Anthropology and displacement: Culture, communication and computers applied to a real world problem

Document Type



Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, London


Displacement following natural disasters brings about both short- andlongtermissues that urban planners must address. While we recognize that many (though not all) aspects of the short-term plans may not require extensive anthropological insights, the long-term plans, on the contrary, do. We suggest in this article that one of the most important contributions anthropologists can make is producing formal models of indigenous knowledge systems (which are derived from underlying cultural systems) and identifying the ways in which such systems are communicated. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach which borrows from developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and multi-agent modelling (MAM), we argue that many of the tools that such disciplines have produced can serve an important role in long-range planning for the coexistence of disparate communities if they are adequately informed by anthropological understandings of the communities involved. We briefly outline the anthropology of communication and the culture concept before turning our attention to something thatAIand MAM researchers have dubbed ontologies to suggest that it is possible to model cultural systems in dynamic ways that enablesocioculturalmodels of communities which are simultaneously resilient and robust. We give a concrete example of such a cultural system (izzator ‘honour’ in South Asia) and demonstrate what an ontology of such a system might look like.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.


Anthropology in Action