Megan, Maguire Fellow in Dallas

Megan B. is a graduate student studying anthropology. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. She is spending the summer studying environmental advocacy with the Trinity River Audubon Society.

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On Being an Anthropologist in the Era of Big Data

The classroom in one of the wet labs, set up for an activity with balloons.

Last week before camp started I was speaking with the grandfather of one of our campers about my research and the Ph.D. program I am in. He told me that my analytic skills would be valuable when I finished because data analysts and statisticians are in high demand right now.

He wasn’t wrong. We live in the era of “big data”, a phrase which refers to the use of extremely large-scale datasets – so large that they must be analyzed with computers. Indeed, advances in computing technology, along with an increased availability of a multiplicity of data points, are a significant factor in the rise of big data. These days, those with statistical and analytic skills are prized for their ability to mine through vast quantities of data and draw meaningful, robust conclusions from it. These insights guide the decisions and tactics of corporations and governments, and provide important information about consumers, citizens, and other group members.

But an article published in the Guardian from January 2017 made a compelling argument that the era of statisticians was over. Despite the critical role that public statistics play in a democratic society, statisticians are at risk of being pushed out by “big data” – information which is often privately held by corporations. Furthermore, the author argued, statistics are perceived as easily manipulated, and qualitative evidence is often more persuasive.

The truth is, however, that we need both quantitative and qualitative evidence – and reliable public research is of critical importance. When collected and analyzed in an ethical, comprehensive, and scientific manner, statistical evidence can provide useful and reliable insights. Qualitative research is valuable not only for its persuasive power, but also for the information it can reveal.

The boardwalk leading to a bird blind bordering on one of the center’s many ponds.

Anthropological methods can seem radically opposed to the rapid-fire world of big data. Participant observation is a slow process, which means that it can be expensive. Whereas big data tends to be rapidly and inexpensively available. But the stories people live add important nuance to the data. People are more than their zip codes or demographic data.

I chose to study anthropology not only because of my fascination with the diversity of the human experience but also because of the methods that the discipline uses. In addition to being trained in quantitative methods of data analysis, anthropologists are also trained to use in-depth qualitative methods. Before returning to graduate school, I had been working with surveys and large datasets, and was frustrated by the limits of the inquires I could make. I knew that more detail was important, and that certain key aspects of people’s experiences were missing from the information I had in front of me at my computer screen.

So I decided to go out to meet them.

I could send out a survey to parents about camp. I could give the children a pre- and post-test to see what they learned during their time at the nature center. But what if I am asking parents the wrong questions? What if they don’t have the time for a survey? What if, in an interview, a staff member gives the answer they think I’m looking for, but in their everyday life, they think or act differently? What if children learn something that I didn’t expect them to? What if knowledge gained isn’t the best measure of “success” at camp? In fact, evidence shows that experiential learning that affects children’s feelings is far more likely to influence their values and actions towards the environment than the acquisition of scientific or factual knowledge.

I believe that people are the experts on their own lives – not me. I am here to learn from them. Just like binoculars give a birder the opportunity to gain an up-close view into a bird’s life, or a microscope gives a scientist a closer look at the texture of a leaf, so, too, do anthropological methods allow me to see life up close. As a researcher, it is my responsibility to share what I learn with the communities I learn from. After finishing an interview with a staff member at the nature center last week, I was asked what I would do with the results from my study. I explained my plan for sharing my research with the center, academia, and the community.

The discipline of anthropology suffered a crisis of identity in the late twentieth century. David Schneider’s critique of kinship, in which he argued that the belief that biological ties are universally or inherently the most important ties that bind groups of people as reflective of the hegemony of Western and biological models of kinship, knocked out a cornerstone of the discipline’s work. The era that followed was marked by a string of critiques which challenged the work, roles, beliefs, methods, and writings of anthropologists. The focus of the discipline has become diffuse in the decades since, but this self-reflexive period has added an important depth and understanding to the work that we do. Nancy Scheper-Hughes argued that the role of anthropologists is “speaking truth to power,” and indeed, much of the discipline has moved towards the study of power, poverty, and inequity.

These themes permeate our lives. While it is important to study those whose lives are very different from my own, I believe that there is also a role for anthropologists to study what is closer to home. Our lives are full of rich stories. We make meaning out of experiences, not numbers. For those who make decisions, a deeper understanding of human stories is what gives these numbers any meaning at all.

For me this summer, this has meant going to camp. I have had the privilege of learning about everything from the complex history of the Trinity Forest to techniques for identifying scat. And on that note – I have a hike to go on.

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