Anthropologists in a Global Village
Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.
If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).
When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):
How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?
Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.
Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.
They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.
Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.
Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.
After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.
A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:
Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world. Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’
Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.
If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.