Category Archives: Ethnography

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

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Actively Reading: Organic Ideas for Startups

Been using Diigo as a way to annotate online texts. In this case, I was as interested in the tone as in the text itself. At the same time, I kept thinking about things which seem to be missing from Diigo.

One thing I like about this text is its tone. There’s an honesty, an ingenuity that I find rare in this type of writing.

  • startup ideas
    • The background is important, in terms of the type of ideas about which we’re constructing something.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • My own itch has to do with Diigo, actually. There’s a lot I wish Diigo would make for me. I may be perceived as an annoyance, but I think my wishlist may lead to something bigger and possibly quite successful.
    • The difference between this question and the “scratch your own itch” principle seems significant, and this distinction may have some implications in terms of success: we’re already talking about others, not just running ideas in our own head.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • It’s somewhat different from the well-known “scratch your own itch” principle. In this difference might be located something significant. In a way, part of the potential for this version to lead to success comes from the fact that it’s already connected with others, instead of being about running ideas in your own mind.
  • grow organically
    • The core topic of the piece, put in a comparative context. The comparison isn’t the one people tend to make and one may argue about the examples used. But the concept of organic ideas is fascinating and inspiring.
  • you decide, from afar,
    • What we call, in anthropology, the “armchair” approach. Also known as “backbenching.” For this to work, you need to have a deep knowledge of the situation, which is part of the point in this piece. Nice that it’s not demonizing this position but putting it in context.
  • Apple
    was the first type
    • One might argue that it was a hybrid case. Although, it does sound like the very beginnings of Apple weren’t about “thinking from afar.”
  • class of users other than you
    • Since developers are part of a very specific “class” of people, this isn’t insignificant a way to phrase this.
  • They still rely on this principle today, incidentally.
    The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.
    • Apple tends to be perceived in a different light. According to many people, it’s the “textbook example” of a company where decisions are made without concerns for what people need. “Steve Jobs uses a top-down approach,” “They don’t even use focus groups,” “They don’t let me use their tools the way I want to use them.” But we’re not talking about the same distinction between top-down and bottom-up. Though “organic ideas” seem to imply that it’s a grassroots/bottom-up phenomenon, the core distinction isn’t about the origin of the ideas (from the “top,” in both cases) but on the reasoning behind these ideas.
  • We didn’t need this software ourselves.
    • Sounds partly like a disclaimer but this approach is quite common and “there’s nothing wrong with it.”
  • comparatively old
    • Age and life experience make for an interesting angle. It’s not that this strategy needs people of a specific age to work. It’s that there’s a connection between one’s experience and the way things may pan out.
  • There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas,
    • Those in the “engineering worldview” might go nuts, at this point. I can hear the claims of “hand waving.” But we’re talking about something complex, here, not a merely complicated problem.
  • Apple type
    • One thing to note in the three examples here: they’re all made by pairs of guys. Jobs and Woz, Gates and Allen, Page and Brin. In many cases, the formula might be that one guy (or gal, one wishes) comes up with ideas knowing that the other can implement them. Again, it’s about getting somebody else to build it for you, not about scratching your own itch.
  • Bill Gates was writing something he would use
    • Again, Gates may not be the most obvious example, since he’s mostly known for another approach. It’s not inaccurate to say he was solving his own problem, at the time, but it may not be that convincing as an example.
  • Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google.
    • Although, the inception of the original ideas was academic in context. They weren’t solving a search problem or thinking about monetization. They were discovering the power of CitationRank.
  • generally preferable
    • Nicely relativistic.
  • It takes experience
    to predict what other people will want.
    • And possibly a lot more. Interesting that he doesn’t mention empirical data.
  • young founders
    • They sound like a fascinating group to observe. They do wonders when they open up to others, but they seem to have a tendency to impose their worldviews.
  • I’d encourage you to focus initially on organic ideas
