What now?

Or, Anthropology for Old People.

So, with the AAAs in the air and most young anthropologists’ thoughts turning to interviews and how to sum up their thesis research in a boffo mini-paragraph, this might not be the most apropos time to discuss What Lies Beyond. But we here at SM shrink from no grim task.

A question likely to echo down the hotel hallways next week, and certain to rustle among the leaves of the groves of academe during next spring’s campus interviews, is what today’s tesista (this word should exist in English but unfortunately “thesist” sounds religious, “thesiser” sounds like a made-up title for a minor nobleman in a fantasy fiction novel, and “writer-upper” is plainly hopeless) plans to do as her Next Project.

One option that comes up often enough to perhaps warrant being considered a pattern is the young anthro — returned from a doctoral project carried out at a field site accessible only by ice ax, dugout canoe, or 20 mule team equipped with propeller hats — who suddenly evinces a serious interest in the same themes as those of the original research — say, exchange rituals — but in a rather more comfortable setting — say, upscale organic grocery stores located in periurban North America. Sometimes in a tone of mild moral umbrage about giving exoticism a poke in the eye.

I for one always felt certain I’d have none of that. No, I’d stay in the South American heartland, polishing my hard-won though still pretty pathetic Guarani language skills and ultimately dying, slowly, of Chagas’ disease as befits any Chaco dweller worth his salt. Neither bug bites nor saddle sores nor sulfurous ground water would stand in my way.

But that was me talking the talk. This fall, walking the Next Project walk (with a visit to my old field site along the way), I’ve discovered the Paraguayan Chaco (my previous work was in the Bolivian Chaco). A good portion of the Paraguayan Chaco has been settled by Mennonites and is, astonishingly, a Chaco with grocery stores, a Chaco with air conditioning, a Chaco with swimming pools (well, one anyway). My anti-colonialist spirit tells me it is wrong wrong wrong for me to want to take a swimsuit next time, while my sensualist flesh says it is oh so RIGHT.

So, I’m wondering (in a self-exculpatory sort of way) — am I just succumbing to the inevitable? Apart from all the condemnations of exoticist exploitation that are heaped upon old-fashioned, out-in-the-impoverished-Otherish-boonies fieldwork, how much of a role does the fact that anthropology is no longer a young upstart discipline, but one with lots of comfy established practitioners, play in the shift of what kind of ethnography “counts” for our collective purposes?

30 thoughts on “What now?

  1. I hope you don’t mind if I quote part of what I wrote for my qualifying exams, as it seems relevant:

    Before World War I, “with peripatetic missionaries and colonial administrators monopolizing knowledge about ‘the native’, anthropologists had to seek out their own niche of expertise, which they found in the careful, systematic and prolonged observation of indigenous people in a single place. This professionalization of fieldwork led to its circumscription, its concentration on dwelling rather than traveling” (Burawoy 2001: 147). Evans-Pritchard advocated this model of doing ethnography, and “[s]omething much like Evans-Pritchard’s prescription has very long remained more or less the only fully publicly acknowledged model for field work, and for becoming and being a real anthropologist” (Hannerz 2003: 202). If ordinarily “something of the mystique… of conventional fieldwork is lost in the move toward multi-sited ethnography” (Marcus 1995: 100), then this especially so when virtual ethnography is one of the techniques used. Virtual components may be an essential part of multi-sited ethnography where the Internet is part of the social landscape, but traditional concepts of “the field” and “fieldwork” may hinder anthropologists from accepting the necessity and validity of this step. Killick (1995) claims that “notions of a ‘field’ impose unnecessary preconceptions and are in danger of becoming… an arbitrarily framed and homogenized background to their own self-absorbed experience” (p. 78). He argues that the conception of ethnography that anthropologists have is “structurally phallic” (p. 86), filled with “narratives of penetration” (p. 86) where “the heroic figure of the lone anthropologist in search of self-renewal” (p. 85) by participating in “a rite of separation from, and reincorporation into, an academic community” (p. 86). The departure from this traditional narrative of how ethnography is done caused one virtual ethnographer to “wonder whether what I was doing really was fieldwork because I never had to go anywhere physically, never had to make demands on my body or endure the tangible hazards that field researchers routinely face” (Lysloff 2003: 235). While”[t]raditionally oriented ethnographers may be surprised (perhaps appalled) at the notion of conducting ethnographic research in virtual communities in cyberspace…. many scholars have shown that these communities are complex, organized, and worthy of study,” writes Nicole Constable (2003: 33). As Forte (2002) notes, “[t]he Internet has not only become one locus where information on one’s subjects can be found, thus now a necessary part of a comprehensive research effort, but it also affords us insights as to how individuals choose to represent themselves to wide audiences, and permits us to also follow leads coming out of our field research sites and taking us to new contacts.”

