An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

daniel-millerDr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has specialised in the study of material culture and consumption.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is an anthropologist who has contributed foundational theoretical and empirical work to the study of material culture. Even though Danny’s work is in academia, his research on consumption continues to influence the commercial world. As such, EPIC invited Danny to be one of the keynote speakers in London.

After reading Danny’s work for over a decade, I was beyond excited that I got to meet him at EPIC. In this interview, Danny tells us about his applied research on hospices and his current massive, multi-year, global social media research project that recently led up to what some called the “facebook kerfuffle.”

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

theory-of-shopping the-comfort-of-things2 417dC-J121L cache_46_ea_46eae409706da6c82c8046c5f650c494Did you ever imagine that your work would become required course reading and end up on almost every anthropologist’s and sociologist’s shelf?
It’s something of a paradox that anthropologists who specialise in social research are still often represented in the highly individualistic mode of popular culture which is devoted to the individual as a `name’. I come out of a more European tradition which is why there is very little out there about myself.  The work that I do and is found on people’s shelves is not really about me as an individual. I derive most of my ideas from a specific literature, mainly in anthropology, such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but also from many other academic disciplines, such as insights from the sociologist Simmel or the philosopher Hegel. In turn my own work will be reflected mainly as citations in other people’s academic writings and interests. So really I am part of a process, trying to employ an extraordinary legacy of ideas to help us understand our contemporary world.

Read Danny Miller's piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

Read Danny Miller’s piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

I guess one reason for the popularity is that word `contemporary’. While anthropologists tended to look to things with long traditions, I am currently writing about `snapchat’ and I think my work coveys my excitement and enthusiasm for the world we actually live in. By the same token I think people have responded to my desire to leave behind the more obscure jargons of academic and try to create a writing style that re-integrates the humanity and poignancy of people’s lives alongside our more abstract and academic concerns. I hope people enjoy this intense engagement, which is just fine, because I certainly do, and in some ways I feel I have only just started my work.

Hopefully this also reflects a wider realisation, that approaches such as `big data’ and perspectives modeled on science, look terribly important and promising. But again and again people come to the realisation that to understand the world there are no short cuts, and the best way is the patient qualitative and engaged research that is the delight of anthropology.

Why did you agree to speak at EPIC?

To be honest I knew very little about EPIC, and the main reason for my involvement was that my Department at University College London was partly hosting this year’s EPIC and so it was natural for me to be involved. Having said that I have been a long term supporter of acknowledging and fostering the relationship between anthropology and applied work, including commercial work. Most students in anthropology will end up somewhere in that sector and I think it is appalling the way many academic anthropologists try and ignore the importance of this relationship and pretend all their students are going to end up as pure academics.  As I argued in my talk I think anthropologists have just as much to learn from the applied sector as the other way around.

In your talk, you made a funny comment that you’ve always wanted to work with corporations but no corporations have ever collaborated with you. This seemed quite surprising given the relevance of your work to business.
I have had many enquiries from companies over the years. Typically they start by saying they are interested in my ethnographic approach. I explain a bit more about what ethnography is. But their facial expression changes when I mention that this required around 15 months fieldwork followed by a year’s analysis. They then ask me about doing a `quick ethnography’? I explain that for us this is a contradiction in terms. If it is quick it is not an ethnography. Other people working in commerce may need to make that compromise. There are many useful forms of short term research. But I have the freedom of being a professional academic and it is important for people to actually see the evidence for what a full length ethnography can give you that nothing else can match. So why would I ever want to limit that form of scholarship? I really do believe in it as the best form of social enquiry that we have ever discovered.

I guess some people think I am being `purist’ about trying to keep the word ethnography for long term fieldwork, or feel it is an affectation intended to keep anthropology more purely academic. I strongly contest this. There are just very good and clear reasons why ethnography takes so long and after supervising some forty of these projects I know the difference between what an ethnographer thinks is going on after nine month and then after fifteen months. Once you have done this, its fine to return to the same place for extra projects that can be done in a month. I have done this several times in Trinidad.