    • Now, this advice sounds more like the “scratch your own itch” advocation. But there’s a key difference in that it’s stated as part of a broader process. It’s more of a “walk before you run” or “do your homework” piece of advice, not a “you can’t come up with good ideas if you just think about how people will use your tool.”
  • missing or broken
    • It can cover a lot, but it’s couched in terms of the typical “problem-solving” approach at the centre of the engineering worldview. Since we’re talking about developing tools, it makes sense. But there could be a broader version, admitting for dreams, inspiration, aspiration. Not necessarily of the “what would make you happy?” kind, although there’s a lot to be said about happiness and imagination. You’re brainstorming, here.
  • immediate answers
    • Which might imply that there’s a second step. If you keep asking yourself the same question, you may be able to get a very large number of ideas. The second step could be to prioritize them but I prefer “outlining” as a process: you shuffle things together and you group some ideas to get one which covers several. What’s common between your need for a simpler way to code on the Altair and your values? Why do you care so much about algorithms instead of human encoding?
  • You may need to stand outside yourself a bit to see brokenness
    • Ah, yes! “Taking a step back,” “distancing yourself,” “seeing the forest for the trees”… A core dimension of the ethnographic approach and the need for a back-and-forth between “inside” and “outside.” There’s a reflexive component in this “being an outsider to yourself.” It’s not only psychological, it’s a way to get into the social, which can lead to broader success if it’s indeed not just about scratching your own itch.
  • get used to it and take it for granted
    • That’s enculturation, to you. When you do things a certain way simply because “we’ve always done them that way,” you may not create these organic ideas. But it’s a fine way to do your work. Asking yourself important questions about what’s wrong with your situation works well in terms of getting new ideas. But, sometimes, you need to get some work done.
  • a Facebook
    • Yet another recontextualized example. Zuckerberg wasn’t trying to solve that specific brokenness, as far as we know. But Facebook became part of what it is when Zuck began scratching that itch.
  • organic startup ideas usually don’t
    seem like startup ideas at first
    • Which gets us to the pivotal importance of working with others. Per this article, VCs and “angel investors,” probably. But, in the case of some of cases cited, those we tend to forget, like Paul Allen, Narendra, and the Winklevosses.
  • end up making
    something of value to a lot of people
    • Trial and error, it’s an iterative process. So you must recognize errors quickly and not invest too much effort in a specific brokenness. Part of this requires maturity.
  • something
    other people dismiss as a toy
    • The passage on which Gruber focused and an interesting tidbit. Not that central, come to think of it. But it’s important to note that people’s dismissive attitude may be misled, that “toys” may hide tools, that it’s probably a good idea not to take all feedback to heart…
  • At this point, when someone comes to us with
    something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls
    dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.
  • the best source of organic ones
    • Especially to investors. Potentially self-serving… in a useful way.
  • they’re at the forefront of technology
    • That part I would dispute, actually. Unless we talk about a specific subgroup of young founders and a specific set of tools. Young founders tend to be oblivious to a large field in technology, including social tools.
  • they’re in a position to discover
    valuable types of fixable brokenness first
    • The focus on fixable brokenness makes sense if we’re thinking exclusively through the engineering worldview, but it’s at the centre of some failures like the Google Buzz launch.
  • you still have to work hard
    • Of the “inspiration shouldn’t make use forget perspiration” kind. Makes for a more thoughtful approach than the frequent “all you need to do…” claims.
  • I’d encourage anyone
    starting a startup to become one of its users, however unnatural it
    seems.
    • Not merely an argument for dogfooding. It’s deeper than that. Googloids probably use Google tools but they didn’t actually become users. They’re beta testers with a strong background in troubleshooting. Not the best way to figure out what users really want or how the tool will ultimately fail.
  • It’s hard to compete directly with open source software
    • Open Source as competition isn’t new as a concept, but it takes time to seep in.
  • there has to be some part
    you can charge for
    • The breach through which old-school “business models” enter with little attention paid to everything else. To the extent that much of the whole piece might crumble from pressure built up by the “beancounter” worldview. Good thing he acknowledges it.

