Category Archives: cultural anthropology

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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A Glocal Network of City-States?

This one should probably be in a fictive mode, maybe even in a science-fiction genre. In fact, I’m reconnecting with literature after a long hiatus and now would be an interesting time to start writing fiction. But I’ll still start this as one of those  “ramblings” blogposts that I tend to build or which tend to come to me.

The reason this should be fiction is that it might sound exceedingly naïve, especially for a social scientist. I tend to “throw ideas out there” and see what sticks to other ideas, but this broad idea about which I’ve been thinking for a while may sound rather crazy, quaint, unsophisticated.

See, while my academic background is rather solid, I don’t have formal training in political science. In fact, I’ve frequently avoided several academic activities related to political science as a discipline. Or to journalism as a discipline. Part of my reluctance to involve myself in academic activities related political science relates to my reaction to journalism. The connection may not seem obvious to everyone but I see political science as a discipline in the same frame, and participating in the same worldview, as what I find problematic in journalism.

The simplest way to contextualize this connection is the (“modern”) notion of the “Nation-State.” That context involves me personally. As an anthropologist, as a post-modernist, as a “dual citizen” of two countries, as a folklorist, as a North American with a relatively salient European background, as a “citizen of the World,” and as a member of a community which has switched in part from a “nationalist” movement to other notions of statehood. Simply put: I sincerely think that the notion of a “Nation-State” is outdated and that it will (whether it should or not) give way to other social constructs.

A candidate to replace the conceptual apparatus of the “Nation-State” is both global and local, both post-modern and ancient: a glocal network of city-states (GNoCS).

Yes, I know, it sounds awkward. No, I’m not saying that things would necessarily be better in a post-national world. And I have no idea when this shift from the “nation-states” frame to a network of city-states may happen. But I sincerely think that it could happen. And that it could happen rather quickly.

Not that the shift would be so radical as to obliterate the notion of “nation-state” overnight. In this case, I’m closer to Foucault’s épistémè than to Kuhn’s paradigm. After all, while the “Democratic Nation-State” model is global, former social structures are still present around the Globe and the very notion of a “Nation-State” takes different values in different parts of the world. What I envision has less to do with the linear view of history than with a perspective in which different currents of social change interact with one another over time, evoking shifts in polarity for those who hold a binary perspective on social issues.

I started “working on” this post four months ago. I was just taking some notes in a blog draft, in view of a blogpost, instead of simply keeping general notes, as I tend to do. This post remained on my mind and I’ve been accumulating different threads which can connect to my basic idea. I now realize that this blogpost will be more of a placeholder for further thinking than a “milestone” in my reflection on the topic. My reluctance to publish this blog entry had as much to do with an idiosyncratic sense of prudence as with time-management or any other issue. In other words, I was wary of sticking my neck out. Which might explain why this post is so personal as compared to most of my posts in English.

As uninformed as I may seem of the minutiae of national era political science, I happen to think that there’s a lot of groupthink involved in the way several people describe political systems. For instance, there’s a strong tendency for certain people, journalists especially, to “count countries.” With relatively few exceptions (especially those which have to do with specific international institutions like the United Nations or the “G20”) the number of countries involved in an event only has superficial significance. Demographic discrepancies between these national entities, not tio mention a certain degree of diversity in their social structures or even government apparatus, makes “counting countries” appear quite misleading, especially when the issue has to do with, say, social dynamics or geography. It sounds at times like people have a vague “political map of the World” in their heads and that this image preempts other approaches to global diversity. This may sound like a defensive stance on my part, as I try to position myself as “perhaps crazy but not more than others are.” But the issue goes deeper. In fact, it seems that “countries” are so ingrained  in some people’s minds and political borders are so obvious that local and regional issues are perceived as micro-version of what happens at the “national level.” This image doesn’t seem so strange when we talk about partisan politics but it appears quite inappropriate when we talk about a broad range of other subjects, from epidemiology to climate change, from online communication to geology, from language to religion.

