Archive for September, 2008

ethics and ethnography

Native Anthropologist has written a great post about the ethical challenges of fieldwork, discussing the kinds of information one can publish and how that material might be used at the expense of the communities involved. He wonders what kind of distance one needs to maintain when collaborating with others, and how one can do this as a native anthropologist.  He writes:

“I had to find a way to write an article with enough meat to qualify for publication in the magazine, and therefore make my friend proud, but with just enough not to incur the wrath of the Nigerian embassy in Cotonou, or to call undue attention to my research.”

I hope it’s okay to draw attention to his blog!



do we need peer reviewed blogs?

hell yes.

I can’t help but hurt myself.

[save me from my irrational self]

I’m starting to see the value of peer review. In fact, the way I see peer review is a lot like I see the blogsphere. Comments from your peers! Not strict control and set topics, but rather comments given on your work. So rock on peer review system, save me from my irrational self. Bring on the discipline. There certainly are times we could all benefit from feedback prior to sharing our thoughts. There’s also something to be said about worrying less about what others think, and more about just getting it out there! Peer reviewed blogging would simply give us more options. Having options is a great thing, and perhaps there is room for a middle ground between self-publishing and journal publishing.

the question of culture

How can culture inform my investigation into the distribution/publishing of anthropological ideas? Is the concept of culture (in a relativistic sense) necessary to be considered anthropology?

I will be asked “what makes this anthropological” and I’m developing a few answers in advance. One argument I can use is “it’s ethnography”, but as Johannes Fabian stated, ethnography is really quite trivial in the way it gets information. For Fabian it isn’t about information gathering at all. [although this argument needed more backing up to really understand his position].

This research is also based on participation online, so I am an active agent creating events, and recording them. In fact recording the events is an event in itself [gotta love reflexivity].

But so far I’ve ignored culture. Largely on purpose, since I used to play around with anthropology essays by doing a search and replace to remove all the places the word “culture” was used, and I found all the essays read much better after that. [ala, the word culture wasn’t explaining anything, it was just there to emphasize relativism].

So how does blogging play out in different contexts? [different cultures if you want]. How different are anthropology departments around the world?

By looking at Concordia specifically, I have a very limited view of academia.  For example, in a discussion I had recently it was pointed out to me that I see anthropology very differently than others since I am in a program with only 8 master’s students, and where the size of the program has been progressively shrinking.  Other universities might have growing departments and see the discipline very differently.

Pamthropologist has been extremely helpful in providing me with insights from other universities. I really appreciate hearing how limited her student’s access to information is. They can’t read anthropology journals since their library doesn’t subscribe to them. I on the other hand have access to most of them. As her discussion with Michael Wesch showed, this can profoundly change the way one can approach education. Wesch wants students to learn to sift through vast archives of information to learn to evaluate the credibility and authority of a text. Pamthropologist emphasizes the value of lecture, and given the lack of material her students can access, it makes a lot of sense. This points to different academic environments.

So within North American universities, there are huge differences in the way one can approach anthropology and anthropology online.

Living in Montreal gives me access to another possibility. I can examine language issues in anthropological blogging. For example, in Max Forte’s recent post on Canadian bloggers, he lists English ones and misses out on the French ones [we’ll avoid other issues that came up with that post!].

This is interesting because coming from one location we have English and French universities. Discussions between them depend on bilingual speakers. Students in French speaking universities are often required to read English essays, but English students never need to read French ones! Online, these divides can take different shapes. Alexandre Enkerli and Lorenz Khazaleh blog in multiple languages and even if one can’t read it one can certainly see that these other language groups exist. Further, some staff at Concordia blog in French only.

I’ve also had a few links coming from Spanish language blogs, and I feel terrible in that I can’t actually contribute to the discussion on their blogs, but I very much appreciate that they read mine.

The question of “being public” also takes shape differently in different contexts. During the Media Anthropology’s seminar on Erkan Saka’s paper on blogging as a research tool Erkan discussed the way he had to write strategically given the political nature of his research. At the same time he was quick to criticize those who would bring “orientalist” arguments saying that it would impossible for women in Turkey to blog like he does. He argued they can and do.

Looking at publishing and blogging, it’s important to look at these issues. I don’t like the word culture, nor do I like general depictions of culture. I do however appreciate that a dominant English language publishing industry profoundly affected academia in the colonies. During colonialism, and continuing now, academics are restricted in their ability to publish in particular languages. I’ll be digging up research done on this in the next while, and I’d love to hear your recommendations for readings on publishing, language, and colonialism. Or just on publishing and language.