Groupthink in Action

An interesting situation which, I would argue, is representative of Groupthink.

As a brief summary of the situation: a subgroup within a larger group is discussing the possibility of changing the larger group’s structure. In that larger group, similar discussions have been quite frequent, in the past. In effect, the smaller group is moving toward enacting a decision based on perceived consensus as to “the way to go.”

No bad intention on anyone’s part and the situation is far from tragic. But my clear impression is that groupthink is involved. I belong to the larger group but I feel little vested interest in what might happen with it.

An important point about this situation is that the smaller group seems to be acting as if the decision had already been made, after careful consideration. Through the history of the larger group, prior discussions on the same topic have been frequent. Through these discussions, clear consensus has never been reached. At the same time, some options have been gaining some momentum in the recent past, mostly based (in my observation) on accumulated frustration with the status quo and some reflection on the effectiveness of activities done by subgroups within the larger group. Members of that larger group (including participants in the smaller group) are quite weary of rehashing the same issues and the “rallying cry” within the subgroup has to do with “moving on.” Within the smaller group, prior discussions are described as if they had been enough to explore all the options. Weariness through the group as a whole seems to create a sense of urgency even though the group as a whole could hardly be described as being involved in time-critical activities.

Nothing personal about anyone involved and it’s possible that I’m off on this one. Where some of those involved would probably disagree is in terms of the current stage in the decision making process (i.e., they may see themselves as having gone through the process of making the primary decision, the rest is a matter of detail). I actually feel strange talking about this situation because it may seem like I’m doing the group a disservice. The reason I think it isn’t the case is that I have already voiced my concerns about groupthink to those who are involved in the smaller group. The reason I feel the urge to blog about this situation is that, as a social scientist, I take it as my duty to look at issues such as group dynamics. Simply put, I started thinking about it as a kind of “case study.”

Yes, I’m a social science geek. And proud of it, too!

Thing is, I have a hard time not noticing a rather clear groupthink pattern. Especially when I think about a few points in Janis‘s description of groupthink.

.

Antecedent Conditions Symptoms Decisions Affected

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Insulation of the group Illusion of invulnerability Incomplete survey of alternatives

.

High group cohesiveness Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group Incomplete survey of objectives

.

Directive leadership Collective rationalization of group’s decisions Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

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Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms Poor information search

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High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s) Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect) Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform Failure to work out contingency plans

.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

.

A PDF version, with some key issues highlighted.

Point by point…

Observable

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

Insulation of the group

A small subgroup was created based on (relatively informal) prior expression of opinion in favour of some broad changes in the structure of the larger group.

Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures

Methodical procedures about assessing the situation are either put aside or explicitly rejected.
Those methodical procedures which are accepted have to do with implementing the group’s primary decision, not with the decision making process.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)

Agreement is stated as a fact, possibly based on private conversations outside of the small group.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform

A call to look at alternatives is constructed as a dissenting voice.
Pressure to conform is couched in terms of “moving on.”

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Incomplete survey of alternatives

Apart from the status quo, no alternative has been discussed.
When one alternative model is proposed, it’s reduced to a “side” in opposition to the assessed consensus.

Incomplete survey of objectives

Broad objectives are assumed to be common, left undiscussed.
Discussion of objectives is pushed back as being irrelevant at this stage.

Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

Comments about possible risks (including the danger of affecting the dynamics of the existing broader group) are left undiscussed or dismissed as “par for the course.”

Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

Any alternative is conceived as having been tried in the past with the strong implication that it isn’t wort revisiting.

Poor information search

Information collected concerns ways to make sure that the primary option considered will work.

Failure to work out contingency plans

Comments about the possible failure of the plan, and effects on the wider group are met with “so be it.”

Less Obvious

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

High group cohesiveness

The smaller group is highly cohesive but so is the broader group.

Directive leadership

Several members of the smaller group are taking positions of leadership, but there’s no direct coercion from that leadership.

Positions of authority are assessed, in a subtle way, but this authority is somewhat indirect.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology

As with cohesiveness, homogeneity of social background can be used to describe the broader group as well as the smaller one.

High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

External “threats” are mostly subtle but there’s a clear notion that the primary option considered may be met with some opposition by a proportion of the larger group.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of invulnerability

While “invulnerability” would be an exaggeration, there’s a clear sense that members of the smaller group have a strong position within the larger group.

Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group

Discussions don’t necessarily have a moral undertone, but the smaller group’s goals seem self-evident in the context or, at least, not really worth careful discussion.

Collective rationalization of group’s decisions

Since attempts to discuss the group’s assumed consensus are labelled as coming from a dissenting voice, the group’s primary decision is reified through countering individual points made about this decision.

Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents

The smaller group’s primary “outgroup” is in fact the broader group, described in rather simple terms, not a distinct group of people.
The assumption is that, within the larger group, positions about the core issue are already set.

Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms

Self-censorship is particularly hard to observe or assess but the group’s dynamics tends to construct criticism as “nitpicking,” making it difficult to share comments.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

As with leadership, the process of shielding the smaller group from negative information is mostly organic, not located in a single individual.
Because the smaller group is already set apart from the larger group, protection from external information is built into the system, to an extent.

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

Information brought into the discussion is treated as either reinforcing the group’s alleged consensus or taken to be easy to counter.
Examples from cases showing clear similarities are dismissed (“we have no interest in knowing what others have done”) and distant cases are used to demonstrate that the approach is sound (“there are groups in other contexts which work, so we can use the same approach”).


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.


Langue de bois et ethnographie

J’ai récemment eu l’occasion de penser à ce qu’on appelle la «langue de bois». D’ailleurs, cette expression me motive à écrire ce billet en français. Je sais pas exactement comment dire la même chose en anglais, même si le concept est évidemment connu des Anglophones.

Ce qui m’a poussé à penser à la «langue de bois», c’est cette entrevue, réalisée par Jesse Brown de la baladodiffusion Search Engine de Radio-Canada anglais (CBC) avec un porte-parole de Telus:

Search Engine | CBC Radio | Podcast #16 is up .

D’après moi, cette entrevue est assez représentative de la «langue de bois». Telus fait un geste intéressant, en permettant à un de ses représentants de parler «ouvertement» dans le cadre d’une baladodiffusion. Mais le contenu et le ton de cette entrevue révèlent ce qui est, selon moi, un problème fondamental de certaines entreprises en ce qui a trait aux «relations publiques». Plutôt que d’admettre qu’il y a une différence d’opinion entre Telus (ou Bell) et les utilisateurs de messagerie sur cellulaire, ce porte-parole utilise une rhétorique que je considère tortueuse pour convaincre les auditeurs (et l’intervieweur) du bien-fondé des actions de son entreprise.

C’est, selon moi, une stratégie peu appropriée au domaine actuel. Ça ressemble étrangement à la politique de l’autruche et ça n’aide en rien au rétablissement de liens de confiances entre Telus et le public.

Je suis rarement aussi direct, dans mes propos au sujet d’une stratégie. En fait, mes propos sont probablement plus «forts» que ce que je crois vraiment. Outre la frustration par rapport au coût prohibitif des messages entrants sur Bell Mobilité (qui m’a poussé à cesser d’utiliser un cellulaire de Bell), je n’ai que peu d’intérêt réel pour la question précise des rapports entre Telus et ses clients. Mais j’accorde davantage d’importance aux relations publiques, intéressé comme je suis en ce qui a trait à la recherche auprès des consommateurs (“consumer research”).

C’est que je suis en pleine réorientation professionnelle. J’ai récemment obtenu un contrat auprès de la firme Idea Couture de Toronto en tant qu’«ethnographe francophone autonome» (“French-speaking freelance ethnographer”). Pour ce contrat, je fais affaire avec Morgan Gerard qui, en plus d’être ethnographe, est aussi blogueur. J’intègre désormais certaines de mes activités de média social avec mon expertise en tant qu’ethnographe. Je souhaite d’ailleurs renforcer ce lien et éventuellement obtenir divers contrats en tant qu’ethnographe spécialisé en média social. Ce premier contrat d’ethnographe autonome n’est pas directement lié au média social et la principale méthode de recherche utilisée est basée sur des visites à domicile, auprès de familles québécoises diverses. J’aimerais effectuer d’autres recherches du même type dans le futur mais je vois aussi certaines extensions plus près du média social.

En préparation à ce travail contractuel, je me suis lancé dans la lecture de certains textes liés à l’utilisation de l’anthropologie et/ou de l’ethnographie dans le contexte des études de marché ou autres sphères d’activités du domaine privé. C’est un peu une façon pour moi de me «baigner» dans l’anthropologie et l’ethnographie appliquées, de réellement devenir ce type de chercheur, d’«assumer mon statut» d’ethnographe autonome.

