(Draft of an article published in Visual Anthropology, 19:1-3, 2006)


Some potentials for visual and computer anthropology

Alan Macfarlane, King’s College, Cambridge, CB2 1ST

About five years ago I designed and set up a web-site to test the possibilities of using the internet for teaching and research. This site (www.alanmacfarlane.com) now has quite a wide range of materials available on it which may be of interest to others.

It is partly designed to explore the web as an aid in writing and publishing. We are used to disseminating our ideas through printed texts. Here I have experimented in various ways. I am interested in the concept of the ‘web-book’ and also in the idea of an integrated site for intellectual productions over a life-time of scholarship. A web-site helps me to assemble the parts of a jigsaw of a life-works.

I have put many of my articles and parts of my books onto the site (see ‘Publications’). Many of these would be difficult to track down, especially for researchers outside Europe. These cover a number of themes (such as witchcraft, kinship, population, law etc), a number of theories and methods (such as encounters with great thinkers, historical records, multimedia and film) and three areas of the world (Nepal, Japan, Europe).

I have also explored the idea of combining a published book with supplementary materials such as footnotes, further reading, detailed materials which cannot be included in the published work, the context of writing, reviews of the book, and films which give another dimension to the argument. There is also a forum for my latest book, ‘Letters to Lily’. The first five books under ‘Books authored by me’ show these experiments. This can help cheapen publication and reach a wider audience, diminish the gap between front and back stage, and make the books into three-dimensional objects, with photos, films, field notes and other materials.

I have also tried to experiment with the web as a teaching tool. The basic aim is to start to give some basic grounding in various aspects of anthropological findings and methods. This is for use around the world, including people thinking of doing anthropology. Under ‘Lectures’ are included some basic anthropological terms; a film on ‘what is anthropology’; introductory courses of lectures on kinship and economics (to be supplemented soon with politics and religion); more advanced lectures on classical social theory; films on how to do fieldwork, filming in fieldwork, and certain research methods.

The web in general is already an important archival and research tool. Here there is a database containing the complete original records of an English village from 1380-1850 (Earls Colne). There is under ‘Global History’ the history of a British television series on the development of the world over ten thousand years, including the stages of preparation, production (including filming and editing) a good deal of the material left out of the final six films, the films themselves, and discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the series.

Under ‘video interviews’ are over sixty interviews (and lectures) of leading social scientists conducted over the last twenty years, lasting from 20 minutes to two hours. They can be downloaded to a desktop and used in teaching or watched online. In a panel beside the interviews is a scrolling screen with a summary of the subjects touched on in the interviews. Among those with a particular visual anthropology interest are Christoph von F¸rer-Haimendorf, Asen Balicki, James Woodburn, Terry Turner, Peter Loizos and (shortly) Paul Hockings. Among other well-known anthropologists are Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, Jack Goody, John Barnes, Raymond Firth, Clifford Geertz, Lucy Mair, Nur Yalman, Fredrick Barth, Andre Beteille, M.N.Srinivas, Philippe Descola, Ernest Gellner, Stanley Tambiah, Marilyn Strathern and others. There are also some distinguished historians (Peter Burke, Michael Mann), travellers and others (Owen Lattimore, Lawrence Picken), sociologists (Ronald Dore, Peter Worsley).

There are also linked web-sites which I have helped to develop on the Himalayan region (Digitalhimalaya) and Asia (especially Japan and China) more generally (Digitalorient). There is also (Topics database) a collection of some 60,000 quotations and facts which I have collected (a sort of personal Wikiquotes). There is a database on the Nagas of Assam which contains some ten thousand photographs, early films and transcripts of many of the fieldnotes and diaries of those who worked in the Naga Hills to 1947. This is a web version of the first multi-media videodisc in anthropology which we created some years ago.

What has made all of this possible is the intersection of various things. Better cameras (video), faster connections (Broadband), larger storage devices and faster desktops, better web-construction tools (e.g. Dreamweaver and Cleaner) and other tools. New storage to hold all this material is becoming available, for example ‘Dspace’ or ‘Digitalspace’ on which we hold much of our longer materials in Cambridge (a virtual library).

One other development which we have been particularly involved in is information retrieval. How does one store multi-media, link them, and find what one wants? We have been addressing this problem for many years and have recently launched a fast system where probabilistic (Bayesian) searching rather similar to ‘Google’ is combined with boolean (and/or/not) filtering. The system, called ‘Bamboo’ can be seen in action under the ‘Topics’ and ‘Naga’ databases described above. We are also interested in helping to develop ways of collaborating on web-site development and an experimental system (the Simple Interface for Linking Knowledge or SILK) can be seen on ‘Digitalorient’.

In order to make the site navigable, it is arranged in a hierarchical form, with major categories of materials across the top, internal databases as icons below this, and a side bar with other associated sites. There is also a conventional table of contents and ‘Google’ search system. A section under ‘Life’ includes details of an autobiographical kind – how I work, administrative and other tasks, people and places who have influenced me, a genealogy and other personal materials.

Much of the material is downloadable for use by individuals in their teaching and research. The construction of the site raises many complicated questions of copyright, ethics and trust which will be discussed over future years. It is a not-for-profit exploratory site developed and maintained with few resources and largely through the hard work of Sarah Harrison (the web-mistress) and Mark Turin (advisor and designer). I have personally found it helpful as a way of organizing my materials and making them available to my students and colleagues. It is amateurish, but learning to construct it was an important way of organizing my thoughts and developing a better understanding of some of the potentials of the web.