An initial spark in my thinking about several of these issues came during Beverly Stoeltje‘s interdisciplinary Ph.D. seminar on nationalism at Indiana University Bloomington, back in 2000. Not only was this seminar edifying on many levels, but it represented a kind of epiphany moment in my reflections on not only nationalism itself (with related issues of patriotism, colonialism, and citizenship) but on a range of social issues and changes.

My initial “realization” was on the significance of the shift from Groulx-style French-Canadian nationalism to what Lévesque called «souveraineté-association» (“sovereignty-association”) and which served as the basis for the Quebec sovereignty movement.

While this all connects to well-known issues in political science and while it may (again) sound exceedingly naïve, I mean it in a very specific way which, I think, many people who discuss Quebec’s political history may rarely visit. As with other shifts about which I think, I don’t envision the one from French-Canadian nationalism (FCN) to Quebec sovereignty movement (QSM) to be radical or complete. But it was significant and broad-reaching.

Regardless of Lévesque’s personal view on nationalism (a relatively recent television series on his life had it that he became anti-nationalist after a visit to concentration camps), the very idea that there may exist a social movement oriented toward sovereignty outside of the nationalist logic seems quite important to me personally. The fact that this movement may only be represented in partisan politics as nationalism complicates the issue and may explain a certain confusion in terms of the range of Quebec’s current social movements. In other words, the fact that anti-nationalists are consistently lumped together with nationalists in the public (and journalistic) eye makes it difficult to discuss post-nationalism in this part of the Globe.

But Quebec’s history is only central to my thinking because I was born and Montreal and grew up through the Quiet Revolution. My reflections on a post-national shift are hopefully broader than historical events in a tiny part of the Globe.

In fact, my initial attempt at drafting this blogpost came after I attended a talk by Satoshi Ikeda entitled The Global Financial Crisis and the End of Neoliberalism. (November 27, 2008, Concordia University, SGW H-1125-12; found thanks to Twistory). My main idea at this point was that part of the solution to global problems were local.

But I was also thinking about The Internet.

Contrary to what technological determinists tend to say, the ‘Net isn’t changing things as much as it is part of a broad set of changes. In other words, the global communication network we now know as the Internet is embedded in historical contexts, not the ultimate cause of History. At the risk of replacing technological determinism with social determinism, one might point out that the ‘Net existed (both technologically and institutionally) long before its use became widespread. Those of us who observed a large influx of people online during the early to mid-1990s might even think that social changes were more significant in making the ‘Net what it is today than any “immanent” feature of the network as it was in, say, 1991.

Still, my thinking about the ‘Net has to do with the post-national shift. The ‘Net won’t cause the shift to new social and political structures. But it’s likely to “play a part” in that shift, to be prominently places as we move into a post-national reality.

There’s a number of practical and legal issues with a wide range of online activities which make it clear that the ‘Net fits more in a global structure than in an “international” one. Examples I have in mind include issues of copyright, broadcast rights, “national content,” and access to information, not to mention the online setting for some grassroots movements and the notion of “Internet citizenry.” In all of these cases, “Globalization” expands much beyond trade and currency-based economy.

Then, there’s the notion of “glocalization.” Every time I use the term “glocal,” I point out how “ugly” it is. The term hasn’t gained any currency (AFAICT) but I keep thinking that the concept can generate something interesting. What I personally have in mind is a movement away from national structures into both a globally connected world and a more local significance. The whole “Think Local, Act Global” idea (which I mostly encountered as “Think Global, Drink Local” as a motto). “Despite” the ‘Net, location still matters. But many people are also global-looking.

All of this is part of the setup for some of my reflections on a GNoCS. A kind of prelude/prologue. While my basic idea is very much a “pie in the sky,” I do have more precise notions about what the future may look like and the conditions in which some social changes might happen. At this point, I realize that these thoughts will be part of future blogposts, including some which might be closer to science-fiction than to this type semi- (or pseudo-) scholarly rambling.

