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MSc Digital Anthropology

About the programme

Increasingly our lives are mediated by digital technologies. Anthropology, with its established theories and methods for understanding culture is uniquely placed to unpack the relationship between humans and the digital. You will be trained to analyse and critique the social and cultural implications of wide range of phenomena including social media, data, digital infrastructures, digital augmentation, 3D printing, and online politics.

UCL Anthropology provides a distinctive intellectual environment for approaching the study of digital technology as a facet of human material culture. The MSc in Digital Anthropology is the only anthropology course in the UK that teaches you how to use the methods of material culture studies, including ethnography, cultural comparison, object analysis and an attention to materiality, to understand the reasons why digital technologies come to be used in the ways that they do. As well as studying the differential take-up of digital technologies, you will become proficient with digital technologies as research and communication tools.

digi anth timeline

Programme Aims

  • To introduce both students with a background in anthropology, and those with degrees in other disciplines, to a wide range of anthropological perspectives on digital culture around the world.
  • To provide access to the latest ideas and techniques for studying technology design and use, including new and emerging methods which have been made possible by the advent of digital technology.
  • To enable students to develop skills in public communication through the use of additional non-traditional forms of practical assessment.  
  • To support students in conducting independent research on those aspects of digital technologies which excite and interest them the most.

Core Courses

The core theory course is led by Haidy Geismar and incorporates guest lecturers from world-leading academics in the field of digital anthropology and material culture studies. Lectures are provided by the course convenors and by other world-leading anthropologists, including Daniel Miller, Ludovic Coupaye and Jerome Lewis and guest speakers from outside UCL. In the past students have been taught by international guest speakers including Gabriella Coleman (McGill), Dawn Nafus (Intel), and Joseph Dumit (UC Davis).

The core practical element of the course is led by Hannah Knox who is the founder of the Social Life of Methods Lab. Bi-weekly methods workshops on topics such as data analytics, sensory ethnography, games research and social network analysis are run by UCL academics and expert industry practitioners including, in previous years, speakers from Microsoft, Intel, Nesta, the Home Office, and inVentiv Health. Students have access to the Digital Anthropology Lab, a suite of high-specification computers that have software for photo, video, and web editing to produce their practical projects. You can take a look at this year’s practical projects here.

Core Courses

The theoretical and practical Core Courses are run as seminars involving a cohort of normally about 20 students, and are only available to those registered on the MSc in Digital Anthropology. Students will develop a range of skills including digital ethnography, writing for different audiences, ethnographic analysis, critical methods thinking, web-based design, and public communication.

Core Theory Course

The theory Core Course stretches over two terms and is worth 45 credits (25% of your overall degree mark), assessed through two 2500 word essays (the best mark counts for 33% of the Core Course mark). It is also evaluated through a 2 hour essay based exam, undertaken in May, which counts for 34% of the Core Course mark. Topics covered include:

  • Technology and Technique
  • Digital technologies and the Body
  • The Comparative study of Social Media
  • Virtuality and Materiality
  • Digital media and public participation
  • Digital technologies and political relations
  • Work and labour in a digital age
  • Games and Gaming
  • Digital technologies and indigenous politics
  • Digitising collections – museums, databases and archives
  • Anthropological Approaches to Big Data

Digital Anthropology Practical

The second element of the Core Course is a two-term practical that teaches students research skills specific to digital anthropology. You will be assessed on the production of a digital project, accounting for 33% of your Core Course mark.  Students attend bi-weekly two-hour workshops on a diverse range of methodological techniques including:

  • What is a digital field site?
  • Digital Sensory Ethnography
  • Working with digital data
  • Interpreting data ethnographically
  • Introduction to Human Computer Interaction
  • Qualitative Data Analysis – software and techniques
  • Researching Social Media
  • Social Network Analysis
  • Ethnography in Games and Virtual Worlds
  • Digital ethnography and Social Transformation
  • Ethical issues in digital research


To give students hands-on experience of digital methods, all students develop a digital-ethnographic project over the two terms and communicate their findings using a web-based digital platform. Supported by instructors with expertise in the possibilities and challenges of new and emerging methods, recent practical projects have produced work that is at the cutting edge of digital anthropology:

digital anth project 1

Project by Laura Parraga Gonzalez

digital anth project 2

Project by Louis Evans

digital anth project 2

Project by Luke Evison

Optional Courses

In addition to the core course, a wide range of optional courses are available from both within and outside the anthropology department. You will take three options courses throughout the year (each counting for 15 credits, or 8.33% of the overall mark). These courses are examined by one essay each of 2-3,000 words.

