Archive for the ‘Engaging anthropology’ Category

knowledge mobilization

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a talk by David Yetman, discussing a program developed at Memorial University that works to “mobilize knowledge” between the university and outside interests. The program acts as a liaison of sorts, between interested community members and interested researchers. It’s an open door for communities to invite researchers to participate in questions relevant to them.

The program is interdisciplinary and completely voluntary. Yetman admitted that collaboration between faculty members and administration is a tricky thing, and that for this reason the program members actively sought out responsive members in the faculty, and worked with them, rather than trying to change the minds of those uninterested in collaborative research projects.

The project staff, “knowledge mobilization officers” work as a kind of knowledge broker – in many ways facilitating the business side of research, helping find funding, but also facilitate ways to disseminate research in ways appropriate to the project (perhaps pointing to the need for multiple styles of research publication, in that the standard journal publication may not be what is needed).

They have also been developing a search engine/database for research projects community members are interested in. The database provides researchers and community members a way to connect. The database would allow researchers to look for relevant research questions, and link them to members of the community that would help with it. He mentioned the need for “finding audiences” for academic research, and that “80% of what we do is building relationships”.

Pushing the business angle did cause my anthropological ears to ring a little.  The “benefit to society” thing has been done to death in my readings for this project, and while increased collaboration was argued to benefit society, Yetman also said that knowledge mobilization officers “do not pass judgment on the type of project”, but that an ethics guideline was in the works.

I asked if knowledge mobilization officers, being interested in “finding audiences”, advocated Open Access publication of research – and I was disappointed to learn the program had not yet explored Open Access Publishing (and even though the program is small, and just starting, I still choke swallowing this one…). I promised myself I’d check back with them down the road to see if information on Open Access Publishing couldn’t be provided by the knowledge mobilization officers as standard practice.   [just editing this, and again, how do you talk about mobilizing knowledge, and ignore Open Access? uggh!]  [thinking more on it, I think Yetman comes from a medical research background, and I have no idea how well received open access publishing is in that area]

Looking at the relationship between academia and surrounding communities, and having this opportunity to see it more generally through multiple disciplines, I appreciate ethnography more. Not so much the value of ethnography as a “scientific method”, but the lessons one can learn looking at anthropology’s often brutal relationship with people/communities/states [things that make you go “hmm…”]. I asked Yetman how disputes would be settled between researchers and community members inviting research – what happens when the research doesn’t go as planned? Yetman admitted this was a challenge, but he felt that the knowledge mobilization officer, while not responsible for such a situation, would still be able to lend a hand. He said in no way would the knowledge mobilization officer, nor the community member inviting the research, have any control over the research output.

I also asked about Minerva style funding, and how interests could be balanced out – if at all. He said that many researchers would be interested in military funding, and admitted that large-scale funding could be an issue if it were let to dominate research agendas. Here exists the problem of promoting collaboration without judging “good or bad”. Ie: in the article linked at the bottom of this post, it discusses knowledge mobilization as coming from technology transfer, which involves patents, and making profit. So maybe this program will end up promoting the “closed” side of the intellectual property debate.)

Even if it ignores ethical issues, steps around research responsibility, and hasn’t yet figured out how important open access publishing is, it does do one thing that I like – it opens a door for people to approach the university with their questions and concerns.

While a liaison can help on the community side, I still think anthropologists have the right idea building collaboration into the research methods, and to facilitating the collaboration themselves. Ie: do we need a special database to find relevant research questions, when we have the internet, or live in a local community? Are these issues not constantly being discussed in the news,  on blogs, and on youtube? Yes, at least with online ethnography. A knowledge mobilization office could help researchers get their feet into the community however, and help local organizations advertise their issues and interests.

I would have kept the questions pouring, but few others were participating so I shut up and talked to him when the talk finished. I explained my interest in “sharing knowledge” and Open Access, and when I told him I was in the anthropology program he told me he always got a great response from anthropologists, who he said expressed more interested in community collaboration. During the talk he also mentioned how the program was new, but tried to incorporate what it could from participatory research methods that have been developing in anthropology and other disciplines. [he mentioned proactive and reactive strategies, community workshops hosted in different areas in the region]

One audience member inquired about measuring and quantifying the success of such collaborations – Yetman replied that was a challenge, but that qualitative assessments seemed to work pretty well.

Here is an article discussing some of the projects successes and strategies:

“Putting Knowledge Into Practice”

[on the first round writing this, I used the word “interested” about 20 times. ]


open anthropology cooperative

I’m a bit late (ignoring this blog to write a thesis of course), but if you haven’t heard yet, anthropologists have come together to form the “open anthropology cooperative”. The project has received a lot of enthusiastic support, and couldn’t have started off better! I’m looking forward to taking part, especially once I kick this flu… (did you hear its bloody 10 degrees in June? If only global warming was given a more descriptive name – like “montreal ice age, here we come”.

