Big data, small data, thick data, no data: A global perspective on the EPIC debate

September 20th 2013

There were two kinds of people at EPIC this year: those who felt that the big-small-thick data debate is necessary, and those who didn't. Okay, so maybe it's a bit more complex than that, but people are easier to understand when categorized and quantified, right?

Big data was a big focus at EPIC. The debate focused around what big data is, and how ethnographers can show companies that context still matters. Tricia Wang began the discussion in her keynote, arguing that big data really only generates lots of data points, and that we need the thick data that ethnography provides to make sense of it.

Why thick data can be just as creepy as big data

September 17th 2013

Yesterday, in the first session of EPIC2013Martin Ortlieb asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. Plenty of people, he said, think that big data collection is creepy. Every day, as we interact in a computer-saturated world, bits of information about our personal selves are being collected and deployed by marketing companies to sell us stuff and spy on us.

But are classic ethnographic methods really any different? Don't people find it creepy when us anthropologists go poking around, asking questions?

What comes next? Tricia Wang's keynote at EPIC2013

September 16th 2013

Throughout human history, we have been terrified of what the future might hold and have devised all kinds of ways of trying to divine it. But today, with the promulgation of the scientific method, we have far more reliable ways of trying to define it.

Or do we?

In a fascinating opening keynote of the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry ConferenceTricia Wang addresses this very question in a talk entitled "The Conceit of Oracles." She described how, in ancient Greece, the Pythia oracle would inhale gas fumes rising from a natural fissure and, over the course of a few days, reveal prophecies that would guide the actions of kings. As random as that may seem, however, there was in fact a method in how those messages were interpreted.

Anthropology’s obsession with neoliberalism: Musings from the APA conference

September 14th 2013

Last July, at the EASA conference in Paris, I noticed that there seemed to be dozens of papers in the program with the word "neoliberalism" in their title. I wondered whether "neoliberalism" had become the new black for discussions of power and domination, taking over the role that globalization used to have, back in the days when it struck fear into the hearts of academics who were afraid that it would spell the end to global diversity.

It seems that I wasn't alone. The EASA journal, Social Anthropology, have been running a debate about neoliberalism over several issues in 2012 and 2013. Earlier this year I was invited by David Picard to co-convene a pannel on anthropology’s obsession with neoliberalism at the conference of the Associação da Antropologia Portuguesa. So, this week, we converged on Vila Real to just that. Our co-panelists, Gabriela Vargas Cetina and Steffan Igor Ayora Diaz, flew over from Yucatan especially to debate this curious topic.