Archive for the ‘What is anthropology?’ Category

Anthropology and Science

A recent Inside Higher Ed article, “Anthropology Without Science”, discusses the American Anthropological Associations recent changes to its’ “vision” (not definition for some reason) of Anthropology. I tried work a definition or two of anthropology into Chapter 2, and where I thought I’d really messed it up, it turns out others are having just as tough a time,

“More fundamentally, the dispute has brought to light how little common ground is shared by anthropologists who span a wide array of sub-specialties, said Elizabeth Cashdan, chair of anthropology at the University of Utah. For example, some anthropologists might mine the language and analytical tools favored by such humanities as literary criticism, while others may be more likely to deploy statistical methodology as befits social science. Still others might rely on the biological metrics, hard data and scientific method used by natural scientists. “This is reflective of tensions in the whole discipline,” said Cashdan, a bio-cultural anthropologist who described herself as “very dismayed” by recent developments.

Hugh Gusterson leaves a great rebuttal, pointing out that the new definition does not dismiss science and that the entire debate has been blown out of proportion,

“… The old wording said “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.” The new wording says, “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” The document goes on to make numerous references to “anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.” Fair-minded people will recognize this as a modest change and will see that science is still there in the mission statement (after all, what are biology and archeology if not sciences?) even if the wording has been slightly changed. You would think from some of the hysterical statements here that the AAA had issued a statement condemning science. “

The new emphasis on “public understanding” is interesting given the critiques I’ve read arguing that anthropology needs to engage itself in public debates, and that the “science” of anthropology has played a role in limiting its’ ability to engage itself beyond a select, expert, audience (who happen to depend on its’ success for their livelihood).

In other news, the thesis has moved to Google Docs, (wooops, apologies to readers, here I mean, MY thesis draft), and it is open to edits and comments from anyone online. Printed draft by Monday? It is going to end!! incredible really.

See also,
“The Joy of Pseudoscience”

Another Chapter 2

Meant to post this up last week then got carried away having fun again.

2. A Changing Anthropology.

It has been suggested that ethnographers are tricksters who use rhetorical techniques to convince readers of the truth of their words (Crapanzano 1984). One such technique is the tale of entry, where one begins an ethnography by establishing the distance of ones subject, it’s ‘otherness’. It reflects the starting point of ones cultural transformation. I appreciate Crapanzano’s argument and in the past I enjoyed a righteous yet silent chuckle whenever such a tale of entry popped out in my assigned readings. Yet here I continue the tradition, not to deceive, but because having a common structure makes ethnographic tales easier to write. The true challenge facing ethnographers today is not that of truth, but of purpose – “why should we care if you were there or not? Why does this story matter to me?” So let us begin this ethnography with a twist, not with story of a journey into far off lands, but rather with a tale of a naïve student-researcher returning from a trip to Mexico:

‘Hey great to see you! Nice tan! I’m happy you are back!”


‘Where did you go?’


‘Oh wow, what a great place for an anthropology project. Do you have pictures?’

‘umm.. yeah… well Mexico wasn’t really the ‘place’ for my anthropology project… I just had to get away… my project is on how academics share and make knowledge accessible online. You know, like open access publishing, blog…’

She looked at me for a brief second, then cut me off while looking at her friend, “Owen is soooooo funny.”

Turning back to me she excused herself, “I’m so glad you’re back. Your tan looks great! I have class and have to go. Message me k? Bye.”

‘umm.. yeah… see ya soon I guess.’ I replied. Not surprised at her reaction I could have expected to be cut off sooner. I always ran into trouble describing exactly what it was I studied, especially to friends and relatives who had never heard of cultural anthropology. I made a mental note to keep such descriptions as brief as possible.

Continue reading

A changing anthropology? Some notes and quotes.

