When responding to an email last night I made the statement, “Anthropologists and our discipline are traditionally misunderstood, which is ironic in that it is our jobs to make others easier to understand.” Followed a few sentence later by, “I identify myself as an anthropologist above all else.”
After I sent my email I then pondered on those two statements. It is very true that our discipline is misunderstood. I have often had to differentiate what I do from what an archeologist does. I have also had to explain that while yes our discipline previously studied far off groups of people in newly discovered areas of the world, that is not what the majority of us do today. That said, I do have to mention that when I specify that I am a “cyber anthropologist” (aka digital anthropologist, technical anthropologist etc) people do tend to perk up and lean in to learn more about what I do.
So here I thought would be the perfect place to really describe what it is I do as an anthropologist, why it’s important, and why I – though I am also a User Experience Designer and am working toward my PhD in Information Science – identify myself as an anthropologist above all else.
What do I, as an anthropologist, do?
So – I’ll preface this with this is what I do as an anthropologist and does not necessarily reflect what everyone else in the discipline does.
The simple answer is I study culture online and online culture.
Well, what does that mean?
Studying Culture Online: I study the way different people from different parts of the world use the Internet and how just having access to it can influence cultures and communities. Examples of this include China’s firewall, South Korea’s Starcraft fans, and how civil unrest across the world unfolds in social media.
Studying Online Culture: To keep it short, I study the way people interact online including their behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. Additionally, I analyze their artifacts for trends, memes, and emerging understanding of how the Internet affects people’s lives and how people’s lives affect the Internet. Lastly, I have specified my focus on gamers and developers. However, while those are currently my preferred groups to study, I do branch out into politics, brands, and education.
Why is what I do important?
By understanding those around us we can learn from them and apply the lessons they’ve already overcome to other groups and situations that can benefit from them.
By understanding how gamers organically develop communities of practice and use open source tools to assist in communicating over geographically dispersed areas in order to successfully support their self-created and self-organized groups both in and out of in-game encounters, we can help businesses learn how to improve their communication techniques for their geographically dispersed teams in our ever increasingly global society. (You can read more about this here.)
Another example from my own work includes:
Understanding the motivation for participation in open source development communities and using that understanding to help motivate others to participate in more volunteer opportunities within their own communities.
While I could go on and on, I think these two examples help illustrate my particular research focus and how it can actually be applied to several different contexts that go far above and beyond the original groups and situations studied to help our economies and communities be more successful.
Why I identify as an anthropologist above all else?
I like to help people.
Yep, it’s as simple as that. In fact, it is that one idea that affects my entire approach to life including my other career and educational choices. This is why I identify as an anthropologist above all of the other identities I have. It completely influences absolutely everything else I do.
As a user experience designer I strive to help the people using the applications I design, the developers developing these applications, and the companies for which these applications are implemented. Yes, what I do goes that far and affects all of those groups. Being an anthropologist helps provided me with this holistic perspective as well as an ability to understand all of these groups in order to find ways to help them in the best way possible. I could not do my job if I didn’t think it was helping others and I have in fact left other jobs because I did not feel that the work I was doing had a positive enough effect on those it touched.
As a PhD student in information science I strive to find ways to make information easier to access, understand, and share. In the end, it’s not about the information itself, but those who use it and how it and the ways it can be used can better the lives of those users. My specific focus within my course of study is human computer interaction. It is the human part of that, that makes all of the difference.
So there you go! This is really just a very small glimpse into what I do and why I do it. I am posting it here in hopes of making my discipline a little easier to understand. My intent was to also how the work I do, though it may seem somewhat inconsequential as it focuses on things like gaming, actually can be applied to groups and situations that can have a far reaching impact on our communities and economies.
I love what I do and I am thankful every day that I have an opportunity to do it.