Category Archives: Anthropology

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?

Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.

Impact

In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.

Transparency

While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.

Reciprocity

Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

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.

Johannes Fabian on Blogs

via Johannes Fabian conference at Concordia « another anthro blog.

Congrats to Concordia anthroblogger (and anthroblogger researcher) Owen Wiltshire for getting Johannes Fabian to comment on his blog entry. Sounds like Fabian has a lot in common with those of us who push blogging, informal writing, and Open Access.

Not sure Fabian perceives public ethnography in the same light as academic ethnography, but he’s clearly interested in opening up dialogue beyond the strict limits of academic departments.

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 Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.

Disclaimer

Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.

Clarification

Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.

Links

Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.

Communitas

Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?

Culture and Health: Contact and Coverage

It’s late in the game, as the story has already made the rounds, but I guess I was under a rock.

FUNAI, a Brazilian foundation which aims to help indigenous groups, has released pictures of a relatively isolated group in the Amazon region. Apparently, the purpose of those pictures was to show how healthy these people seemed to be, contrary to folk beliefs about indigenous groups. These folk beliefs are widespread in post-industrial societies and seem to relate to basic ethnocentrism.

Some major media outlets released those same pictures with captions and other comments about allegedly “uncontacted tribes.” Through the “telephone game,” the same images became part of an awkwardly anachronistic coverage of cultural diversity, many comments being made from a resolutely neo-evolutionist perspective. A whole debacle ensued. Several anthropologists have been contacted to comment on the situation.

So far, the most thoughtful piece of writing I’ve seen about the whole situation is this one:

‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist! « Culture Matters

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if media debacles such as this one could be avoided? One would hope that a good dose of critical thinking and some thoughtful blogging might help.

Euro-American?

Rex, over at anthro blog Savage Minds, was questioning (or just asking about) people’s use of “Euro-American” as a label for different groups of people. He was concerned about ethnic and/or “racial” connotations.

Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » No but seriously: Euro-American?

Looks like I did use “Euro-American” here. On purpose, no less. 

So… What do I mean by “Euro-American,” you ask? Well, it depends on context. And as I like to talk about context and terminological precision, I wrote a lengthy comments on Rex’s blogpost. Here’s an edited version. (The original version is on Savage Minds.)

Continue reading Euro-American?

Playfully Noted

Got a number of things about which I want to blog. Many of them in notes/outline form. Might have to wait a bit.

But one thing which keeps coming up is the notion of playfulness. Been blogging about it a bit over the years,  especially since this February 2006 post which was connected with my teaching. The next day, I was posting a short entry in French about playfulness in music. Music playing in the strongest sense. Free play.

That was over two years ago. Flies are being timed.
Still thinking about playfulness quite a bit. In music, learning, technology…
What I mean by playfulness is rather simplistic, but it works: free, undirected, aimless, open behavior. Acts of playfulness, in my mind, appear not to be goal-oriented nor competitive. Extremely low stakes. Failure isn’t even registered. No evaluation whatsoever. The opposite of performance, to go back to performance theory which inspired part of that first entry.
Of course, my notion of playfulness might be different to that of many of the people who work on and “play with” games. Some people conceive of fun as embedded in competition. As I’m personally not very competition-driven, my conception and perception are different.
I’m neither a game theorist nor an avid gamer. At best, I’d be labelled as one of those “casual gamers” game developers are finally trying to reach. So: I’m no expert. But I do enjoy discussions of playfulness facilitated by those who work on game. Thanks in part to the video game industry, playfulness is making its way into the technology/education confluence as well as in corporate circles.
Some recent things I’ve thought about in terms of playfulness.
Playing music on Touch devices or other handhelds. My French post on “easy musicking” mentioned Electroplankton. Other forms of handheld musicking:

Can’t help but think that handheld music can really “spring up,” especially in terms of casual musicking. With the release of the software development kit for Apple’s Touch devices, there’s mindshare for handhelds as ultimate interface.

Of course, music games are gaining attention and people are jumping on the bandwagon. After all, music games may mean big business. Usually, I blog about music at Critical World or at my ethnomusicology course blog. Here, I’m mostly thinking about playfulness. And music games aren’t really playful in my sense of the term. Too competitive.

In terms of playful learning, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “playing with data.” In part thanks to Gapminder, that I just discovered through Google Spreadsheets (even though Gapminder’s Trendalyzer software has been acquired by Google over a year ago). In my mind, Hans Rosling’s 2006 and 2007 TED presentations about Gapminder really capture the spirit of playful learning. Especially in connection to critical thinking, open-mindedness, creativity, and cultural awareness. (Anthro FTW!)

Now, if I could only get paid to do a project on using Touch devices for playful musicking in learning contexts… 😉