Archive for June, 2008

community, the internet, and anthropology

Through the Media Anthropology Network I’ve been introduced to a wealth of information on social networks, online communities, and the troubles encountered using such terms. I like the word “community” to describe a group of identifiable people with some common relationship – ala “anthropology”. But the term community is used to describe many things, and hence using the word is about as descriptive as the word “culture” (another anthro favourite). Vague, general words that sound nice and are hard to use effectively.

In his essay “Localising the Internet beyond communities and networks” (2008), John Postill discusses some of the problems that a reliance on these words can bring. He brings up the work of one of my teachers Dr. Amit, writing:

“Amit cautions that expressions of community always ‘require sceptical investigation rather than providing a ready-made social unit upon which to hang analysis’ (2002: 14). Relying on emotionally charged, bounded notions such as community (or diaspora, nation, ethnic group, etc) is unwise, she adds, for there are numerous sets of social relations that cannot be brought under these banners.”

I often say I’m looking at the online anthropology community, but in my proposal I tried to steer clear of such a description, opting instead to focus on problems (and questions) rather than people and places. I think by leaving the “field” vague, I can use the term community in an unbounded sense. But Postill suggests some other terminology which I am happy to use but am not quite sold on their advantage:

” One advantage of field is that it is a neutral, technical term lacking the normative idealism of both public sphere and community.” [referring to social field]

Why I like the word community is, it will make sense to tech savvy internet users caught up in “2.0”. The community in this sense is the users, the authors, and the relationships in between. So its pretty vague, and has no sense of being bounded or coherent. I also have concern that using concepts like “social field” might bring unnecessary jargon specialist vocabulary – and probably I don’t quite get the difference yet. Is it mostly a matter of semantics and translation?

Postill writes:

“As I have argued earlier, community is a vague notion favoured in public rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object. Amit (2002: 14) puts it well: ‘Invocations of community… do not present analysts with clear-cut groupings so much as signal fields of complex processes through which sociality is sought, rejected, argued over, realised, interpreted, exploited or enforced’ (my emphasis).”

I admit I’m a fan of public rhetoric, but I’m also a fan of Bourdieu so I’m happy to go either way. I’m pretty sure I need to read this article some more to understand what other differences such definitions bring. Can I use social field interchangeably? At that point, isn’t a “social field” just as problematic a concept:

“As I have argued earlier, social field is a vague notion favored in anthropological rhetoric, not a sharp analytical tool with an identifiable empirical object.”

I wonder if any of these terms can be used without a great deal of contextualizing. [And I haven’t had time for this essay to sink in, but I find that when I post ideas on this blog, I can’t stop thinking about them, so heres to thinking]

Some key distinctions discussed in Postill’s essay:

  • Social network analysis overemphasizes relationships at the expense of social other forms of capital (Thanks to Dr. Postill’s corrections below!)
  • Postill argues interactions do need to be taken into account, and can be worked into Bourdieu’s concept of a “social field”. [aka finding a middle ground]
  • Kinds of sociality – how do we describe the networks/communities/field I’m engaged in. [do I need a general concepts for this? I wonder if the bigger problem is trying to get around writing context by using generalizing concepts for sociality].

Apologies to Dr. John Postill, as I’m sure I missed a lot of important points, but thanks for a constructive essay discussing issues with the terminology and approaches. He brings up more discussion surrounding the essay on his blog.

twitter me this, twitter me that

Except I don’t know many twits! Having given up my email logins to Twitter, I figured I’d get a similar conversion rate as I did on Facebook. Unfortunately that isn’t the case and I find myself surfing random peoples twitter feeds! Out of a couple hundred contacts, none of them use twitter (whereas when i signed up for facebook I was amazed that it found 30 or so people already on there).

The styles of messages are informal and relaxed – and yet they are also archived. It’s an interesting way to keep up with people, and to keep other people connected with what you are doing. I have yet to integrate twitter into my life properly – I can imagine it being very different when you can take the internet with you (ie a cell phone).

So is it okay to snoop twitter feeds? I almost feel like an intruder reading about peoples barbeques, bike rides, etc… but I do like the jokes, and I can see how more frequent updates builds a strong sense of solidarity, or community, or network. Is it about the frequency of communication, or the informal nature of the relationships? But is it mostly between people who already know each other? Is there much new networking going on?

I’m trying to find out, but since I don’t know anyone on there, I’m tweeting at two people. I’m sure I could get my Dad on there too, since I never call him… not sure who else I can convert… If you tweet, do add me, I can fit you in for a free anthro-analysis session anytime (can’t provide a couch, sorry).