Helping to define the “anthropology” and “change” parts of the thesis question, “how is the internet fueling change in anthropology?”:

“The intellectual history of the nineteenth century is marked above all by this disciplinarization and professionalization of knowledge, that is to say, by the creation of permanent institutional structures designed both to produce new knowledge and to reproduce the producers of knowledge. The creation of multiple disciplines was premised on the belief that systematic research required skilled concentration on the multiple separate arenas of reality, which was partitioned rationally into distinct groupings of knowledge. Such a rational division promised to be effective, that is, intellectually productive.”

(Wallerstein et al. 1996:6)

This much isn’t new: Being a student of anthropology has always been a pain in the !@# .

“In the course of the nineteenth century, the various disciplines spread out like a fan, covering a range of epistemological positions. At one end lay, first, mathematics (a nonempirical activity) and next to it the experimental natural sciences (themselves in a sort of descending order of determinism – physics, chermistry, biology). at the other end lay the humanities (or arts and letters), starting with philosophy (the pendant of mathematics, as a nonempirical activity) and next to it the study of formal artistic practices (literatures, painting and sculpture, musicology), often coming close in their practice to being history, a history of the arts. And in between the humanities and the natural sciences, thus defined, lay the study of social realities, with history (idiographic) closer to, often part of, faculties of arts and letters, and “social science” (nomothetic) closer to the natural sciences. Amidst an ever-hardening separation of knowledge into two different spheres, each with a  different epistemological emphasis, the students of social realities found themselves caught in the middle, and deeply divided on these epistemological issues. (p9)”

Challenging collaboration:

“The creation of multiple disciplines of social science was part of the general nineteenth-century attempt to secure and advance “objective” knowledge about “reality” on the basis of empirical findings (as opposed to “speculation”). The intent was to “learn” the truth, not invent or intuit it. The process of institutionalization of this kind of knowledge activity was not at all simple or straightforward. For one thing, it was not at first clear whether this activity was to be a singular one or should rather be divided into the several disciplines, as later occured. Nor was it at the outset clear what was the best route to such knowledge, that is, what kind of epistemology would be most fruitful or even legitimate. Least of all was it clear whether the social sciences could in some sense be thought to constitute a “third culture” that was “between science and literature,” in the later forumation of Wolf Lepenies. In fact, none of these questions has ever been definitively resolved. All we can do is to note the actual decisions that were made, or the majority positions that tended to prevail.”

(Wallerstein et al. 1996:14)

Working through a maze of disagreement = being an anthro student, online or off.

On a changing publishing environment where visibility and accessibility are not tied to prestige:

“The first thing to note is where this institutionalization took place. There were five main locales for social science activity during the nineteenth century: Great Britain, France, the Germanies, the Italies, and the United States. Most of the scholars most of the universities (of course, not all) were located in these five places. The universities in other countries lacked the numerical weight or international prestige of those in these five. To this day, most of the nineteenth-century works that we still read were written in one of these five locales.”

(Wallerstein et al. 1996:14

Interesting then, to look at Max’s post about the distribution of Open Access Journals listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals. He writes:

Either way, open access publishing in anthropology is primarily not a North American phenomenon, and in the case of Anthropology listings that exclude Ethnology, it is primarily not a North American/European phenomenon. Indeed, the very Directory of Open Access Journals itself is not a North American innovation, but rather a Scandinavian one, and the host for it is Lund University Libraries. The innovations in the distribution, dissemination, and circulation of anthropology are coming in large part from the so-called periphery and semi-periphery of the world system, and outside of the disciplinary centre of gravity in terms of the accumulated mass of anthropologists and anthropology programs in the U.S. and western Europe. One can only speculate about what that will mean should the predominant mode of anthropological publishing in North America (commercial print, by subscription) collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and unsustainability. Suddenly the centre of anthropological publishing would shift to currently non-hegemonic entities.

Tie this with a recent study which showed that Humanities and Social Science journals did not pay much attention to where authors came from and that most of authors came from a particular geographic region (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia) reveal one of anthropology’s “walls” so to speak. The adoption of Open Access by academics helps to deterritorialize research accessibility. Language boundaries remain.

