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.


9 responses to this post.

  1. One of the issues that came up in my post, that I think you should think about and develop further, is the question raised by Safaa about what makes a blog an anthropology blog to begin with. It’s not as easy to explain this as one might think, it seems, and it can be a controversial designation.

    You’re right that I never looked at French “anthropology blogs”, mostly because I work in an Anglo environment, and when I am not submerged in that environment I am working in Italian and Spanish. As far as has been shown to me, it seems that I only missed one blog as a result, a student who has no trouble with the anthropology label since the title of her blog is “The Anthropologist.”

    If you find more, you should let us know.


  2. Well it’s clearly a complicated issue, but I’m for a general approach -> topics that inform anthropological research written by students of anthropology. (professors being long term students)

    So even though Enkerli doesn’t call his blog an anthro blog, he talks enough about anthro topics that I still call him an anthro blogger.

    Professional/unprofessional? No idea, but I’m playing with those boundaries to develop some insight.


  3. This is really interesting. I think you might want to consider a distinction between asserted and ascribed identity; and between identity and practice. Identity emerges within structured/structuring interactive fields, so although it is subject to power gradients, it is never fully controlled by any single agency.

    As a trivial example a little farther afield than Enkerli’s, I also do not assert an anthropology identity for my blog; since I’m trained first as a historian (albeit a ‘retrospective cultural anthropologist’, as H. Stuart Hughes used to say) that would seem presumptuous to me. But Marc at In Harmonium has been kind enough to ascribe an anthropology identity to my blog in his blogroll. He may have done this inattentively, or deliberately, for a variety of reasons, not least of which that he recognized anthropology in some of my practices there.

    I do some anthropologyish things some of the time. The question of when practices-among-others become categorically identifying is an important but not a simple one, which is why so much effort and resource is devoted to institutional definition, authorization and credentialing of these conventions; and why so many smart-yet-clueless students struggle so against a process they correctly see as fundamentally arbitrary and fail to see as essential nonetheless.


  4. Btw, use of the world ‘culture’ may best be understood as an identity-asserting incantation.


  5. Talked with my wife about this over dinner. She suggests thinking of culture as a verb rather than a noun – something that’s made and making rather than been and being. I know this is an old thought, but it’s a hard one to keep present.


  6. Two comments: 1. this may be a rather obvious one, but here goes – the anthropological nature of something is not necessarily contingent upon subject/topic but upon the approach, and also the application of the subject/topic to things “human” and “systemic” (words, like culture that can be tricky when trying to parse completely :)). I.e., the subject of the particle accelorator might become anthropological when viewed in historical/social context – like “why do humans desire to know these things about science to the degree they would spend millions (billions?) of dollars on them,” “what is the meaning of scientific ‘advances’,” “what is the scape of a global scientific economy and what does it mean about our current social economy?”

    2. You say you want to avoid the word “culture” but don’t know if you can when discussing anthropology. Personally, I view “culture” as a very dangerous and rather narrow term, in that many people see it as completely broad, but it is to such an extent a way of dividing up our social universe into little, comprehensible sound bytes. I prefer to look at anthropology as the translation of the term – the study of humans, and nothing more.

    To bring these together – the methods of anthropology (or rather the application of your topic to understanding humanity and ourselves better) seems very possible and completely within the realm of the study of humans – in all our shame and glory.

    A viewpoint from the U.S. – Washington state (UW grad)


  7. Were my ears ringing? 😉
    To clarify my position (since it seems to interest some people here): I do think of myself as an anthroblogger but I don’t usually consider Disparate an anthroblog because my anthro tags are embedded in other stuff (and other anthrobloggers don’t perceive it as an anthroblog). I have been working on other blogs which are more specifically anthro. Been much more active on Disparate (and Twitter) than on those more clearly anthro blogs, but I still wear the anthroblogger badge with pride, despite my lack of anthroblogger cred.

    A lot of points to discuss about this specific post.
    Having been hanging out with Fabian and the gang “all week” (Monday then Thursday through Sunday, but it still felt like a full week), I get the impression that I somehow grok Fabian’s perspective. He calls attention to the fact that “ethnography” refers to the book (the ethnographic monograph) and not the method (though other disciplines use the “-graphy” term to designate approach and even method). He tends to conceive of methodological issues as subsumed to epistemological ones. His claim is that ethnography “belongs” to cultural anthropology and his perspective on the use of ethnographic labels by other disciplines is that it is close to usurpation (though the case of folkloristics seems unclear and he refers to both Dundes and Hymes). Actually, there was a strong reaction to the crowd about the long-standing traditions non-anthro ethnography, during the intersubjectivity workshop. Situates Fabian’s perspective as not that universal in the discipline. Part of this made salient the switches in attitudes the crowd had toward Johannes.
    Personally, I simply see ethnography as a label for a number of disciplines. I frequently talk about “ethnographic disciplines” after finding out that it connects almost everything I do in academia: linguistic anthro, ethnomusicology, folkloristics, cultural anthro. Other ethnographic disciplines include some sociological approach as well as ethnohistory. My own approach includes other components which aren’t typically ethnographic but making them ethnographic fits in the grand scheme of things (semiotics, music, social networks…). Yes, it sounds like a very idiosyncratic model. But it seems to have some pedagogical value in that I can use it to get people grokking a number of fields by mere reference to ethnography. It even helps in distinguishing different approaches to ethnography (the typical ones in cultural anthropology being characterized partly by time in the field, a conception of geographical distance even in a local field site, and the neo-colonial frame).

