As teaching finishes, the last of the marking is done and the exam boards wrap for the year I have a bit of time to reflect back on an academic year without flying. Various people have been asking me how it has gone and what I have learnt, so here are some initial reflections and thoughts on what next.

Last March, sat in Frankfurt airport en-route back from Warsaw I wrote a blog post explaining why I was going to make a decision not to fly. This was honestly one of the most unsettling things I’ve done as an academic and I still feel conflicted for reasons I will outline below. However my initial reasons for stopping flying still very much stand and I actually feel more settled and more convinced of the value of the exercise now than I did at first.

The decision came off the back of what I think, speaking to colleagues, was a pretty average year of international travel for a UK anthropologist. Unlike most of my colleagues I don’t have a fieldsite in another continent to where I live, but I had flown, in the preceding year, to conferences and workshops in Stockholm, Cork, Warsaw, Norway, Switzerland and the USA. I had also travelled to Portugal and Rome for holidays. These had been amazing trips – meeting inspiring colleagues, experiencing stunning landscapes, gaining new vantage points on global and local political histories. But, increasingly attuned to the scientific projections on projected climate collapse, the inexorable and ongoing rise in global climate emissions, the lack of any sustained conversation about climate change in our discipline or, at the time, in the public arena, and a realisation of the increasing role that air travel was likely to play in contributing to global climate breakdown, flying was coming to feel like a matter of living in bad faith. Rather than just feeling guilty, I started to entertain the thought – did I really need to fly? What would happen if I didn’t? And what might I learn about the social, political and interpersonal implications of that rather anodyne term ‘low carbon transitions’ by attempting to live without international air travel – the biggest low carbon transition that I could personally make. I realised the decision I was making was not one that anyone could make. I know that many of my colleagues have long term fieldsites, friendships, and family members located around the world. I also know that face-to-face interaction, being together and conviviality are crucially important if we are to know the world and its problems better and differently. But I also realised that from my position – family in Europe, permanent academic position, fieldsite in the UK – not flying was something I could do, and perhaps by doing it, it was something all of us, including those for whom it was not possible, might be able to learn from.

Stepping into a Movement

When I first wrote the blog post I knew of a few other academics and activists in Manchester who were also not flying, but I was not prepared for my rapid incorporation into an international network of scholars who are likewise questioning the built in assumption that flying is part of being part of a successful academic. Tweeting my initial blog post I found myself immediately signed up to the ‘climate champions club’, retweeted by @flyingless, directed to and becoming aware of public proponents of not flying like Peter Kalmus. Over the year I came to know about Greta Thunberg’s similar decision not to fly (something she is struggling with now as she is invited to talk to the UN in New York and the next COP meeting in Santiago, Chile). I became aware that in Sweden there is a thing called ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) and another term for ‘train bragging’ (tagskryt)! We’ll get to tagskryt in a bit, but flight shame really intrigued me. When I told colleagues I was not flying some told me that this was making them think about it too. Sometimes it led to an awkward silence, or discussions about their own circumstances and how difficult it would be to do the same. Sometimes I found it strange to later be in a group where discussions were dominated by talk about how much travel people were doing and where they had been and where they were going on their next research trip/holiday/conference. But interestingly, over time, other colleagues also subsequently told me of trips where they would have flown but they had got the train instead. PhD students began to articulate to me their own qualms about flying and we talked through how they were dealing with it – some using trains instead of flights for internal travel in the countries where they were working – others trying to combine trips to reduce travel. This social side effect of the experience of not flying was of course part of the point of the exercise – I never thought of stopping flying as individual act was going to make any direct different to climate change. But the speed with which I was drawn into an international social network and the immediate possibilities that not flying opened up as a form of activism surprised me. I had hoped, but not really seen evidence, that this kind of decision could have broader social and political effects. Now since I stopped flying I have seen both direct and indirect changes around me, from the one-to-one conversations mentioned above, to reports that as a result of public concern about climate change in Sweden there has been a 4% drop in passenger numbers from the 10 Swedish airports operated by Swedavia, whilst interest in European train travel has soared. These suggest to me that not flying – and other similar acts that anticipate the constraints that we might have to face in the future – can help generate the conditions of possibility for reimagining normative assumptions around the ethics and value of high-carbon infrastructures and in the wake of this reimagining, might bring about social change.

At present the public conversation around flying in the UK and in academia is still very marginal. Whilst the UK government announces a climate emergency in one breath they plan a third runway for Heathrow Airport in the next. The algorithmic response to my ‘not flying’ social media posts has been to feed me with adverts for the joys and opportunities offered by British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, images that remind me constantly of the centrality of air travel to stories about what it means to be fulfilled, successful, relaxed and cosmopolitan. But this has also highlighted how these stories are sustained by an infrastructure of advertising, big business and oil. Acknowledging this offers a reminder that these stories are not neutral, that they are crafted, that they are crafted with particular ends in mind (namely profit and growth) and that they entail relations of power, exclusion and inequality (see Bhimal for extended discussion of flying, race and inequality Moreover this recognition also highlights that the stories that offer a means to these ends are not immutable truths but are contemporary myths – myths that link consumption and commerce to the sense of self. What then, if flying were not the pinnacle of achievement for those who have made it? What if there were other stories we could tell about flying and its relationship to knowledge, equity and wellbeing. Might we find that flying could even be a barrier to achieving an answer to the ethical question of what it means to live a good life?

