What is Cyborg Anthropology?

From Cyborg Anthropology
Jump to: navigation, search


Cyborg anthropology is a recent subspecialty launched at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1993. Within the AAA cyborg anthropology is associated with the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing (CASTAC).

From the start cyborg anthropologists have located themselves within the larger transdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), attending with frequency the annual meetings of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (SSSS) and applying cyborgian perspectives to a wide research spectrum that has ranged from the culture of physicists in Japan (Traweek 1988) to organ donation in Germany (Hogle 1999) to extended work on the new reproductive technologies.

What is a Cyborg Anthropologist?

A cyborg anthropologist looks at how humans and non human objects interact with each other, and how that changes culture. So, for instance, we have these things in our pockets that cry, and we have to pick them up and soothe them back to sleep, and then we have to feed them every night by plugging them into the wall, right? And at no other time in history have we had these really strange non human devices that we take care of as if they are real. And we're very dependent upon them. So that's one of the aspects that I'm studying, the idea of mobile technology and its effect on people's relationships. Another thing is the idea of extending into the second self online, through an avatar. So studying how people interact with each other through these little technosocial interactions, versus just the analog interactions, is another aspect of cyborg anthropology.

Traditional vs. Cyborg Anthropology

In traditional anthropology one visits another culture to examine what makes a culture unique. One looks at how interaction occurs between classes and social actors. One examines how knowledge goes through, how kinship forms, and why rituals occur, ones examines pastimes and hobbies, eating habits and social structure.

Anthropology, the study of humans, has traditionally concentrated on discovering the process of evolution through which the human came to be (physical anthropology), or on understanding the beliefs, languages, and behaviors of past or present human groups (archaeology, linguistics, cultural anthropology). At the base level an anthropologist might go over to another country and says, "How fascinating these people are! They're so strange. Look at all their curious and unique customs!" The anthropologist then compiles the extensive research they've done and presents it to colleagues back in the first world. Cyborg Anthropology is no different than traditional anthropology, except that cyborg anthropologists look at all worlds and social classes, first world and third world, analog and digital, scientific and artistic. For a cyborg anthropologist, all fields are valid. Knowledge, tools and spaces are all sites of examination. Knowledge is treated as a social actor, modifying relations and stratifying knowledge systems. Tools are examined as much as people are, as people with different tools and access to sites of knowledge have different powers and opportunities available to them.

In a time where the use of Facebook is common, and cell phones live in everyone's pockets, technology is a more of a decision making process for the general person more than something that is critically looked at. Technologies have become so omnipresent that they have seeped into almost every nook and cranny of physical and social lives in many countries. A cyborg anthropologist has the ability to leverage both new and old methods to take a step back and look at these changes on a longer scale.

New Tools

Examining actors in the digital cannot be done with traditional tools. A different set of knowledge and capabilities is needed in order to both save time and gain the necessary data required to understand what's going on in different groups. Partnering with a developer is a common occurrence for those researching the web, as the social web has extremely valuable but large datasets. Cyborg Anthropology takes the theory and methodology of traditional anthropology and applies it to technology, non-human objects, and global cultural systems involving information and communication. Time and space, interfaces, and the construction of value are important topics. Mobile computing and connectivity are also central.

The web is full of timestamped information, and is a field all its own. Technically, a lot of an anthropologist's work in coding and time stamping is done, but the transient nature of this data requires archiving. Future anthropologists will benefit from learning code or partnering with technologists. Anthropologist danah boyd has done this well, specifically at Microsoft Research.

Human-Centered Anthropology vs. Cybernetic Anthropology

"Cyborg anthropology poses a serious challenge to the human-centered foundations of anthropological discourse. The term "cyborg anthropology" is an oxymoron that draws attention to the human-centered presuppositions of anthropological discourse by posing the challenge of alternative formulations. While the skin-bound individual, autonomous bearer of identity and agency, theoretically without gender, race, class, region, or time, has served usefully and productively as the subject of culture and of cultural accounts, alternate accounts of history and subjectivity are also possible".[1]

“The autonomy of individuals has already been called into question by post-structuralist and posthumanist critiques. Cyborg anthropology explores a new alternative by examining the argument that human subjects and subjectivity are crucially as much a function of machines, machine relations, and information transfers as they are machine producers and operators.

From this perspective, science and technology affect society through the fashioning of selves rather than as external forces. For example, the establishment of anthropological sub-jects and subjectivities has depended upon boats, trains, planes, typewriters, cameras, telegraphs, and so on.

How the positioning of technologies has defined the boundaries of "the field" as well as the positioning of anthropologists within it has been a notable silence in ethnographic writing. It is increasingly clear that human agency serves in the world today as but one contributor to activities that are growing in scope, that are complex and di-verse, and yet are interconnected. The extent of such interconnectedness has been made plain both by the decline of challenges to capitalist hegemony and by the empowerment of information technologies, the latter through the combined agencies of computer and communications technologies".[2]

"A crucial first step in blurring the human-centered boundaries of anthropo-logical discourse is to grant membership to the cyborg image in theorizing, that is, to follow in our writing the ways that human agents routinely produce both themselves and their machines as part human and part machine. How are we to write, for example, without using human-centered language? And if writing is a co-production of human and machine, then who is the "we" that writes?".[3]

UX/Cybernetics Design

See Cybernetic UX Design

What is a Cyborg?