But I might still flesh out a few notes.

Demographically, cities may matter more now than ever as the majority of the Globe’s population is urban. At least, the continued urbanization trend may fit well with a city-focused post-national model.

Some metropolitan areas have become so large as to connect with one another, constituting a kind of urban continuum. Contrary to boundaries between “nation-states,” divisions between cities can be quite blurry. In fact, a same location can be connected to dispersed centres of activity and people living in the same place can participate in more than one local sphere. Rotterdam-Amsterdam, Tokyo-Kyoto, Boston-NYC…

Somewhat counterintuitvely, urban areas tend to work relatively as the source of solutions to problems in the natural environment. For instance, some mayors have taken a lead in terms of environmental initiatives, not waiting for their national governments. And such issues as public transportations represent core competencies for municipal governments.

While transborder political entities like the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are enmeshed in the national logic, they fit well with notions of globalized decentralization. As the mayor of a small Swiss town was saying on the event of Switzerland’s official 700th anniversary, we can think about «l’Europe des régions» (“Europe of regions”), beyond national borders.

Speaking of Switzerland, the confederacy/confederation model fits rather well with a network structure, perhaps more than with the idea of a “nation-state.” It also seems to go well with some forms of participatory democracy (as opposed to representative democracy). Not to mean that Switzerland or any other confederation/confederacy works as a participatory democracy. But these notions can help situate this GNoCS.

While relatively rare and unimportant “on the World Stage,” micro-states and micro-nations represent interesting cases in view of post-nationalist entities. For one thing, they may help dispel the belief that any political apart from the “nation-state” is a “reversal” to feudalism or even (Greek) Antiquity. The very existence of those entities which are “the exceptions to the rule” make it possible to “think outside of the national box.”

Demographically at the opposite end of the spectrum from microstates and micronations, the notion of a China-India union (or even a collaboration between China, India, Brazil, and Russia) may sound crazy in the current state of national politics but it would go well with a restructuring of the Globe, especially if this “New World Order” goes beyond currency-based trade.

Speaking of currency, the notion of the International Monetary Fund having its own currency is quite striking as a sign of a major shift from the “nation-state” logic. Of course, the IMF is embedded in “national” structures, but it can shift the focus away from “individual countries.”

The very notion of “democracy” has been on many lips, over the years. Now may be the time to pay more than lipservice to a notion of “Global Democracy,” which would transcend national boundaries (and give equal rights to all people across the Globe). Chances are that representative democracy may still dominate but a network structure connecting a large number of localized entities can also fit in other systems including participatory democracy, consensus culture, republicanism, and even the models of relatively egalitarian systems that some cultural anthropologists have been constructing over the years.

I still have all sorts of notes about examples and issues related to this notion of a GNoCS. But that will do for now.


Ethnographic Disciplines

Just because this might be useful in the future…
I perceive a number of academic disciplines to be “ethnographic” in the sense that they use the conceptual and epistemic apparatus of “ethnography.” (“Ethnography” taken here as an epistemological position in human research, not as “the description of a people” in either literary or methodological uses.)

I don’t mean by this that practitioners are all expected to undertake ethnographic field research or that their methods are exclusively ethnographic. I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.

In no particular order:

  • Ethnohistory
  • Ethnolinguistics (partly associated with Linguistic Anthropology)
  • Folkloristics
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Ethnocinematography (partly associated with Visual Anthropology)
  • Ethnology (Cultural Anthropology)

The following disciplines (the “micros”), while not ethnographic per se, often have ethnographic components at the present time.

  • Microhistory
  • Microsociology
  • Microeconomics

Health research and market research also make frequent use of ethnographic methods, these days (especially through “qualitative data analysis” software). But I’m not clear on how dedicated these researchers are to the epistemological bases for ethnography.

It may all sound very idiosyncratic. But I still think it works, as a way to provide working definitions for disciplines and approaches.

