Digital Environments

Dealing with Data in Socio-Environmental Field Research

October 31, 2016

Alder Keleman Saxena

How do communication technologies—whether novel or newly extended—change the objects, subjects, and practices of environmental anthropology? Lately, I’ve been pondering this question, thinking particularly about two contrasting incidents from my fieldwork in Bolivia.

The first is the memory of sitting in scratchy-bright, high-altitude sunlight, playing with my clunky first-generation smartphone in a lull between surveys in mid-2014. Slipping a SIM card from the state-run cellular company, Entel, into my phone, I booted it up and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the long-promised, nationwide 4G signal, enabled by Bolivia’s newly launched satellite, Tupac Katari, had indeed arrived in this remote field site. Suddenly, I found myself able to send and receive Gchat messages with my husband, who was sitting in his office back in the States. I felt a little guilty about being distracted by my phone during this precious time in the field, but I was also happy to be able to let him know that I had arrived safely, to share some details about how my day had gone, and to confirm when he should expect to hear from me next. Though nothing in my surroundings looked different, I felt just a bit closer to home.

My enthusiasm for the new 4G coverage was checked a few weeks later, however, during another interstitial incident, following a group meeting in a community house in a valley some thousand meters lower in altitude. The agricultural development organization that hosted my project had just set up a new initiative to relay information via free text messages. They were in the process of enrolling farmers in groups to send and receive agronomic and market information, and they hoped that my project, which focused on the role of agrobiodiversity in household nutrition, could also put together a text-message group to disseminate information about the role of native crops in healthy diets. That afternoon, I was making a first attempt at enrolling female heads of household in the text-message service.

Sitting with one potentially willing participant, a woman in her 30s or older, I went through the series of steps necessary to enroll her phone number. These were tedious, even for me; they entailed a series of back-and-forth text messages, sending first a name, then a surname, then confirming receipt, all of which had to be written in a specific format of characters and numbers. Holding her simple, pre-smartphone mobile in my hand, I used the keypad to try to find the text-message setting. Neither she nor her preteen son seemed to follow what I was doing, and when I finally opened the text-message box, I realized that her inbox was full of unread messages. As we proceeded, it became clear that these messages were unread to some extent because she didn’t know how to access them, or perhaps even what they were. I gave a brief explanation as I finished subscribing her to the service but was left wondering about the utility of the exercise. Even if useful information were sent to her by SMS, would she be able to find, access, and read it?

In some sense, these two phone-related instances represent the classic “digital divide” (cf. Norris 2001). As a comparatively well-off and technologically savvy foreigner, I was able to use the new 4G coverage to access information and relationships even from Bolivia’s remotest areas. But for the woman I tried to enroll in the text message service, the combination of relatively old technology (a simple phone interface with a small, black-and-gray screen—not friendly for reading) and a lack of knowledge about the basic capabilities of that technology presented strong barriers to accessing information.

Whereas anthropological field sites like mine were once defined by their remoteness and removal from communication technologies, these days, data—whether big or small—is getting closer to the field. These changes are in some ways quite literally invisible, in that advances like Bolivia’s launch of the Tupac Katari satellite allow digital data to be transmitted to or through spaces where it was previously inaccessible, but with few changes observable to the naked eye. However, other changes are more tactile: simple, Android-based smartphone models are now available at prices accessible to lower-middle-class Bolivians, and pre-used or refurbished models are even cheaper. Often, these phones come with a Facebook app pre-installed, offering an easy way for people to start using social media, even without learning how to use a search engine, a Web browser, or other computer software.

Rural Bolivian households are eager to take advantage of these changes. In the remote field site where I was surprised to find myself able to access the 4G signal, there was no electric grid. But one household—neither extremely poor nor extremely rich—had invested in a solar panel, largely for being able to charge cell phones. The young male household head’s interest in technology struck me one day when I brought a small netbook computer to the field. He watched me work on this stripped-down laptop with interest and after a few minutes asked me how much it cost. I sheepishly gave him an honest estimate, worried that he was asking with the intent of sizing up just how rich this foreigner was. But then, he asked follow-up questions about where and how to purchase a similar machine and made it clear that he was thinking of buying one for his son, who would soon be entering school.

Remembering this experience, I wonder whether, as communication technologies become more accessible in lower-income, rural, and developing-country contexts, the “digital divide” may not begin to break along new lines. What would it mean for this family if their son grows up, like so many children in urban areas, with his fingers flying across a keyboard? How might regular access to the internet influence their management of farm resources, or their relationship to the surrounding mountain ecologies? And will their daughter be encouraged to interact with technology in the same way as her brother?