It is also interesting to examine how a students blog can dominate certain key words on search engines, when anthropologists write so much about those words in academic journals. Does academic research need to be accessible online? If it isn’t, what takes its place?

Journalists, bloggers, and some anthropology

Over at Neuroanthropology Greg discusses a recent blog post at Nature, which brings up the challenges newspapers and journalists face in a recession. It argues that in tough times science reporting is one of the first cuts.  Now if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I don’t exactly consider myself a scientist, more a researcher. But in discussions like this, ‘science reporting’ probably reflects all research reporting. Greg comments on the reduction of professional science journalists:

“Increasingly amateurish science reporting will no doubt provide more howlers for us at, but it can’t be good for the public’s ability to really understand the crucial discoveries and challenges of the day. So much of the research that’s important right now increases the complexity of our understanding of the world that I’m afraid budgetary constraints will provide yet another force pushing for reductionary explanations in the public eye.

Fortunately, the upsurge in online commentary provides some counterbalance to the growing simplicity of science reporting, but the size of our public is so small that’s it’s discouraging at times. Initiatives like the Public Library of Science and open online access to so many academic journals make the science more available, but we still need a vigorous and expert public science journalism to sort through this research.”

I’m developing an outline, and load of notes, for the chapter I am writing about the Human Terrain System and how the blogsphere was an important place for discussion/argument (hmm… if I’ll give in to the ‘scientist’ label doing cultural anthropology, perhaps it is time I start using the word blogosphere too?). It ties in to a discussion to the ways cultural anthropologists are represented in different media – particularly the blogsphere, but also traditional mass media. I appreciate Greg’s comment that “our public is so small that it’s discouraging at times”, and this touches on the idea of amplification in the blogsphere.

As a small community, it is easier for our voices to be heard. Peter Suber discusses “the OA advantage” whereby those who publish OA become much more visible then those who don’t, simply because not enough people publish OA. To be one in a thousand means papers get read and cited that much more. I wonder how the anthropology blogsphere would change with a drastic increase in bloggers? I am optimistic they are coming, especially given the number of students I meet at Concordia who have started blogging their academic work, and given the rapid rise in the number of bloggers generally.

But back to journalists, I would suppose cultural anthropology has always had a tough time getting press. Will research blogging help popularize cultural anthropology? Can blogging research work as a way to stimulate anthropology outside the academy?

And in other news -

why so quiet recently? thesis writing is fun.

Ethnography, the internet, and an apprentice anthropologist. Draft.

In his book “Body and Soul”, Loic Wacquant discusses the way he approached his research on boxing and the ‘universe’ around it:

“The other virtue of an approach based on participant observation (which in this case, is better characterized as an “observant participation”) in a run-of-the-mill gym is that the materials thus produced do not suffer from the “ecological fallacy” that affects most available studies and accounts of the Manly art. Thus none of the statements reported here were expressly solicited, and the behaviors described are those of the boxer in his “natural habitat”, not the dramatized and highly codified (re)presentation that he likes to give of himself in public, and that journalistic reports and novels retranslate and magnify according to their specific canons.” (Wacquant 2004:6)

Part of ‘being there’ is to engage people in a more natural setting. More natural than say, sitting directly in front of a microphone. The day to day interactions can ‘correct’ or balance out representations based on ‘solicited questions’. Boxers, he argues, play up to stereotypes when interviewed (surveys won’t cut it, he is pushing ethnography to sociologists). His engaged long term participation allowed him another position – that of the apprentice. As an apprentice, there is less emphasis on general ‘otherness’ which avoids numerous issues of representation. He is a boxer, not an academic studying boxing from ‘afar’. Also a key point is that people can be represented, and can represent themselves, differently in the context of public media.