Sign up and participate at

new ethnography podcast

I’m excited to see Enkerli’s latest project, which he was “pondering” only a few weeks back, has already materialized. Check out the latest anthropology-related podcast, focusing on ethnography. Also take note of Enkerli’s new blog, “Informal Ethnographer”, and twitter accounts, which were created to develop and clarify professional and personal roles.

He writes:

“Here it is! The first episode of Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast.

As I was editing it, I noticed a number of flaws. For instance, there are several things I mispronounced there are some things I might have wanted to take out of it. But I maintain my RERO principle and I’m posting it as-is.

As this is the “enhanced podcast” version, with chapter markers, you can skip around as you please, between different sections. I should post MP3 files for the different sections but the official release will always be with the enhanced podcast.”

I’m heading home now to grab some headphones…

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.

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?

Reader interaction in the blogsphere and elsewhere.

I’d wanted to investigate the ways online journals where adapting to new communication opportunities online, but I had to chop much of this from my proposal to keep things manageable. Thankfully other people are writing about it, and my “ethnographic” exploration can continue “from the armchair”. Gary Kamiya at discusses the way reader interaction has changed journalism for better and for worse.  The article details the experiences of a number of writers, and discusses the publications changing strategies for capitalizing on reader contributions:

“You, gentle and not-so-gentle readers, have been on my mind lately. You vast and invisible online throng, slouched in front of thousands of computer monitors, have done something revolutionary. You have forever altered the relationship between writer and audience. The Internet has turned what was once primarily a one-way communication into a dialogue — or maybe a melee. From a cultural perspective, the new democracy of voices online is a wonderful thing. But writers have an odd and ambiguous relationship with their readers, and the reader revolution is having massive consequences we can’t even foresee.”

(Kamiya, Gary. 2007:1) has worked to integrate reader interaction into it’s online publishing strategy. But not all feedback is equal, and the process of democratizing reader feedback had unexpected consequences. The article highlights both the good and bad. For the good he highlights the ability of reactive audiences to act as “an enormous fact checker” pointing to “an explosion in expertise”, albeit a very chaotic one. These reactions demand authors respond to meaningful critiques and these interactions can lead into longer lasting relationships.

This strategy of building relationships through online interactions has been my main research strategy. Blogging my research has not only worked to fact-check my interpretations through the generous contributions of collaborators, but it has also worked to develop a network of personal relationships. For example, I am now working on an email survey which I will send out to people who have responded on the blog. This will hopefully go over better than a random email survey sent out to people I’d never spoken with before.

But enough with the internet utopianism already. And enough preaching to the converted (ie blogging about open access…). The tough sell will come from those just coping with email. To sell this online revolution to more conservative anthropologists, my thesis will have to detail all the bad. [objective = (equal number of good points, listed next to equal number of bad points).] The article discusses the brutality, idiocy, and thoughtlessness that come with many reader comments, along with long winded tirades and rants. They point to different norms of behavior within traditional print magazines from those online:

“Moreover — and this is a crucial point — the percentage of letter writers who are fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts has exponentially increased. In the old stamped-letter days, the difficulty of writing in weeded out more of these types; letters tended to be somewhat more thoughtful, and letter writers usually adhered to certain conventions of etiquette and decorum governing communications between reader and writer. Not forelock-tugging subservience to their betters, but simple courtesy. There was a tacit acknowledgment of the implicit contract between writer and reader, one characterized by at least a modicum of idealization and respect on both sides. I don’t want to exaggerate this — certainly there were plenty of ad hominem and intemperate letters back then. But having edited several magazines in the print-only era, I can say that there were far, far fewer. Perhaps the unseen presence of an editor, the slightly formal nature of writing a “letter to the editor,” led readers to be on their better behavior.”

(Kamiya, Gary. 2007:2)

While authors deal with brutal, often idiotic responses,  my own experience has been a bit different. Responses so far have come from academics, or previous academics.  Reader comments have been very supportive and kind, and are often quite formal. authors on the other hand highlight issues of sexism, insensivity, and intolerance – so bad that some authors at Salon avoid reading responses, or searching their names on Google. Academia breeds formality, even without an editor, for I haven’t received any anonymous hate mail yet…

Anthropology and academia in general, are described by Vassos Argyrou as a ‘game of power’, and formality is part of this game. It’s interesting to see how academic blogs attract different kinds of responses than online magazines and other more popular blogs.

The other possibility is my academic drivel bored the trolls to death…

[random notes from the reading]

  • reader comments can scare other readers away, and give a bad overall image.   -> important consideration for ethnographic projects where you might want to develop diverse, conflicting, opinion.
  • Fear of responses can lead to “creative paralysis” [but I dont think this is new to the online world, since in my discussions with fellow students very few people I meet are willing to share creative work publicly. Creative paralysis seems to affect most people, and blogging is a way to work against this].
  • article concludes with hope for more respect in author-reader interactions… Discusses ‘playing the game’ which relates to Vassos Argyrou’s quote in my proposal about anthropology as ‘a game of power’. Academics have to maintain some formality and respect in order to advance themselves in the field… This differs from popular publications where readers are not playing the same game.

Kamiya, Gary. 2007. “The Readers Strike Back”,