Slow Academia

In the autumn I received an invitation to go to Copenhagen to examine a PhD project. This was a first real trial for my resolve not to fly. As a result of not flying I had not gone to other conferences I might have otherwise have attended, like the American Anthropological Association meeting in San Jose (a conference which ironically ended up being dominated by the smoke of the wildfires raging out of control in Northern California). With this trip to Copenhagen however, this was an opportunity to try not to forfeit travel but to travel differently. Instead of being away from home for a week to travel to the USA, what if I saw this trip to Copenhagen as a similarly significant trip – a week rather than two days, a major event rather than a quick hop across the North Sea? Later in the year I was to accept an invitation to Halle which I would take up in part because I could combine it with visiting family in Berlin. In the case of the Copenhagen invitation, thanks to supportive and enthusiastic colleagues at the ITU who paid for the train travel and covered an extra night in a hotel, we ended up extending the trip so as to organise a workshop (to build a curriculum on the Digital Anthropocene) and a book launch for my recent edited book Ethnography for a Data-Saturated World.

The way in which this trip both refigured the importance of travel and opened up a different kind of time with colleagues has prompted me to think much more deeply about the relationship between air travel and the pace of academic life (and life more generally). I recently heard an analogy being made between academia and the ‘pacers’ of industrial factory settings – people who would be placed by factory managers on production lines to speed up the production rate of other workers. Academic promotions and success criteria are tied not only to international reputation but also to the metricisation and ranking of academic outputs which might be seen as our contemporary pacers, forcing us to work harder and faster, to travel more frequently and further, to apply to more and bigger research grants. Sitting for six hours on a train from Cologne to Hamburg, or chugging between Germany and Denmark on a ferry-train to spend three days with colleagues as the major trip of the year, was a surprising antidote to this hyperactivity of academic production. It was not just lower carbon than flying, it was also the anathema to the hyped up pace of academia for its own sake. I know other academics have talked about how productive train travel can be, and it is certainly true that I too used the time on the train to read and write. But what was more striking to me was not the productivity of the train ride but the time it opened up and the pace it slowed down. There is already a slow academia movement. Not flying is not really part of this conversation but perhaps it should be. In stopping flying I have certainly becoming more aware of the relationship between the exhaustion and burn-out of the academic and the exhaustion and burn-out of the planet. I have found not flying to be a way of re-pacing academic life, of slowing down thinking, of creating more space for conversation and even a way of reducing the physical pressure and onslaught on the body that flying generates. When I returned from a week of travel and talk in Copenhagen I felt none of the exhaustion of either an overnight trip to Europe, or a transatlantic week away.


Travelling by train instead of plane then, has actually been a rather positive experience. I do not miss the stress of the airport, the experience of being herded through line after line of surveillance and interrogation, the monitoring, the scanning, the checking and the bombardment to buy that an airport brings with it. Travelling for 14 hours from Manchester to Berlin with three children under 12 was surprisingly less stressful than dragging them through the rigmarole of airports and airlines in a more compressed 5 hour journey.


From tracing our route on an interrail map of Europe, to eating ice creams outside Frankfurt station, to creating sticker-zoo-worlds with my 5 year old on the train to Leipzig, travelling by train in Europe felt less monitored, more free, and more flexible than travelling by plane. Perhaps the train bragging I mentioned earlier points as much to the experiential possibilities opened up by train travel as much as the danger of a moralised sanctimoniousness about reduced carbon emissions that also potentially accompanies any ‘low carbon’ activity.

Of course, ‘not flying’ is not without its own difficulties, inequalities and exclusions. I could (and will at another point) write about the difficulties and challenges it has raised. When I tried to explore possibilities of virtually attending the next American Anthropological Association conference in Vancouver by proposing an experimental joint virtual/present panel for example this was rejected outright (as was a similarly focused executive session). This is particularly ironic as the title of the conference is ‘Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration and Justice’ ! More recently the challenge has come in the form of trying to work out the relationship between my decision not to fly and how it could, or should, inform UCL’s sustainable travel policy. But these difficulties have also become an impetus for imagining what a different kind of anthropology and academia might look like, and it is in this respect that so far, the experience has been most generative. Galvanised in part by the AAA rejection, I have begun to work with colleagues on other avenues for collaboration and conversation that don’t build in international flights as a given. I’ll be running a workshop at the ASA conference in Norwich where we will try to design a future flight-free gathering, one that I hope will address not only carbon emissions but also questions of diversity, access, and intergenerational opportunity. In August I will be joining a workshop on Socio-Cultural Carbon at the IT University in Copenhagen, embodied in the medium of an avatar(!). This has already prompted a discussion about how robotics, VR and other kinds of uses of digital media might be part of a speculative vision of what anthropological research and conferencing could look like in a world without planes, what kind of sociality it might engender, and what kind of worlds it might bring into being for people who might otherwise have been excluded from current conference formats. This brings me to my final point which is that I have come to see this whole exercise not as a demonstration of what other people should do, or what the right way of addressing climate change is, but as an exploration of what becomes possible when we bring a projection of climate changed future into the present. In some senses it is a way of building resilience in anticipation of the future. In another it holds the prospect of being a radical exercise in imagining our world differently.  I have started to think now of not flying as a conceit then, a way of saying what if there were no planes, no way of doing the business as usual version of anthropology that I find myself structured within. How we would respond? In starting to work out the answer to this question, I have found a new space for thinking about what it means to do anthropology and do academic work, a space in which I am beginning to explore with others new ways of reflexively critiquing and potentially transforming, the high-carbon version of knowing and acting that we have come to take for granted.



