The Digital Ethnography Project


Jay B. Crain, Ph.D,

Allan C. Darrah, Ph.D

Linus Silipolakapulapola Digm'Rina, Ph.D. 

Caroline Gardner, M.A. 


This document introduces the Digital Ethnographic Project (DEP), an innovative and versatile tool for the storage, retrieval and analytical processing of ethnographic and historical texts. DEP is being created to contribute to the understanding and appreciation of culture by advancing in- depth, text based ethnographic scholarship.

Anthropology has been the central discipline to demonstrate the commonality of humankind and the enormous diversity of the human experience. Immersion, and the in-depth knowledge of a single society that it produces, has historically been one of our most effective vehicles for acquiring an understanding of, and appreciation for, "others". DEP will facilitate immersion.

DEP is a digital research environment designed to facilitate the process of ethnographic analysis; it will assist both scholars and students in dealing with some of the challenges and tedium imposed by intensive, non-linear re-analyses of texts. DEP will be composed of all known and accessible texts for a "classic case" culture--the Trobriand Islanders of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Trobriand ethnography and related Massim studies represent a research field of great historical breadth and analytical depth including the seminal works of Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski. It is, indeed, very rare for a student of anthropology, anywhere in the world, to complete his/her studies without considerable exposure to Trobriand ethnography.

DEP will greatly simplify obtaining access to Trobriand texts which are currently widely dispersed. The sheer volume of these texts, over 15,000 pages, imposes temporal and conceptual limits for researchers, scholars preparing for the field, and in the teaching of ethnographic analysis from primary source materials. These materials are being scanned and then processed with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to produce machine readable texts. Once formatted for machine readability, the texts are stored in a database accessed via Zyindex.. Indexed, digital texts can be searched in seconds, allowing students to explore a complex literature in great depth. Complex multiple comparisons, tabulations and indices that are unfeasible with manual methods, will also be made available. Thus DEP will facilitate; l)the reinterpretation of received ethnographic data; 2) the testing and revision of established theoretical precepts; i) formulation of hypotheses; and 4) the charting of new theoretical directions. A secondary, but potentially more far-reaching, objective of this project is to provide a model which we hope will both stimulate and facilitate the creation of other digital archives. We envision a future research/teaching environment in which a digital throughway allows students and faculty access to complex textual discourses within which they examine and test contemporary: knowledge. DEP is directed at this future.

Time and Resources

The DEP database has been under construction for two years during which time 14 monographs and 127 articles, totaling 6159 pages. have been digitized. This represents approximately 45/o of the published corpus of Trobriand materials. External grant funds are being sought to digitize an additional 4000 pages of primary source materials. The texts to be digitized included six dissertations by Trobriand ethnographers. two dictionaries and two extensive collections of unpublished Trobriand myths.
Fifty four per cent of targeted pages (2,200) have been published and can be digitized by Optical Character Recognition technology at a rate of 17 pages an hour: this projection fits well with our previous experience with similar materials when recognition and editing are both taken into consideration. The remaining forty six per cent of the pages (1,800) are either hand written manuscripts or photocopies made from microfilm and as such must be input through traditional keyboarding.

Background and Appropriateness

DEP emerged out of the experiences of leading a graduate seminar on the Trobriand Literature. Both of us have led the seminar over the years and we have supervised the research papers of over 75 seminar participants during this time. In the evolution of the seminar, student members began the process of compiling a comprehensive bibliography, collecting texts documents, and films, as well as indexing and analyzing the collection. Over the years, in the course of writing ethnographic analyses of Trobriand society, seminar participants have created a variety of indexes, concordances and lists, in effect providing the genesis for the development of a digital research environment.

DEP began formally in spring of 1992. We began the task of securing primary materials and have corresponded with scholars in America, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain and Germany whose work focuses on Trobriand society. Their responses have been supportive and helpful; as a result, we have added to our collection 2500 pages of previously unpublished primary material.     The processing of these texts (particularly dictionaries and myths) into the file will constitute a considerable achievement and provide Trobriand scholars and our students access to research sources of extraordinary richness.


When complete, the project will provide 1) a highly accessible research tool for the detailed and critical understanding of a famous and influential example of cultural diversity and 2) the methodology employed in its creation will provide a highly replicable model for the creation of other collections of digital texts based of local, regional or ethnic literatures.    Trobriand texts, like those of other non-western societies, are scattered throughout a variety of specialized journals, manuscripts, and out-of-print books. Few libraries, especially at undergraduate institutions, have even a portion of these materials. DEP will make these texts accessible to any student (via computer link or ultimately CD-Rom).

The Trobriand Corpus is an ideal set of texts to teach students the effects which post-modernism has had on our views of"others". Malinowski, as the founding father of participant observation, made Trobriand studies central to the pursuit of understanding the "other". Fifty years later Annette Weiner's work has provided new insights into Trobriand culture through the exploration of the world of Trobriand women. Malinowski's failure to examine with equal effectiveness. both sets of gender based realities provides an excellent cautionary tale that benefits students of either gender.

For further information:

Contact Allan or Jay at The Department of Anthropology. CSU Sacramento. Sacramento. CA 95819-6106. FAX (916) 275-6229. TEL (916) 275-7267 or e-mail