Un livre qui m’a été conseillé, et que j’ai lu dernièrement, est Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, de Sunderland et Denny. Je crois que l’aspect ethnolinguistique de cet ouvrage est ce qui a plu à John McCreery puisqu’il est, tout comme moi, actif dans l’étude ethnographique du langage. D’ailleurs, plusieurs dimensions de Doing Anthropology ont titillé non seulement mon sens de l’anthropologie linguistique mais aussi mon sens de la sémiotique. Ces chercheuses utilisent une approche très compatible avec la mienne puisqu’elle joint l’ethnographie à l’étude de la signifiance. McCreery aurait difficilement pu mieux tomber.

Ce livre me donne aussi un avant-goût des questions débattues par les ethnographes du domaine privé. Je perçois entre autres un sentiment d’incompréhension, de la part des ethnographes du milieu académique. Et un certain embarras face aux questions épineuses touchant à l’identité sociale, voire à la notion d’ethnicité. D’un point de vue ethnographique large, j’ai reconnu dans ce texte des sujets importants de l’ethnographie contemporaine. Au-delà de mon travail pour Idea Couture, j’ai trouvé des pistes pour m’aider à expliquer l’ethnographie à des gens d’autres sphères d’activité.

Et, pour terminer par un retour sur la «langue de bois» de Telus, j’y ai lu des choses très intéressantes au sujet de politiques inefficaces de relations publiques qui, tout comme ce porte-parole de Telus, se concentrent sur une rhétorique hermétique plutôt que de faire preuve de transparence et d’humilité.

Je reviendrai certainement à tout ça très bientôt.


Transparency and Secrecy

[Started working on this post on December 1st, based on something which happened a few days prior. Since then, several things happened which also connected to this post. Thought the timing was right to revisit the entry and finally publish it. Especially since a friend just teased me for not blogging in a while.]

I’m such a strong advocate of transparency that I have a real problem with secrecy.

I know, transparency is not exactly the mirror opposite of secrecy. But I think my transparency-radical perspective causes some problem in terms of secrecy-management.

“Haven’t you been working with a secret society in Mali?,” you ask. Well, yes, I have. And secrecy hasn’t been a problem in that context because it’s codified. Instead of a notion of “absolute secrecy,” the Malian donsow I’ve been working with have a subtle, nuanced, complex, layered, contextually realistic, elaborate, and fascinating perspective on how knowledge is processed, “transmitted,” managed. In fact, my dissertation research had a lot to do with this form of knowledge management. The term “knowledge people” (“karamoko,” from kalan+mogo=learning+people) truly applies to members of hunter’s associations in Mali as well as to other local experts. These people make a clear difference between knowledge and information. And I can readily relate to their approach. Maybe I’ve “gone native,” but it’s more likely that I was already in that mode before I ever went to Mali (almost 11 years ago).

Of course, a high value for transparency is a hallmark of academia. The notion that “information wants to be free” makes more sense from an academic perspective than from one focused on a currency-based economy. Even when people are clear that “free” stands for “freedom”/«libre» and not for “gratis”/«gratuit» (i.e. “free as in speech, not free as in beer”), there persists a notion that “free comes at a cost” among those people who are so focused on growth and profit. IMHO, most the issues with the switch to “immaterial economies” (“information economy,” “attention economy,” “digital economy”) have to do with this clash between the value of knowledge and a strict sense of “property value.”

But I digress.

Or, do I…?

The phrase “radical transparency” has been used in business circles related to “information and communication technology,” a context in which the “information wants to be free” stance is almost the basis of a movement.

I’m probably more naïve than most people I have met in Mali. While there, a friend told me that he thought that people from the United States were naïve. While he wasn’t referring to me, I can easily acknowledge that the naïveté he described is probably characteristic of my own attitude. I’m North American enough to accept this.

My dedication to transparency was tested by an apparently banal set of circumstances, a few days before I drafted this post. I was given, in public, information which could potentially be harmful if revealed to a certain person. The harm which could be done is relatively small. The person who gave me that information wasn’t overstating it. The effects of my sharing this information wouldn’t be tragic. But I was torn between my radical transparency stance and my desire to do as little harm as humanly possible. So I refrained from sharing this information and decided to write this post instead.