Prompted by this summer’s heatwaves, I have just contributed some thoughts on the Ethnographic Practice in Industry Conference (EPIC) blog about climate change and its struggle with different kinds of evidence. In an age of fake news and untruths, rumour, memes and automated stories, I argue that we need to talk less about truth and more about evidence – what it is, where it comes from and how it is established.

The blog post on climate and weather is available here:



From 8.30pm to 9.30pm this evening is Earth Hour and I am spending it in Frankfurt Airport, en route from Warsaw to Manchester. This is more than just an irony – it also feels like a turning point, the moment when I can no longer reconcile the understanding I have of the effects of flying on the planet with being on a plane. This has been coming for some time. I had already decided that I will stop flying from this September until December 2020. The reason for delaying until September is to honor commitments I have already made. The end date of December 2020 is arbitrary and may not even end up being an end date – but I have set a date because I want to treat giving up flying not as some kind of moral individual act, but as an exploration of what difference it actually makes to professional and personal life to not fly. I decided a few years ago not to initiate work visits that would involve flying but in the meantime I have received more invitations to speak than I can practically accept anyway, so that decision has ultimately made no difference to how many times I have been on a plane or where to. Now I want to push the issue further, to create both the impetus to really consider what it would mean for me not to fly, and to share that with others who may be coming to the same conclusion.

For some time it has been very clear to me that flying is a major contributor to climate change. Because of research I have been doing on climate change and its social and political implications in the UK, I have had the privilege of hearing Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre talk in unequivocal terms about the contribution that flying makes to rising carbon emissions (– Kevin Anderson speaking at Manchester’s Mayor’s Green Summit last week). Kevin is also very good at reminding his audience who it is that is taking those flights – primarily professionals, the most affluent, and that includes euro-american academics. But I have also been caught up in the recognition that anthropology is a discipine that is fundamentally defined by air travel. It is not only that anthropologists travel to academic conferences to share snippets of their years of work in the field, meeting, socialising and conversing with colleagues from around the world – something I of course value. It is also that the very subject matter of anthropology depends on the ability of anthropologists to travel the world. As an individual act, giving up flying might indicate a particular political stance, but how is it in any way consistent with what it means to be an anthropologist? Given the importance of travel to the discipline, would it make any difference? At best wouldn’t it just be irrelevant given I am a member of a discipline where flying has become so much a part of what it is to produce anthropological knowledge? And at worse might it not be an oversimplified imposition of a particular scientific way of thinking on a more multiple, more discursive and interpretive way of understanding the world that I have actively worked to promote for the past 20 years?

Last year, I ran a conference panel where one of the panellists, who is based in the US, joined us by skype because he had decided to make the decision not to fly, and we discussed his decision in the panel. In January, Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, published a blog post on anthrodendum arguing not just that there are individual reasons why we should rethink flying, but suggesting that the ethical code of the AAA fundamentally contradicts the carbon consequences of the annual jamboree that is the American Anthropological Association annual meeting. Hickel points out in this blog post that anthropology is a discipline that explicitly states in its code of ethics that ‘anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety of the people with whom they work’. And yet it is precisely those people with whom many anthropologists work – people in poverty, people in the global south, people who do not often get a voice in public debate – that are likely to be most affected by the knock on consequences of our flying on a changing climate. A famous aphorism often quoted in anthropology is the statement that anthropologist Ruth Benedict is supposed to have made that “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”. Whether this is accurate or not it is a sentiment that rings true for many anthropologists who hold up the necessity of attending to human difference as being at the heart of the anthropological endeavour. But are we really making the world safe for human differences if we are involved in practices that are predicted to prompt mass migration, conflict and the associated increases in social inequality? Hence, I think we need to start talking more about flying.

