Anthropology as BIG DATA: Making the case for ethnography as a critical dimension in media and technology studies

Drawing on examples from my past and current research, I will use this talk to both respond to recent provocations (boyd and Crawford, 2011) about the role of “big data” in human communication research and technology studies and outline the value of anthropology, as a particular kind of “big data,” that warrants more attention. I will walk through what I see as the different dimensions of social inquiry that fall under the rubric of “big data” to argue for attending to different kinds of data (from the statistically to the ethnographically significant), more collaborative approaches to how we arrive at what we (think we) know, and critical analysis of the cultural assumptions embedded in the data we collect. By moving from the “snapshot” of quantitative work to the “time-lapse photography” of ethnography, I hope to persuade you that researchers, who aspire to build technologies for human communication, must imagine “big data” as an on-going process of modeling, triangulation, and critique. In short, we must be as invested in pushing open new terrain for questions as we are in finding answers about what technologies mean to people in their everyday lives.

Speaker Details

Mary L. Gray is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Culture and an affiliate faculty member of American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She draws on an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and critical media studies to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press, 2009) examined how youth in rural parts of the United States fashioned “queer” senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media—particularly internet access—played in their lives and political work.

Mary Gray