Applying these ideas to this research project – and to other ethnographic studies done online, we can ask, “is the blogsphere both public and natural?” A well disciplined ethnographer might argue that it is impossible to observe online interactions in person, without invading their homes and watching them type. Who are they? How old? What gender? Without knowing these things the interactions will lack necessary context. Following Wacquant’s argument that people represent themselves differently in public media, we can also ask what ways people represent themselves differently online. [link to studies on identity formation online]

This ties in to my chapter on “new ways of speaking”, and on knowing ones audience. I found I represented myself quite strangely on an academic list serv. Writing to hundreds of Ph.D’s somehow motivated me to write very differently, with more attitude, than I might normally. The language I used, call it pretentious, changed and to date I can barely re-read it.

Similarly, when I first started the blog, I would allow myself to comment on other peoples blogs more freely. The comment’s I would leave would be immediate gut reactions to posts. Sometimes I’d just be trying to make a joke, some stupid one-liner. And guess what, later on it stayed there as a stupid joke. It would have been fine in passing, but dumb jokes stick around forever in the blogsphere.

On many of the academic listservs I participate on, emotional outbursts frequently occur. I was relieved to see other people embarrassing themselves as much as I had, and eventually I got used to it, realizing we are all human beings who spazz out, act irrational, miss our morning coffee etc. Being able to send messages instantly means  that those spazzy emotional outbursts are bound to get archived. So be it.  Does this change the way I present myself? Absolutely. Can I avoid future embarrassment online? I doubt it. It’s a different place, but it’s still real life. I have no doubt that after going through such experiences, that online actions are every bit as real and embodied as offline ones.

Going back to Wacquant’s introduction, he discusses the first chapters goals:

“A reflection on an experience of apprenticeship in progress, this first part of the book pursues a triple objective. The first is to contribute precise and detailed ethnographic data, produced by means of direct observation and intensive participation, on a social universe that is all the more unknown for being the object of widely disseminated representations.”

I am an apprentice anthropologist, a student-researcher if you will, engaging myself online. Cultural anthropology is widely mis recognized, misinterpreted, and basically misunderstood outside the discipline. Anthropology bloggers are a new public face of anthropology, (as are the Human Terrain military anthropologists). That cultural anthropology is not well understood reflects a poor relationship between mass media and anthropologists. Perhaps anthropologists were irrelevant and uninteresting, or perhaps they were ignored because they were saying something unpopular. Thankfully Anthropology bloggers are playing a role in re-representing anthropology in the mass media, as the chapter, “Human Terrain System meet the Blogsphere” will detail.

The blogsphere is so widely disseminated, that it too can ‘mis-represent’. The blogsphere is filled with unedited drafts, drunken rants, emotional outbursts, passionate engagement, and yes bias. Already I am guilty of misrepresentation to some extent. When I blogged Johannes Fabian’s conference at Concordia, who would have guessed I would dominate Google’s index for a period of at least three weeks. As one discussion among many its contribution would be great, but as the only discussion available it can cause trouble. In other words, you need to be tapping into a crowd.

[link to online community and personal networks -> "tapping into wisdom of the crowds", and filtering information].

[moving all these undeveloped crap posts to Diigo if it works out]


Wacquant, Loic. 2006. Body & Soul.  Oxford University Press.

What is anthropology? A Carnival of Answers.

Looking purely at this blog would be a terrible way to understand the question “what is anthropology?”. I will shed light on the question, usually by making it extremely complicated. A better way to learn about anthropology would be to read the “Four Stone Hearth” posts that circulate along blogs. It is a collaboration between anthropology bloggers of all kinds – scientists, activists, archaeologists, linguists, etc. If you want to see what interdisciplinary can do for you, this is a great way to learn.

Check out the 58th edition of Four Stone Hearth at Moneduloides.

It’s very cool to see what the biology side of anthropology is up to, and Modeduloides’ about page hooks cultural anthropologists brilliantly:

Corvus moneduloides, or the New Caledonian Crow, is endemic to New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands of Melanesia. This particular species of Corvid is the only non-primate organism believed to pass on the knowledge of tool manufacture and manipulation from one generation to the next. It is argued that this could be considered “culture,” but this crow knows better than to argue culture with anthropologists.”

