(Digital) State of the Field: Physical Anthropology
Social media is largely overlooked by physical anthropologists. This is due in part to the nature of the data that goes into research. Someone studying vitamin A deficiency in infants in relation to the mother in Kenya does not need to use social media to interview or retrieve the blood nutrient levels of her research participants. Likewise, as I mentioned in an earlier post, forensic anthropologists in particular are constrained by ethics and the sensitive nature of the cases they work on.
Leading academic institutions in this field have yet to embrace the public outreach power of tools like Twitter, but this is changing slowly. At the same time, many graduate students (and some more senior academics) use Twitter personally and professionally to network. A good faculty role model would be @JohnHawks: this paleoanthropologist blogs, he’s engaged with the online community via Twitter, and he’s one of the few faculty presences in physical anthropology online.
The greatest strength of forensic anthropology is the field’s willingness to harness the power of databases. One excellent example is the Forensic Data Bank, a collection of data from thousands of known forensic cases that is used to create modern equations of various sorts. Another is NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System – this database houses information on all missing persons and also all unidentified remains, permitting easier cross-referencing and matching up of victims.
As is the case with so many academic disciplines in the U.S., budgets are tight in anthropology, and digitization comes with both creation and upkeep costs. The decision of how much funding to allocate to digital tools varies between institutions. So, while some laboratories are working with advanced three-dimensional imagers and Elliptic Fourier Analysis to forge new paths, low-budgets work with more analog methods. This discrepancy is one reason I want to translate analog methods: to facilitate the transition into digital not by interpreting but by simply translating. I hope no French or Italian readers will remind me that traduttore, traditore, literally: translation is treason!
In summary, physical anthropology, like many disciplines, is in a state of transition where it is slowly integrating digital technologies into its infrastructure. It’s certainly not on the cutting edge; anthropologists have adopted tools slowly and only when they are well-established. Online publication of journals is ubiquitous, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any other arenas of digital scholarly publication or dialogue. As a field, we’re not taking many risks, but perhaps this is understandable in a financially unstable environment. At the minimum, I encourage physical anthropologists to join in digital dialogue and outreach facilitated by social media. The choice to join the conversation is an individual one that leads to valuable collaborations.