When Michel Serres pointed out in The Natural Contract over 20 years ago, that during the era of modern politics humans have been embroiled in a realm of discussion in the human domain, meanwhile they are blindly being consumed by a bigger politics that entails natural processes, he could have been talking about anthropology. However recent debates in the discipline that are creating a rupture in that view that I think actually makes talking about flying more possible. Firstly, the ‘ontological turn’, has opened anthropology up in new ways to material processes and to the requirements to attend to materiality as it presses in on social relations. The conference I am returning from was on Materializations of the Political. The questions I am raising here about flying are also questions about how to materialise the politics of anthropology, in ways that seem to me entirely consistent with an anthropology of ontology, infrastructure, feminist techno-science and multi-species ethnography.

Political theorists Andreas Malm in his book Fossil Capital and Timothy Mitchell in his book Carbon Democracy have redescribed the politics of the 20th century in terms of such material relations and their social and political effects. I wonder if we could tell a similar story for anthropology, exploring the way in which the knowledge we have produced as anthropologists, including both the insights and also problems with this knowledge, have been generated by the conditions of possibility of cheap, secure, easily available air travel. Early ‘armchair’ anthropologists did not travel by air, but then the life of an academic at those times was very different to today, as were hierarchies of power, beliefs about the nature of cultural difference, and expectations about what anthropological knowledge should do. It could be argued that air travel democratised the production of anthropological knowledge, creating connections, blurring boundaries between the insides and outsides of anthropological knowlege, inculcating an attention to the discursive production of cultural difference as a central preoccupation of the discipline. But flight-enabled anthropology is not without its drawbacks – in the US there are now more anthropology PhDs than there tenure track positions, the postcolonial critique of extractive anthropological knowledge has been well rehearsed and there is a growing movement of indigenous anthropology in many parts of the world that pushes back against a more mobile euro-american anthropology. Could a push-back against the automatic embrace of frequent and cheap flights not also be part of a critical conversation about the politics of anthropological knowledge? By seeing what happens when I and others don’t fly, might we not learn something about what carbon-anthropology is, and what post-carbon anthropology might be? Because ultimately the decision not to fly is for me an opening to a question that I think concerns most anthropologists – what kind of world do we want to live in? This points to another theoretical debate within current anthropology that seems pertinent to the decision not to fly – the anthropology of ethics. For not flying is far from a simple act but entails all kinds of questions about one’s ethical commitments – as a scholar, as a citizen, and for me as a sister, daughter, friend and mother.

A personal decision not to fly is particularly difficult because of the effects it has on others I care about. My sister and her family currently live in Berlin and my brother has just moved to Turin. These are reachable by train, but train travel across Europe is expensive for a family of five, and time consuming too. There are of course question-marks over the difference it will even make not to fly, counted in terms of carbon emissions. One journey by train may end up not making that much difference in terms of contribution to global warming. But committing to travelling by train rather than on a plane is a difference that will make a difference in other ways that will likely be more significant than the difference made to global CO2 levels. For not flying will demand an attention to the relationship between work and family, a reconsideration of what travel is, how time is spent and with whom. We have good friends and family in the USA. How will we deal with that? Will a personal decision not to fly simply shift responsibility onto others who will be expected to travel to us? There are no generic answers to these questions and I don’t know how they will play out personally but by not flying I aim to put myself in a position to find out. One reason why I have put a limit of December 2020 on this decision is in recognition of how potentially fraught this decision is. Nonetheless it seems clear that the alternative is just as fraught as well if for other reasons and at a different scale.

One of the problems I see with the way in which climate change is treated in the UK is that it is so frequently cast as a matter of individual personal choice, and therefore some kind of reflection on the subject as a holder of a fixed and stable identity. This has also been something that has put me off making the decision not to fly. Ultimately though, am I choosing not to fly? Perhaps. But in making that choice I am climbing on the shoulders of others who have done the same. I also recognise that by acting I am imposing myself on other people and things in ways that will have consquences and will act back on me in ways I cannot anticipate. This was one reason I hadn’t stopped flying, but now it is the main reason I have, for it is the only way I can see of forcing climate change to affect me personally and to make me aware of where things could change. So, for example, if an ‘esteem indicator’ for career progression is invitations to international conferences, and I am personally disadvantaged by this, it creates the impetus to question and challenge such regulations. The recent strike of UK academics has revealed the power of refusal and its capacity to generate a broader critique of a system that is fundamentally broken. Perhaps something similar could come out of a refusal to fly?

So I do hope that this will make a difference, though the precise difference I want it to make is crucially and intentionally not entirely clear to me. Ultimately I do not really think it is in my gift to decide that difference, rather it needs to emerge out of a collective conversation about the kind of world that we as anthropologists (and mothers and sisters) want to live in. However, as Margaret Mead famously said never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Even if its not clear what that world should be like, I am pretty sure it is not the one that will result if we all continue to fly.

Last week I wrote a comment piece for the Corsham Institute’s Observatory for a Connected Society app asking ‘What can Anthropology tell us about data in the 21st Century?’

You can view it at along with their other content, or read it here:

What Can Anthropology Tell us about Data in the 21st Century?It is a truth commonly expressed that we live in a world saturated by digital data. Data is no longer just the outcome of scientific research or administrative functions of government but is now created as a bi-product of every person’s interactions with the internet, transport infrastructures, institutions, news media, supermarkets, banks and the built environment. Confronted with this ever-increasing mass of digital data there is both excitement and consternation about how this data should be analysed and what the implications of its use will be for the future of work, knowledge and social relations.

