Travis D. Breaux Carnegie Mellon University Travis D. Breaux
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Institute for Software Research
School of Computer Science
5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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5103 Wean Hall
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From Anthropologist to Computer Scientist

Acquaintances sometimes ask about the unusual nature of my past academic training. In particular, it is difficult to understand just why one person originally trained in cultural anthropology would seek to study computer science. For those who appreciate Gödel, Escher, Bach by David Hofstadter, may I suggest a comparable situation in the musicologist who develops a love of physics.

The fact of the matter is, cultural anthropology and computer science have a particularly fascinating philosophical relationship that I would like to layout before you. For a quick introduction, let me define two concepts that played the most important role in my transition: cultural context and representation.


Culture is a fundamental concept in anthropology that continues to differentiate anthropologists from sociologists and psychologists, who typically study the society and behavior, respectively. The generally accepted definition of culture is shareable knowledge -- placing the emphasis on interpretation across any communication vectors: audal, verbal, spacio-temporal, etc. The cultural context is a loosely defined, omnipresent "structure" for studying culture introduced by the first American anthropologist, Franz Boas. Limited by individual human perception, cultural contexts serve to constrain and encapsulate the broader meaning within culture. Cultural contexts are incredibly complex, and to this day, their dynamics are historically and holistically unquantified.

Through lectures on language and culture cognition given by Dr. Susan Rasmussen at the University of Houston, I came to appreciate past research in linguistics (Baudrillard, Derida, Lakoff, Tyler, Whorf), semiology (de Saussure) and cognitive science that contribute to quantifying the cultural context. In particular, the human physiology dedicated to sensory perception significantly constrains how humans become aware of cultural contexts. Much of my work in her classes sought to identify relationships between ethnographic fieldwork and psychological laboratory studies with the goal of identifying a physiological background for how humans perceive the cultural context.

Equally as important to anthropologists is the concept of respresentation. Cultural anthropologists seeks to represent cultural processes whether in texts authored from personal experiences and/ or in interviews or through visual media such as illustrations, pictures and film. Lectures from Dr. Quetzil Casteñeda at the University of Houston, combined with my studies in semiology under Dr. Rasmussen, brought me to understand a temporal dynamic in cultural contexts. In representation, we carefully choose symbols to supplement complex, dynamic systems in our models of perceived events at various levels of abstraction. Indeed, the future of cultural anthropology will undoubtably have to address temporal, symbolic dynamics acquired by human sensory perception and their influence on the composition of individual, cultural cosmologies.


Viewing the cultural context as an emergent system of complex dynamics through recursive and temporal semantics, I came to realize that anthropologists lack the formal methods to describe such systems. In fact, I became interested in cognitive science, but found that without adequate background in formal methods, my ability to pursue my own creative agenda would be restricted to fulfilling the only marginally-related agenda of others. A compromise was in order, and thus I sought out my second baccalaureate, this time in Computer and Information Science at the University of Oregon. There I would acquire the necessary skills and discover a slightly more constrained but parallel problem that excited the anthropologist in me with equivalent intellectual pay-off and far less risk.

In software engineering, the area of requirements engineering and software design have significant parallels to my studies in cultural anthropology. Requirements are natural language and other representations of the environment, people and software systems. Michael Jackson describes this interface in his seminal work, entitled "The World and the Machine" [ DOI ]. The software engineering process transforms requirements into design abstractions and test cases, which must be computationally verifiable. Design abstractions are used by software engineers to layout the components of a software system. Through abstraction, software engineers compose architectures, frameworks, and design patterns to facilitate the composition of large software systems. Indeed, abstraction is how software engineers generalize sub-systems into a composite system, in addition, to describing temporal relationships between and among software components.

Software systems are inherently cultural artifacts. Software systems are developed to compliment/ supplement human processes, and their design often includes cultural metaphors present in those very same processes. In addressing exactly how software requirements drive software development, I have the added advantage of evaluating subsets of extended, cultural systems that are systematically made discrete -- else they wouldn't translate into software in the first place!