Thoughts, comments, suggestions, questions?


Son of an Anthropologist

Since Barack Obama’s electoral victory, I’ve been saying jokingly that since Barack’s mother (Ann Dunham) was an anthropologist, anthropology has won.

Not a very funny joke and not a joke which seems to carry something very deep. After all, talking about a politician’s mother’s disciplinary affiliations sounds about as absurd as assigning foreign policy experience to somebody who’s been living relatively close to a foreign country.

But I feel there is, in fact, something deeper about Obama’s connection to anthropology. And I say this as a son of an occupational therapist and a Piaget-trained pedagogue.

There’s a difference between experience, expertise, training, and what we call “enculturation,” in anthropology. Put simply, enculturation is the seamless way through which each of us learns how to behave in specific cultural contexts. Typical examples include things like gestures or some deeply-held beliefs. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp but it has many implications, including in the endless nature/nurture debates, which are an oft-forgotten but still fundamental part of anthropology.

So the anthropological side of Obama I’m alluding to isn’t training as an anthropologist, expertise in the minutiae of current anthropological theory, or experience in the field. But it’s a little “nugget of anthropological awareness.” An attention to diversity which makes him sound, at times, like an anthropologist. Much has been made of Obama’s genes. But his mother also played a major role in his enculturation and Obama has been on the record in terms of his mother’s influence on his political ideas. I would claim that Obama’s “anthropology-ness” runs somehow deeper than even he might realize.

And it’s not so difficult to discuss.

In educational fields, it’s fairly common to talk about second-generation students, at least in terms of university education. The notion, especially in sociological circles in the U.S., is that children of people with a university background get some type of “headstart” in terms of their university career. One reason can simply be that parents with university degrees might value university training more than parents who didn’t obtain such degrees. There’s also a class argument, which runs very well in discussions about fairness and equity. But there might also be something about this kind of informal learning which can prepare people to be accepted as university students. There’s even something to be said about the basic behaviour of the typical university student and how conducive it might be for success in university contexts.

I’ve certainly felt something like this. I was “predestined” to university since: both of my parents and both of my step-brothers had obtained university degrees, my father was teaching in universities as part-time faculty, my mother’s first husband was a university professor, and most of my family’s friends were academia-savvy. Even through elementary and secondary education, I was perceived to be studious even though I only studied a handful of times before entering university. When I did enter university, I finally felt that I belonged. And things were relatively easy for me. The fact that I didn’t have to learn how to behave as a student had something to do with it.

Something similar is clearly at stake in terms of performing arts, where it may be confused with “talent.” The reason that Hollywood has seen so many multi-generational families of actors simply cannot be found in some “innate abilty to act.” In music, the proportion of musicians coming from “musical families” clearly has some social basis but it also has to do with informal training. Research on expertise, at least as it’s described to the outside world, seems to lead to similar ideas. Even without getting direct experience, children may “pick up” certain skills by virtue of being raised in an environment which gives prominence to those skills. Cognitively, it makes a lot of sense. Especially if we think about skill transfers.

A teacher might readily recognize something like “raw skills from enculturation.” I haven’t had many anthropology students whose parents were anthropologists but there’s something about people who already have an anthropological “background” before entering the field which is easy to spot. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier for these students, in the long run. Given the fact that the discipline changes continuously and that it’s already quite broad, “raw skills” in anthropology may even be a hindrance, at times. But something has “clicked,” for those who already have an anthropological background.

The “click” to which I’m referring relates to habits of thinking which tend to happen after some abduction- or epiphany-style moment of realization/conceptualization. In terms of educational theory, this “click” is surely linked to a “position” in Perry’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development, But I usually talk about it as “the moment at which everything starts to maken sense, in terms of basic anthropological issues and concepts.” It can’t be forced and it doesn’t seem to relate that directly to the way anthropology is taught. As I tend to say, “learning happens despite teachers.” This kind of learning moment is certainly a case in point.