This week in blogging

It’s been a rough week for the faithful here in anthro-blog world. Blogger spats spurred by the ability to write fast and inability to delete brought a quick end to one blog I followed. And another blog is pondering the idea of changing the blog into an open journal.
Yes that’s right – the blog vs. journal debate is back! Would you rather post your work on a blog, or in an “open journal”. What motivates the preference? A few quick thoughts –

Not everyone appreciates or feels the need to be unprofessional! Blogging can be a reaction to stiff academic culture, but many people want that professional identity to be carried and developed online. For them, there is concern that blogging their ideas would work against that image. They would prefer to post their work in a journal, with less responsibilty for frequent posting and discussion. Another possibility here is, they are happy to make their work available, but they don’t want to commit to regular interactions about it. Or they choose to make these interactions elsewhere, like in academic conferences.

Others take issue against any sort of professional label being dumped on them! Bloggers can react negatively to the idea that they are “anthropology bloggers”, preferring instead to blog from a personal space. More than one blogger I’ve interviewed has expressed this concern, arguing their blogs were not really “anthropology blogs”.

This points to the wonderful flexibility blogging gives, since it’s not a genre at all. It’s a writing/publishing platform and that’s it. So it leaves a lot of room for all sorts of more specific categorizations for those who chose to do so. The one thing that differentiates the blog generally however, is that it revolves around self-publishing without peer review!

Blogs are a space to express yourself more freely. Here’s to keeping faith that free expression is a good thing, and that learning to write in public is a worthy academic goal. [and learning to write to a broader public, which I’ll play with someday!]

[Don’t you dare label me]   –> don’t professionalize my blog

[but.. it’s just a blog… I want my work in a journal!]  –> blog is too unprofessional!

[this blog is both professional and unprofessional. Deal with it.]

out for dinner

will be back soon!  [sorry the blog was getting a bit too “professional” for my tastes. This post is to help bring it back to normal by spreading happy vibes.]

[for those who haven’t seen it, this comes from the movie “Countryman”… clip courtesy youtube]

Johannes Fabian conference at Concordia

Last night I had the pleasure of attending my first anthropology conference/guess speaker at Concordia. The chosen room was pretty small to fit such a well known anthropologist, and it filled up fast. Max, Enkerli and I (members of a secret society of Concordia bloggers) agreed to all write up the event. Enkerli decided to one up us all and twittered the whole thing while it was ongoing.]

Fabian’s work has popped up in a few classes I’ve taken, and I latched on to its rebellious, critical tone/attitude. This conference however was extremely polite and well mannered as there were no yelling matches or even debates (perhaps with more time there would have been). It was a nice way to be introduced to Fabian’s new book “Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive.”

He found inspiration for the book through his attempts to archive documents he had created years past. As the online archive took shape, he realized that such “virtual” archives could have a profound influence on the way ethnography is done. He argued that the Internet would in this way “invigorate ethnography” by freeing it from conventions of traditional publishing. [you can bet I’ll be going through the recording I made to find juicy quotes to support my thesis]

Fabian’s archive brings traditional ethnographic documents and makes them available online so that others can comment on, and see the underlying documents he used to write up the book. It is part of anthropologists efforts to make the processes by which events are observed and made into documents more transparent.

Crossing Borders

In the section of his talk titled “Crossing Borders” Fabian discussed the way he broke away from traditional ethnographic method and how such a departure was enormously beneficial.  He argued that there should be no focus on a specific method, since it needed to adapt and that every time he did ethnography he did it differently.

He entered the event [which forms the base of his ethnography] not as an ethnographer, but as a client. He hired a sorcerer/magician to do a protection ritual for his house after having been broken into. In this way he was a client and not a participant-observer (at least in the beginning.) At some point during the ritual he realized he probably wanted to jot down some notes, and he wonders if this is the point where a necessary duplicity occurred. He was an honest client, who engaged the sorcerer to protect his house. At some point along the way he began to look at it ethnographically, and he states that this kind of duplicity is unavoidable and not something to be seen negatively. This was perhaps his way of de-emphasizing the term “participant-observer” and its neutral connotations. The ethnographer is not neutral, nor objective, and this isn’t a problem. [kinda felt like we were past this, but rock on there are a lot of people still holding on to the scientific side of anthro so it probably needs to be said over and over].