My academic focus is on data and its social implications and I see a crucial role for anthropologists in helping others make sense of this data-saturated landscape. Anthropologists are uniquely equipped to explore the promises and expectations of data and to understand their effects. Far too often, commentaries on the social promise or cultural dangers of data are dominated by technicist accounts that fail to appreciate the way in which digital data, even in its most-posthuman manifestations (e.g. general artificial intelligence or advanced robotics) remains a deeply human endeavour.

When we approach data from the perspective of technical systems we are confronted with what looks like enormous complexity – algorithms working invisibly in the background using things like Bayesian techniques for determining probabilistic relations, gaussian prediction and github repositories of code running to hundreds of pages to produce links and insights that encourage us to buy, click and skim (1). But what if we were to try to understand data from the position of the people that work with it and manage it? What other kinds of understandings of this data landscape would this elicit?

This is what anthropologists are beginning to do. Anthropologists are sometimes criticised for pointing out that things are simply ‘more complex’ than they seem at first sight. But in the case of digital data, I would argue that anthropology offers a way of re-describing data, through an attention to human practices and ideas, so as to make it less complex and more understandable for those who are not steeped in the technical languages of coding, mathematics or computer engineering.

Anthropologists are experts in translation. The classic image of the anthropologist is that of the intrepid explorer visiting far-off cultures to bring back tales of the exotic rendered comprehensible through social analysis. In fact, today you are as likely to find an anthropologist in a science laboratory, a government office, a protest march or a community allotment as you are to find them hanging out in a Papua New Guinean village. But whether doing research in far off places, or in social situations that seem closer to home, anthropologists are always cultural translators, turning the seemingly incomprehensible dimensions of the worlds they study into terms that other anthropologists, and hopefully others who are not anthropologists, can begin to understand.

Being an anthropologist invariably involves learning another language. To do our research we must become competent members of a community learning the terminologies, rituals and practices of the group of people we are studying. This process of gaining intimacy with a community, learning social and linguistic cues and becoming versed in the techniques that are often taken for granted can be an awkward experience, full of surprises and mistakes. Rather than papering over these failures and mistakes, or erasing the aspects of people’s activities that don’t fit preconceived ideas anthropologists use these experiences as a way of interrogating the difference between their own assumptions about the world, and the assumptions of those with whom they are doing research.

This allows anthropologists to unravel and unpack what is often taken for granted. When people say digital technologies will lead to the end of work, the perplexed anthropologist who might understand work as a social contract, will wonder how it can be that such a social contract could be imagined as disappearing. This might entail asking whether work for the person making such a statement is indeed a social contract, and it is that which is disappearing, or whether it is seen as something else which is disappearing, in which case the question becomes, what? With these kinds of questions, we begin to unravel what’s taken for granted in the everyday, allowing us to better understand just what it is that people fear or desire about digital technologies (skills, identity, continuity, community, safety, security?) and where those worries and hopes come from (sense of self, ethical stance, moral interpretation?).

The proliferation of digital data, and the challenges it poses, offers a fertile terrain for this kind of anthropological work. The current enthusiasm for blockchain, machine learning and predictive analytics, raises questions about precisely what it is that is driving this interest and what the effects of this enthusiasm are. In relation to blockchain, media studies scholar Lana Swartz (2) has shown, using precisely the analytic approach described, how interest in blockchain is sustained not only by the technical capacities of the distributed ledger but also operates as what she calls an ‘inventory of desire’. Focusing on what those working with blockchain actually say, rather than on an idealised version of what blockchain is supposed to do, Swartz shows the importance of liberal values of freedom, decentralisation, and privacy that underpin enthusiasm for blockchain, fuelling investment and development in the technology.

Similar analyses have been done on algorithms and the imaginaries that sustain them. Susanne Thompson and colleagues have recently gone so far as to suggest that algorithms might be usefully understood as ‘fetish’ objects. As they make clear, within anthropology, fetishes are understood not as ‘indices of false thinking’ but rather as ‘material objects that stabilise ongoing social relations because people invest them with [an] effect [of simultaneous belief and disbelief]’. Algorithms, they show, gain part of their power from their ability to both confirm people’s understanding of how the world should be, and to produce awe and wonder when they actually work.

This combination of belief in, and disbelief of, technology is perhaps most clearly evident in forms of data analysis that are oriented to the replication or improvement of human-like abilities. Machine learning, artificial intelligence and humanoid robots all entail a fetish-like form of engagement. Developers of intelligent machines draw explicitly on ideas about abilities that are derived from particular understandings of human being such as cognitive and rational capacities, haptic interaction, environmental awareness and logical deduction. When aspects of these qualities become replicated in computational machines, there is often a certain disbelief, awe and wonder expressed at the spectacle of a machine acting like a human.