Because anthropological approaches tend to be quite distinct from approaches typically used in other disciplines, this “clicking moment” is especially prominent in introductory courses in cultural anthropology. It often happens at different moments during the semester, for diverse students. There are some students for whom it never occurs. And there are students who enter such courses after the “click” had already happened.

To be honest, I simply assume that this “anthro click” has happened to Barack Obama a while ago and that if he did take introductory courses in cultural anthropology, things probably seemed to make sense to him without much effort. Not that it implies anything about grades he would have received, how much material he would have retained, or how pleasant he would have thought the course to be. But I can just imagine a young Obama in some kind of ANTH 101 course thinking that much of us is just common sense.

I certainly assume that GBN member (and well-known anthropologist) Mary Catherine Bateson experienced the click way before entering the field. The reason I’m singling her out is that she’s the daughter of two very prominent figures in cultural anthropology: Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mead and Bateson constituted one of the best-known anthropological couples in the history of the discipline: some discussions they’ve had are a matter of disciplinary discussion (I remember one about the use of a tripod in field recordings). Also, Mead was specifically concerned with enculturation and probably thought about informal learning as she raised her daughter (apparently, Dr. Benjamin Spock was Margaret Mead’s pediatrician). Plus, Mary Catherine Bateson herself participated in her father’s work, even as a child. I don’t know how things went for her when she first entered the field of anthropology but it seems that she received her BA from Radcliffe at age 21 and her PhD from Harvard three years later. I know things were quite fast, in those days, but I’d still venture the guess that Bateson was among the younger people to receive a PhD in anthropology. What I’m wondering, though, is how she felt about her family background. She probably wrote about this in some of her books but I haven’t read them, yet.

Much of the reason I’m writing about this probably relates to the fact that I’ve once been told that I was relatively normal for the son of a psychologist. But I was also thinking about both Bateson and Obama for different reasons, so I took the opportunity to write about the both of them in the same post.

Besides, this is precisely the kind of blogpost I enjoy writing on a RERO basis.


Inaccessible American Anthropology

Alex Golub describes in positive terms the recent announcement, by the main anthropological association in the United States (AAA), that some older articles from a newsletter (AN) and an academic journal (AA) will not require a paid subscription to be downloaded directly.

via Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’.

via AAA ‘goes OA’: The emphasis should be on ‘first step’.

Some other links:

It’s probably just a knee-jerk reaction on my part but I just don’t see this as a step in the right direction. Sorry.

I can’t help but think that it’s a way to avoid discussions about actual Open Access (OA), not a way to address concerns of the broadest community over the problems related to access to scholarly material. In a discipline which is supposed to care about widespread access, shouldn’t such concerns be taken into careful consideration?

It may sound like a personal preference but I tend to give more credit to pilot projects and other time-limited offers from publishers. As an easy example, the current program advertised by Sage for the month of October.
Some fellow OA enthusiasts and activists have railed against the “trial period” attempts from major publishers (including previous “free access” months by Sage). Their reactions sounded similar to what I’m trying to say about the AAA “OA” plan. But I see those “limited-time free access offers” as more beneficial in an OA logic than the AAA’s “too little, too late” campaign.
One reason I find those publisher offers useful is that these periods during which access to scholarship is made easier usually cover the publisher’s whole database, which makes the benefit of OA much more obvious than having selected issues of selected publications offered at no cost on an association’s semi-obscure website. Someone who’s working on a specific topic could use these trial periods to simply accumulate a lot of material to read later (using Zotero or other tools to keep track of this massive amount of literature). It’s the academic equivalent of binging and it sounds a bit absurd, but it can work (I’ve done this myself, a few years ago; really enjoyed it).
Then, because these major publishers cover several disciplines, those periods during which one can “browse and download at will” really benefit from anthropology’s position at the junction of several disciplines.
There’s an added benefit which is directly in favour of OA: once the trial period is over, individual readers get to notice how sad the current situation of proprietary access really is.

