Archive for January, 2009

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.

if i was a journal

I would do everything I could to capitalize on discussion of articles published inside of me. Why let the discussion float across other publications? Why limit responses to three or four? Why not have a general comment section for quick immediate feedback on articles, and a separate collection of more developed reviews to which academics can contribute over time?

I was going to say there was no interaction in journals, but this isn’t true. Academics respond back and forth, but the discussion is carried over various subscription based journals. What a nightmare it is to follow – I can’t imagine it’s possible without a fantastic library.

(trackbacks > bibliographies)

oh and if I was a journal, I’d be an open access one.

Where outside the blogsphere could unpublished reviews be collected? Mana’o?

[no this isn’t an example of the kind of ‘narrative’ i’ll be using in my thesis.] Perhaps I’ll try to sneak in an extra ] somewhere.

just noticed Google Scholar has a separate list for ‘reviews’ of a particular work, as well as an “on the web” search. Who was it who was worried about Google being a black box that filters academic informatoin in the wrong way? It’s doing a hell of a lot better job than journal publishers. It will be nice to see the Concordia self-archiving repository at work. I hope they integrate reader interaction (at least discussions on published articles? somewhere on the repository?.

but at least if I was a journal I’d have an editor who might have the good sense to block this post out.

[these kind of crappy posts could be deleted but they serve to lower the bar. It is a rhetorical strategy where one shows massive improvement over the course of ones studies. This works to enforce the necessity of the educational system. If all my posts were near quality, than my thesis would most certainly end up looking worse than a blog. And that is not a good strategy now is it? No… perhaps its just a crappy post that should be deleted.]

getting back on track

The semester is in full swing and I’m challenged to maintain a strong focus on my thesis while engaging in other classes. And as much as I’d love to keep a relaxed, care-free strategy of writing about what interests me, I do need to produce a thesis. My supervisor has been extremely patient with me as I explore tangent, possibly irrelevant topics, but having spoken with other graduates and hearing their thesis writing experiences, I can only assume that this is the calm before the storm.

Planning for a hurricane then, where will I take this blog and the thesis?

  • a little more data collection and analysis, and bring more material from interviews and surveys to discussions on this blog. To avoid issues of confidentiality and all that, I’ve been blogging about the blogsphere, and leaving my interviews private. I can however carefully take issues I learn from the interviews onto the blog, I just haven’t processed the material yet (sitting on a tape recorder.. uggh).
  • In the writing ethnography class I am taking we are discussing the use of stories/narratives as a way to share ones field experience. I’ll try and share some of the drama I’ve gone through participating online using this method.
  • Find out all there is to know about open access and thesis publishing in Canada – differences from U.S. universities? Do all Canadian academics publishing a thesis maintain the copyright? What choices to masters students have? -> pay option for OA publishing in ProQuest.
  • Send my little survey out to all you readers, and beg for even more participation.
  • Organize the data into concepts, outline chapter ideas and general logic flow for the thesis.
  • Fix up sloppy posts on the blog. Refine ideas, find the good shit.
  • Bored yet? Sorry it’s a thesis.

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]

More friction – Wadley reviews Tsing

I just found an interesting review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. In it the author criticizes Tsing’s literary style, arguing that it will fail to convince the right audiences:

“Despite the interesting stories she weaves together on topics of considerable environmental and social significance, Tsing’s motivation to be “a hair in the flour” (p. 206)–that is, to “speak truth to power” or to be a fly in the ointment–is unfortunately and severely undermined by her own writing style (which has nonetheless become clearer and considerably less dense than in her first book, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen). Coming from the humanities end of the American anthropological continuum, her “evocation” and clever literary turns-of-phrase will simply put off most of those who need to read of these things–foresters, ecologists, policy-makers, and the like. (I would argue that the usual culprit of postmodernism is not the main issue here.)”

I’m too tired to comment properly, but there are some important links between audience and activism that this comment brings up.  The reviewer clearly holds contempt for anthropology’s literary side, but maybe he has a point. Are policy planners, foresters, and ecologists the most important people to target to bring about change? Is Tsing’s audience a small group of ‘literary’ academics? Or is the writing style an appeal to a broader public? I haven’t read her first work, but Wadley points out she took on a “less dense” writing style. Who influences policy planners, foresters, and ecologists?

So many audiences… makes advocacy work through scholarship a real challenge. He continues:

“Over the next few years, like James Scott’s “resistance” and “legibility,” it will launch a spate of writing using “friction” and her other neologisms; one will not be able to attend the annual meeting of the AAA without bumping into numerous presentations about it. But will it become the hair in the flour that it should be? I fear not.”

And Tsing made this point, that she had misgivings of academic scholarship being a meaningful/effective vehicle for activism.  I suppose the difference is Wadley wants to target different people to make things happen.  And yes, I’ll throw “friction” into the thesis somewhere. lol.

Reed L. Wadley.  2007.   “Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2005, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.(Book review).”    Borneo Research Bulletin.

[If audience = academics, does scholarship work as an agent of change?]

[Don’t mask ‘getting a degree’ with ‘saving the world’]  -> anthro’s often produce more than just a thesis. The act of being there can be positive (or negative). It’s wrong to assume the ‘thesis’ is the most important outcome of a research project. Journal articles, theses, etc –> academic audience, but during the research more important actions/dialogs occur.

