Will anthropology find renewed passion and direction with the help of the internet? According to Johannes Fabian, yes it will, and obviously I agree!
Johannes Fabian’s recent book, Ethnography as Commentary, sets the stage for an internet invigorated ethnography. In it he argues that the co-presence of author and reader, text and commentary, will develop into an ethnographic genre. His study, like mine, is based on the idea that internet technologies change the way anthropology is being presented. Specifically, he focuses on the use of internet archives and the ability to have a group of interested people interact with a text.
He provides valuable support to my own attempts to create an “ethnographic text” in a public space to promote collaboration and feedback. I’m not sure how close the discussions on this blog are to the kinds of commentary Fabian seeks, but I think it’s pretty darn close! He also pushes the idea that ethnographic research should be confrontational and engaged. I’ve been playing with a confrontational/engaged style and I’ve found it works to bring out discussion. It also lets me be honest.
I hope this research project will contribute to the “ethnography as commentary” genre. It can build on what Fabian has presented by showing how one can use a blog to develop the kinds of commentary, interactions, and confrontations that Fabian seeks.
When Fabian gave a talk at Concordia, I did my best to write it up and give some critique. Of course, having not read the book I could have been less critical of some of his points for I now have to dedicate a post to correcting my errors!
“So without having read the book, I am a bit disappointed that his talk was oblivious to so much that is going on online.”
and in the book he says,
“One could also point out that setting up virtual archives can be a step toward meeting not only demands and expectations to “return” our research results to the people we study but to initiate discussion of our work as well as additions to the corpus. That documents created by blogs and chat groups devoted to themes anthropology is interested in deserve our attention is by now widely recognized; Internet based ethnography has become accepted as a legitimate alternative or compliment of, traditional fieldwork…” (p122)
While trying to put together a decent proposal for this research project, it was made clear to me that I needed to defend how the research will be “ethnographic” [I'm in a program where it MUST be ethnography]. Can I just quote Fabian on this one when asked how online research can be ethnographic?
Further, I can critique myself using Fabian’s words:
“… [the] audience may read a commentary such as this one without consulting the text on the internet. All this can put a damper on the enthusiasm for the “new kind of presence” of ethnographic texts that made me conduct this experiment.” (p122)
Or in my case, without consulting the book. At least I’m committed to correcting my errors, and now that I’ve read the book I realize just how well Fabian set the stage for justifying online ethnography to more “traditional” anthropologists. However I didn’t get much out of the online archive… The book’s main purpose is to discuss how such archives can reinvigorate ethnography, and less about the actual ethnographic text he put online. In this way, I found the book wandered a little and the short linguistic discussion really flew by me. Perhaps if I had a stronger linguistics background it would have been more grabbing.
Finally to all my teachers who continue to define anthropology as a science, I will from now on quote Fabian, where he discusses the difference between an archive and a database. He writes
“Databases, conceived and established long before the advent of the computer and the Internet, belong to the conceptual arsenal of a positivist and essentially ahistorical (some would call it “modernist”) view of anthropology as a science, that to put it mildly, is no longer generally accepted.” (p122)
take that science nuts! [and for those not aware of the debate, it's not about science being good or bad, but about imposing scientific goals and methods where they aren't needed and don't belong. It's also about using scientific rhetoric to turn opinion into fact, camouflaging bias. And it's about science bent anthropologists working against/blocking other means of inquiry and presentation. Woops, I need to buff up my answer to this question someday. Possible future blog post...]