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Structure & Function in Modern Society: On the Power of Social Anthropology in a Big Data World

With Dr Kate Sieck
13 Nov 2023
With Dr Kate Sieck

Anthropology is the original “big data” discipline. More importantly, it brought discipline to the collection, exploration and analysis of complex human data sets. Frustrated by the power of random travelogues and accounts to sway critical decisions, anthropologists have long used systematic research to correct biases and misinformation, and foster a more nuanced understanding of humanity.

As the world moves ever deeper into massive, partial, and often unstructured data sets, it feels like a time loop back to the years that inspired the foundational rigor of Social Anthropology. Algorithms and foundation models are the new adventurers and missionaries, culling data in a voracious yet haphazard fashion, with little nuance or attention to context, and reporting back things that are odd, biased, or simply wrong. Within this historical moment, it would seem anthropologists would be key players in the development and application of data sciences and AI. Yet our impact has been more modest than expected.

This talk invites us to return to the vision that inspired Social Anthropology, and re-consider the possibilities within theory for transforming data into useful, nuanced information. To set the conversation, the talk includes a case study detailing a collaboration between anthropology and data sciences to build a framework that shifted how businesses think about people. Using this as a springboard, the talk then delves into how a similar approach might be applied to Generative AI models, exploring how social theory might mitigate the worst elements within these platforms.

Dr. Kate Sieck is the Director of the Harmonious Communities Department at Toyota Research Institute. A classically-trained social and cultural anthropologist (UChicago, SOAS, Emory Univ), her work focuses on the relationships between people and the wider systems that shape their lives. Her dissertation research detailed the politics of class and parenting among families in the child welfare system, which she extended during her time in academia (Stanford Univ, Emory Univ). Across her professional career, she has blended social theory, systems thinking, and methods innovation to support clients and partners in industry and non-profit organizations. She is a founding member of the EPIC Equity Council, the Co-Chair for EPIC 2024, and the Course Instructor for “Using Theory in Research.