    (I can provide the references I cited if you’re curious.)

    I think that it doesn’t matter if you do your ethnography at Wal-Mart or on the Mir Space Station, as long as you have something insightful and compelling to add to anthropological discourse.

  2. I think I probably qualify as one of the “seniors” in anthropology, although I must confess that I haven’t taught in the discipline for 20 years. Back then, I did it the Evans-Pritchard way — I spent three years in Sri Lanka in the late 1960s/early 1970s; today, I study commons-based peer production in the US and Latin America. To make the story short, I believe that all cultural differences are, in essence, quantum. It was a jolt, culturally speaking, to live in a Sri Lanka peasant village; no less is the jolt I experience when I spend some time talking to my Christian fundamentalist neighbors. I think the essence of anthropology lies in its seductively satisfying way of explaining why people act the way they do — to put it simply, people do things a certain way because of the meaning they see in their situation. There just isn’t any other discipline that comes close to this insight. You can do it in Bongo-bongo, down the street, or at home. To ascribe territoriality to our discipline is to rob it of its explanatory power.

  3. Ozma asks if it’s OK to do fieldwork in comfortable circumstances. Noah replies that it doesn’t matter where you do fieldwork “as long as you have something insightful and compelling to add to anthropological discourse.”

    I wonder if it mightn’t be a good idea to separate, at least analytically, physical and psychological comfort. Traditional fieldwork has never been justified (except incidentally because it is, as Noah points out, part of the myth) by physical suffering. The shock and distress of dealing with people whose beliefs and behavior violate your own, often tacit, assumptions and spending enough time with them to work through the inevitable conflicts and develop a solidly grounded, as non-judgmental as possible, understanding of what they’re about is, however IMHO, a critical differentiator of serious ethnography.

    I think of Larry Crissman, who like me did fieldwork in Taiwan. When asked about culture shock, he replied, “Culture shock is discovering that your best informant, someone you consider a close friend, has just sold his daughter into prostitution to buy a motorcycle.”

    I think of the shock I felt when, for the first time, I was dragged off to a Chinese temple by a neighbor, handed burning incense sticks, and directed to bow to the statue of the Golden Mother on the temple’s altar. I had thought that my years of doing philosophy as an undergraduate and anthropology in grad school had turned me into a confirmed skeptic. I wasn’t at all prepared for the way my Lutheran upbringing and Protestant assumptions about the sinfulness of bowing down to graven images would well up inside and leave me waiting in fear and trembling for the Lord God Jehovah to smite me with a thunderbolt.

    I note, too, that the assumptions violated can be those acquired in graduate school. I went off to Taiwan to study what I assumed to be “traditional Chinese society,” composed primarily of land-obsessed peasants striving to continue their lineages. On our first night in Puli, the market town where we did our fieldwork, Ruth and I saw “2001, A Space Odyssey” at the local movie theater. The next day we met the foreign affairs policeman who asked if we knew Susan, a 16-year old redhead from Illinois, spending a year with a local doctor’s family on a Rotary Club exchange. Years after our fieldwork I learned that of my Taoist master’s four sons, one had become a Taoist master himself, carrying on his father’s business, one was the assistant principal of the local high school, one worked with a trading company involved in import and export of Japanese industrial equipment, and one worked for Hewlett-Packard.

