Her blog’s tagline states: When life hands you lemons and two degrees that no one understands, apparently you go get a doctorate.
We’ll say. Because when we think of the Wolfram language, programming obstacles or contributions, or rants against evil software giants, the word anthropology never crossed our minds. But that may be about to change.
Enter anthropologist and web developer Angela VandenBroek, a PhD student in the anthropology program at Binghamton University, State University of New York. As a web developer, she received an Association of College & Research Libraries award with Sigrid Kelsey for their work in developing dynamic research guides using Delicious. As a web-developing anthropologist, she has presented for the American Anthropological Association and at Theorizing the Web. In those and in her blog, How to be an Anthropologist, Angela tackles topics that not only deal with anthropology – and with modern issues in web interaction & development – but that highlight an intriguing, revealing, and deeply-rooted intersection between fields that, come to find out, are anything but disparate.
Read on for our interview with Angela, as we attempt to learn more about her research, learned insights, and the motivations driving her anthropological work.
Oh, and a really good definition of anthropology.
How to be an Anthropologist Visit the Blog | View in ACI
ACI Interview with Angela VandenBroek
What interests or experiences made you choose anthropology, both initially for your undergraduate major, and then later on for your life’s work?
I had this amazing social studies teacher in sixth grade, Mr. Tim McCastle, who sparked my fascination with history and culture. It was the first time that I had been introduced to ancient culture and, as a kid, I remember feeling almost dizzy thinking about the diversity and richness of culture that extended into the past and across the globe. It was a humbling moment to realize how small my life was in relation to human history and how much there was out there to be learned about it. While writing a research report on Ancient Egypt for Mr. McCastle’s class, I discovered that there were people who spent their lives studying and searching for this past. After that, I went home and told my mother I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. Being the amazing mom that she is, she told me to go for it.
In high school and college, I was lucky to have great mentors that fostered my interests. Mr. Dennis Ferry, my high school history teacher, made past and present culture something that was more than figures, dates, and geographic locations. He taught his students to think relativistically and with respect for other ways of living in the past and present. He was personally fascinated by the innovation and diversity of people and he passed that fascination on to his students with a smart pedagogical gimmick.
In every unit we covered, he highlighted something we could all relate to (and as teenagers would find entertaining) that also demonstrated the diversity of the human experience: how people pooped cross-culturally. It was Mr. Ferry that introduced me to the field of anthropology and guided me toward it as a college major. I declared my major as anthropology on my first day of college at Grand Valley State University. Under the guidance of Dr. Jan Brashler, I gained archaeology experience in the classroom and in the field. However, she also gave me a deep appreciation for our holistic field that also included biological anthropology, linguistics and cultural anthropology.
During my master’s program at the University of Southern Mississippi, I continued working in bioarchaeology under Dr. Marie Danforth and Dr. Ed Jackson. However, my interests had begun to shift to contemporary culture and the lure of ethnography overtook my desire to dig in the dirt before the end of that first semester. Under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Kaufmann, I changed my sub-field to sociocultural anthropology. After my MA, I combined a longtime hobby with anthropology to build a career in information technologies making websites based on anthropological theory and using ethnographic methods. This seven year sojourn turned into a set of ethnographic questions about the nature of the Internet, the people that make it, and the discourse surrounding the way we talk about it. Dr. Douglas Holmes at Binghamton University saw a dissertation project among these questions and accepted me as his PhD student at Binghamton University, which is where I am now.
The “degrees that no one understands” part of your tagline surely resonates with those both in and outside that discipline. First, there’s getting over the tendency to think of anthropology in terms of prehistory or early history, and then, even if you accomplish that, being able to really distinguish it from other disciplines that seem similar, such as sociology. Can you help define anthropology for non-anthropologists who are still a little stuck?
The textbook definition of anthropology is usually something along the lines of “the study of people at all times and places, including their culture, biology, language, and their material environments.” However, I don’t think that gives much clarity on the matter. It does, at least, exclude some common perceptions that we study insects (entomology) or dig for dinosaurs (paleontology). The idea that anthropology is the study of people, though, is still maddeningly broad. Maddening for people outside of the discipline trying to understand it and for anthropologists trying to explain it.
I find it more useful to think about anthropology—and differentiate it from similar disciplines like sociology—by defining how we think rather than what we think about. Anthropology isn’t just a collection of knowledge about people, it is a set of well honed tools for thinking through that knowledge. Becoming an anthropologist means learning to wield those tools through the careful study of how those tools were created and how they have been used by your forebearers.
American anthropology consists of four subfields: sociocultural anthropology (culture and society), archaeology (material culture), biological anthropology (human biology and evolution), and anthropological linguistics (language). Anthropologists are taught to see humans as acting through a complex mixture of these aspects of the human experience. So that no matter what subfield you specialize in, you have been educated in all four and generally approach scholarly problems through this lens of holism.