When so much important material suddenly becomes out of reach, people tend to react. And that reaction has some  “marketing” dimensions which are completely absent from the AAA’s scheme. And I’m talking about marketing which would be potentially beneficial to thinking about broad access outside of the tiny box of whether or not university libraries need to pay subscription fees.

To use an awkward analogy… If subscriptions to academic journals were following the same business model as cable or satellite TV providers, these “free access” periods would help convince individual readers of academic journals to subscribe to some kind of monthly plan. A few people who already have site licenses might even elect to subscribe to an individual plan if there’s an added value (say, relevant articles are “pushed” directly to the user when they become available, a step in convenience above the “alerts” some publishers send). But such a plan would be much more valuable to the large number of people who currently don’t have the privilege of having a full and active account in a large university’s library system. This group includes professional academics outside of the academic mainstream as well as non-academics who can greatly benefit from access to academic literature. My hunch is that the number of these non-academics who would like to engage in academic reading is currently growing, partly because of the growing number of university degrees awarded around the world. But even if that number remains stable, this market is currently untapped.
(These kinds of library privileges are really nothing to sneeze at. I’ve heard people use them as one of the most important things to come with a university position. At the same degree of importance if not more than office space. And I find little reason for these privileges to be the prerogative of professional academics at large institutions.)

Of course, I’d much rather have full OA than a “cable TV plan for academia.” But, in a skewed way, the “cable TV” model is closer to true OA spirit than the AAA’s scheme.
Full OA remains a dream but I personally think that this dream can come true during my lifetime (I’m still young). In some contexts, full OA could take the form of publicly-funded access. Something similar to this neat invention that people in the United States call “the public library.” In other contexts, the better-known OA plans (including author-paid) may sound more convincing to people (less “socializing” than the public library concept). And I’m sure some people could devise other schemes which would alleviate access problems to academic texts while maintaining financial viability for at least some of the institutions involved (institutions which, it should be noted, provide very little if any money for such essential academic activities as scholarship and teaching).

So, I perceive those time-limited “free access” offers as an opportunity to get people thinking about OA. And I can’t help but think that the AAA’s press release is more about ending than about opening the discussion on access.
As others have pointed out, these same articles (and a lot more AAA content) are already available on JSTOR.  Now, JSTOR doesn’t have a “send PDF to a friend” button. Nor does it have a specific statement making it clear sending those article files to other people can be perfectly legitimate. (They do talk about U.S. fair use in their Terms and Conditions text but legalese is a bit hard to read for non-native speakers of the legal language). Still, if you think about access in broad terms, JSTOR in general is “accessible” enough that, given a JSTOR-subscribing institution nearby (and African universities have had sponsored licenses), someone could say that the level of access afforded these articles is already pretty decent.
The added benefit of the AAA’s scheme over the current availability on JSTOR (and elsewhere) will need to be assessed carefully. Given the age of these texts, the plan will probably have very limited impact on how frequently these articles are cited (an important OA benefit). Because AnthroSource is AAA-specific, the plan will likely have very limited impact on the visibility of the discipline (another OA benefit). Because of the way AnthroSource is set up, the plan will likely have limited impact in terms of convenience (a minor OA benefit which shouldn’t be forgotten). Unless Google Scholar changes the way it links to those articles, the AAA’s “OA” articles might not be that much easier to find than the other articles. Because only a very limited portion of AAA publications will be covered by the plan, it will probably be confusing to the casual user (“Is it American Ethnologist which is available free of charge? What years, again?”).

Basically, the “OA” plan might only be noticeable to professional academic anthropologists, most of whom already have full AnthroSource access. As we say in French, «un coup d’épée dans l’eau».

So, sorry, but I have no idea why this scheme would be a step in the direction of improved access to anthropological scholarship. My mind can be changed, with thoughtful arguments. It’s just that don’t “get” it at this point.