    This is why I do remain skeptical that ethnography of virtual communities counts as anthropological fieldwork or at least the sort of experience that a first round of fieldwork ought to be. Perhaps I simply don’t know enough about virtual communities; but I’ve never heard of one whose assumptions aren’t familiar—if only because I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. And the virtual aspect makes it all too easy, I suspect, to keep the different assumptions, e.g., a quasi-feudal form of social organization, safely behind the computer screen. Where is the shock? Where is the challenge? Where is the being forced to live in the flesh, tastes, smells and sounds of people, some of whose behavior may disturb or disgust you? Where is the learning to deal with that?

    Now to me, Ozma is a different case. She’s paid her dues, she’s done real fieldwork as I understand it. If she has good theoretical reasons (and I can imagine many) for wanting to see what happens to Guarani speakers in an area modernized by Mennonites, I’d say why not and agree with Noah’s conclusion completely. But a virtual community or where someone grew up for his or her first fieldwork….something’s missing there.

  4. I could see some virtual communities being distinctly psychologically uncomfortable – picture, say, fieldwork in a virtual community of neo-nazis… I realise that you were probably thinking more of virtual gaming communities – but, even there, I would think that the interesting thing, from an ethnographic point of view, would be documenting the social interactions among participants, rather than the principles of game world per se (which, I would agree, are likely to be quite stereotyped).

    Interestingly, my current oral history work is considerably less psychologically confronting than was my previous archival history work – though the archive was definitely less physically taxing…

  5. Ozma: Get over it. Your strange ideas about fieldwork — a sort of mix of Calvin and Indiana Jones — are not only wrapping you up in things you don’t need to worry about, it also implicitly devalues work of other anthropologists simply because they work in places where there are flush toilets.

  6. Actually, I agree with Rex (for once!). I think it bears noting too that doing fieldwork in “uncomfortable circumstances” is a luxury of sorts itself — and one historically denied to people from what I’ve heard described as “field nations”. That is to say, MN Srinivas, Ella Deloria, William Jones, Jomo Kenyatta, and other “native” anthropologists were pretty much expected to do their fieldwork “at home” — the exoticism of “roughing it” has been largely reserved for the metropolitans.

  7. N. Pepperell makes a good point about on-line communities of people, e.g., Neo-Nazis, with very different beliefs. Does raise an interesting methodological issue though. Does the anthropologist have to go undercover and pretend to be one of the group? Or announce that an anthropologist is observing?

  8. I was wondering about this issue myself – because it’s likely to be considerably easier to disguise your own differences from, and reactions to, those you are studying – at the very least, you can take the time to give a more mediated reaction than you might provide in person. For that matter, it’s conceivable to do a purely observational study (at least of some communities) where no one in the community knows you’re observing them…

    I’m not sure if it’s more ethically wrought than any other kind of fieldwork, but it certainly poses some distinctive issues… One of those issues, though, probably isn’t the level of culture shock the researcher would experience… ;-)

  9. To ascribe territoriality to our discipline is to rob it of its explanatory power.

    I really like how you put this.

    Perhaps I simply don’t know enough about virtual communities; but I’ve never heard of one whose assumptions aren’t familiar

    You don’t think there are virtual communities where you would experience “shock and distress of dealing with people whose beliefs and behavior violate your own, often tacit, assumptions”? Read this article about the infamous Mr. Bungle case and let me know if you remain unswayed:

    http://www.ludd.luth.se/mud/aber/articles/village_voice.html

    Does the anthropologist have to go undercover and pretend to be one of the group? Or announce that an anthropologist is observing?

    I don’t think it would be ethical to go undercover. The AAA code of ethics states:

    “Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research. ”

    The AoIR ethics guidelines give more specifics about how to go about doing ethical studies of cyberspace.

