Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2014

John Anderson's Data Mining Mission to Sumatra in 1823: When Method Creates the Object

Farish A. Noor

August 2014

S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies


Today the term ‘data mining’ is used in both academic and non-academic circles, though the practice is neither novel nor new. This paper looks at the data collection mission led by John Anderson on behalf of the British East India Company in 1823, and considers if it is possible to collect data in a purely objective, neutral manner. Though John Anderson was careful in his writing, and sought to communicate his findings in a dry, objective fashion, his own subject-position as a functionary working for the East India Company stands out in his account of the mission to Sumatra. This paper argues that the process of data collection is seldom ever a truly neutral enterprise, and that in the framing of the object of analysis, the cultural and socio-economic subject-position of the researcher/analyst is always present, rendering it impossible for there to ever be a truly objective work of research/analysis. In this respect, an appraisal of Anderson’s work today is also relevant for contemporary scholars who may likewise attempt an ‘objective’ approach to their work, and it reminds us that the method often constructs the object under scrutiny.