For Fabian ethnography is about crossing borders while making a record of the crossing.  He discussed how he stepped out of Western rational thinking by hiring a sorcerer to protect his house, which was an act of transgression. I don’t like the way he assumes a Western rationality vs other forms of rationality, but it probably appeals to many anthropologists so he certainly knows his audience. If you want to hear about Western rationality, ask me about how I cast a protection spell last week on my condo 🙂  So to wrap this section up, he deemphasized participant observation, and instead emphasized the act of recording and performing (epistemological duplicity in his words).

Ethnography and Literary Form

He opened up this section with a more typically Fabian question: “Is it simply too late to write ethnography?” His point being, literary forms are bound to specific times and perhaps the time had come to bury it. He used this question however to feed into his argument that the Internet and archiving might instill ethnography with new energy.

He argues that there was a lot to be said for commentary as a literary genre in ethnography, discussing the ability for both the text and commentary to  be presented online. In this way, the text made of an event would be presented along with comments on the text, within a community of readers. He called this the “co-presence”. This sounds a lot like the blogsphere, but unfortunately when I asked him if he read anthro blogs he responded he simply did not have the time (booo!) but that he was aware a lot was going on in anthropology there (here).

So without having read the book, I am a bit disappointed that his talk was oblivious to so much that is going on online. Archiving interviews and discussions isn’t really new, but such is life – it really is impossible to keep up with everything going on in Anthropology. Further he downplayed ethical issues involved with making documents so very public, saying that yes he did everything he could to avoid publishing damaging information, but he did not go into detail as to what this involved other than differentiating damaging words from critical ones.

His virtual archives involve bringing traditional ethnographic documents into a public archive. He did not discuss *creating* the documents in public like anthro bloggers are doing, nor did he discuss the ability to use other peoples public documents (ala doing research online).

He argues that “the presence of an ethnographic text” necessitates “the absence of the event it documents”. Interestingly Enkerli was twittering away while the conference was going on (I just wanted to argue with the obvious, but Fabian did not go into any detail as to how online archives could provide for different ways of recording information). Yes, he only had an hour, and I haven’t read the book so its hard to be critical.

Personal note: I dislike the term “virtual” archive, and think “archive” is good enough, but he cast some linguistic magic and argued that the word actually came from virtue – and hence should be interpreted as giving strength (thats very nice, but I’ll stick to a much simpler single word “archive” and let others debate its virtual/real/imagined properties).

On method, he argues that one of the greatest things about anthropology is the lack of consensus and shared habits. The state of anarchy is actually an asset which gives the ethnographer freedom, which is why some ethnography works. I have to agree, I’ve been free to invent methods to approach the questions I found interesting and relevant. But I think a lot of fields do this, and perhaps cover it up after the fact.

He finally got into some nice controversy when he talked about ethics and ethnography, arguing that no code of ethics would give legitimacy to ethnography, and that instead legitimacy depended on “habits of disciplined inquiry”. (go swap habits of disciplined inquiry everywhere you see “method” and boom, problem again).
I enjoyed his position that the best research was done free of grant money and grant control. I try to approach everything I do honestly, from a flexible “unforced” position. In this way I manifest genuine motivation and interest in the topic/task.  I wonder if this reflects the reasoning behind Fabian’s statement. Maybe he was trying to cheer up us poor Concordia students and our 1 or 2 SSHRC grants, while we sat next to McGill students and their bigger budgets!).

Who is he writing for? He writes his ethnography for other ethnographers. So count him out of the “public anthropology” field, and kick me in the head for not asking him more questions about this. I would love to hear if he thinks anthropology should be a more public discipline.

What do we do when ethics boards ask that we destroy our field notes after a certain period?

Sign it and forget it.

(Thanks to Dr. Amit for the great question).

Does he support the HTS? (Woooot great question) (And no it wasn’t from Max!)


But then he followed up with a few points which perhaps allude to his position:

anthropology has always served power, (more linguistic magic), “statistics” comes from some word meaning “state knowledge”).

He argued that ethnography can’t be used unless you do it. This is pretty interesting, since I agree that I can’t imagine how many ethnographies I’ve read could be used by the military in any way except perhaps to put people to sleep. He argues that ethnography is a “trivial method of information gathering” and that without actually doing ethnography there is little in it of value. Again Fabian downplays the importance and value of structured method, and he reinforces the fact that ethnography is written for ethnographers.