  10. I find I agree with all the responses, but I intended rather a different question. Of course all kinds of field sites can produce good (or bad) ethnographies, I’m on board for that. I’m not challenging any kind of field site’s claim to legitimacy as a research setting.

    My question actually has a different source — in the past couple of decades, there has been a very morally smug backlash against traditional fieldwork. And of course, there have been lots of good reasons for that backlash. HOWEVER, having done the physically uncomfortable kind of fieldwork and now thinking about a different — more physically comfortable — site, I wonder if one of the less acknowledged reasons for the shift in our discipline has to do with anthropology itself aging and becoming more established.

    Obviously “up yours, exoticism!” is a good public reason. But “hooray, hot showers!” might be an equally compelling private reason. Given that neo ethnographers have expended quite a lot of energy questioning the bona fides and good faith of old school ethnographers, I think it’s fair — and long past time — to push back a bit.

  11. The thing that makes the ethics question ambiguous is the unresolved issue of how public the space of the internet actually is – if someone can browse to your community, and lurk your posts, is an additional ethics undertaking required, before they write on what you’re saying? If you’re actively asking questions or participating in conversations, then I think we’re on more traditional ethical terrain. (I also think there are ethical obligations involved in republishing someone’s comments in an identifiable way, to a different audience than the one to whom they intended to speak – but the use of pseudonyms combined with the potentially public nature of the net do somewhat mitigate these principles…)

    My university’s ethics oversight process, incidentally, actually does potentially allow for you to lie to the people you’re studying – if you can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the ethics committee, that lying serves some substantive purpose and that you’ve taken appropriate steps to minimise harm.

    Since my own research doesn’t require this sort of thing, I have no idea how difficult the criteria would be to satisfy – I can conceptualise some examples in, say, psychological studies, where it might be necessary for the people being studied to have a false impression of the goal of the study, but am not sure how this would extend to something like ethnographic research.

    But I think Ozma (rightly) is trying to get the thread back on its original tack, so I’ll stop speculating on ethics… ;-)

  12. The best indoor plumbing I’ve ever encountered is in Iceland, so I highly reccomend those seeking hot showers to take up Icelandic studies. Personally I chose my fieldsite for the food.

  13. First, my thanks to Noah. Being cited so extensively in the blog entry he mentions is extremely flattering.

    Noah concludes his piece by writing,

    This is not to say that there are no differences in the types, frequencies, or intensities of online versus offline culture shock experiences. However, I think I have shown that most if not all cultures have become hybrid cultures to some degree, so we cannot completely reproduce the traditional anthropological narrative of the fieldwork experience even if we tried. Also, if an anthropologist tries his or her best to be fully immerse in a virtual community, he or she may find culture shock is quite possible.

    As in the case of N. Pepperell’s comment, I do not deny the conclusion. I do, however, have some questions about it.

    Let us agree that experiences encountered in doing ethnography in virtual worlds can be new, challenging, sometimes even life-transforming. They are also—at least in this historical moment in the development of virtual realities—inevitably mediated. The anthropologist remains separated, while the events being studied are safely isolated behind the computer screen.

    Noah cites, for example, Julian Dibbell who writes, “”the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face – a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting.”

    But what is the actual status of that “real-life fact”? If the confidence was delivered by e-mail or even a phone call, the possibility of playacting cannot be ruled out. Even if, for example, the medium were full-motion video, the possibility that this is a staged performance cannot be eliminated. Ultimately the same is true even if the confidence were delivered in a “real,” i.e., “meat-world” encounter, as Erving Goffman repeatedly and seductively points out. Still, as we shift our assumption from meat world to e-mail the plausibility of the claim that “the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting” becomes more problematic.

    Why? Because despite the potential for error in even eye-witness testimony (with which we should all be familiar thanks to CSI if nothing else) our senses are the touchstone by which reality is judged. I have read of R&D directed at communication of scents and tactile cues, but these are still in their early stages.
    At this moment in the development of VR, even the most systems continue to rely on visual and aural cues.

