Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Anthropology and Environment Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
Secondary Theme: Technology
Remote, distant, or otherwise difficult-to-access places have played a central role in environmental anthropology, and indeed, in the discipline as a whole. Even as research on the environment has broadened to consider urban spaces, human-built infrastructures, multi-sited lives, and global interconnections, research in out-of-the-way places continues to inform and shape conversations in the subfield.
Nonetheless, the extension of new digital technologies is fundamentally altering some aspects of remoteness. Increasingly, public and private infrastructure projects are extending the reach of cellular technologies in developing and developed countries alike, bringing digital connectivity to formerly out-of-the-way places. Anthropological research would emphasize that such sites were never really “isolated” to begin with, but even so, the extension of real-time information technologies represents a novel development. Phone and internet communications are now widely available in sites where formerly they may have been entirely absent, or accessible only at fixed points. Smartphones give instant – and individuated – access to up-to-the-minute information on, for example, local and national politics, agricultural markets, or religious movements. Meanwhile, the rapid circulation of digital images, videos, and media via Facebook, WhatsApp, and similar services has the potential to reconfigure not only interpersonal relationships, but also individuals’ own environmental practices, and sense of emplacement.
Increased connectivity also changes ethnographers’ engagement with “the field.” The dings and buzzes of digital messages, and the increasing availability, clarity, and affordability of voice and video calls, offer virtually real-time connections between researchers doing fieldwork and people and events “at home.” These same services have the capacity to extend intellectual engagements and affective connections even after the ethnographer returns from fieldwork. Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype, Google Hangouts, Twitter, and so-called smartphones in general, challenge assumptions of isolation and distance that undergird idealized forms of Malinowiski-style long-term fieldwork. In the process, they transform previously assumed boundaries between places, worlds, and professions.
These changes are concurrent with other shifts in the way environmental data about remote places is generated and dealt with in the academy. Remote sensing, “big-data,” and similar methods offer possibilities for making claims about remote environments differently, sometimes without ever having to set foot in specific study sites. Just as connectivity is changing fieldwork itself, so too is it changing the academic conversations in which environmental anthropologists must participate. There is a new need (and perhaps, new opportunities) to justify why and how long-term, immersive fieldwork continues to constitute a unique and necessary method for socio-environmental research.
In this context, this panel examines how emerging forms and uses of digital connectivity and data collection are reconfiguring the idea and the materialities of remote places. In particular, the collected papers explore how environmental anthropologists, and the farmers, scientists, fishworkers, and others with whom we work, engage with newly available and popular forms of digital connection and data collection in geographically out-of-the-way sites. They also consider how these novel technologies are reshaping the relevance – and the ethical and material stakes – of anthropological work on the environment.