In the end no company has ever agreed to fund an actual ethnography so I have never ended up receiving any commercial funding. Having said that right I have realised we could do some amazing popular dissemination of the results of the GSMIS I describe below, that really would be of interest to people in commerce. So I have approached several companies for potential funding for that, but so far nothing has been forthcoming.

bluejeansI think there’s a lot of obvious work for you to do in corporations! Let’s start with Levi’s! You and Sophie Woodward published Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. Levi’s should be knocking on your door to commission more research! In your best dream, which organization do you wish would call you up to say, “Danny Miller, we have many problems. We need your services.”
I have a perfectly well paid job as an academic which means I do not have to undertake any projects for purely financial gain. I realise this is a privilege. I acknowledge it by only looking to projects that I believe will genuinely enhance the welfare of populations. There are so many things we really need to study, that are simply not going to make any money for anyone. If people such as me don’t do these studies, who will? I do not, however, share the prejudice of many UK academics that make them feel they can only work on state funded research. As long as the funding body has no influence on your freedom to publish the true results of your work, I am happy to collaborate with commercial funding. One of the most evident improvements in human welfare in recent years comes from new media and communications which are derived entirely from commercial institutions. There are many projects in that sector I would be entirely happy to support. But since I am not their employee, my concern will always be the welfare consequences for their consumers not the welfare of their shareholders.

It may therefore seem even more surprising that I decided to work in a sector such as denim. Surprising until you read our book about Blue Jeans. Because while most people concentrate on expensive fashions, we realised cheap jeans are simply the best example of mass global clothing we have. Furthermore no one seemed to have the least idea as to why we all wear them. They seemed to think cotton denim or the colour blue had some kind of functional advantage? So it was a real challenge to work out just why people everywhere wear blue denim jeans, but I really do think we got there in the end. In fact we do argue that there are also welfare issues of interest here. For example, in our book we show that when immigrant populations are being pushed to identify with either the place they come from or the place they live in, they can escape such an invidious question by wearing jeans that are not particularly associated with anywhere.

CTS-ScreencapNow in your talk, you talked about your research in an organization that doesn’t play a large role until later in life – hospices. Can you tell us a bit about that research?
The Hospice movement is incredible. We tend to think of innovation as implying technology and functionality. But sometimes it’s just about reconceptualising things. The Hospice movement, as it developed in the UK, simply meant no longer thinking about terminal illness as a medical issue in search of a cure. Rather it looks to making this as fulfilling a stage of life as possible.  Being less conservative they were more open than the medical institutions to also reconceptualising the role of communications. We interviewed both hospice patients and staff to examine the potential of each new media. For example Skype allows one to assess a patient who has had a fall without the stress of having to go to hospital. It also allows one to say a last goodbye to a dying patients for a relative living in Australia.

As the work progressed we started to see that there were deeper issues. So much of my report is about how we need to rethink `confidentiality’ to make it something once again determined by the welfare of patients. I had discovered that currently it is a major cause of patient harm. In fact it was the wider ethnographic study that I am currently involved in that helped me see that the English have very distinct ideas about privacy and that this problem of confidentiality was actually coming from these cultural issues not from actual functional or legal concerns. So once again I could see how applied and ethnographic work could help inform each other.

So how has the hospice internalized your insights? What kind of changes are they making?
This was the first time I had been involved in a purely applied project where the outcome was simply a list of feasible policy actions. I was therefore very pleased that this was well received. Firstly we presented at the Hospice. This was followed by an invitation from the national Hospice movement and publication in the international E-Hospice journal. At present we are looking into acting on these recommendations, for example, creating a peer to peer network where nurses can inform each other on innovative usage of new media by patients and their families.  So I am now quite optimistic that my report will be acted upon. You can find this here.

