Thin Description? Notes on the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS)

paolo-favero
Dr Paolo Favero giving his AALS lecture at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

By Matthias Teeuwen    Last AALS lecture was an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation by Dr. Paolo Favero on the myriad possibilities that emerging technologies provide to conducting ethnographic research. He talked about the implications of the use of i-docs (interactive documentaries such as Highrise), wearable camera’s (used exclusively in Leviathan), user GPS (Dr Favero gave an example of its use in Rider Spoke), and much more in ethnographic research. Here are some impressions.

With emerging technologies research becomes truly participatory. Take, for example, the exercise by which participants go about the city with GPS-systems and record what meaning places hold for them (by way of this app for example). All this data is then presented in an online map in which visual, audial, and textual material is grouped together. In this case it is no longer the ethnographer who tells the tale and gives the meaning; the participants do it, each in their own way. As a result, the researcher loses control over the meaning generated in ethnography.

The field of visual anthropology gives the impression that there is a very thin line between art and anthropology (this blog gives an interesting overview of the history of ethnographic film up to the rise of Virtual Reality). Documentary-makers use visuals to tell a story, to provoke thought and elicit emotions. In anthropology visual methods are often employed to get to a phenomenological understanding of ‘the things as they are’ (such as the film The Possibility of Spirits by prof Mattijs van de Port). Dr Favero tells us that in visual anthropology, anthropologists and documentary-makers meet.

In fact, some art opens up new spaces of anthropological inquiry. One example is the work of the artists of Blast Theory that explores the ways technology and humans interact. Dr Favero gave the example of an app they developed which simulates a relationship with a life coach. In it, a virtual person named Karen is able to contact you at any time of day in order to ask personal questions or give (unsolicited) advice. This raises interesting questions regarding the field of virtual relationships that humans can enter. What are the implications of artificial intelligence for the way humans experience relationships? How is a relationship with a virtual person different from a relationship with a real person?

One could say, and so does Dr Favero, that emerging technology makes for thin description. The question is: what does it really add to ethnography? Up till now, it seems that emerging technologies constitute a quantitative change in the way ethnographic research is done, and not so much a qualitative change. Emerging technologies can help spread anthropological knowledge (through i-docs) and they can speed up the learning process (by participative methods). Huge amounts of empirical data can easily be collected using new participative technologies and presented on the Internet. Time will tell how emerging technologies will change the way anthropology is done.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

The Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS) is a year-long event organised by the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. It involves public lectures for the academia and the wider public and it means to connect current affairs with anthropology. The series is linked to the new research theme of the department entitled ‘Mobilities, Belonging and Beliefs’ (MOBB).

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2 thoughts on “Thin Description? Notes on the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS)

  1. Peter 23/02/2017 / 14:04

    I would say the change is qualitative and it therefore has an impact on more than just the anthropological method. Any tool we use becomes part of our perception and hence will influence the way we deal with our world.

    • Matthias 25/02/2017 / 11:26

      I’m not sure Peter, might it not be that we already perceive more than we can make sense of and that emerging technology will only compound this plenitude of perception. In that case it would not lead to deeper insights (thick description) but only to broader fields of perception (thin description).

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