And this post has been sitting in my “draft box” for a while. I wrote a good number of entries in the meantime but I still had this one at the back of my mind. On the backburner. This is where social media becomes something more of a way of life than an activity. Even when I don’t do anything on this blog, I think about it quite a bit.

As mentioned in the preamble, a number of things have happened since I drafted this post which also relate to transparency and secrecy. Including both professional and personal occurrences. Some of these comfort me in my radical transparency position while others help me manage secrecy in a thoughtful way.

On the professional front, first. I’ve recently signed a freelance ethnography contract with Toronto-based consultancy firm Idea Couture. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Even before signing the contract/NDA, I was asking fellow ethnographer and blogger Morgan Gerard about disclosure. Thanks to him, I now know that I can already disclose several things about this contract and that, once the results are public, I’ll be able to talk about this freely. Which all comforts me on a very deep level. This is precisely the kind of information and knowledge management I can relate to. The level of secrecy is easily understandable (inopportune disclosure could be detrimental to the client). My commitment to transparency is unwavering. If all contracts are like this, I’ll be quite happy to be a freelance ethnographer. It may not be my only job (I already know that I’ll be teaching online, again). But it already fits in my personal approach to information, knowledge, insight.

I’ll surely blog about private-sector ethnography. At this point, I’ve mostly been preparing through reading material in the field and discussing things with friends or colleagues. I was probably even more careful than I needed to be, but I was still able to exchange ideas about market research ethnography with people in diverse fields. I sincerely think that these exchanges not only add value to my current work for Idea Couture but position me quite well for the future. I really am preparing for freelance ethnography. I’m already thinking like a freelance ethnographer.

There’s a surprising degree of “cohesiveness” in my life, these days. Or, at least, I perceive my life as “making sense.”

And different things have made me say that 2009 would be my year. I get additional evidence of this on a regular basis.

Which brings me to personal issues, still about transparency and secrecy.

Something has happened in my personal life, recently, that I’m currently unable to share. It’s a happy circumstance and I’ll be sharing it later, but it’s semi-secret for now.

Thing is, though, transparency was involved in that my dedication to radical transparency has already been paying off in these personal respects. More specifically, my being transparent has been valued rather highly and there’s something about this type of validation which touches me deeply.

As can probably be noticed, I’m also becoming more public about some emotional dimensions of my life. As an artist and a humanist, I’ve always been a sensitive person, in-tune with his emotions. Specially positive ones. I now feel accepted as a sensitive person, even if several people in my life tend to push sensitivity to the side. In other words, I’ve grown a lot in the past several months and I now want to share my growth with others. Despite reluctance toward the “touchy-feely,” specially in geek and other male-centric circles, I’ve decided to “let it all loose.” I fully respect those who dislike this. But I need to be myself.


Gender and Culture

A friend sent me a link to the following video:

JC Penney: Beware of the Doghouse | Creativity Online.

In that video, a man is “sent to the doghouse” (a kind of prison for insensitive men) because he offered a vacuum cleaner to his wife. It’s part of a marketing campaign through which men are expected to buy diamonds to their wives and girlfriends.

The campaign is quite elaborate and the main website for the campaign makes interesting uses of social media.

For instance, that site makes use of Facebook Connect as a way to tap viewers’ online social network. FC is a relatively new feature (the general release was last week) and few sites have been putting it to the test. In this campaign’s case, a woman can use her Facebook account to connect to her husband or boyfriend and either send him a warning about his insensitivity to her needs (of diamonds) or “put him in the doghouse.” From a social media perspective, it can accurately be described as “neat.”

The site also uses Share This to facilitate the video‘s diffusion  through various social media services, from WordPress.com to Diigo. This tends to be an effective strategy to encourage “viral marketing.” (And, yes, I fully realize that I actively contribute to this campaign’s “viral spread.”)

The campaign could be a case study in social marketing.

But, this time, I’m mostly thinking about gender.

Simply put, I think that this campaign would fare rather badly in Quebec because of its use of culturally inappropriate gender stereotypes.

As I write this post, I receive feedback from Swedish ethnomusicologist Maria Ljungdahl who shares some insight about gender stereotypes. As Maria says, the stereotypes in this ad are “global.” But my sense is that these “global stereotypes” are not that compatible with local culture, at least among Québécois (French-speaking Quebeckers).

