OSS9108 – Controversy mapping and computational anthropology: digital methods between the qualitative-quantitative divide

Course content

The past twenty-five years have seen a host of new digitally mediated fields becoming available to researchers in the social sciences and humanities. The shift is not only in the volume of digital traces, which is admittedly dramatic, but very much also in the kind of digital empirical material, we can now work with. Rather than having more of the same, and having it digitized, we are faced with a staggering and ever-evolving array of natively digital empirical material, born from social media platforms, search engines, mobile devices, sensors, etc., and thus shaped by the socio-technical infrastructures of these media environments.

While these new types of data hold great research potential, especially for fields and approaches interested in mundane traces of everyday life (e.g. anthropology), they also entail a set of methodological challenges. Indeed, both challenges and potentials are significantly compounded by the fact computational techniques like machine learning, natural language processing, network analysis, or computer vision have made it possible to work with conventionally qualitative data types (e.g. text, images or social interactions) in quantitative ways. Or, seen from a different angle, that these techniques have made the qualitative exploration of very large corpora feasible.

One strand of research that has taken a particular interest in the application of computational techniques to the analysis of digitally born material is the study of public knowledge controversies. This is partly due to the fact that such controversies are everywhere on the internet, but also because controversies typically involve a very heterogeneous and distributed cast of actors forming coalitions and alliances around an equally heterogeneous distributed set of issues. They are, in short, both complex and dynamic situations. The liveliness, richness, and granularity of online debates, combined with the power of computation to find patterns in these messy data streams, therefore hold great potential for controversy mapping.

The course introduces you to digital controversy mapping and its broader societal relevance discusses the role of computation in a traditionally qualitatively inclined field and gives you hands-on experience with the newest tools and techniques.

Learning outcome

Students who have followed the course should be able to:

  • Explain key concepts in digital methods
  • Explain key concepts in controversy mapping
  • Harvest traces of online controversy with scrapers and APIs
  • Conduct semantic analysis and find patterns in discourse using natural language processing
  • Conduct network analysis to find interactional patterns, identify actor groups and estimate their centrality
  • Discuss the role of such computational techniques in relation to other methods as well as their consequences for conventional divisions of labour between quantitative and qualitative traditions
  • Implement such computational techniques to do exploratory work in a research design and open up new questions for exploration
  • Critically reflect on the relationship between online knowledge controversy controversies and democratic publics
  • Critically reflect on the importance of involving stakeholders in successful controversy mapping projects


The course is organized as a series of lectures incorporating a substantial amount of teacher led exercises where students will have the opportunity to get hands-on experience with a series of digital methods techniques, ranging from ready made tools like Gephi, Cortext or Hyphe, to custom built scripts in Python.

The lecturer

Anders Kristian Munk is associate professor in techno-anthropology and director of the Techno-Anthropology Lab at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen. He holds a D.Phil. in geography from the university of Oxford and an M.A. in European ethnology from the University of Copenhagen. Over the past decade Anders’ research has been focused on the development of new digital methods and computational techniques for SSH research, particularly in the context of controversy analysis in STS. He has worked as a visiting research fellow at Bruno Latour’s médialab in Paris and has co-authored the first Danish language textbook on digital methods together as well as a forthcoming book on digital controversy mapping.

Facts about this course






Summer 2021

Teaching language