A cyborg (shorthand for “cybernetic organism”) is a symbiotic fusion of human and machine. Humans have always developed technologies to help them survive and thrive, but in recent decades the rapid escalation and intensification of the human-technology interface have exceeded anything heretofore known. From satellite communications to genetic engineering, high technologies have penetrated and permeated the human and natural realms. Indeed, so profoundly are humans altering their biological and physical landscapes that some have openly suggested that the proper object of anthropological study should be cyborgs rather than humans, for, as Donna Haraway says, we are all cyborgs now.

From: Cyborg Anthropology Joseph Dumit PhD, Assistant Professor, Program in Science, Technology and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin

Relations to other fields


New diagnostic technologies, from genetic tests to brain imaging, and new therapeutics from antidepressants like Prozac to organ transplants, create new ways of living and deciding that are at once exciting and troubling. For instance, testing for the BRCA-1 breast cancer gene, which identifies an increased risk of cancer in some women, often restructures a woman's relationship to the healthcare system, to her family, and to her self. Taking the test can lead to losing insurance coverage and to accelerated treatment choices like prophylactic mastectomy; in other words, identification of genetic risk can result in the woman being treated as if she already has breast cancer. The existence of the test thus creates a new cyborgian category—the presymptomatically ill—and a new set of risks posed by the “prophylactic” treatments prescribed for its member!


The most developed cyborg anthropological work in women's studies concerns reproduction, addressing everything from technologies of conception and prenatal diagnosis and treatment (Rapp), to the technologization of birth, to the commodification of disability and pregnancy loss (Layne). For example, Rayna Rapp's long-term fieldwork among genetic counselors and her attention to racial, class, and religious differences in how women make choices given uncertain information about amniocentesis constitute outstanding examples of simultaneous attention to technology, its mediators, and its implications for women. In the contemporary world, there is almost no such thing as normal labor, as giving birth without the assistance of prenatal testing, hospitals, electronic fetal monitoring, drugs, and forceps is generally considered unsafe, despite the demonstrated safety of midwife- attended out-of-hospital births. The mothers and children whose lives are structured and whose bodies and development are altered by birth technologies can be fruitfully analyzed as cyborgs who demonstrate the full range of ambiguity and possibility that concept encompasses.

Various chapters in Cyborg Babies probe these ambiguities, asking whether the sense of control provided to women and practitioners by the routine application of such technologies compensates for the very real physical damage they often do.

Exemplary ethnographies in the wider arena of cyborg studies include Emily Martin's work on immunological science; Deborah Heath's work on the science and activism around Marfan's Syndrome; Diana Forsythe's studies of artificial intelligence and expert systems; Joseph Dumit's studies of brain imaging practices; and Karen-Sue Taussig's work on genetics clinics in the Netherlands.

Future Applications

Much work needs to be done to expand cyborg anthropology to address non-middle-class and non-Western issues such as the multiple effects of pollution, pesticide use, and bio-engineering in agricultural production and racial and gendered exclusions from access to cyborg technologies. The strength of cyborg anthropology is its ability to combine attention to scientific practices and working technologies with critical analyses of technophilia (cultural fascination with high technologies), social control, and hegemonic and popular appropriations of technology. Its weakness is that the same fascinating lure of science and technology keeps its practitioners focused on the cyberdazzle of the newest technologies, Big Science, and Western market power.

See also:

References and further reading

  • Davis-Floyd, Robbie and Joseph Dumit (1998) Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots. New York: Routledge.
  • Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, eds. (1997) Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences, Technologies and Medicines. Seattle: SAR/University of Washington Press. (Includes essays by Joseph Dumit, Deborah Heath, and Rayna Rapp).
  • Forsythe, Diana (2001) Toward an Anthropology of Informatics: Ethnographic Analyses of Knowledge Engineering and Artificial Intelligence. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Gray, Chris Hables, ed, with Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor (1995) The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.
  • Donna Haraway (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.
  • Hogle, Linda F. (1999) Recovering the Nation's Body: Cultural Memory, Medicine, and the Politics of Redemption. Rutgers University Press
  • Layne, Linda, ed. (2000) Transformative Motherhood: On Giving and Getting in a Consumer Culture. New York University Press.
  • Martin, Emily (1994) Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in America from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Rapp, Rayna (2000) Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge.
  • Taussig, Karen-Sue (forthcoming) Just Be Ordinary: Normalizing the Future through Genetic Research and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Traweek, Sharon (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.[4]


  1. Downey, Gary Lee "After Culture" Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation. Pg 2.
  2. Downey, Gary Lee "After Culture" Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation. Pg 4.
  3. Downey, Gary Lee "After Culture" Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation. Pg 5.
  4. http://www.davis-floyd.com/Articles/CyborgAnthropology.pdf Cyborg Anthropology, Joseph Dumit]