Not only that, but the author is a poet,  (and on open access, i love it!)

more on science (should be titled ‘derailed’)

[Recommendation for other anthropology students: when it comes to debates surrounding the 'science' in anthropology, try to avoid it. It's dangerous, slippery terrain that might go no where. Also, do not under any circumstance cite wikipedia.]

And where do we find our answers? WIKIPEDIA. Woot.

Definition 1:  “Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge” or “knowing”) is the effort to discover, and increase human understanding of how the physical world works.”

Definition 2: “A broader modern definition of science may include the natural sciences along with the social and behavioral sciences, as the main subdivisions of science, defining it as the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.[2] However, other contemporary definitions still place the natural sciences, which are closely related with the physical world’s phenomena, as the only true vehicles of science.”

So Wikipedia provides us with two common uses, showing where the confusion comes. Why such confusing definitions? Well, for a long time it was all philosophy. So go figure.

The joy of pseudo-science

[I should edit this and really distinguish cultural anthropology from "anthropology", but instead I won't since it reflects the confusion in my mind well.]

Call me a sucker, but I’ve always been one to jump into the “is anthropology a science?” debate. For most of my undergrad degree, being that I was in an arts program, I never assumed it was science. I met all sorts of activists talking about saving the world. But then came a challenging professor, who was adamant that it was a science. I took offense, and wondered “if this is science, can we call what used to be science something else? Because using the term for two very different things doesn’t make sense to me.” But that is exactly what was happening. I realized that anthropologists who consider it a science do not use the word science in the same way. They do not agree to definitions of science produced in the hard sciences, and instead redefine understand the word differently.

Next thing you know people are arguing about whether or not something is a science, when science itself is undefined! Does it matter if a study is scientific? What does that mean?

Here is a fantastic example of how such debates begin. The video is from Richard Feynman who wrote some great books, such as “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” which I enjoyed a lot. He is also a freakin genius who worked on various nuclear devices, inspired thousands of students, writes incredibly well etc… Did I mention nobel prize winner? I could go on, but I prefer to criticize.

So what exactly is he saying? Not a lot. He argues “he knows that it means to know something”, and that “he doesn’t know the world very well”. So on one side, we can get better at *knowing* something, but how can we also “know about the world”?  Through pseudo-science and opinion? Yup.  (and throw in a heavy dose of everything non-academic.)

Or better yet, let’s stop thinking and just have smoke some orange juice!

[so how do we define 'social science'?]  -> and yet if we say it isn’t a science, what does that mean?

who cares about universal laws? -> being ‘pseudo-scientific’ isn’t a problem, + he’s completely right that anthropology borrowed heavily from the natural sciences, possibly out of necessity to get funding and respect. There are also debates in the blogsphere about how peer review, and even the journal format are borrowed and possibly maladapted to anthropology.

[is "scientific" language taken more seriously? ]

[what about linguistics? So many kinds of social science!] -> just because I’m not pushing science doesn’t mean others aren’t.

[here it comes ---->  anthropologist...

... as scientist
... as researcher
... as activist
... as artist
... as journalist
... as author                                            ]

multi-sited fieldwork – reading notes on Marcus (revised)

Pardon the load of spew I’m dumping on the blog. I’ve been encouraged to write an hour a day, and I thought I’d try blogging it. This of course means I’m at the stage of the research where I need to produce vast quantities of writing, so increasingly I’ll be using this blog as a scratch pad. You might also say I have a bad case of Logorrhoea”]

I found George Marcus’s article, Ethnography Through Thick and Thin, to be very helpful for defending my research as ethnographic.  My writing ethnography class considered it a brutally thick piece of writing. I have to agree, and perhaps thats why I jumped to bullets instead of giving it the proper writeup it deserves.

