The 2017 issue of Osiris is dedicated to Data Histories and includes a piece on big data in mid-twentieth century social science that may be of interest to AHP readers.
“Anthropology’s Most Documented Man, Ca. 1947: A Prefiguration of Big Data from the Big Social Science Era,” by Rebecca Lemov. Abstract:
“Big Data,” a descriptive term of relatively recent origin, has as one of its key effects the radically increased harnessing of ever-more-personal information accrued in the course of pedestrian life. This essay takes a historical view of the amassing and sharing of personal data, examining the genealogy of the “personal” and psychological elements inherent in Big Data through the case of an American Indian man who (the reigning experts claimed) gained the status of the most documented single individual in the history of modern anthropology. Although raised a traditional Hopi Indian in Oraibi, Arizona, Don Talayesva (1890–1985) gave over his life materials to scientists at prominent universities and constituted in and of himself a “vast data set” long before such practices were common. This essay uses this pioneering data set (partially preserved in the Human Relations Area Files and its web-based full-text database, eHRAF) to examine the distinctiveness of Big Data in relation to the personal, psychological realm; finally, a comparison is made with twenty-first-century data-collection practices of quantifying the self.
Rebecca Lemov‘s beautifully written Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (Yale University Press, 2015) is at once an exploration of mid-century social science through paths less traveled and the tale of a forgotten future. The book is anchored around the story of Harvard-trained social scientist Bert Kaplan, who embarked on, in her words, a dizzyingly ambitious 1950s-era project to capture peoples dreams in large amounts and store them in an experimental data bank. While unique in scope, Kaplan’s project can be characterized as the culmination of efforts to apply techniques of personality capture–projective testing, dream analysis, and life history–in cross-cultural research on indigenous peoples, an effort to account for the full spectrum of human life amidst the encroachment of modernity upon cultures based, for example, in oral traditions.
Richly documenting the entanglements of Kaplan and others in their attempts to render subjects as data, Lemov throws the transactional nature of anthropology into relief. A data point for an ethnographer can be many things for a research subject: cash for buying American niceties, a beer, a dream lost in the act of recounting, even a permanent mark of distrust. The book is also a history of a technology which never came to fruition: the futuristic reader for Kaplan’s Microcards was never realized, and the boxes of cards became dispersed and lost their value as a total archive of human personality. Lemov argues that we would do well to regard the fate of Kaplan’s database as a parable for our age by calling attention to the information loss upon which the technologies of documentation that saturate our present rely. What, then, will become of our compressed audio files, forgotten social media accounts, and backup hard drives stashed in the back corners of drawers?