    About “culture”… I tend to agree with Bob White when he says that, within ethnographic anthropologies (cultural and linguistic, mostly) we don’t really have a Kluckhohn situation. Sure, we can come up with a large number of definitions for the term. But most of us are operating with definitions which could be classified in a fairly small set. In a sense, we’re working with maybe four or five definitions of “culture” and we usually do understand each other when we mention the word. It can be an “esoteric” term (in the exoteric-esoteric sense).
    I also agree with Owen’s saying that the word can often be taken out. The same thing has been said about “intersubjectivity,” during the weekend. But the image I have is one of a scaffolding: you build a structure “on” that term then, when you take the scaffolding off, the structure should stand by itself. It worked for “intersubjectivity” and I get the impression that it works with “culture.” At least, as terms (the concepts remaining implied).
    I personally tend to use “culture” with a lot of caution. I very rarely use it as a “count noun” but I also hesitate to use it as a “mass noun.” In a sense, I think of it as a pseudo-adjective (similar to a verb, as mentioned here, but in a more neo-structuralist perspective). When I say “craft beer culture in North America,” I don’t really mean a specific group of people (though I do have a clear picture in mind of the social network through which I work, and it doesn’t include all people who drink or brew craft beer). I mean something like “what’s cultural about craft beer in this context.” The reason I avoid the count noun as much as possible (except in “brewing cultures” because I like to have pun), is that I don’t conceive of cultural diversity as implying the existence of bounded entities with clear labels. Since Writing Culture, a title like “The Nuers” would sound like an observer’s construct, especially since people typically negotiate multiple identities through constant interactions. Cultural identities are especially fluid, organic, «touffues».
    At the same time, when talking with people who have been engaged in the same reflections about “culture,” using the term as a count noun can be understood as shorthand for something we know is quite complicated (more than complex) but that we can still refer to in a simplified manner. Other social sciences have their own terms for groups of people (y’know: “community,” “society,” “social group,” etc.) and we don’t necessarily need our own. But, sometimes, it’s useful to refer to, say, “Bamanan culture” as if it were somehow unified (even though we’ve read Au coeur de l’ethnie and know that those labels are frequently misleading and usually comes from contact situations).

    As for non-Anglo anthros… Though I couldn’t be more of a French-speaker (I pride myself on the diversity of my attachments to French-speaking groups) and despite the fact that I often use my native experience as a French-speaker to discuss sociolinguistic details, it would be misleading to call me a French-speaking anthroblogger. I call Disparate a bilingual blog but the proportion of posts in French is really minimal. What’s more, my posts in French are often much more personal than the ones in English. If I ever “do anthro” on my main blog, it’s almost always in English. And though I do have a background in French anthro (Lévi-Strauss to Mauss, with some Bourdieu thrown in and quite a bit of Études africaines), it rarely comes through these days.
    Still, when I want to, I can use my language-based vantage point as a way to position myself as a semi-outsider to Anglophone anthro. It’s mostly a rhetorical tactic, but it still works. My posting (on Max’s anthroblog) a link to a Chicoutimi anthroblogger wasn’t consciously about this, but there might be an unconscious attempt to say “hey, there are French-speakers out there!”

    About department size… According to most people who were present at the intersubjectivity workshop (with insight on several continents), anthro departments do have a tendency to shrink in a number of places but we shouldn’t forget that a lot of people do anthro under another heading. For instance, Loki Pandey was telling us that, in India, “anthro” had a bad rep because of (neo-)colonialism but that a number of people are doing anthro under the guise of sociology. We also discussed the fact that some Irish anthros are in folklore departments and that anthro is quite prominent in UK social science, regardless of names for departments. Another thing which was discussed is the presence anthro outside of the ivory tower or in disciplines which are rather far from the anthro mainstream (say, market research). For a while, Fabian’s attitude was preventing many of us from discussing this at any length, but Johannes himself seems to have changed his tune during the weekend and several people (including Corinne Kratz, Mike Agar, Shiho Satsuka, and especially James Peterson) did a good job at bringing us outside of the typical “anthro department” structure. There might not have been that much consensus in the crowd as to the exact relationship between anthro departments and other venues for anthro work (especially ethnography). For instance, some people still like to separate “public,” “applied,” and “academic” anthros. But, by the end, pretty much everyone had some notion that anthro exists outside of those faculty offices with “anthropologist” on the door.

    «Sur ce…»


  8. @Carl I’ve talked to someone who said that several of your comments were quite anthropological. Can’t remember whom, though.


  9. @carl I love thinking of it as an incantation, imbued with power (wait does that make it rhetoric?).

    @gillia, I also love to think of anthropology as being the study of humans in general. Or perhaps equally specifically I like to think of it as a bunch of people thinking about the meaning of life. Probably too general/unfocused and perhaps too philosophical for some, but it works for me! Btw, Carl this means you and most academics are also anthropologists, you just didn’t know it. But back to your point, I am trying to locate publishing, distribution, and sharing knowledge within broader contexts. I’m not sure if its systemic or not, but hopefully my focus on doing ethnography will make it anthropological enough!

    @enkerli, I wish I could have made it to the workshop. As I was writing the email to try and get permission to attend I was given the opportunity to cover a class for one of the people attending it! Sounds like it was a lot of fun though.

    When I was traveling in India, helping out with my girlfriends thesis on fair trade cotton production, I experienced first hand peoples distrust of anthropology. After returning home, I think back on the kinds of questions and opinions I had and I realize I was extremely naive/biased/idiotic-at-times. No wonder people resist anthropologists digging into sensitive issues.

    Should we perhaps have a ceremony to welcome Carl into the church of anthropology?


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