  • The Anthropology of Social Media

This course uses the Why We Post project to consider the nature, use and impact of social media, the potential of comparative anthropology, the dissemination of anthropological research and conclusions, and the implications for general anthropological questions about the nature of humanity and technology.

  • Digital Infrastructure: Materiality, Information and Politics

This course looks at how we can understand the social and political effects of digital technologies by attending to their infrastructural qualities. The course explores how as anthropologists we can discern social and political relations in infrastructures, starting with the study of ‘traditional’ infrastructures like transport and energy networks. It then goes on to look at how this approach can help us understand the often hidden social, political and cultural relations at play in things like wifi networks, the internet of things, smart cities and everyday devices.

  • Anthropology and Photography

This course has three central purposes: to provide a historical introduction to the way in which anthropologists have used photography, to provide a grounding in photographic theory, and to encourage students to think how they might best use photography in their own anthropological projects.

  • Anthropology of Mass Consumption and Design

The course examines the key historical literature on mass consumption and critical approaches to the theory of culture as a form of objectification. We then evaluate the ways in which the paradigm of design as a cultural field continues or replaces the paradigm of consumption in social relationships and identities.

  • Advanced Topics in Digital Culture

This course will equip students to engage critically with a range of social, cultural and political issues that surround the increasingly pervasive practices of the production and circulation of data in digital settings.

  • - Practical Ethnographic and Documentary Filmmaking

The course is led by award winning directors Vikram Jayanti and Sandhya Suri and focuses on self-shooting skills, with a focus on the fundamentals of observational filming. Students will shoot, record sound, edit and direct their own film, learning to respond to an undirected actuality and structure their footage into a compelling film.

There are also a number of other relevant courses in other departments which are open to Digital Anthropology Students subject to approval by the course tutors:

  • Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities (Digital Humanities)
  • Knowledge representation and semantic technologies (Digital Humanities)
  • Affective Interaction (UCLIC)
  • Understanding Usability and Use (UCLIC)
  • Interfaces and Interactivity (UCLIC)
  • Sociotechnical Systems: IT and the Future of Work (UCLIC)
  • Smart Systems Theories (Bartlett)
  • Geographic Informations Systems and Science (Bartlett)

Dissertation

A large part of your assessment will be via a dissertation based on original research on a topic of your choice. We provide support throughout the year in choosing a dissertation topic, tackling ethical issues, developing a methodology, identifying the theoretical implications of your topic, and academic writing. Each student works closely with a dissertation supervisor in term two to develop their individual research projects which are then undertaken during term three and the summer and which culminates in a 15,000 word dissertation to be submitted in mid-September. This will count for 50% of the overall mark (90 credits). Many students publish the work that they do for their dissertations in public and academic outlets. 

Vegan project. Credit London Vegan Actions

Read about recent dissertation research from our students:

Some recent titles of MSc dissertations include:
  • Azeez, Ola-Walé (2011) Towards Revolution 2.0: Digital Communications Media in Cairo Under the State of Emergency
  • Cook, Chloe (2011) Computer Says No? An Exploration of Technological Breakdowns in Office Life
  • Spyer, Juliano (2011) Making Up Art, Videos and Fame: The Creation of Social Order in the Informal Realm of YouTube Beauty Gurus
Sreberny-
  • Mohammadi, Leili (2010) Digitally Green: Vision and Visibility in Post-election Iran
  • Wojnarowska, Anna (2011) Bodily Integrity and Technological Struggles: How Patients and Staff Cope With the Reality of the Hospital

Current Research

Find out about our research activities at the Centre for Digital Anthropology.

Why We Post, a major research project led by Prof Daniel Miller, involved a team of 9 anthropologists conducting simultaneous comparative ethnographies of the consequences of social media around the world. Take the Why We Post free online course on FutureLearn.

Research seminars

Students are invited to be part of a dynamic research environment by participating in weekly seminars during terms one and two. which present cutting-edge research into material, visual, and digital culture. In 2016, speakers included Joe Dumit (UC Davis), Adrian Mackenzie (University of Lancaster) and Shireen Walton (University of Oxford).

Digital Anthropology co-hosts the Material, Visual and Digital Culture Research Seminar Series and the Anthropology in the Professional World Seminar Series.

Other activities

There are a number of Reading and Research Groups (RRGs) that students are encouraged to join, on topics as diverse as the anthropology of statistics to human-animal relations. Here is a list of RRGs.