    Which brings us to the issues Paul Stoller raises in The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. A Google search for “Stoller Senses”
    takes me to the following brief description.

    Anthropologists who have lost their senses write ethnographies that are often disconnected from the worlds they seek to portray. For most anthropologists, Stoller contends, tasteless theories are more important than the savory sauces of ethnographic life. That they have lost the smells, sounds, and tastes of the places they study is unfortunate for them, for their subjects, and for the discipline itself.

    The Taste of Ethnographic Things describes how, through long-term participation in the lives of the Songhay of Niger, Stoller eventually came to his senses. Taken together, the separate chapters speak to two important and integrated issues. The first is methodological—all the chapters demonstrate the rewards of long-term study of a culture. The second issue is how he became truer to the Songhay through increased sensual awareness.

    In a broad sense the issues Stoller raises have become commonplace. They are part of growing body of work in several social sciences that aims to reaffirm the importance of embodied experience in opposition to classic economic and other models that overweight the cognitive in explaining human behavior. My purpose here is to query how much is missing from virtual ethnography since, however immersed the researcher becomes immersed in a virtual world, he or she eats, sleeps, excretes, possibly even makes love in a space whose smells, tastes, sounds, architecture and other residents are familiar?

    Again, this is a classic issue. Malinowski raises it when he caricatures previous anthropologists who sat on the district officer’s veranda, sipping whiskey and interviewing subjects fetched by the native police, advocating instead immersion in the native’s world. (Why, then, one wonders, his tent and camera?)

    It certainly effected my own fieldwork. Returning to Ruth’s and my apartment at the end of a day chasing around with my Taoist master was, in a very real sense, a return to a room of our own, and a very different experience from that of Gary Seaman, who working in a village on the other side of town was living with a local family.

    So I’m not making any sort of categorical claim here. I am simply wondering how we deal with the fact that while, at the end of the day, if our colleagues and students “read” our ethnographies the results are inevitably mediated, the experiences of fieldwork vary from smelly and messy and otherwise sensorily rich to antiseptic experience at second hand seen through a computer screen. Books, TV and movies can and do move us; they are rarely mistaken for actually being there.

  14. Just to add to John McCreery’s contribution, above — & this is not a crack at virtual ethnography, which strikes me as utterly necessary. But more to follow up on the point about the senses. Mary Weismantel’s wonderful (and very teachable…) ethnography _Cholas and Pishtacos_ about race and gender and markets in the Andes contains a great analysis (accompanied by a sometimes faint-making description) of smells.

  15. First, my thanks to Noah. Being cited so extensively in the blog entry he mentions is extremely flattering.

    Like I said in the entry, you raise some interesting points, and I thought they should be addressed.

    Still, as we shift our assumption from meat world to e-mail the plausibility of the claim that “the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting” becomes more problematic.

    Why? Because despite the potential for error in even eye-witness testimony (with which we should all be familiar thanks to CSI if nothing else) our senses are the touchstone by which reality is judged.

    I’m not going to dispute the importance of empiricism in ethnographic research, but I think we should remember that even when immersed in an environment filled with sensory information, that sensory information still needs to be interpreted, and we cannot avoid relying upon previous assumptions in doing so. I call your attention to what William James wrote in Pragmatism:

    Take, for instance, yonder object on the wall. You and I consider it to be a “clock,” although no one of us has seen the hidden works that make it one. We let our notion pass for true without attempting to verify. If truths mean verification-process essentially, ought we then to call such unverified truths as this abortive? No, for they form the overwhelmingly large number of the truths we live by. Indirect as well as direct verifications pass muster. Where circumstantial evidence is sufficient, we can go without eye-witnessing. Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so, everything we know conspiring with the belief, and nothing interfering, so we assume that thing to be a clock. We use it as a clock, regulating the length of our lecture by it. The verification of the assumption here means its leading to no frustration or contradiction. Verifi-ability of wheels and weights and pendulum is as good as verification. For one truth-process completed there are a million in our lives that function in this state of nascency. They turn us towards direct verification; lead us into the surroundings of the objects they envisage; and then, if everything runs on harmoniously, we are so sure that verification is possible that we omit it, and are usually justified by all that happens.

    Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs “pass,” so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. But beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure.

    You also wrote:

    My purpose here is to query how much is missing from virtual ethnography since, however immersed the researcher becomes immersed in a virtual world, he or she eats, sleeps, excretes, possibly even makes love in a space whose smells, tastes, sounds, architecture and other residents are familiar?

    Virtual communities vary in how much and what types of contact they have beyond the virtual community itself; sites such as Meetup.com are specifically geared towards connecting online communities with offline communities. However, even in cases where there is little or no interaction beyond the virtual environment, I think that the absence of these other types of sensory data can be a notable experience in itself. How do you as a participant think and feel about the missing sensory data? If you are in a text-based virtual environment, what is it like to deal with the ambiguity of not knowing what your fellow participants look like or how they might sound if they were saying what they were typing? These are surely part of the embodied experience of virtual communities, and by participating in them, the virtual ethnographer tries to reproduce as much as possible the social conditions and interior states of his or her informants, just as an ethnographer in a more traditional setting would. The physical and social conditions in which the ethnographer finds himself or herself in these cases are simply characterized by more sensory absences and ambiguities than typically exist in most traditional fieldwork settings. That is what “being there” means within that particular social context, and if anthropology is truly about the study of humanity, than I don’t think this particular aspect of humanity should be excluded. I bet ethnographies of the deaf and blind can raise similar issues about the absence of sensory data.

  16. I just wanted to second Noah’s points above about the mediated character of experience, and also to point out that (again as someone originally trained as an historian), any work on historical communities also necessarily takes place without the direct sensory immersion of the researcher in their subjects’ physical space. So historical research provides a more academically familiar example of how we attempt to understand and empathise with other people – an example that is actually far more constrained than ethnographies in virtual space but that, presumably because we’re more used to people doing historical work, doesn’t meet with the same kind of skepticism as research into virtual communities sometimes does…

    All forms of study have their limitations, and I suppose the issue would be for the student of virtual communities to be aware of these and manage them in a self-aware manner…

  17. N. Pepperell writes,

    All forms of study have their limitations, and I suppose the issue would be for the student of virtual communities to be aware of these and manage them in a self-aware manner…All forms of study have their limitations, and I suppose the issue would be for the student of virtual communities to be aware of these and manage them in a self-aware manner…

    I agree, absolutely. But would anyone, then, care to explain the difference, if any, between an ethnography of a virtual world produced by an anthropologist and one produced, for example, by a qualitative sociologist or a journalist willing to invest an equivalent amount of time, thought and energy?

    Does “anthropologist” have any particular meaning anymore?

  18. I’m probably the worst person to ask (not that you were necessarily asking me more than anyone else…), as I tend to wander erratically across disciplinary boundaries… The work I am currently doing could plausibly be called ethnography, oral history, or sociology – but I’m doing it in a Department of Environment and Planning that generally has a strong scientific and technical focus…

    But your question is not really specific to research into virtual communities: I remember anthropology postgraduates asking quite similar questions at my previous university, when they found themselves wanting to work on any field site that wasn’t, say, easily articulated as being somehow “premodern” (and, as Kerim suggested recently, this pretty much meant any field site, period…). This sort of soul-searching about disciplinary identity was hardly unique to anthropology students: social theorists and intellectual historians wondered how exactly they were different; as did historical sociologists and social historians; political science potentially overlapped each of these fields, etc.

    It may be that different disciplines can approach exactly the same field sites, using fairly similar methods, but still cast a unique disciplinary light on their questions, because they’ve been differently socialised, read different forms of theory, etc. It may equally be that disciplinary distinctions are not the most important thing to worry about – that we should figure out what our questions are, and then seek out the best tools for addressing those questions, regardless of the discipline historically associated with those tools…

  19. In sum, we call ourselves anthropologists because particular personal careers involved being at a node where certain channels of disciplinary influence and personal experience converge.