Twitter id: Wiltshire

things i need to think about [a five day plan]

  • The why/when/where/how of “formality” – why should we be formal, and when -> leads to discussion of “the need for informality and the need for formality in academics, in life,  and in anthropology -> with a focus on accessible online publications (blog or journal or twitter or what not)
  • Differences between online communities, and online social networks, -> differences from the “communities” made popular in traditional ethnography.
  • write up some of my experiences so far with this blog – stories of embarrassment, stories of being offensive, as well as of meeting new people, finding inspiration, focusing ideas, empowerment,
  • write up a chapter of the thesis discussing the adaptation of ethnographic methods to contemporary research issues. [I am supposed to put this in the proposal, but its such a demanding question I can’t do it in a paragraph.]
  • Keep on tweeting as I progress through this plan.

Net neutrality video – “Humanity Lobotomy”

A popular video on Net Neutrality, bringing in the history of publishing and culture – ”


good to remember accessibility isn’t a given on the internet (even with OA publishing) – ala national censorship and corporate control.

For more recent developments checkout the website and blog. Interestingly a lot of news is spreading around twitter, as the following quote shows:

Twitter traffic of Commissioner Michael Copps’ speech in Minneapolis on Saturday rocketed to the top of the popular network — garnering more mentions than “Obama,” “Clinton,” “Big Brown” and all other newsworthy terms posted that day by the millions of users of the viral Internet service.”

FCC Commissioner Copps recently announced plans to support and bring in net neutrality legislation. The whole post can be found here.

(and yes, I realize I’ve been living in the dark without twitter… oh how I have been suffering… but don’t feel pity, as I’m signing up now and will blog about my conversion).

Digital Scholarship in the Humanities – a great blog

(by way of

On the recent “that CAMP” conference Lisa Spiro writes:

“As a result of all of the sharing of ideas via blogging and social networking via Twitter, the meeting seems much more intimate, open, and lively than your average conference.”

She lists numerous issues discussed at the conference, which have been added to my “must process” file. As I am procrastinating from my proposal to do research, by actually doing research, I should stop writing right now, and simply suggest you check out all Spiro has to say!

back to problems… err… revisions

I’ve been trying to update my proposal and have had a terrible morning realizing its crap. Why? Because I’ve been thinking too much and now I’ve got 100 revisions to make. What this means is: I need to learn to write a proper academic proposal. By this I mean, it needs to be more general, less specific, more vague so that I don’t end up needing to revise each day i learn something new.

Here are the things I’m going to try and work in for version .5:

  • Justify how I can make this research “ethnographic”. I like the idea of ethnography being “adaptive” as promoted by Christine Hine in Virtual Methods.
  • Write up a more “nuanced” (just for you max) discussion about collaborative anthropology incorporating this great post by Max Forte.
  • Ponder the problem that I’ve picked a topic where I could spend years reading literature to learn more about it, without ever doing “ethnography”. Not to mention I’ll have three months to try and contribute something to it. This is one reason I think a collaborative research design is essential, with only three months I am going to need some very good consultants!
  • should I play with the idea of “decolonization” as a “theoretical framework”?
  • Or focus on more practical discussions… probably a mix of both (ie current OA movement, but I could contribute to that by bringing in studies from post-colonialism on publishing and culture. And these discussions could be helpful in bringing what the OA movement is pushing to anthropologists. (So score one for being someone who does interdisciplinary work, sometimes gathering peoples ideas and opinions and “just” restating them is relevant, in that you can carry the words to new places.
  • When do I stop revising a proposal since everything I read makes me want to change the direction completely? Ie: I just found a wealth of writings on publishing and colonialism – i could spend years reading all this stuff…. how do you balance book research with “fieldwork”?

I suppose I could focus on this “new audiences, new participants, new ways of speaking” idea, participating in as many ways as possible as an anthropologist online (taking the advice of Enkerli who makes the excellent point blogs are only one medium within many.) I can start twittering for example (so many twitter fans admit they hated the idea just like I do, but once they started they couldn’t stop… I have a fear of going native there – same goes for mmo’s).

This experience participating could feed into discussions with anthropologists about publishing experiences with new technologies, new licenses, the creative commons, open access journals. And also “new ways of speaking” like twittering, etc, and how they fit into “distributing knowledge” in anthropology.

I’d write up a few “life histories” of anthropologists experience publishing, about who they write to, how, the desired audience, why they chose to publish what, and where, . [requires some willing anthropologists, and theres flexibility here to discuss various aspects of interest to each person willing to help out]

Then i’d write up a narrative of a journal and how journals are adapting to the internet (ie open access, e-journals, distribution issues, political economy of publishing kind of story. [requires some consultants from the publishing industry]

Finally I could weave some ethnographic magic and look at it all in light of colonialism and publishing (I’ll have time to catch up on readings after the fieldwork period… ), exploring in a way “the decolonization”, or possibly not [depending on how the research goes, it could actually turn into “colonizing with the internet”. oh god… focus… somehow… must…. focus…