While anthropology’s past often focused on categorizing and generalizing human culture, contemporary anthropology has through great effort and debate become a discipline that excels at thinking with complexity and nuance. Much of popular discourse is focused on understanding human experience through the formula X people believe/do/are Y. Anthropology unbalances this by not only acknowledging complexity but building theory and knowledge about human experience from a place where complexity is the subject rather than an obstacle to reaching the subject.
For me, these are the things that make anthropology the field that it is whether we study hominids, hunter-gatherers, or web developers.
Is there anything about being a PhD student that you didn’t expect beforehand, like any worries that turned out to be unfounded, or advice you wish you’d received?
Having already completed my master’s degree many years earlier, I was actually pretty well prepared for life in graduate school and in a lot of ways my experience is quite atypical in anthropology. One important bit of advice, however, is that it is never too early to start building your network. One of the most rewarding parts of my experience so far has been building a network of scholars and professionals that are doing similar work. Being engaged in online communities, attending conferences, and getting involved in associations have been tremendously helpful for understanding current work, finding collaborators, and working through ideas.
Your work on perceptions of web development & developers is fascinating, and would surely be really appreciated by those groups. Have you found some blogging or social media activities to be more effective than others in reaching those in other disciplines, like those non-anthropology-studying web developers?
I started blogging to think through some of the ideas I had relating to anthropology and web development while I was still working in IT. Over the years, it has become a great way to get in touch with people who are grappling with similar issues both in IT and in anthropology. It also has helped me build rapport with new contacts, as most of them google me, land on my blog and are able to get a sense of what I am about before we talk.
Social media has been a great way of reaching out to people that otherwise may have been difficult to reach out to. I have made many contacts by doing a bit of “web stalking” and sending them messages on whatever platform they are active on. I have been able to have some great, productive conversations on Twitter, Skype, and other web-based services that have been essential to building my perspective. I am always amazed at how generous people are with their time and knowledge.
I believe the best choice I made (even though my initial intention was to have a job so I could eat and make student loan payments, not to recruit ethnographic interlocutors) was to work in web development full-time for a significant period of time. Through that experience, I have found that people who work in this field are already engaged with the kinds of questions that anthropologists are interested in. So, we have a lot of common ground, which has led to some great collaborative discussions. Blogging and social media have really facilitated these discussions by making it easier to locate and connect with one another.
In your Aligned Anxieties presentation, you touch on the ‘algorithmic cruelty’ example with Meyer and the resulting onslaught of commentary. Do you have any plans to expand on that topic?
This presentation is part of the setup for my dissertation project. I really like the “algorithmic cruelty” example because I think that it brings to the foreground some of the critiques I have of the social science of the Internet, particularly the ways that social scientists represent technology professionals. All too often, the expertise of technology professionals, like Eric Meyer, are ignored in favor of anthropological or sociological expertise. In this particular case, Meyer is currently working through a persistent problem in web design: how do we create designs that work as well for stress cases as they do for the idealized user? Within this question are number of anthropological questions about design, human behavior, and the impacts of algorithms on humans and our sociality. My argument is that rather than hijacking Meyer’s example for our own critical ends, we should be collaborating with Meyer and others like him for more fruitful ends for both disciplines.
From this position, I am planning an ethnographic project among web designers and developers in Sweden. My aim is to flesh out what the experience of web professionals is and how their labor and the technology they work with impact that experience. Then, bring that back around to the kinds of questions that both anthropologists and web professionals are concerned with, like the impacts of design and algorithms on sociality, the meaning of privacy and how it is constructed through technological security systems online, and how do creative, innovative, and productive systems come into being amid the instability of the web? I am particularly interested in Sweden because Swedes have produced some fascinating and innovative web-based projects, like the Curators of Sweden, Minecraft, and Spotify. Additionally, there are some productive conversations happening right now in and around Sweden about design and development that I would like to align myself with from both popular media, like the newly launched Di Digital, and scholarly literature, like Keith Murphy’s 2015 book Swedish Design.
Do you have any advice for others in academia who want to blog, but feel like they’re joining a party that’s already in full swing (and with a full buffet)?
Do not blog for readers. There are many things I have written, especially when I first started blogging, that were read by only my mom (ok, maybe my mom didn’t read them either). Blogging is much more satisfying as an exercise in thinking. Writing about your field or your research for a general audience can be a great way to work through problems, follow tangents that are not (yet) big enough for their own publications, or organize your thoughts. Your blogging experience will be much more fulfilling if you write this way. Readership then becomes a way of receiving feedback and finding new contacts rather than as the fickle motivation for your efforts.
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