What does this article bring to my research? First, ethnography is not always about holistic representations. (presenting it as a totality) Where ethnographers once focused on people in particular places, current interests often lie in following political issues across a number of sites. My research is being done at Concordia University and online across a number of English blogs. Had I succeeded in also doing research from the perspective of the publishing industry, I would say this project was ‘multi-sited’. Sites in this case aren’t necessarily places, but also positions. Ie,Tsing working with and following environmental activists, logging companies, various levels of governments, and tying these positions down to an ethnographic ‘local’ narrative, provides an interesting way to understand how a forests resources are allocated and used, without being limited to a particular perspective. The change of site/position/location reveals inconsistencies and conflicting understandings.

I’m still not sure how much stating it as being ‘multi-sited’ helps, since Marcus was really trying to describe recent changes in the focus of anthropological field work. It feels like an “others are doing it too” defense of method, which is kind of weak. That different research questions can be addressed using this is probably the most helpful argument. The circumstantial activist terminology is also interesting.

Further, researching online communication and collaboration in anthropology is a kind of ‘circumstantial’ activism, in that my research brings publicity to the open access publishing issue (even if only a little). At the same time, I actively promote OA publishing, self-archiving, and openly blogging ones research, so in this case it’s not circumstantial.  Perhaps circumstantial a kind of activism that relies on doing research that informs questions relevant to activists while trying to avoid the bias that comes with passionate engagement.

Reading Response:

Marcus, George E. 1998. Ethnography Through Thick and Thin.

Multi-sited ethnography

  • focus on connections and associations rather than a particular place.
  • “… its goal is not holistic representation, an ethnographic portrayal of the world system as a totality. Rather, it claims that any ethnography of a cultural formation in the world system is also an ethnography of the system, and therefore cannot be understood only in terms of the conventional single-site mise-en-scene of ethnographic research…” (p83)&b
  • “In yielding the ethnographic centering on the subaltern point of view, one is also decentering the resistance and accomodation framework that has organized a considerable body of valuable research for the sake of a reconfigured space of multiple sites of cultural production in which questions of resistance, although not forgotten, are often subordinated to different sorts of questions about the shape of systemic processes themselves and complicities with these processes among variously positioned subjects.” (p85)I’m okay with this because honestly, the domination and resistance thing was tiring me out.
  • Multi-sited ala Marcus = “de facto comparative dimensions develop instead as a function of the fractured, discontinuous plane of movement and discovery among sites as one maps an object of study and needs to posit logics of relationship, translation, and association among these sites. ”  (p86)Perhaps locating the blogsphere in relation to journals, listservs, twitter etc?
  • “Media studies has been one important arena in which multi-sited ethnographic research has emerged. Distinct genres of research have appeared on production (especially in television and film industries), on the one hand, and on the reception of such productions, on the other.” (p87)
  • “In anthropological work within the field of cultural studies of science and technology, the tendency towards multi-sited research is most prevalent in the following topical areas: … (4a); studies of new modes of electronic communication such as the Internet and studies concerned with environmentalism and toxic disasters.”   (applies to this research project on internet communication, and Mary Theberge’s on environmentalism).
  • Multiple sites -> “… the politics and ethics of working in any one reflects on work in the others.” (p98) –> “Circumstantial Activist”
    Can we say that the politics and ethics of the blogsphere reflect on the politics and ethics in journals? Yes, but theres something to be said about strategically chosing ones research sites in this case.  Next time I go through the reading I’ll look for more on choosing ones sites.

[defining collaboration]    [new trends in ethnography]

Ethnography is to anthropology as…

Many anthropologists stress the importance of ethnography, and when it comes to disciplinary turf wars anthropologists can also be very protective of it. In his post “Ethnographic Disciplines”, Enkerli argues ethnography has also developed in a number of other disciplines. He writes:

“I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.”

Many disciplines play with ethnographic, or ethnographic-like methods to do research. As Enkerli goes on to say, ethnography is also done by market-researchers, but he wonders how close the methods really are in application and purpose.

[Note that the "disciplinary turf wars" line is an official trademark of the Carl corporation. Patent can be found here. ]

See also:

Dr. Postill discusses Tim Ingold’s position that “Anthropology is not ethnography”.


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