The interest in finding ways of making machines act like humans have a long historical precedent which helps remind us that not everything about advanced data technologies in necessarily new. Current dreams of automation can be traced back to intricate automata made by Viennese clockmakers in the 17th century, through to Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s chess playing Mechanical Turk which turned out to be what Steven Shapin has insightfully described as device in which a human, pretended to be a machine that was pretending to be human (3). It is no coincidence that Amazon’s mechanical turk rests on a similar idea, whereby human beings stand in for machines that themselves are meant to replace humans.

For anthropologists, one of the most fascinating things about digital data is that the work to manage and manipulate it uncovers taken for granted ideas about human capacities. As well as being based on ideas about human capacities, computational machines are also shaping what we expect it means to be a human. Industrial manufacturing led to people becoming reimagined as units of productive labour. Now algorithms are leading to a rethinking of identity as a composition of experiences and preferences, and the gig-economy is making people rethink themselves not as units of labour but as marketable commodities in a shifting and unstable landscape of work. Whilst futurist predictions about digital data often worry about how computers are set to replace human beings, anthropological studies show how what makes us human is already being shaped by digital data and the machines that analyse it. The question is not whether robots or artificial intelligence will replace human beings but which kind of human they will replace, and with what implications.

In a report, published by the Royal Society and the British Academy last year, a call was made to ensure the governance of data puts human flourishing at its core. For anthropologists this is crucial, not just because it brings human beings into discussions about the benefits and dangers of digital technologies, but also because it allows us to talk about how digital technologies are framing what is valuable – about data, about machines but also, crucially, about what it is to be human in the world today.


  1. Adrian Mackenzie, 2017 ‘Infrastructures in Name Only: Identifying effects of Depth and Scale’ in Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Eds) Infrastructures and Social Complexity
  2. Lana Swartz. 2017. “Blockchain Dreams: Imagining techno-economic alternatives after Bitcoin.” Another Economy is Possible, edited by Manuel Castells. Polity Press.
  3. Mechanical Marvels, Clockwork Dreams, BBC 4 documentary, Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)



My paper on affective infrastructure has just come out in the latest issue of Public Culture.

The paper builds on the work on Roads that I was doing with Penny Harvey. It attempts to cut a course between the debates on ontology and political anthropology by exploring how to address the role of material engagements in the formation of political subjectivity. Ethnographically it looks at affective responses to the construction of the Iquitos-Nauta road in the North of Peru. Contact me if you want to read it.


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I am leading a research group at the moment called SLOM:Lab (Social life of Methods Lab). This is a blog post I wrote for the website last  November.

Writing this post two days after Donald Trump’s election as US President, and in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, questions about the relationship between methods and politics seem more important than ever. In this post I outline a new project I am working on that will entail research in a social space in which ‘Brexit’ is a live topic – the coastal estuarial landscape of the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy that crosses the boundary between The Wirral which voted ‘remain’ and North Wales that voted ‘leave’. However I chose this as a research site long before Brexit, identifying it initially for the way in which it constituted a rather different set of political relations not between leavers and remainers but between economy and environment. My hope for the project going forward is that by focusing not on Brexit per se, but, as originally intended on the place of data practices in navigating relations between economy and environment, we might be in a position to provide some different languages for talking about contemporary politics and some alternative methods for engaging relations that no longer neatly divide along class, race or left/right political lines.

Over the summer I have been doing some pilot research towards a research collaboration with Damian O’Doherty (Manchester Business School) and Marco Ferrari (Folder Visual Research Agency). We are interested in exploring how a combination of ethnographic research, data analysis and information design might be deployed to provide insights into what constitutes liveable landscapes under conditions of environmental and economic strain.

We have found it highly productive to situate this question in relation to a specific field site – the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy, that straddles North West England and North East Wales.

This tidal estuary, like many similar estuarial locations in the UK and beyond, is a place where questions about future liveability cast trajectories of economic development out into wild territories of rising sea levels, animal subjectivities and ethno-geological histories. Projections of economic futures to inform infrastructure development here sweep out across a wilderness of mudflats and marshland. As they do so they become caught in the wilds of industrial nature with all the agentive complexity that the landscape contains. Here in the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy spectres of financial accumulation and energy extraction rub up against the materiality of particulate sedimentation: sandbanks, mudflats and dunes that have emerged out of a process of non-human accretion in a slower temporal register to the hyperactive circulations and accumulations of financial capital. Natures intertwine with economic models to produce foraging economies, tourisms of beauty and dreams of conservation but also a landscape of extraction, contamination and transportation. The estuary brings together and entangles economy and environment in ways that trouble the central dualisms that are normally deployed in the description of what might constitute a liveable life. Our project is thus not only an inquiry into the question of who gets to define liveability (economists or conservationists, policymakers or local residents), but also a study of how liveable and unliveable lives emerge out of situated relations of material and informational entanglement.