Periodically, there are also additional events on digital anthropology, such as a panel discussion organised by AnthroSoc in 2016 featuring Daniel Miller, Shireen Walton, Jesse Bia, and Juliano Spyer. This blog post summarises the event and is a good introduction to the kind of work that goes on in the department.

Watch Gabriella Coleman delivering the "Anonymous and the Craftiness of Craft and the Trickiness of Trickery" talk at UCL

You can also learn more about our activities in the Digital World section of the Material World blog.


Dr Haidy Geismar, Reader in Anthropology and Dr Hannah Knox, Lecturer in Digital Anthropology and Material Culture are responsible for the programme design and management of the course. The Digital Anthropology MSc is currently taught by five members of staff with a diverse and broad range of expertise in the field of digital anthropology. Members of staff from across the UCL Anthropology Department, and from other departments including the Department of Computer Science, Digital Humanities also teach courses and sessions.

Core Staff:

Haidy Geismar 

Haidy Geismar has a PhD in Anthropology and Material Culture from UCL (2003). She has long term fieldwork experience in both the South Pacific and within museums, in the Pacific, North America and Europe where she has worked both with South Pacific and with photography collections. She is particularly interested in the legal regimes and cultural frameworks through which culture is owned. She has a book forthcoming from Duke University Press which looks at the ways in which intellectual and cultural property regimes are articulated in the museums and cultural centres of Vanuatu and New Zealand. Recently she has been researching the digitalisation of cultural collections, the incorporation of indigenous protocols into museum databases and she is in the early stages of a book looking at new practices and forms of digital photography. Dr. Geismar is also founder and chief editor of the Material World blog and has worked extensively with digital tools to enhance teaching and research practices.


Hannah Knox

Hannah Knox is a Social Anthropologist and her research is concerned with understanding processes of social and political transformation through the ethnographic study of technical relations and expert practices. Over the years her work has moved from a focus on struggles over knowledge and expertise to incorporate the role that materials of different kinds play in shaping techno-political relations. She has conducted research with new media entrepreneurs and economic development practitioners in the UK, IT managers and digital modellers in global corporations, and road construction and design engineers in Peru. Most recently she has been studying the politics of energy and climate change in a project that has been following the pursuit of carbon reduction strategies by a network of scientists, activists and local authority officers in Manchester, UK.

Hannah gained her PhD from the University of Manchester in 2003 and joined UCL from the ESRC Centre for Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) at the University of Manchester where she worked since 2004. Her books include: ‘Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion’ (2013), Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (2015) and Ethnography for a Data Saturated World (Forthcoming, 2018).


Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller has carried out several research projects on digital media which have resulted in publications including The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (with D. Slater) Berg: Oxford 2000 and The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (with H Horst) Berg: Oxford 2006, Tales from Facebook Polity 2011, and with Dr. M Madianou of Cambridge University Migration and New Media: transnationalism and polymedia (Routledge Sept 2011). He has worked on the impact of social networking and webcam on transnational relationships and within Trinidad.

Most recently, Daniel led a team of researchers (funded via a £2.1 million ERC grant) in a major cross-cultural study of social networking spanning seven countries and five years. See the Why We Post project website and blog for further details.

See Prof. Miller's discussion of his Tales from Facebook (on YouTube and Vimeo).


Shireen Walton

Shireen Walton's research focuses on popular digital photography and visual and digital culture in Iran and globally. Before joining the anthropology department at UCL she worked at the Centre of Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford on a research project entitled: Immigration Narratives in the British Press (2016). She also co-facilitated the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (OxDEG); a hub and seminar series co-established in 2013 with colleagues at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Oxford Internet Institute to develop cross-disciplinary conversations about ethnography in a digital age. More recently she has been developing a digital-ethnographic research project about photography, digital culture and collective memory. This study looks at a specific community from the oil city of Abadan in southwest Iran, who fled to other parts of the country and abroad during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and who are reconnecting online via social media, photography, and digital platforms. More broadly, she is continuing to explore the ongoing transformation of photography – its materialities and networked socialites – in the digital age, along with the role of digital technologies in everyday life.


Antonia Walford

Antonia Walford's research explores the effects of the exponential growth of digital data on social and cultural imaginaries and practices. Her doctoral fieldwork was with climate scientists and technicians in the Brazilian Amazon, and traced out the complex relationship between the contested material practices of scientific digitisation of the Amazon forest, and the social and political effects of the circulation of this data within both the local and the wider scientific knowledge economies. She is revising her thesis into a monograph, provisionally entitled The Nature of Data, the Culture of Data: the digital worlds of climate change science.

