Cyborg anthropology

Cyborg anthropology

Cyborg anthropology is the discipline that studies the interaction between humanity and technology from an anthropological perspective. The discipline is relatively new compared to the broader field of anthropology, but offers novel insights on new technological advances and their effect on culture and society.



Cyborg anthropology originated as a sub-focus group within the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in 1993. The sub-group was very closely related to STS and the Society for the Social Studies of Science.[1] Donna Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto could be considered the founding document of cyborg anthropology by first exploring the philosophical and sociological ramifications of the term. More recently, Amber Case has been responsible for setting up the Cyborg Anthropology Wiki and explicating the concept of Cyborg Anthropology to the general public.

Object and methodology

The cyborg

The object of study for cyborg anthropology is the cyborg. Originally coined in a paper about space exploration, the term “cyborg” is short for cybernetic organism.[2] A cyborg is traditionally defined as a system with both organic and inorganic parts. In one sense, the use of any tool that functions as an extension of one's abilities qualifies one as a cyborg, but cyborgs are more narrowly understood to have actual, physical technological extensions/prostheses. Thus in the narrowest sense, examples of cyborgs would include people with pacemakers, insulin pumps, and bionic limbs. In the broadest sense, all of our interaction with technology could qualify as a cyborg (since the border of a cyborg system has no inherent limits, the universe could qualify as a cyborg). The narrowest sense of cyborg does not let us grasp the steadily expanding field for the practice of cyborg anthropology or investigate the surprising synergies of the human-non-human splices, while the broadest conception runs the risk of being so broad that the discipline cannot be defined. Thus cyborg anthropology studies humankind and its relations with the technological systems it has built, specifically modern technological systems that have reflexively shaped notions of what it means to be humans.


Another way to think about the object of study of Cyborg Anthropology is through the discipline of Cybernetics. Cybernetics, was originally the study of control, communication, and information, but it has mutated into a host of other disciplines that fall under the general label of Informatics. Informatics include the disciplines of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, bionics, Nanotechnology, Genetics, Artificial Life, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and the variety of sub-disciplines within these larger fields. These disciplines' commonalities are 1. their historical link with Cybernetics 2. their implicit metaphor of organism as machine, machine as organism, and everything as information. Cyborg Anthropology is particularly concerned with advances in the informatic disciplines and their implications for culture and humanity.


Anthropology, from the Greek “anthopos” (human being), is the study of humanity. A host of disciplines and sub-disciplines have arisen to study technology: STS (acronym shared by both science and technology studies, and science, technology and society), philosophy of science, history of science, communications, sociology of technology, etc. This section will compare cyborg anthropology to these disciplines to show where cyborg anthropology departs.

The philosophy of science tends to focus on epistemological questions of the meaning of scientific fact. One is likely to read David Hume's theories of causation, Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, and other thinkers that question the meaning of scientific knowledge.

The history of science, as the name implies, tends to focus on the development of science/technology and their influence upon history. As a sub-set of history, the history of science concerns itself with the origins of scientific knowledge. So for example, the history of science will explain the origins of modern science in Galileo, the project called Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and other notable moments when science and technology had transformative effects upon society and culture. STS actively employ systems analysis (with the concepts of homeostasis, positive and negative feedback loops, information) to understand society. It is directly situated within the paradigm that cyborg anthropology studies, and seeks to use this paradigm to study society as a cybernetic system. In this sense it is closer to sociology than anthropology. This being said, STS is perhaps the closest analogue to cyborg anthropology.[citation needed]

Anthropology generally differs from sociology in three (very) broad ways:

  • Anthropologists are more prone to comparative study of other cultures, while sociologists generally study their own society
  • Sociologists generally rely more on quantitative data/statistical data, while anthropologists more often use qualitative data/observation/participation to understand cultures.
  • Sociologists more often have an explicit normative program built into their research (partially stemming from point 1), while anthropologists generally try to regulate their analysis to ethnographical description and comparison.

These simplifications are useful ways to distinguish fields that are increasingly converging and becoming harder to distinguish.[citation needed]

Differences between digital anthropology and cyborg anthropology

Digital anthropology is more concerned with how digital advances are changing how people live their lives and consequent changes to how anthropologists do ethnography and to a lessor extent how digital technology can be used to represent and undertake research. Also, cyborg anthropology looks at disciplines like genetics and nanotechnology, which are not strictly "digital". Cybernetics/informatics covers the range of cyborg advances better than the label "digital".

Derivative qualities of cyborg anthropology

Diachronic analysis

Technology has always been implicated in the question of what it means to be human, but since WWII and the proliferation of informatic disciplines this question has gained whole new dimensions and horizons. Technology is radically changing the way we interact—faster than any other point in history. Traditionally, the central unit of analysis in social and cultural anthropology is the ethnography, a synchronic snapshot of how a culture functions as a whole (often with some recourse to the notion of the "structure" of a culture, a metaphor that is steeped in connotations of unchanging stability). In this sense anthropology often leaves the diachronic analysis to historians, and instead tries to understand how the culture functions as a whole. Cyborg anthropology seems different in this respect. Because technology and interface are changing so fast, cyborg anthropology is much more likely to note the changes over time in culture and use this diachronic analysis to understand the ramifications of our cybernetic condition. The rhizome (a cybernetic, feedback-looping, adaptive, descentralized network) is the metaphor that replaces static structure. Insofar as cyborg anthropology is studying phenomena that have very little cultural precedence, it seems to be inextricably tied to diachronic analysis and theories of interface r/evolution.