You’ve also done research on Facebook. In your book, Tales from Facebook, you examine how people the social network as changed people’s lives in Trinidad. In your video interview with George Miller, you make Facebook research sexy! Your book talks about affairs, sex, flirting, pain, stalking, voyeurism, divorces, and more! You found that the adoption of Facebook has made profound consequences in people’s lives.

tales_from_facebookIt’s an interesting question because we have a tendency to associate the words `profound consequences’ with things like the impact of Twitter on politics, while people sometimes dismiss these issues of sex and flirting with gossip as though they were more shallow concerns. But actually for most people most of the time the thing that is going to determine happiness or depression, fulfilment or frustration is the state of the core relationships. This is something I dwell on in the conclusion of the book The Comfort of Things. I had always worked with material culture partly because most people saw it as trivial and I saw it as profound.

The same argument works for social media. My research is based on getting to know people as well as possible. That is whole point about what ethnography does as opposed to interviews and surveys. As a result you are bound to end up sharing their concerns. At this point you realise that something like Facebook has real consequences, good and bad. It leads directly to finding partners but also to divorce, it really can help us know each other better but most people also use it for stalking. I found mobile phones in Jamaica made having extra-marital affaires easier. While getting tagged in photos in Trinidad made having affaires harder. But I have also learnt never to underestimate the desire for sex as foundational to what many people do much of the time. The point is to study things just to the degree to which they seem to matter to people.

When we were chatting in the bunker, The American Bar, you were telling me about your newly funded project on social media around the world . Can you tell us more?
I am probably known as an enthusiast. But I don’t think that enthusiasm has ever been as warranted as in my current project on the Global Social Media Impact Study. Just for once we are able to conduct a genuine comparative study. Right now we have nine incredibly effective ethnographers in eight countries – Brazil,. Chile, China (2), Italy, India, Trinidad, Turkey and the UK. Mostly this is 15 months on site research that will be finished in Sept 2014. Every month we work on a particular topic and compare our results. Last month was polymedia. I am an optimistic but even I never expected the consistency and quality of data that is coming out of these projects. I am hopeful that we will not only have the best available material on the use, nature and consequences of social media. We will also have some real depth about some of the most interesting transformations of the modern world including very rapid developments in places such as Brazil, China and India, which include vast movements of populations into the IT sector or the factory system.

You’re taking a very unconventional approach to this project. You have a blog where researchers in each country write updates from the field via blog posts. This is a very “live” approach to fieldwork! I’ve written a lot about the importance of researchers making their work more timely (#livefieldnotes), so I’m beyond excited that you have taken this route. Why did you do it?Screenshot 2014-02-12 17.03.46

I am one of those academics who strongly supports the movement to Open Access, I hope that all our results will end up as freely available to all. In the same spirit I see no reason not to share our findings as they arise. Our blog is quite an effective means to do this. So, for example, I just posted about what we might learn from the fall of Facebook, because I found school children in the UK had almost entirely abandoned it. But the post before that was about our Chinese fieldsites. What should we conclude when two sites are almost totally different and yet post quite similar material on social media?

Beyond this, however, the whole team has a very ambitious ideal for the future dissemination. Of course we hope to produce something like ten volumes of academic data. But we would also like to produce an Open Access university course (MOOC). Beyond that, we would like to produce a whole raft of popular forms of dissemination such as short animations, films taken at the fieldsites, phone spps and new kinds of visualisation to make our insights accessible to everyone. For example, we are well aware that even business executives will not read long volumes but may be drawn to short animations. Ideally we would also like to produce at least the popular material in all the languages of the countries we work in. But this may depend on gaining some funding, which is another reason, of course, I am interesting in creating these links to companies.

I had a whole series of other questions which were about you as a person, all of which you have ignored. Why is that?
I see myself as basically a field researcher and a writer. I really do hope that people both enjoy and gain original insights from this work. I adore my work and I am grateful to have any and every opportunity to try and convey this to others. But as I said in answer to your first question, my skills come from my professional training, and none of this makes me interesting as an individual outside of work. For that it would be better to go out for a drink.


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