Antonia is currently investigating new forms of data politics that underpin current efforts in international observational science to measure, archive and manage the entire Earth - Big Data science. She is interested in how notions such as the ‘person’, ’environment’, ‘politics’ and ‘ownership’ are being mutually reconfigured to fit the shifting contours and liminal dimensions of these informational landscapes -  traversing the gaps between the expert and the civic, the neo-liberal and the grass-roots, the natural and the artificial, and the emancipatory and the neo-colonial. She is also interested in trans-disciplinarity, and has been conducting collaborative work with a colleague from UCL Physics, looking at new forms of relation between the natural and social sciences.

Employability

New media and technology companies are showing considerable interest in Digital Anthropology as a degree that qualifies students for positions in all fields of user interaction and research. In the last few years students graduating from the MSc have been recruited by the best international agencies doing research on digital practices. In the nonprofit sector students have joined organisations involved in policymaking, open access, and citizen journalism. The subject is also a good grounding for students who are interested in continuing to a variety of PhD programmes.

Transferable Skills

The skills taught in the course relate to field techniques and approaches to the analysis of data with an emphasis on qualitative methods and analysis. As well as developing critical academic skills in anthropological engagement with digital technologies and cultures the practical components of the course allow students to develop skills useful to careers in industry, market research, and other digital research environments. Students have gone on to work in design consultancy, digital agencies, and corporate research environments. Many students also go on to further graduate work, at UCL, and elsewhere.

Student Destinations

Students who complete the MSc Digital Anthropology have a large number of career options available to them. Previous students have secured employment in the following:

  • Digital Strategist, Canopy Brand Group.
  • Researcher, River Research
  • Principal Lecturer and Course Director, University of the Arts, London
  • Assistant Print Analyst, GroupM
  • Graduate Worker, Dare
  • User Researcher, UK Home Office Digital Service

A number of our students go on to doctoral study after the MSc. PhD students in the department who are studying digital-related issues include:

  • Nadia ElMrabet, Digital Literacy and Nationhood in Panama
  • Louise Potter, Designing workplaces in the Digital Age
  • Annamaria Dall’Anese, Digital Photography Among the Partially-sighted
  • Xinyuan Wang, Social Media in Industrial China
  • Shriram Venkatraman, Social Media in South India
  • Juliano Spyer, Social Media in Northeast Brazil
  • Ananda Rutherford, Digitisation of Museum Collections
  • Rosemary Grennan, Digital Distortion

Internships and Collaborations

Companies and institutions collaborating with the MSc are: British Telecom, UCL Computer Sciences, UCL Information Studies, Microsoft Research Cambridge, Skype, Intel, the British Museum, NESTA, NOKIA, the Home Office, and InVentiv, Cultural Informatics Research Centre for the Arts and Humanities (CIRCAh), Slade Centre for Electronic Media in Fine Art, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Centre for Museums, Heritage and Cultural Studies, UCL Interaction Centre, UCL Digital Humanities and UCL Urban Laboratory. You will also have the opportunity to network with practitioners from a wide variety of background through various seminars and workshops organised throughout the year.

UCL Digital Anthropology has been collaborating with inVentiv Health since March 2015 to offer an internship programme to MSc students. Working with inVentiv’s digital and innovation team in central London, the internship provides an opportunity to apply digital anthropology thinking and approaches in a commercial setting, understanding the impact of digital technology on people’s health behaviours.  

Beyond this, the internship offers participants exposure to a wide range of business disciplines related to healthcare communications, including advertising, PR, medical communications and management consultancy, working with colleagues and clients across Europe and the US.   

Quote from Mark, one of our 2014-15 MSc students who completed the internship:

"I was brought in to work on one 4-week social media listening project, investigating the “buzz” around a single medication, but when that project was put on hold, the digital team at InVentiv instead let me help them with various other projects that they were working on at the time.  In addition to the original social listening project, which eventually was resumed by my third week, I was able to help by mapping patient journeys, investigating product competitors’ online presence in multiple markets and languages, and contributed to brainstorms with members of international teams. The experience of applying digital anthropology in the office rather than in a classroom was exciting, because it made me look at what I’ve learned in a new way, and apply lessons to situations I had not thought of before.  The digital team at InVentiv is a small group of people within a large network of businesses, so I was able to experience nearly all aspects of what it means to work there, and as a masters student straight out of undergrad, the cooperation and teamwork within the team in every project really prepared me for my entry into the working world."