Anonymity: Past, Present and Futures unknown

Barbara Hepworth Room, Staff House (Campus Map R24)
Thursday 13 June (09:00) - Friday 14 June 2019 (16:30)

If you are interested in a place at this workshop please email


WORKSHOP LEADER – Professor Jonathan Reinarz and Dr Rebecca Wynter, Institute of Applied Health Research

This workshop has an open call for papers: please find more information at this link. Deadline closed 1 March 2019.

For centuries people have chosen to live in cities because of the comparative privacy they offer. Migrants, persecuted populations and those desiring to live alternative lifestyles have at various times sought out the protection offered by the faceless crowd. Urban collectives also regularly rise up, as mob action equally allows populations to show their collective force, if not their faces. More often than not, such protests have led to the development of strategies to categorise people and methods of identification, through the use of phrenology, fingerprinting and facial recognition technology most recently. Since the start of this century, the world has rapidly become familiar with an international network of activists, or hacktivists, named Anonymous, whose members, despite ever greater challenges to remaining true to their name, continue to act anonymously and in a coordinated manner, and have become famous in the process for their denial-of-service attacks, as well as their propensity to wear Guy Fawkes masks, the new camouflage for the anti-capitalist age. In a world of big data, the public, let alone those targeted by Anonymous, must be ever more vigilant in efforts both to protect personal information and prevent identity theft. Recent discussions about online bullying have also led to the introduction of policies to prevent extremists, like slanderers in a former age, from hiding behind aliases. Should similar policies be introduced to regulate academic peer reviewing and student feedback? These and other questions are becoming ever more familiar, online and in person, and require further debate and discussion.

At times we have all felt the need to remain anonymous, whether voting or painting graffiti for example, while other times the reverse is true, as when a nation conducts a census, undertakes disease surveillance, or issues identity cards to underserved members of the population, such as the homeless. But even charitable donors regularly consider whether to donate publically or anonymously. While it seems people must strive ever harder to remain non-identifiable, unreachable and untraceable in the modern world, cultural shifts are also making this goal unattainable, not least for the criminally minded. The advantages of ordinary citizens remaining incognito are varied and have changed historically. This two-day workshop aims to bring together scholars, both British and international, from a broad range of disciplines to discuss both familiar and novel contexts related to anonymity and explore the way in which this concept is rooted in almost everything we do as humans.   

The University of Birmingham researchers engage with the concept of anonymity in a full range of fields and disciplines, some traditional, others emerging and yet to consider these ideas fully. The use of anonymised data in medicine, for example, may appear second nature, but needs to be readdressed in the genetic and internet age. The University itself was established through funds donated by the founder of an anonymous company of sorts, Josiah Mason having been the world’s largest pen manufacturer in the nineteenth century, but generally manufactured for other companies, who, like Apple and other global brands, placed their own logos on these products. Members of the business school continue to research ‘anonymous companies’, but these are now recognised as less legitimate institutions for laundering money, facilitating widespread crime, corruption, and tax evasion around the world. As such, their impact on nations and economies are being studied in departments of law, politics and economics. More familiar is the idea of anonymous authorship, many controversial books and pamphlets having been published originally anonymously or using pseudonyms, scholars in English and History having explored these subjects in some depth, while art historians have considered anonymity in the world of art and photography.