These developments could also potentially influence larger issues of participation and power, as evidenced by recent experiments with the use of near-real-time data collection in forest conservation projects. In Indonesia, a coalition of NGOs recently used footage from cameras mounted on drones to demonstrate the illegal deforestation of tropical forest for palm oil production. In Panama, an FAO-funded project recently sponsored members of indigenous communities to learn the use of drone and mapping technology for forest monitoring, with the intent of further enabling their participation in REDD+ schemes. In the Peruvian Amazon, the Amazon Conservation Association has undertaken similar projects, using drones to gather rapid-turnaround data on deforestation caused by gold mining and illegal logging. These efforts feed into the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), an effort developed in collaboration with remote-sensing researchers, allowing ACA’s staff to combine localized field data with larger satellite or aerial datasets. Ideally, the outcome of such efforts is to document and demonstrate deforestation on a rapid time scale, providing policy and enforcement agencies with the evidence and incentive to take action.

Like my encounter with 4G in the field, these examples raise some tricky questions. On one hand, a critical reading of these developments, taking into account asymmetrical relationships of power, would be wary of the potential for monitoring technologies to lead to increased surveillance of marginalized actors by more powerful ones. But on the other hand, if data is knowledge and knowledge is power, these technologies may also offer correctives to existing inequities. The forms of surveillance enabled by small, inexpensive drones, or even cell phone cameras, are not one-way conduits: just as the state may use them to monitor forest-dwelling communities, community members may also use these technologies to keep track of miners, loggers, or the state itself, and exert stronger claims to the management of their own resources.

Anthropologists have only recently begun to grapple with the implications of the expansion of digital communications for the study of human cultures (cf. Coleman 2010; Miller and Horst 2012). In environmental anthropology and political ecology, fields that have historically dealt with realms of culture and resource use conceptually located quite far from the internet, these discussions are still incipient.[1] But now, with possibilities of encounters with technology increasing even in remote areas, new questions merit consideration. How are communications technologies, and new access to these technologies, changing in our field sites? How are they changing what it means to inhabit a “remote” place? Do they influence the way our research interlocutors think about where they live and how their place relates to other places in the world? And what material impacts do the technologies themselves have on environmental resources? Do technologies, and knowledges that enter through digital portals, change local material practices?

And finally, how are we ourselves changing in response? How do technological shifts, including the accessibility of real-time, intercontinental communication, change the experience of anthropological fieldwork? How are they changing expectations of how we engage with communities, as well as expectations of how, when, and to what extent we share our research our interlocutors in the field?

On these points, I have more questions than answers. I anticipate discussing these issues and many more at Digital Infrastructures off the Grid: Barriers, Bridges and Best Practices of Doing Digital Fieldwork in Low Electricity and Internet Environments. This roundtable discussion is scheduled for the upcoming meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis. Join us!

Alder Keleman Saxena
is a doctoral candidate in the combined program in Environmental Anthropology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Yale Department of Anthropology, and the New York Botanical Gardens. Her research explores the role of agrobiodiversity in household food security and food culture in the Bolivian Andes.


[1] There are, nonetheless, examples of field-grounded studies examining the relationship between local knowledge, technology, and environment. For example, see Paul Robbins’s writing on the mapping of land-cover categories in India (Robbins and Maddock 2000; Robbins 2001) and Julie Velasquez-Runk’s writing on collaborative research for forest conservation in Panama (Runk 2014; Runk et al. 2010).


Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2010. “Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39, no. 3: 487–505. doi: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104945.

Miller, Daniel, and Heather A. Horst. 2012. “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” Pp. 3– 38 in Digital Anthropology, ed. Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller. London: Berg. divide environmental anthropology&f=false.

Norris, Pippa. 2001. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. divide&f=false.

Robbins, Paul. 2001. “Fixed Categories in a Portable Landscape: The Causes and Consequences of Land-Cover Categorization.” Environment and Planning A 33, no. 1: 161–179. doi: 10.1068/a3379.

Robbins, Paul, and Tara Maddock. 2000. “Interrogating Land Cover Categories: Metaphor and Method in Remote Sensing.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 27, no. 4: 295–309. doi: /10.1559/152304000783547740.

Runk, J. Velásquez, Gervacio Ortíz Negría, Leonardo Peña Conquista, Gelo Mejía Peña, Frecier Peña Cheucarama, and Yani Cheucarama Chiripua. 2010. “Landscapes, Legibility, and Conservation Planning: Multiple Representations of Forest Use in Panama.” Conservation Letters 3(3):167–76. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00093.x.

Runk, Julie Velasquez. 2014. “Enriching Indigenous Knowledge Scholarship via Collaborative Methodologies: Beyond the High Tide’s Few Hours.” Ecology and Society 19, no. 4: 37. 10.5751/ES-06773-190437 

Cite as: 
Keleman Saxena, Alder. 2016. “Digital Environments: Dealing with Data in Socio-Environmental Field Research.” EnviroSociety, 31 October.

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