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Blazing an anthropological trail with Towson professors

Towson University anthropology professors, Samuel Collins and Matthew Durington, and ten undergraduates have explored how the public interacts with the nearly 800-mile Potomac Heritage Trail, one of 28 National Park Service sites in Maryland, using social media for a fuller image of how and why people use the national park. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)


Think of a wilderness trail that runs through a national park. What images come to mind?

Joggers on a run? Bicyclists on 21-speeds? A few hardy souls lugging gear to distant campsites?

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Such figures are indeed hallmarks of one of the more popular national park sites in the region. But anthropologists at Towson University say the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which runs through portions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, tells a tale with subtler, more surprising layers, and they're working to interpret and translate that story for public benefit.

Samuel Collins, Matthew Durington and 10 of their top undergraduates have spent 14 months exploring ways in which the public interacts with the nearly 800-mile trail, one of 28 National Park Service sites in Maryland.

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Their research method — an innovative, social-media-based approach the professors call "networked anthropology" — offers a new lens through which to view the trail and its uses and to get a glimpse of its untapped potential.

The team has been employing such tried-and-true research techniques as site visits and interviews, but they've focused and amplified that work by using cutting-edge software packages that let them gather information from an array of social media platforms, turn that information into data, and analyze it systematically.

This process has helped the team develop graphs and charts that reflect more than just the park site's material features or most obvious attractions.

They constitute a cultural map — a depiction of how visitors interact with the trail, how they use the trail to interact with each other, and how the experience resonates with them.

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According to Durington, the sights that park visitors choose to photograph, film, post on Instagram, share on Facebook or upload on YouTube reflect what they really value about it — its meaning. And it's not always what one might expect.

"All these various platforms form connective tissue that unites all of these people, places, institutions and histories, and since they're all computer mediated, we can use a variety of digital tools to trace those connections and analyze the results," Durington says.

The professors are conducting the research with a grant from the National Park Service, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

They're due to share their findings with the park service and a professional anthropological association next spring, with recommendations for changes the park service might consider.

"What we imagine saying is, 'Here are places we went on the trail; here are our site reports, and here are our social media reports. This is connectivity [around the trail] as it exists right now, and here's connectivity as it could be. Here are a few things you might want to develop.'"

Collins and Durington experimented with the networked-anthropology approach — and tweaked it — during a National Science Foundation-backed study of Baltimore neighborhoods in the early 2000s.

The project, called Anthropology by the Wire, isolated site-specific data that could lead to recommendations around social-justice issues.

The professors cited that and other case studies in "Networked Anthropology: A Primer for Ethnographers," a book they co-wrote and published in 2014, and later came up with the idea of applying it to a national park.

The National Park Service saw the approach as well-suited to studying the Potomac Heritage Trail — a park that connects two of the federal agency's geographical regions, and runs through urban, rural and suburban environments — and came through with the grant last year.

"The trail is nontraditional in that most people think of parks as being contiguous, bounded land," says Jennifer Talken-Spaulding, a cultural anthropologist with the park service. "A nontraditional park can call for a nontraditional approach."

One attraction for Talken-Spaulding was that the Potomac Heritage Trail — known in the service as PoHe — is so massive it could take years for anthropologists to cover it by conventional means.

By sifting, say, Facebook posts about the park, the Towson scholars could identify which users served as hubs of connection among different groups and choose them as interview subjects.

At one point, Collins was "doing an Instagram analysis" when he realized dozens of users were employing language, including hashtags, that touched on photography and fashion in relation to Fort Washington Park.

The site in Prince George's County is known for buildings that date to the War of 1812. Collins had no idea that many area couples see it as a romantic spot and a perfect place for wedding photos.

He might never have learned that had he simply visited the site.

The park service, Collins says, could spotlight such information in social media, films, even signage, to advance its stated goal of "connecting parks to people."

Durington heard a report that people might be using a stretch of the Potomac River for baptisms. A social media search showed it was two primarily Hispanic churches — another layer of cultural meaning on which the park service could build.

The professors and their students also learned that a surprising number of people "experience" the trail by filming it from moving cars, bikes and trains; that guests on many portions are unaware they're even in a national park; that many businesses in Shepherdstown, W.Va., across the Potomac River from the trail, benefit from the long-distance bikers who pass through, but there are no signs for local residents; and that the signs along a stretch of the trail used heavily by Spanish-speaking visitors are all in English.

These and other insights will likely become part of the group's presentations next spring, giving the park service food for thought as officials consider what they want the trail to look like in its next hundred years.

Talken-Spaulding says the icing on the cake is that Collins and Durington followed long-standing Towson University tradition by folding the project into several academic courses, in effect turning the trail into a learning lab.

That, Collins says, is a way of building toward the future, just as the team's research method is designed to do.

"Traditionally, anthropology is a great tool for showing an organization what it has been," Collins says. "Networked anthropology shows what it can be."

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