Perhaps contradictory, he argued that interlocutors (his term for informants, since he is against the idea that ethnography is about getting information – but I’d like to hear more on this position) should perhaps be listed as co-authors, but not be burdened with the responsibility of authorship (blame for bad writing, misrepresentation etc).  But if they are co-authors, should it not be written for more than just other ethnographers?

So to try and wrap this up :

He did not approach the project in a traditional way. It was through the practice of archiving documents and placing them on the internet that he came upon the idea and inspiration (it was not theory driven). He sees great value in providing ethnographic texts and discussing/commenting on them within a community of readers and authors. It is important to “lay open the processes by which events become documents, and documents ethnography”, to which he feels providing transcripts and other ethnographic texts can contribute.  Also while writing his ethnography he could not refrain from the “telling of a story”.

[I’m a big fan of calling myself a story teller rather than ethnographer!]

[Also, I entered this conference with that epistemological duplicity discussed by Fabian, and it was very interesting to see how the hierarchy of anthropologists took on new roles in the presence of the revered member. As I left I saw a very tired Fabian surrounded by fifteen or so of my professors, being led down to an after party. I wish I could have been there, and I can only imagine what rites they performed!!! lol]

[Fabian gave me some juicy quotes to support the idea that publishing is a rite of passage. He referred to peoples “initiatory ethnographic experience”,  as if fieldwork was initiation into the brother/sister/hood of anthropologists]

[he also said he appreciated having chance to speak to anthropologists as retired life didn’t give him much chance to interact… Dear Retired professors, get on the blogs!]

[summaries suck, to the point issues are better]

Writing for ourselves

As this research project progresses I keep coming back to the question “who are we writing for?”. Clearly there are a lot of different answers to this question, but I have been quite surprised to hear how few academics I speak with actually want their work to be shared publicly. For many academic writing isn’t meant to be read broadly – it is written with a specific audience [supervisors, tenure promotion committees] as a kind of rite of passage as opposed to an act of sharing knowledge.

This came up again during a recent seminar hosted by the Media Anthropology Network. I didn’t follow the seminar closely enough to summarize it here, but what struck me was the response to a suggestion to make a Youtube video to publicize the project being discussed. The response to this suggestion was quite dismissive –

“Contrary to David’s opinion I find Michael Wesch’s Youtube work
to be slick, superficial.  He is too much like a second rate McLuhan. As to his suggestion that I “prepare a youtube version of at least part of the Oak Park project – that way it can engage and interact with a whole other audience.” I actually cringe at the idea.  What little I know about YouTube is that consists mainly of stupid pet tricks, stupid human tricks and million of really really bad rock bands.  I know there are some really interesting clips and that some of Rouch’s films are available there but the “whole other audience” that David alludes to consists mainly of 15 year olds and that is not exactly who I had in mind as a new audience. Perhaps I am showing my age but too much of the material available on YouTube is too adolescent for my tastes. Before I retired I even thought the undergrads I taught had values that I abhorred.  God knows what the people who love stupid pet tricks would do with my work?  I prefer not to know.”

So here we have a perfect example of the kind of academics who simply do not want to share their work with a broader public (although the project does have a website even with his dislike of the youtube audience). For them anthropological productions are a very specific, specialized form of knowledge which are of interest only to a select group of academics.

The point I want to make is that anthropology journals are not “failing” to get ideas out there, since many authors simply do not want to share them in such a public fashion. The “pay to access” model works very well for many academics who want to filter out members of the public, or for those who see anthropological writing as being of little interest to anyone but other anthropologists.

The Media Anthropology Network’s mailing list provides a place for academics with specific interests to share ideas and argue with each other with less public feedback than say, a blog post. It’s fascinating to compare the kinds of discussions that take place given the increased amount of audience specialization.

The discussions are honest and extremely heated, and they are not anonymous. At the same time, a digest form of the discussion is made available online for anyone to read once the seminar finishes. I’m finding it really interesting to look at how audiences are managed in academic discussion.

random notes/tags –

[limited distribution is intentional]

[Is it rude to bring list serve discussions into the blogsphere? This post is not meant as an attack on the author, the quote is quite informative. Is it rude to leave his name out? This isn’t plagiarism, you can follow the media anthro link to read the whole thing]

[it’s not the publishers, it’s the academics, who want to limit the audience – to some extent anyways]

[public engagement – necessary or not? For some yes, others no.]

[People love to attack Michael Wesch! And they keep missing out imho.]

[the quote really shouldn’t be read alone, it comes out of a long discussion and the context is missing. ]