Enthused Tech

Yesterday, I held a WiZiQ session on the use of online tech in higher education:

Enthusing Higher Education: Getting Universities and Colleges to Play with Online Tools and Services

Slideshare

(Full multimedia recording available here)

During the session, Nellie Deutsch shared the following link:

Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers (1995)

Haven’t read Rogers’s book but it sounds like a contextually easy to understand version of ideas which have been quite clear in Boasian disciplines (cultural anthropology, folkloristics, cultural ecology…) for a while. But, in this sometimes obsessive quest for innovation, it might in fact be useful to go back to basic ideas about the social mechanisms which can be observed in the adoption of new tools and techniques. It’s in fact the thinking behind this relatively recent blogpost of mine:

Technology Adoption and Active Reading

My emphasis during the WiZiQ session was on enthusiasm. I tend to think a lot about occasions in which, thinking about possibilities afforded technology relates to people getting “psyched up.” In a way, this is exactly how I can define myself as a tech enthusiast: I get easy psyched up in the context of discussions about technology.

What’s funny is that I’m no gadget freak. I don’t care about the tool. I just love to dream up possibilities. And I sincerely think that I’m not alone. We might even guess that a similar dream-induced excitement animates true gadget freaks, who must have the latest tool. Early adopters are a big part of geek culture and, though still small, geek culture is still a niche.

Because I know I’ll keep on talking about these things on other occasions, I can “leave it at that,” for now.

RERO‘s my battle cry.

TBC


The Geek Niche (Draft)

As explained before, I am not a “visual” thinker. Unlike some other people, I don’t draw witty charts all the time. However, I do occasionally think visually. In this case, I do “see” Venn diagrams and other cutesy graphics. What I’m seeing is the proportion of “geeks” in the world. And, to be honest, it’s relatively clear for me. I may be completely off, but I still see it clearly.

Of course, much of it is about specifying what we mean by “geek.” Which isn’t easy for someone used to looking at culture’s near-chaotic intricacy and intricacies. At this point, I’m reluctant to define too clearly what I mean by “geek” because some people (self-professed geeks, especially) are such quick nitpickers that anything I say about the term is countered by more authorized definitions. I even expect comments to this blog entry to focus on how inaccurate my perception of geeks is, regardless of any other point I make.

Ah, well…

My intention isn’t to stereotype a group of people. And I don’t want to generalize. I just try to describe a specific situation which I find very interesting. In and of itself, the term “geek” carries a lot of baggage, much of which is problematic for anyone who is trying to understand an important part of the world in which we all live. But the term is remarkably useful as a way to package an ethos, a style, a perspective, an approach, a worldview, a personality type. Among those who could be called “geeks” are very diverse people. There might not even a single set of criteria to define who should legitimately be called a “geek.” But “geekness” is now a reference for some actions, behaviors, markets, and even language varieties. Describing “geeks” as a group makes some sense, even if some people get very sensitive about the ways geeks are described.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a geek. At the same time, I do enjoy geekness and I consider myself geek-friendly. It’s just that I’m not an actual insider to the geek coterie.

Thinking demographically has some advantages in terms of simplification. Simple is reassuring, especially in geek culture. So, looking at geek demographics on a broad scale…

First, the upper demographic limit for geekery. At the extreme, the Whole Wide World. What’s geeky about The World?

Number of things, actually. Especially in terms of some key technologies. Those technologies some people call “the tech world.” Consumer electronics, digital gadgets, computers…

An obvious tech factor for the upper limit of geekness is the ‘Net. The Internet is now mainstream. Not that everyone, everywhere truly lives online but the ‘Net is having a tremendous impact on the world as a whole. And Internet penetration is shaping up, in diverse parts of the world. This type of effect goes well with a certain type of “low-level geekness.” Along with widespread online communication, a certain approach to the world has become more prominent. A techno-enthusiastic and troubleshooting approach I often associate with engineering. Not that all engineers uses this type of approach or that everyone who uses this type of approach is an engineer. But, in my mind, it’s an “engineering worldview” similar to an updated set of mechanistic metaphors.

