Thesis – Introduction

[When anthropologists first started publishing, their audience was reasonably clear. ]

1. Introduction

To put into words experiences foreign and unknown has been a challenge of ethnographers, but this tale is not about the exotic, nor the foreign – at least not to me. This is a story about my engagement in online spaces as an anthropology student. Over the past year I have met, argued with, and befriended numerous anthropologists. I even upset a few. I did this without meeting them all face to face and in many cases it will be impossible for me to tell you how beautiful, how old, or even what sex, the people I met were. Yet this has been an ethnographic project, and without ever having set eyes on these people, without shaking hands, I have interacted with them. I know these people as much (and little) as I know others, only in this case I got to know them online, interacting through publicly accessible discussions on blogs. Through these readings and interactions I have come to appreciate the discipline of anthropology differently as I can say I feel closer to debates at the heart of the discipline, having engaged researchers and professors in ways I would never have had opportunity given the structures of a classroom. These experiences and interactions have been part of an academic exercise which seeks to answer the question “how is the internet fueling change in anthropology?”. While I will try not to embellish by making my everyday interactions exotic, I do hope that the ethnographic style in which I present my research can help those unaccustomed to anthropologists, or to online interaction, understand their potentials and pitfalls better. For those already native to the internet, or at least parts of it, then I hope this ethnographic style makes the report more pleasurable to read.

While this study does not deal with peoples lack of access to the internet, it does pay special attention to the boundaries academics create and re-create online, particularly in terms of the political-economy of academic publishing and the Open Access movement. At the same time it is a self-reflexive study that explores the challenges and opportunities that come with doing ethnography with the internet. In this way this research explores how the internet is fueling change in anthropology, looking at how anthropologists create and share their work in the era of “one click publishing”. Through online participation, interviews and small surveys, this research has explored how blogs and other social media can be used during the research process, and in particular how these new publishing strategies can answer certain issues of collaboration and representation. Finally as an ethnographic project it explores methods of participating in and engaging with, online communities – in this case that of English writing anthropology bloggers. Unlike traditional projects, as it has progressed aspects of this research have been shared publicly on a blog, open to the thoughts and opinions of anyone online. The blog has served as a field site created to invite collaborators to share their perspectives, and in doing so it has explored a new way to engage people in the research process.

In approaching this research a number of obstacles have been avoided. This research is not attempt to paint a holistic picture of an online anthropological community. It builds on online interactions based on participation in the English language blogsphere and various social media websites and then discusses those experiences in relation to broader discussions of academic discipline and the creation and distribution of anthropological knowledge.

Section one explores the historical foundations of anthropology looking at how anthropology became a distinct social science discipline. It looks at anthropology’s colonial roots, how it has been institutionalized, and how problems with these institutional structures have led some to advocate for change. Born within colonialism anthropology was always a form of political engagement and how anthropologists should engage politically has been the subject of much debate. From science to art and back again, anthropologists and the subjects of their research have questioned the purpose and goals of their academic pursuits. In whose interests does the research serve? It is an acknowledgment of the disciplines ties to power which motivate an ongoing search for more collaborative research methods. These debates are the theoretical inspiration behind the thesis and they frame the observations and analysis throughout.

Laying out the method behind the research section two looks at ethnographic method and the internet, particularly the challenges ethnographers have encountered experimenting with and justifying online research methods. It looks at how blogs and publicly accessible online documents and discussion can be created and used in a research context, and how they can be of benefit to anthropologists and others. It also shows how writing can be an interactive and iterative process that challenges conceptions of ethnographic engagement.

With both inspiration and method addressed, section three takes us out into the “open”, looking at Open Access publishing and blogging. The Open Access movement works to break down price barriers to peer reviewed research by making it freely accessible online. It promotes peer reviewed research by making it easier for interested parties to find and read it. Why publish work in an academic journal that restricts its readership to a fraction of its possible academic audience? As the Open Access movement asks, are scholars not meant to share their insights as broadly as possible? (Willinsky 2006) Now able to share work more easily online than through scholarly associations and their peer reviewed presses, academics have been forced into a decision between accessibility and prestige. The choice is often between long established journals and their associated subscription fee, and more recent Open Access alternatives which often have less established reputations (although many long standing journals have, or plan, to move to an Open Access publishing model). Self-archiving provides a middle road encouraging authors who publish in pay-to-access journals, to retain the rights to share that work on a website or in an online self-archiving repository. In this way Open Access publishing leverages the internet to make work easier to find and access while promoting academic peer review.

The audience of anthropological work becomes an important focal point of this study as the exploration of “openness” online develops. Turning away from the Open Access movement and access to peer reviewed articles, we move to the unrefereed free for all that has manifested in the English writing “blogsphere”. At first the use of a website as a personal self-publishing platform, blogging has since become a genre of communication in itself. Blogging software makes it easy to publish media on the internet with very little technical expertise. Where the academic publishing process can take years, blogging and other online tools allow anthropologists to share information in seconds, to a greater number of researchers as well as to different audiences. This new publishing environment reinvigorates a number of debates in anthropology. Anthropologists are now able to make their work more accessible but they ask how or if they even should. What do anthropologists have to gain working outside the traditional academic presses? Among cries for a more public presence are the rather small group of English writing anthropology bloggers that became subjects of this study. This thesis examines who anthropology bloggers are writing for, while also exploring the ways anthropology bloggers engage with their audiences. Is anthropology to be written for anthropologists or might others find interest? Is it a form of public engagement? These questions lead up to a final discussion as to whether or not blogging anthropology is “anthropology done in public” or “public anthropology”.

In conclusion new forms of academic expression renew debates surrounding the purpose and goals of academic research. Who are anthropologists writing for, and why? Are pieces created for a popular audience valid scholarship? Is a blog? A Twitter feed? Blogging and other social media tools, as will be shown, provide a new publishing strategy that promote ongoing dialogue while building a community of collaborators around particular interests. Looking at Wallerstein and others calls to “open the social sciences”, the fluid networks established by scholars online foster multidisciplinary communities that are able to address timely issues in ways traditional journals and academic conferences have not. The rapid growth and adoption of blogs and other self-publishing platforms by anthropologists have created an interesting vantage point from which to evaluate academic publishing and research strategies. It has also provided room for anthropologists to experiment. As Christine Hine (:9) writes, new technologies can provide a fresh lens from which to examine taken for granted practices.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Great start…but this is not the whole introduction, is it?


  2. P.S.: not a rhetorical question … 🙂


  3. Ha! I was going to reply with the remainder of the intro, but you beat me to it!

    “No” 🙂

    The next part is a short story based on real events that deals with the question “what is anthropology”, and about the questions I’ve run into when I tell people “I study anthropology.” Only problem its too cheesy to put up here atm. Very soon!


  4. Posted by O.W. on April 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm



  5. […] HomeAbout (v1.1)ReferencesResearch ProposalThesis (draft)Thesis – IntroductionEthnography and the InternetAnthropology: Arguments for ChangeOut in the "Open"ConclusionMaking Research Accessible […]


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