Hypertext structures and ethnographic comparison as implemented in "Kinship and Social Organization: An Interactive Tutorial"
A presentation for the AAA Annual Meetings, November 20, 1997, Washington, D.C.

Brian Schwimmer
Dept of Anthropology
University of Manitoba

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Hypertext organization of ethnographic data promises to be a major enhancement of emerging computer assisted modes of explication for anthropology. Its capacity to substitute multilayered and multistranded sequencing for linear text presentation introduces advantages on descriptive, instructional, and theoretical levels. In this presentation, I will investigate the instructional uses of hypertext to link ethnographic examples and analytical concepts my WWW based tutorial: " Kinship and Social Organization: An Interactive Tutorial". I will reflect on both the practical educational advantages of hypertext structures and upon some of the wider theoretical issues of constructing ethnography and linking data and theory.


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Over the past several years, the construction and interpretation of ethnographic texts have received a good deal of critical attention. Among other problems, the linear sequencing of cultural representations imposes limitations on the translation of multifaceted meaning systems and on the presentation of data from a variety of interpretive perspectives. The emergence of computer mediated authoring systems, and especially of hypertext, has introduced a means of freeing description and analysis from the narrow strictures of the printed page and offers many new modes of ethnographic writing, which we are only beginning to explore. This presentation focuses on the basic and relatively modest task of applying hypertext design principles to kinship instruction in a World Wide Web based tutorial.

Hypertext authoring is based on a fairly straightforward procedure of formatting a text sequence or image within a file to provide access to a second document within a computerized presentation. This elementary process opens a broad range of possibilities of constructing and illustrating texts by adding an entirely new dimension to the traditional linear sequencing arrangements. One implication of this enhancement that has received much attention is that it can bring readers into the authoring process by allowing them to organize the content they receive along pathways constructed according to their own criteria and choices. A second strategy involves the author in enhancing his or her composition through the design and construction of a hypertext structure that is sequenced along and through several different dimensions of exposition. This process is organized in two different ways: multilayering and multistranding


Multilayering involves the composition of two or more separate texts, (A and B) each of which is organized in standard linear order and coordinated through hypertext links so that the topics they discuss (1-3) run in parallel. Links from one file to the next (in red) establish the main sequential reading order, while internal links (in green) allow for systematic crossreferencing.

This technique can be applied to solve a number of problems of ethnographic description and analysis.

  1. Multivocality - Texts or other cultural representations composed from different perspectives can be constructed and compared. These separate "voices" may express alternative versions of a culture, such as those associated with gender or status differences, or provide a counterbalance to an ethnographer's description. They may also facilitate comparison of texts by different authors who have written about the same culture.

  2. Complex Symbolization - Identified symbols or symbolic elements within a cultural system can be articulated into different configurations to represent a meaning structures at several different levels or according to alternative semantic principles, a process which Geertz refers to as "thick description".

  3. Graded Presentation - The content may presented on several levels of difficulty or detail oriented to groups of readers or learners at different educational stages.
    I have adopted this strategy in designing material for a separate project representing Manitoba prehistory on three levels: I have also used a similar strategy in a introductory course to develop topical unit summaries that contain links back to full text discussion of the ethnological concepts covered.

  4. Different Levels of Abstraction - Cultural topics can be treated from analytical ethnological and descriptive ethnographic perspectives on a number of levels.
    This organization forms the general framework for my design of the kinship tutorial that is the main subject matter of this essay. I cover the basic categories, concepts, and issues of family structures from

    Levels of Abstraction
    AnalyticalCase Study Ethnography
    Akan Hebrew Turkish Yanomamo Dani Turkish Village
    Descent X X X X X X
    Marriage X X X X X X
    Residence X X X X
    Kin Terms X X X

    An additional level of broad empirical description is provided by references to full text ethnographics that are either on-line, as Paul Stirling's Turkish Village, or available in printed texts. Stirling's Web project actually incorporates a fourth level, as he is in the process of constructing a searchable archive of his original field notes.


Multistranding involves the development of structured connections between links set within files and across layers to provide alternate pathways through the content that anticipate different representation strategies, learning styles, and interest foci. In the course of the kinship tutorial, I have considered three different ways that a viewer might approach the integration of the content. Many other learning and presentation models can also be formulated.

  1. Ethnographic illustration of ethnological concepts:

    In this example the student is presented with a detailed description and diagraming of patrilocal residence from an abstract perspective. In the course of the discussion and at the end of the file he or she can chose to view a concrete example, the Turkish household, which both illustrates the general principles and goes into further discussion of the domestic cycle and variant arrangements that only a case study can provide. At the end of the ethnographic information the reader is actually provided with two pathways: to return to the abstract level or to continue through the case study material on a different topic, in this case Turkish kin terms, according to his or her interest and learning style.

  2. Ethnographic comparison:

    In this example, the student is presented with a table comparing the different ranges, forms and complexities of unilineal descent groupings.

    A Comparison of Five Lineage Systems

    Depth Akan Hebrews Yanomamo Turkish Dani
    0-3 Minimal
    4-6 Minor
    7-9 Clan/Sib
    10-12 Major
    13-15 Moiety
    16-18 Clan Major
    19-21 Maximal

    He or she can use the links to the specific case studies to view and assess the differences in social patterns. Further cross referencing between cases is provided in the body of the descriptive text.

  3. Extended case study

    This technique is attributable to both Gluckman and Bateson and involves the development of a number of analytical threads from the starting point of a single cultural event, in both cases, a public ceremony. In my example I focus on a particular mythical cycle, that of the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs from the Old Testament, to provide a window into a number of important social institutions, such as inheritance, incest, and marriage regulations.

    Initial links are set to ethnographic descriptions of ancient Hebrew institutions in which subsequent links to abstract and comparative material are embedded for further investigation.

    I have so far restricted my application of hypertext composition strategies discussed in this presentation to fairly simple context of illustrating ethnological principles in terms of ethnographic material. However, there are numerous other possibilities for wider and more sophisticated development of these techniques to the writing of ethnography in ways which more suitably model the complexity of cultural structures and interpretations than standard media have so far allowed.

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    © Brian Schwimmer
    File Created: November 26, 1997