Another obvious example of widespread geek-friendly technology is the cellphone. Obvious because extremely widespread (apparently, close to half of the human population of the planet is cellphoned). Yet, cellphones are the geekiest technology item available. What makes them geeky, in my eyes, is the way they’re embedded in a specific social dynamic emphasizing efficiency, mobility, and “always-on connectivity” along with work/life, group/individual, and public/private dichotomies.

The world’s geekiness can also be observed through other lenses, more concerned with the politic and the social drive of human behavior. Meritocracies, relatively non-judgemental ethics, post-national democracies, neo-liberal libertarianism, neo-Darwinian progress-mindedness, networked identities… Figures on populations “affected” by these geeky dimensions of socio-political life are hard to come by and it’s difficult to tell apart these elements from simple “Westernization.” But it’s easy to conceive of a geeky version of the world in which all of these elements are linked. In a way, it’s as if the world were dominated by geekdom.

Which brings me to the lower demographic limit for geekiness: How many “true geeks” are there? What’ are the figures for the “alpha geek” population?

My honest guesstimate? Five to ten million worldwide, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas in North America and Eurasia. I base this range on a number of hunches I got throughout the years. In fact, my impression is that there are about two million people in (or “oriented toward”) the United States who come close enough to the geek stereotype to qualify as “alpha geeks.” Haven’t looked at academic literature on the subject but judging from numbers of early adopters in “geeky tech,” looking at FLOSS movements, thinking about desktop Linux, listening to the “tech news” I don’t think this figure is so far off. On top of these U.S. geeks are “worldwide geeks” who are much harder to count. Especially since geekness itself is a culture-specific concept. But, for some reason, I get the impression that those outside the United States who would be prototypical geeks number something like five million people, plus or minus two million.

All this surely sounds specious. In fact, I’m so not a quant dude, I really don’t care about the exact figure. But my feeling, here, is that this ultra-geeky population is probably comparable to a large metropolitan area.

Of course, geeks are dispersed throughout the world. Though there are “geek meccas” like Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, geeks are often modern cosmopolitans. They are typically not “of a place” and they navigate through technology institutions rather than through native locales. Thanks to telecommuting, some geeks adopt a glocal lifestyle making connections outside of their local spheres yet constructing local realities, at least in their minds. In some cases, übergeeks are resolute loners who consciously try to avoid being tied to local circles.

Thanks in part to the “tech industry” connections of geek society, geek-friendly regions compete with one another on the world stage.

Scattered geeks have an impact on local communities and this impact can be disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the geek population.

Started this post last week, after listening to Leo Laporte’s  TWiT “netcast.” 

The TWiT Netcast Network with Leo Laporte

 …

I wanted to finish this post but never got a round tuit. I wanted to connect this post with a few things about the connection between “geek culture” in the computer/tech industry and the “craft beer” and “coffee geek” movements. There was also the obvious personal connection to the subject. I’m now a decent ethnographic insider-outsider to geek culture. Despite (thanks to) the fact that, as a comment-spammer was just saying, I’m such a n00b.

Not to mention that I wanted to expand upon JoCo‘s career, attitude, and character (discussed during the TWiT podcast). And that was before I learned that JoCo himself was coming to Austin during but not through the expensive South by Southwest film/music/interactive festivals.

If I don’t stop myself, I even get the urge to talk about the politics of geek groups, especially in terms of idealism

This thoughtful blogpost questioning the usefulness of the TED conference makes me want to push the “publish” button, even though this post isn’t ready. My comments about TED aren’t too dissimilar to many of the things which have appeared in the past couple of days. But I was going to focus on the groupthink, post-Weberian neo-liberalism, Well/Wired/GBN links, techy humanitarianism, etc.

 

Ah, well… 

Guess I should just RERO it and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll be able to leave those topics behind. RSN

TBC