Today I am testing the waters of the web roundups here at Somatosphere. Feel free to give feedback!
This month’s theme is data, inspired by many tweets I received on ENCODE and big data.
I was intrigued to hear that the American Anthropological Association has started an anthropological data wiki. The collection of datasets already seems pretty impressive, but could surely use your input. The project aims at providing fieldnotes, ethnographic source materials as well as numerical data.
Speaking of data, I have only recently become aware of the concept of big data. I first linked it to design as I read about the Visualized conference. Now I know that I am way late into the game. Apparently, big data was a buzzword in 2011 that I clearly missed. What is it, exactly? Big data is basically a collection of data sets that has become too large to be easily handled with regular data management tools, says Wikipedia. Big data in anthropology has already been discussed, for example by Jenna Burrell at Ethnography Matters. In her three-installment post she links the use of big data to a hope of being able to better anticipate the future. Describing herself as a ”small data person”, however, Burrell seems to not find a compelling answer to the question of why and how large datasets enrich her practice as an ethnographer.
For mathematician Stephen Wolfram, collecting a large amount of data about himself allowed him to be self-aware to an extent that he feels unable to without this extra information. Surely being aware of every keystroke, every call taken can lead to a new relationship with productivity. Does this equal self-awareness in a larger sense apart from activities, however? And would it have to in order to “justify” the amount of time and work put into this individual big (-ish) data collection? Maybe the question on what to do with all this data is too early to ask. At [Per]Suit of Anthropology, the question is rather: why is big data so hip? Is it because numbers are widely perceived as “truer” than other types of data? No answer is given, so you can chime in with your ideas. That conversation could (and should) still be continued.
A different type of data are the results of the ENCODE project, The Encyclopedia of DNA elements. This huge project, ten years and running, tried to catalogue every nucleotid (=letter) of a genome that actually does something. Ed Yong gives a good overview over the project here. You might also want to read what John Hawks has to say about ENCODE. Results of ten years worth of work have been published in September in several large journals, for example in Nature. Is ENCODE relevant for anthropology? Reactions towards it seem to vary.
Biological anthropologists have raised the question of legal implications of ENCODE results. Jennifer Wagner and Adam Van Arsdale discuss if we really understand the differences between genome functions and associations. How can, for example, be assured that DNA fingerprinting does not breech an individual’s privacy? Van Arsdale additionally warns of a genetic determinism and stresses that identification of informants needs to be protected, regardless of interview situations or genetic tests.
On the other hand, physical anthropologist Elise Duffield stresses ENCODE’s potential in disease studies. I believe the issue isn’t so much the project itself but how we deal with genetic information, as individuals, cultures and societies. And that question is definitely relevant to anthropologists.