See, as a Québécois born and raised as a (male) feminist, I tend to be quite gender-conscious. I might even say that my gender awareness may be somewhat above the Québécois average and gender relationships are frequently used in definitions of Québécois identity.

In Québécois media, advertising campaigns portraying men as naïve and subservient have frequently been discussed. Ten or so years ago, these portrayals were a hot topic (searches for Brault & Martineau, Tim Hortons, and Un gars, une fille should eventually lead to appropriate evidence). Current advertising campaigns seem to me more subtle in terms of male figures, but careful analysis would be warranted as discussions of those portrayals are more infrequent than they have been in the past.

That video and campaign are, to me, very US-specific. Because I spent a significant amount of time in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, my initial reaction while watching the video had more to do with being glad that it wasn’t the typical macrobrewery-style sexist ad. This reaction also has to do with the context for my watching that video as I was unclear as to the gender perspective of the friend who sent me the link (a male homebrewer from the MidWest currently living in Texas).

By the end of the video, however, I reverted to my Québécois sensibility. I also reacted to the obvious commercialism, partly because one of my students has been working on engagement rings in our material culture course.

But my main issue was with the presumed insensitivity of men.

Granted, part of this is personal. I define myself as a “sweet and tendre man” and I’m quite happy about my degree of sensitivity, which may in fact be slightly higher than average, even among Québécois. But my hunch is that this presumption of male insensitivity may not have very positive effects on the perception of such a campaign. Québécois watching this video may not groan but they may not find it that funny either.

There’s a generational component involved and, partly because of a discussion of writing styles in a generational perspective, I have been thinking about “generations” as a useful model for explaining cultural diversity to non-ethnographers.

See, such perceived generational groups as “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X” need not be defined as monolithic, monadic, bounded entities and they have none of the problems associated with notions of “ethnicity” in the general public. “Generations” aren’t “faraway tribes” nor do they imply complete isolation. Some people may tend to use “generational” labels in such terms that they appear clearly defined (“Baby Boomers are those individuals born between such and such years”). And there is some confusion between this use of “historical generations” and what the concept of “generation” means in, say, the study of kinship systems. But it’s still relatively easy to get people to think about generations in cultural terms: they’re not “different cultures” but they still seem to be “culturally different.”

Going back to gender… The JC Penney marketing campaign visibly lumps together people of different ages. The notion seems to be that doghouse-worthy male insensitivity isn’t age-specific or related to inexperience. The one man who was able to leave the doghouse based on his purchase of diamonds is relatively “age-neutral” as he doesn’t really seem to represent a given age. Because this attempt at crossing age divisions seems so obvious, I would assume that it came in the context of perceived differences in gender relationships. Using the logic of those who perceive the second part of the 20th Century as a period of social emancipation, one might presume that younger men are less insensitive than older men (who were “brought up” in a cultural context which was “still sexist”). If there are wide differences in the degree of sensitivity of men of different ages, a campaign aiming at a broad age range needs to diminish the importance of these differences. “The joke needs to be funny to men of all ages.”

The Quebec context is, I think, different. While we do perceive the second part of the 20th Century (and, especially, the 1970s) as a period of social emancipation (known as the “Quiet Revolution” or «Révolution Tranquille»), the degree of sensitivity to gender issues appears to be relatively level, across the population. At a certain point in time, one might have argued that older men were still insensitive (at the same time as divorcées in their forties might have been regarded as very assertive) but it seems difficult to make such a distinction in the current context.

All this to say that the JC Penney commercial is culturally inappropriate for Québécois society? Not quite. Though the example I used was this JC Penney campaign, I’m thinking about broader contexts for Québécois identity (for a variety of personal reasons, including the fact that I have been back in Québec for several months, now).

My claim is…

Ethnographic field research would go a long way to unearth culturally appropriate categories which might eventually help marketers cater to Québécois.

Of course, the agency which produced that JC Penney ad (Saatchi & Saatchi) was targeting the US market (JC Penney doesn’t have locations in Quebec) and I received the link through a friend in the US. But it was an interesting opportunity for me to think and write about a few issues related to the cultural specificity of gender stereotypes.