthropology today: an encyclopedic inventory
(ed.) A.L. Kroeber. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thieme, F.P. 1951. The use of IBM machines in analyzing anthropological data. In Essays on archaeological methods. Proceedings of a Conference Held under the Auspices of the Viking Fund
(ed.) J.B. Griffin. Anthropological Papers no. 8. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.
Comments on this are welcome