In the spirit of SLOM:Lab and an acknowledgement that methods make worlds, one of the things we are trying to do in this project is not only to describe but also to participate in the practice of producing this liveability.  Central to this project is an attempt to find languages or concepts that can help us move beyond a dialectical view of environment and economy – where we remain locked in a back and forth between texture and numbers, nature and culture, abstraction and thick description. We start from the position that it is it insufficient to see environment as the basis of economy, or the economy as determinant of environment and we are committed to exploring modes of description and analysis that elicit alternative relational trajectories that require different modes of representation and different practices of participation.

Our research is in part a project of working out how to participate in the question of liveability by producing our own interventions that cross cut the kinds of divides that are constantly produced in the question sustainable livelihoods. We intend to do this by conducting an ethnographic project which takes as its starting point not community, nor place in any straightforward sense, but rather the implications and potential of practices/methods of data-modelling around which the estuary is being composed. Part of this project is understanding the data practices that are already at play and making these more visible. Another part of the project is bringing alternative data practices to bear on this estuarial space.

On the one hand then we intend to study data practices that inhere in things like the “bird-food model”. Taking this model as what I have recently taken to calling ‘an ethnographic probe’ and tracing the relations that become made and compromised by such models our aim is to ask questions about how different worlds get made, brought together and held apart. What understanding of livelihood comes to the fore when we begin to describe the involvement of ex-fishermen and their wives in both data collection and the maintenance of buoy-based monitors?


What story can we tell of sustainable living when we consider how the number of oystercatchers attracted to the estuary is held in tension with migrations of labourers from South Wales who come to the estuary to fish for local cockles, displacing the labour of fishermen from the local area? How do data tables, digital sensors, and website that grid and connect information interplay with the movement of vessels, salmon and sediment in the estuary? How might this be described, visualised and made newly present in the estuary itself?

Conceiving of data relations not as the simple imposition of one logic on another but rather as an instance of worlds in composition we have also been led to ask what role counter or alternative data practices might play in composing the estuary anew both for us and for those who live there. How as ethnographers might we produce our own ‘ethnographic probes’. Working with Marco Ferrari of Folder, a design/art /data architecture research agency, one of the aims of the project is to develop a mode of data-ethnography where the participatory mode of ethnography is brought together in the design of equipment that can elicit alternative relations, descriptions and modes of engagement between anthropological researchers and the worlds we research. In this tidal estuary might we find ways of measuring and mapping tidal flows and economic movements, for example, in ways that illuminate the interplay between tides and different kinds of lives? Who would we need to talk to and work with to do this? What effects might it have?

We are at the stage of reading and assembling examples of those who have begun this work before us. I see this very much as a continuation of the work of SLOM:Lab, a project that is explicit about taking methods not just as descriptions but as ways of world making. I hope that by being bold and experimental in devising different methods, this project will take the question of the social life of methods forward into explicitly political conversation about what world we live in and how we might participate effectively in its reconstitution.

Further information about the research project can be found here



UCL Department                       Anthropology

Project                                            Workplace Design in the Digital Age

Duration of studentship       3.5 years (to start 01 October 2016)

Award                                              Subject to AHRC eligibility criteria, the scholarships cover tuition fees and an annual grant (stipend) towards living expenses. The 2016/17 value of the stipend is likely to be £16846 (including London weighting). The scholarships also include an additional £6000 to cover costs associated with field research and collaborations with the industrial partner.


Research studentship

The UCL Department of Anthropology is delighted to announce a fully funded collaborative doctoral studentship on Workplace Design in the Digital Age. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to conduct collaborative ethnographic fieldwork with the design and engineering firm AECOM and their client organisations as part of a project to better understand changing work practices in the digital age and their implications for workplace design.


The research project:

The project ‘Workplace design in the Digital Age’ will be supervised by Dr Hannah Knox, Lecturer in Digital Anthropology and Material Culture at University College London, in collaboration with Hilary Jeffery, Regional Director for Strategy Plus, AECOM’s research division. The project emerges out of a shared interest in the way in which digital technologies are reorganising people’s experiences and practices of work. As digital technologies make activities that we have conventionally labelled ‘work’, blur with other spheres of life (family, leisure, community) new questions are raised for both workplace designers and for social scientists about the very idea of what work is. For workplace designers these changes pose a particular challenge: for if work is no longer a place, what is it? And if workplaces are no longer the objects of design, then what does this do to the methods and expertise of designers? These challenges also provide a broader opportunity for anthropological questions to be posed as to what digital technologies are doing to both work and to design as a social practice. What is work and what is design in the digital age? Who or what affects people’s experiences of work? What are relative roles of technologies, social practices, infrastructures and built environments in determining people’s experiences of work? And who or what has the capacity to transform worker experiences in the digital age?


The successful candidate will spend 14 months conducting fieldwork with AECOM and their clients. Up to 6 hours a week during the period of fieldwork will be spend collaborating directly with AECOM on their projects and learning how to incorporate ethnographic research findings into workplace design processes. By the end of the studentship it is anticipated that the candidate will be able to successfully conduct both academic and applied anthropological research. An extra six months funding is provided for the development of a methodological toolkit and a series of position papers which will explore the potential for ethnographic research to inform design practice.