Why do you need an audience? (popularizing scholarship)

Academia is often referred to as an ‘ivory tower’, where walls seperate wizards from commoners. Wizards you see, like to speak to other wizards. Of course this is a huge generalization and many academics… sorry wizards…  have broken out from the walls to find recognition outside. But should they have to? As my research has progressed I have had a number of discussions with academics who do not see any benefit to pushing ones work out from the university. Is it a concern if a researchers work is uninteresting? What criteria can we put on ‘good’ research? Who should benefit?

the positions

There is an idea that all scientific knowledge is important, and that we can never really know what will be important down the road. Just because it’s popular now doesn’t mean its ‘better’. As opposed to pushing for more popular research projects, most teachers I’ve encountered have recommended I find and stick to something I find stimulating. What’s popular today probably won’t be tomorrow.

Many cultural anthropologists, and probably sociologists,  have been pushing for more collaborative research practices (what other disciplines push for this?).  All academics are involved in collaboration, ie: they read and comment on each others work, prop each other up, etc… But in the context of cultural anthropology it’s about collaborating with communities and people involved in the research project. The idea is that social science can work to benefit the communities involved just as much as the academy.  In order to do this a research project must remain flexible to other interests.  Ie: your idea was to study kinship in a small remote community, but when you get there you learn the community is being pushed off their land for a huge hydro project. What do you do? Stick to your guns and study their kinship patterns, or talk with the community and do a project that helps to inform and raise awareness of their land claim issue?

Whoa, isn’t that activism? Yup. So am I lost as a social scientist? Perhaps.  But such is the way of academia – researchers follow trends, and jump on bandwagons [like interdisciplinary studies of the internet for example]. The fight between ‘pure’ research (popularity? who cares.) and activism (popularity helps) has been a long one – as Tsing describes:

“In the late 1990s, scholarly trends were moving away from an endorsement of activist projects and experiments. Practitioners and scholars often gravitated to different styles for discussing programs. Where practitioners focussed on the strengths and weaknesses of particular projects, scholars tended to place these projects in longer histories and wider geographies of knowledge and power.” (Tsing 2004:264)

And the fight continues among students and teachers today. The program I am in is setup to give students a taste of each ‘side’. For us students it’s like a game of chess, where we are pawns. Who’s perspective will win? Probably neither, or at least no one has yet. The battle itself seems to be whats important. Tsing describes how such a tug of war worked out in the end:

“In the process of the discussion, I found myself provoked to think differently. On the one hand, scholarly colleagues challenged me to consider the real dangers of too easy a generosity toward programs for “community” empowerment. On the other hand, community advocates made me consider whether scholarship had stopped working well as a public interlocutor.” (p.264)

So these opposing perspectives can come together quite nicely in particular contexts. The ongoing war in the academy has a transforming effect on the way researchers see things. I can never quite find my bearings, and I find it reassuring to know the constant back and forth and the dramatic oppositions are part of the game. Further, they aren’t really in conflict. They often go hand in hand (ala, research online communities and publishing, and advocate OA.).

Now where was I going again? Ah yes. The audience. As Tsing comments, scholarship has trouble generating public interest which makes it questionably useful as a tool for activism.  But this isn’t always the case, and when academics do get popular they are sure to draw fire. For one, academics have little experience marketing themselves. Because of this, they have very little control over what topics become popular. Popularity in turn has a powerful influence in funding circles. So getting an audience can also be away of fighting for money, and this is one thing most academics agree is a bad thing (along with selling yourself out to the military).

Over at Teaching Anthropology, Pamthropologist discusses the effect of public opinion on research, looking at what kinds of research become popular and how. Specifically they talk about how public interest can skew and guide research (just as much as a hundred million dollar Minerva program, a pentagon/military program funding academic research). She quotes the original listserv post by Bob Muckle, who wrote:

Not unexpectedly, as almost all lists of top discoveries in archaeology are apt to do, they describe stories that tend to appeal to the public’s imagination of the things archaeologists do, with a clear bias towards pyramids, well-known civilizations, historical figures, and human biological remains.

I think that as the media itself is increasingly driving archaeological research, especially that which focuses on things that make good television, archaeologists are going be faced with increasing challenges connvicning people of the value of lithic waste flakes, potsherds, and rusty bits of metal.

So here the need to appeal to public opinion is a concern for researchers, just as the lack of relevance to the public in scholarship is a concern for advocates. Audience here is one of the big differences, where we can find a kind of “friction” discussed by Tsing.

So back to the blogsphere and the internet – how will appealing to ones collaborators change research? Are there pitfalls to encounter? This ties into my previous post on reader interaction where I discussed the role reader comments can have in skewing the image readers have of a blog. More importantly however, I think blogging ones research is a way to take back some of the foreign media’s control over what research becomes popular. If academics got more excited about their work in public, I’m sure that passion would transfer to others. Blogging research can help correct the bias emerging out of popular science publications like National Geographic. But that is also asking academics to market themselves, and who wants academia to be a popularity contest?

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.

random notes from reading:

[Universal of the day: Montreal is cold.

Particular detail of the day: Montreal is cold.]

Universal + Particular = Montreal is cold.

See how well they work together?

writing ethnography class

The new year has begun, and I could easily have missed it. I return home to my official studies on the 12th, but classes began on the 5th, so I asked some classmates to keep me up to date and they were kind enough to let me know I have a 20 page paper on Malinowski due the day I get back.

My first reaction… “!@#!@#! Malinowski? Are you !@#!@! kidding me?” AGAIN? HOLY !~@#!#!#! 20 pages WTF???”.

Then my second reaction… “HOLY MO!@#!# OF @@!!# SHI$Q@#!”.

I closed the notebook and went to bed.

This morning I found out my classmates were having fun with me, and the 20 page Malinowski paper was a joke.  I only have to engage in one hour of free writing (preferably on the thesis) each day this week, and to hand in and discuss the product. Not so bad.

Miss school anyone? 🙂