Jeffrey H. Cohen, PhD
Anthropology, Ohio State University
Engaged, coproduced research fits well with applied work and our mission to re-envision anthropology. Our team, Project Panchavati, started as a collaboration between OSU faculty in anthropology, the school of social work and the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio (BCCO) as well as colleagues from Denison and NIH and emerged in a moment of confluence as the pandemic, the social justice movement and self-reflection on how best to move beyond the colonial history of anthropology became an opportunity for reinvention.
We began our work with the support of the Ohio State University’s Research Foundation Seed Fund for Racial Justice and a modest goal. Bringing together community members and academics, could we develop a framework to understand the digital divide and how it interrupted the flow of information around covid-19 for the Bhutanese community. Additionally, we proposed that working together we could define a series of interventions that would facilitate wellbeing in the community, foster a stronger and more equitable partnership between the BCCO and OSU, and outline a pathway for sustainable research moving forward.
With data collection nearly completed, we have documented the dynamics of internet access for over 500 members of the community, and we are developing a nuanced model of how best to bridge the digital divide.
Our surveys, interviews, and ongoing focus groups are the foundation for a mentoring program that supports local students and has moved several students into graduate training. It also showcases the value of the university for the BCCO. Working together, we are able to understand the ways in which technology, the internet and social media fail. Identifying the limits on communication technology is critical as our work captures the theoretical failings of models that overlook the negative health impacts of the digital divide.
Our engagement with the BCCO is an opportunity to use ethnography, apply anthropology and understand the complex interplay of culture, society and technology in the creation of the digital divide. The challenge posed by the digital divide is complex, but it is not impossible to understand, and our successes are a blueprint for others to follow as we reach out to new communities and expand our programming.