Another Revolution Missed: Anthropology of Cyberspace

Written by Max Forte in 2002, and published in Anthropology News 43(9) December 2002. Presented here for archival purposes:


Another Revolution Missed?  Anthropology of Cyberspace
by Maximilian C. Forte (Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink)

After conducting a survey of the top 50 US anthropology departments as ranked by NRC, Forte discovered that out of a total mass of 1,949 teaching/research staff, only 27 (1.38%) had any kind of research or teaching interest in the anthropology of cyberspace and virtual ethnography.  Similarly, out of a total of 4,881 courses listed, only 21 (0.43%) have some component that relates to the Internet.  He asks why anthropology would routinely ignore this field site, populated by almost 600 million people of all ages, classes, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, personal interests and professions.


Another Revolution Missed? Anthropology of Cyberspace

Maximilian C Forte

Goodbye to Cyberia

Why would anthropology, as a discipline, routinely ignore one particular field site? After all, this site is populated by almost 600 million people of all ages, classes, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, personal interests, and professions. This unique place has its own rules, its own cultural norms, its own educational centers, its own clubs and associations, its own economy, its own political movements, its own terrorists, its own news organizations, and yet it is totally decentralized.

There are anthropology courses on every country, region, and tribe in the world, but virtually none on Cyberia, the planet’s third most populous “nation”, and one that has the highest population growth rates of all the countries on the planet. Anthropology is still largely missing one of the biggest revolutions of the last (and this) century.

As a follow up to my last article on this subject (March 2000, AN), I decided that by conducting a survey of the top 50 anthropology departments in the US, as ranked by the NRC, we might obtain some insights into the actual extent of discipline-wide engagement with, or marginalization of, this new field of research.

Surveying Elite Marginality

Are there any anthropology courses about the social and cultural implications of cyberspace? Are there any plans for such courses? Do anthropology departments value this area of research? Would they hire new faculty specializing in this area? These are the standard questions contained in a questionnaire that I e-mailed to the heads of the top 50 anthropology departments between April and June 2002. In addition, I examined all of the departmental websites for their complete listings of courses offered, as well as the profiles of their individual teaching/research faculty.

What I found is that out of total mass of 1,949 teaching/research staff, only 27 (1.38%), had any kind of research or teaching interest in the anthropology of cyberspace and virtual ethnography. These 27 individuals were spread out over only 21 of the top 50 departments-indeed, I have re-ranked these institutions (see table) according to the resources devoted to this new subject area. Similarly, out of a total of 4,881 courses listed (a conservative figure since some departments do not list courses they offer on their websites), only 21 (0.43%) have some component that relates to the Internet. In only one of the top 21 in the table is there a course entirely devoted to the anthropology of the Internet. Moreover, there are really not more than three faculty whose sole or even main area of specialization is the Internet. In a comparative survey of the top 50 sociology departments in the US (which was not as in depth since no e-mail questionnaires were sent out), I found at least seven individuals whose main specialization concerns the sociocultural dimensions of the Internet. As shown in the table, only three of the top 50 anthropology departments have supervised theses and dissertations about the Internet. What was most interesting is that 29% of these departments explicitly rejected this research area as one of any kind of anthropological importance.

Against the Internet?

What reasons would anthropology department chairs offer for sidelining or even rejecting the anthropology of cyberspace? Commonly, chairs replied that this was a research interest already pursued by faculty in other departments. Others claimed that it was more useful, if at all, as a research interest rather than as a course offering. Doubt was expressed over whether an entire course on the subject could even be generated. While not willing to make “such a narrow specialization a necessary qualification for a job ad”, one chair promised not to hold it against a candidate if he or she did “that kind of work”. Others also thought that this area is too highly specialized, “unlinked to the dominant paradigms in sociocultural anthropology”. One chair argued that there was “no demand”. No demand from students? No, instead the chair meant “evidence for demand would be the growth of grant funds in this area and growing demand for assistant professors with these interests”. Some departments, including two that each offered more than 110 courses per academic year, claimed that they were too small to offer even one course in this field.

Contesting Convention

A third of respondents actually embraced cyber anthropology as an important new field, so the results of this survey are not entirely unambiguous. To add to their own outlooks, I wish to contest some of the reasons offered above for pushing this field aside.

It’s already done in other departments. How about nationalism, the state, globalization, history, gender, political economy, media studies? Aren’t these also done by faculty in other departments? Indeed, while anthropologists ponder or doubt whether or not anthropology has a unique contribution to make in cyberspace research, researchers in other disciplines have already begun to appropriate “ethnography”, and some anthropological traditions, in developing this new field of studies. The paradox here, amazingly, is that anthropology is not just falling behind others, it is falling behind itself.

You can’t have a whole course on the topic. The truth is a little different: you can have a whole course devoted to cyber anthropology, just not in America’s top 50 departments. As the “center” stagnates, innovation comes from the “periphery”. Entire courses about the Internet and its social and cultural effects are taught by anthropologists at the American U in Cairo, the Hebrew U of Jerusalem, Hofstra U, York U, California State U (Chico), U of Maryland, and Brandeis U, according to a sample of online syllabi on the topic collected by the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies for the 1993-2002 period. Beyond this, entire institutes are devoted to the social and cultural analysis of cyberspace, such as the Oxford Internet Institute, the Internet Studies Center at the U of Minnesota, and the Center for Internet Studies at the U of Washington.

It is a very narrow specialization. This struck me as one of the most far fetched lines of reasoning. I encountered more than one department that offered courses such as, “Jazz on Film” and the “Anthropology of Sound”-but the Internet is singled out as too specialized. In reality, if there are social-cultural anthropology courses that do not incorporate a cyber dimension (like real human actors on the ground do), then students are being short changed.

It has little relevance to the dominant paradigms in anthropology. Apart from the sadly conservative nature of the statement, the development of the Internet and its sociocultural effects is of immediate relevance to neo-liberalism, political economy, public culture, migration and diasporas, transnational communities, mass media, cultural studies, science and technology studies, semiotics, poetics, and language. One course on globalization states as its objective: “to develop an anthropological perspective on the processes through which grassroots visions of globalization are being mobilized to link different countries, regions and localities against various forms of corporate and statist globalization”. The Internet is not included in the course, in spite of the fact that some of the biggest international mobilizations of protest against neo-liberal globalism have been coordinated and orchestrated via the Internet.

Leading Departments in the Anthropology of Cyberspace, out of the Top 50