In addition to participation in AECOM activities during field work, the successful candidate will also be expected to fully participate in the stimulating intellectual environment at UCL including the Anthropology department’s research training seminar. The student will be part of the material culture section of the anthropology department at UCL where there is a lively research culture in topics including digital anthropology, design anthropology, and the anthropology of architecture.


The studentship will run for 3.5 years from 01 October 2016. This includes an additional six months of funding on top of the standard AHRC PhD funding, to support the development of a methodological toolkit and a position papers on the role of ethnography in workplace design.


Person specification


We are looking for a highly motivated student with a strong academic record at undergraduate and masters level, who will relish the opportunity of combining academic research on this topic with involvement with an international design and engineering consultancy. We would welcome students with a strong background in anthropology, and a demonstrable interest in digital technologies, work design, and applied anthropology. The appointee will be expected to attend relevant training courses within UCL.


It is expected that applicants will have a good first degree (minimum 2.1 or equivalent) in anthropology or a related discipline, and be due to complete a Masters degree by no later than September 2016




The successful candidate must meet AHRC eligibility criteria. Full details concerning eligibility are available from the AHRC website:


The studentship funding is subject to final confirmation by the AHRC.


The successful candidate will be required to complete a UCL research student application on-line ( in order to enrol at UCL and be formally registered to receive the studentship.


How to apply


Please email your application in pdf format to Martin O’Connor ( who is the departmental administrator for UCL Anthropology. Please include a full CV and a piece of work (c. 5,000 words) from your masters or a related dissertation, along with a statement (750 words) describing how you are qualified and prepared for the position and how you would approach the proposed area of research.


Please arrange for TWO academic referees to write confidentially to Dr Hannah Knox, c/Martin O’Connor; to be received no later than the closing date. References can be emailed.


Informal enquiries should be sent to Dr Hannah Knox ( or Hilary Jeffrey (


Closing date                                            DEADLINE EXTENDED TO: 5pm on Friday 29nd April 2016.






Screencap of ruby, mmm tasty

On another digital note, I am really pleased to see the fantastic Digital Ontology collection of essays that Antonia and I collated is now up on the Cultural Anthropology website: Thanks to all our contributors and their reflections on databases, search engines, monitoring, commuications, digital museum artefacts and more….

The collection is part of the wonderful Fieldsites section of the Cultural Anthropology site that publishes lively conversations that are happening in anthropology. The essays we put together came out of two workshops we organised in London in the 2014/15 academic year.

We kick off the collection like this:

It might be argued that anthropology has come late to the question of whether there is an ontology to the digital. Although scholars in software and media studies have long described the logical structure of digital media, anthropologists have tended to critique such accounts as overly generalized, focusing instead on the local specificities of technology use. The aim of this Theorizing the Contemporary series is to provide an interface between these positions. We suggest that anthropology’s recent turn to ontology offers the potential of expanding the anthropology of the digital in a way that allows us to attend to ontological questions without falling into the trap of universalizing claims.

See the full collection here:

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I’ve been running a course at UCL this term called Digital Infrastructure: Materiality, Information, Politics and the students have been uploading blog posts each week on an infrastructure of their choice. That have been considering and thinking about their example in relation to course readings on the anthropology of infrastructure. I’m really impressed by many of the fascinating examples they’ve come up with: from theatre pieces designed by algorithms, to Amazon’s workplace tracking technologies, to Singaporian lifts and their unforeseen effects. To see the amazing range of topics, objects and agents we can look at through the lens of an anthropology of infrastructure visit

Antonia Walford and I have a panel at this year’s Association of Social Anthropologists conference in Durham exploring the idea of Digital Enviromentalisms. Deadline for paper proposals is the 15th February and proposals should be submitted here:

P18 Digital Environmentalisms

Environment and energy crises have brought anthropological questions about how humans relate to nature into conversation with concerns to explore the material bases of contemporary political and economic life. Anthropologists working on this interface have shown that such global processes are the outcome of multi-scalar interactions between dynamic material arrangements, human and non-human relationalities, and industries, societies and economies. However, importantly, these global environmental processes are increasingly materialised, manipulated, and mediated by complex informational infrastructures. Digital sensors and databases measure, order and evidence environments in complex and unstable ways; models shape environmental presents, futures and pasts; and environmental data visualisations and products are called upon by diverse stakeholders, from climate sceptics to indigenous activists to anthropologists themselves. This panel will explore what happens to anthropological approaches to energy and the environment when we pay attention to the role of digital technologies in the process of human-environmental becoming.

What part do digital techniques play in the way in which people imagine and engage environmental processes?
How does an attention to digital environmentalism provide a way into a more nuanced description of the interplay between ontology and epistemology, materials and symbols, or humans and natures?
Can the study of digital technologies and practices in other social settings help us understand the processes we confront in digital environmentalism?
And finally, how does an attention to digital technologies disrupt and re-situate claims as to the role that anthropology should play in the study of environmental and energetic crises?