“One of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is” Interpretation of Culture–Clifford Geertz

After ruminating a bit over last week’s class discussion about what [the] digital humanities are/is, I could not help thinking about the above quote by symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz. As an undergraduate in anthropology at the turn of the century (sounds so weird to say that), I was immersed in the identity crisis of the discipline. Is it a science? Is it a humanity? Are anthropologists biologically deterministic, genocidal maniacs [see Napoleon Chagnon] or activist/relativists (paternalistically?) giving voice to subaltern communities; to hell with science [see Marshall Sahlins]? Where does archaeology fit? What about evolutionary biology? Are we all just writing fiction? Everything was up for debate. Yet, as Geertz sagely observed, this allowed for flexibility to explore new methods for the construction of novel epistemologies and cultural frameworks. Indeed, what would the humanities be without his (with a wink to Gilbert Ryle’s wink) thick description as an interpretive tool? If anthropology and history are any indicator, DH is just getting started in its quest of identity. And this is a good thing. Yet, it is not simply the identity of DH which is up for grabs, but also the definition and use of its base principle, namely data.

What are data (and how do you pronounce it? More on this later)? Trevor Owen offers reasons why data should concern humanists. First, it is a cultural artifact This means that it was created by people. Data is not something we stumble across in the forest. However, the data we create about the thing we found in the forest is more than a record of the thing itself. The logic of categorization, the language used, the intended audience, the contexts it is used, etc. all provide, as Owen claims, evidentiary value. Indeed, one can read data as texts. However, text is also data. It is strange that “data” somehow means only quantitative data. Texts can also be data, and this is where I feel a bit more comfortable.

I feel like I was dropped into a different time period after our readings for this week. The last time I used software to organize qualitative data was over fifteen years ago when I collected and coded field notes for an ethnographic field school. This was done on an early version of Atlas.ti. and I really didn’t know what I was doing. What is a hermeneutical unit, anyway? My undergraduate methods training consisted of writing descriptive field notes, typing them in a word processor, coding them, and then looking for patterns. It was tedious, but not as bad as using literal note cards. At least there was ctrl-f. While reading the article by Katie Rawson and Trevor Muñoz about “cleaning” data and their work on the New York Public Library’s collective transcribing project What’s on the Menu, I could not help but think of Yale’s Human Relations Area Files started in 1930 to offer a centralized location for coded field notes from ethnographers around the world. Imagine trying to find how many instances of mashed potatoes occurs in those drawers!

Photo and caption from the Human Relation Area Files website, https://hraf.yale.edu/about/history-and-development/

Rawson and Muñoz find that making sense of qualitative data is a tricky business beyond computer-assisted counting. When trying to “clean” up data for scalability there is always loss on account of bounded definitions of relationships and even the things themselves. They argue for Anna Tsing’s salvage approach she uses when describing global political ecology which is based on non-scalability. There are countless relationships and meanings inherent to and between qualitative data and the systems being created for projects like What’s on the Menu accelerate possibilities of grounded theory.

The HRAF relied upon shared codes among scholars that “nested” similar data together, facilitating ease in retrieval and cross-cultural comparison. These categories were created by and for (mostly white and male) anthropologists. The nesting is precise, but is it representative? Although I am completely ignorant as to the workings of the new systems, I can see the massive potential for diverse research questions induced from novel groupings. What I am most concerned with at the moment, though, is getting all of my own data together which is strewn all over hard drives, notebooks, and who knows where. Organization is not my strong suit and I am excited to explore new modes of curing my disheveled ills, or more precisely curating.

Now, as far as the pronunciation of “data.”

Is it dayta or dahta? (and of course they are data. Datum is) Well, I guess it depends. I am more comfortable with the former. This could be because I watched a lot of Next Generation in my high school years and beyond. Brent Spiner claims this is all because of Patrick Stewart. That’s it for now. Live long and prosper, and stay safe out there…

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