Continental philosophy

Since Levi-Strauss' structuralist revolution, social and cultural anthropology have been the social science home of continental philosophy. Kicked out of most philosophy departments in the United States, Continental Philosophy draws from such figures as Immanuel Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida (as opposed to the logical positivists that generally make up analytic philosophy). Continental Philosophy is of particular use to cyborg anthropology in several respects:

  1. Continental philosophy questions/engages the social conditions that facilitate techno-science and is hyper-aware of the dangers of solely relying on these paradigms for understanding the human condition.
  2. Continental philosophy recognizes that all thought/praxis is socially/historically/materially conditioned, a necessary pre-requisite for understanding our techno-human-cyborg condition. Thought does not happen in a void, and the more resources we have for undermining this notion the better.
  3. Continental philosophy emerges from the German philosophy of reflection (Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche) that is centered upon a rich complication of the self-other relation. Since this is the central binary put in question by the concept of the cyborg, it makes sense to use this wealth of scholarship to analyze the self-other dyad. They also scrutinize the role of the observer in analysis, a hallmark of both second-wave cybernetics and Cyborg Anthropology (since we are all cyborgs we need to question our own assumptions).
  4. Last but not least, almost all the central thinkers of cyborg anthropology situate themselves in the literary theory/continental nexus.

this section should also help clarify the difference between anthropology and sociology, since sociology relies much less on continental philosophy.

Actor–network theory

Questions of subjectivity, agency, actors, and structures have been of perennial interest in social and cultural anthropology. In cyborg anthropology the question of what type of cybernetic system constitutes an actor/subject becomes all the more important. Is it the actual technology that acts on humanity (the Internet), the general techno-culture (silicon valley), government sanctions (net-neutrality), specific innovative humans (Steve Jobs), or some type of combination of these elements? Actor-network theory (ANT), as proposed by Bruno Latour, is a popular theory that underlays accounts of how these different elements work together to produce techno-cultural phenomenon. Latour situates actors/subjects as actor nodes that function within larger distributed networks of mutual interaction and feedback loops. Through this approach, Latour avoids the two extremes of a purely materialist system in which humans have no agency (exemplified in Mintz' "Sweetness and Power') and a radically anthropocentric approach that mitigates any agency of supra-human elements (humans are the only agents). Cyborg anthropology needs to be able to analyze the fluid exchange between technological actors and human actors, especially since the technologies being studied actively dismantle our ontological pre-suppositions as to what constitutes a "human" or "technology".

Cyborgs and gender

Donna Haraway's 1985 Cyborg Manifesto could be considered the founding text of cyborg anthropology. Haraway celebrates the cyborg as the ultimate postmodern boundary-defying chimaera. She specifically uses the example of sex and gender to show how the cyborg can be utilized to break down our conceptions of gender/sex as physically determined and instead offers a wonderfully grotesque utopia whose technologies (virtual avatars, artificial insemination, sex changes, AI, etc.) break down the notion of gender to the point of irrelevance. Haraway's uses gender as her central example, but also writes extensively on the many other dichotomies that will collapse in our postmodern cyborg condition.[3]

Insofar as gender is concerned with identity, body-politics, collapsing gender/sex distinctions, post-feminist theory seems to find a natural compliment in cyborg anthropology. This has also been a historical trend in the discipline, with Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles, two of the best scholars in the field, using gender as an example to ground their analysis. However, cyborg anthropology is primarily concerned the cyborg, which collapses all distinctions it encounters (life/death, artificial/natural, virtual/real, male/female, space/place, human/animal/computer, etc.). This includes distinctions that are very relevant for gender studies as well, but the discipline extends well beyond these particular approaches.

Anthropology in industry vs. academia

One of the central questions of cyborg anthropology is the relationship between scholarship and technological implementation. Anthropology was originally practiced in the context of colonial expansion. Early scholars (claiming objectivity) would analyze a foreign culture, only to find their analysis utilized by the colonial powers to further colonialism, religious conversion, oppression, etc. Anthropology was the intellectual arm of colonial machine, and still survives in this sense with anthropologists working side-by-side with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. This dynamic still haunts some in the discipline, and whole libraries have been written on the relation between the anthropologists, their object of study, and the range of interactions resulting from studying a culture. The same dynamic exists in cyborg anthropology. Haraway's idealism for our post-modern cyborg future is admirable, but does not address the fact that the some of the most advanced cyborgs are in the US military. Cyborgs themselves are morally neutral, but specific applications of cyborgs can cause great harm or good. Cyborg anthropologists are always in danger of writing an analysis that is implemented by forces that they disagree with. Again, this is a danger inherent to all of anthropology, but given that technology is specifically concerned with implementing ideas in material form, this dynamic is all-the-more prevalent.

Further reading


  1. ^ Dumit, Joseph. Davis-Floyd, Robbie. Cyborg Anthropology. Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women, 2001
  2. ^ "Cyborgs and Space," in Astronautics (September 1960), by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline.
  3. ^ A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century by Donna Haraway

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