An anthropology of ideas

Eric Walker, August 30, 2020

In this post we’ll take a look at how ideas and their relationships with one another emerge naturally as a consequence of trying to organize a large number of links to news articles and web pages on the internet.

Anthropology is an academic discipline that has sought to document the lives, ideas and beliefs of different groups of people. Field research for an anthropologist would often consist of her taking up residence with a group of people living in a part of the world relatively untouched by the social and economic influences of modern society, getting to know people and recording in minute detail what they did and how they lived. These notes would then become the data for the anthropologist’s subsequent attempt to distill what was observed into a coherent account of the thinking, beliefs and motivations of the group among whom she was a guest.

The field of anthropology has been surrounded in controversy for decades, emerging as it did from within the context of colonialism and only gradually examining its methods and assumptions. But the idea behind the practice of field observation is an interesting one for our purposes here. The idea was that towards the end of the fieldwork the anthropologist would take the big pile of observations she had collected over several months or years and sort it into smaller piles. She would then go through these smaller piles of data and sort them into even smaller piles. Eventually, set out before her there would be a number of small piles of notes from which some recurring categories and themes would naturally emerge. The skilled anthropologist sought to let the data guide her in such a way that the account would practically write itself, largely independent of the preoccupations and assumptions she carried with her at the start of the fieldwork.

Along these lines, we can wonder how an anthropology of ideas might work. I’m thinking of the ideas we use every day, encountered in the news and on the internet and in books. Here’s one way that it might work. As news articles have come in about the Covid-19 pandemic, at first we throw them all into a single pile. Eventually that pile gets too big to be useful, so we look back over it and notice some themes. These news articles are about the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, and these ones are about the pandemic in China, and these other ones are about the pandemic in North America, and these other ones are about the symptoms and characteristics of the illness itself. So we go back over the news articles and toss each one into one of the new subtopics, perhaps leaving alone one or two items that didn’t really fit into any of them. Over time, we add new articles that we come across into one of these four subtopics (Covid-19 in Europe, Covid-19 in China, Covid-19 in the Americas, and the symptoms and characteristics of Covid-19), until one day some of the subtopics are again too large and unwieldy to be useful, at which point we repeat the process and tease apart further subtopics.

Here we have used a bottom-up approach to arrive at a useful categoreal scheme for organizing what we’ve been reading in the news and on the internet. The scheme of topics has arisen organically, and we largely tried to stay out of the way by not anticipating what what new subtopics would be needed in advance, instead deferring the creation of any new subtopics until a time when it becomes necessary because an existing topic is getting too large. The subtopics emerged organically in the service of keeping the contents of existing topics organized and useful. By following this approach we have in a sense practiced an anthropology of the ideas of modern society.

The topics that emerge from this practical field observation span all of human knowledge. An example of a very general topic is “Earth.” An example of a specific topic is “Neanderthals and modern humans.” An even more specific topic would be “PilT and PilU are homohexameric ATPases that coordinate to retract type IVa pili,” the title of a paper in an academic journal about which several news articles have been written. In some cases there may be many topics between the most general topics and the most specific ones. No matter how specific a topic, if there is a lot that has been or will be written about it, there is the possibility of yet more specific subtopics to keep things organized and useful.

This approach can lead to some interesting challenges that tell us something about how ideas are structured and how we think about the world. An example arises in connection with the topic “Earth.” Earth is one of a number of planets in the Solar System. The Solar System belongs to the Milky Way. The Milky Way is one of the many galaxies in outer space. So far so good.

But what has happened when we search within the topic “outer space” and find results relating to the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change and to fish? Doing a little investigation, the connection to fish, at least, eventually becomes clear. Fish are marine animals that are found in Earth’s oceans, and Earth is a planet that is part of the Solar System and the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is in outer space. Even though all of this is technically correct, it still feels like we’ve done something wrong, and we resist the notion that the topic of “fish” and associated items should appear with search results within the topic of “outer space.” There does not appear to be a way to make this result intuitive, and so to keep search results useful we suspect that we will need to separate out two topics relating to Earth, one as the context in which life occurs, and another relating to Earth as a planet among other planets.

We have unexpectedly learned something about how our ideas relate to one another using a mostly bottom-up approach involving sifting through lots of data and trying to make what we’ve read or glanced over easy to find again.

As a thought experiment, though, consider a scenario from a science fiction story, where Earth is one of many planets on which life is known to exist. In this scenario, where life is found on many planets, seeing the subtopic “fish” and its contents appear within a search of the topic “outer space” is not as counter-intuitive as it was before. We might even come around to the idea that this is how the topics should be organized. This thought experiment suggests the relationships between ideas are relative to the context in which we’re using them. As long as Earth is the only known planet on which life exists, finding subtopics relating to marine within the topic of “outer space” is counter-intuitive. Once Earth is just one of many planets known to have life, such search results now make more sense and may even be useful.

Discovering the relationships between ideas and the subtleties of those interrelations is part of what makes this amateur anthropological fieldwork enjoyable.