    That’s fine by me—in fact a thesis that I have been promoting for several years now. But unlike some of our colleagues here, I don’t have to worry about whether the academic or other job markets want something called “anthropology” and may want to know what they are buying when the fellows in sociology or medieval history or particle physics want the job slot for their departments instead.

    When I think back on why I became an anthropologist, I do have to give a lot of credit to the photographs that were posted in Michigan State’s African Studies Center, including, as I recall, a now utterly non-PC one of Marc Swartz (whose class on East African Ethnography introduced me to anthropology) sitting on top of a dead elephant with a large rifle in his hand and the African bearers standing or sitting on the ground around the elephant. My Honors College (do whatever you please) degree included large chunks of philosophy, medieval history, and psychology, and part of the attraction of anthropology was that it looked like a place where bits of all three came together. There is no denying, however, that the chance to travel to exotic places and do some serious self-testing at someone else’s expense was also a major element.

    I have no doubt that the exploration of virtual worlds and what they tell us about human beings is a worthy and doable enterprise (I’ve been reading folks like Sherry Turkle and Howard Rheingold for years). Still, I wonder if anthropology, this peculiar place in the webs of academic meaning to which my checkered career brought me can survive the demise of the vision quest myth that once made it so appealing.

  20. would anyone, then, care to explain the difference, if any, between an ethnography of a virtual world produced by an anthropologist and one produced, for example, by a qualitative sociologist or a journalist willing to invest an equivalent amount of time, thought and energy?

    Does “anthropologist” have any particular meaning anymore?

    I’d like to share a few relevant quotations for your consideration:

    By and large, though, the concept of culture has come to be so completely associated with anthropological thinking that if we should ever want to, we could define an anthropologist as someone who uses the word ‘culture’ habitually (Wagner 1995: 54)

    Sociologically speaking, the citation of other historians not only builds a community of scholars in the present but also extends solidarity into the past and future (Feldman 2000: 557)

    What is more notable, however, is the relative lack of influence of sociological method and theory upon anthropology during the decades in which they roomed together, for our rejection of most sociological theory was notable. One may conjecture that physical closeness bred intellectual distance, for the isolated little pockets of anthropologists had to struggle to maintain their identities and separateness. To have embraced Durkheim, Weber, Cooley, George Herbert Mead, Pareto, and Simmel would have constituted the erosion of a boundary and the concession of an important bargaining chip in intradepartmental politics. We did read the great social theorists, to be sure, for their relevance to anthropology was manifest, but we read them defensively. (Murphy 1987: 19)

    disciplines are increasingly heterogeneous, hence their reification [of each other] tends to be increasingly invidious, increasingly a matter of evoking caricatures to be dismissed or defended (Thomas 1999: 262)

    anthropology is not simply cultural study but also, and equally important, cultural critique and transformation (Purcell 1998: 268)

    Indeed, anthropology is uniquely suited for the study of socioculturally situated online communication within a rapidly changing context. Anthropological methodologies enable the investigation of cross-cultural, multileveled, and multisited phenomena; emerging constructions of individual and collective identity; and the culturally embedded nature of emerging communicative and social practices. Recently there have been calls for an ethnographic approach to the issues of new media, an approach that is timely and indispensable as we begin to theorize the sociocultural implications of new communication technology (Wilson & Peterson 2002: 450)

    The social construction of the disciplines as intellectual arenas that was made in the 19th century has outlived its usefulness and is today a major obstacle to serious intellectual work. (Wallerstein 2003)

    References

    Feldman, Regina M.
    2000 Encountering the Trauma of the Holocaust: Dialogue and Its Discontents in the Broszat-Friedlander Exchanges of Letters. Ethos 28(4):551-574.

    Murphy, Robert F.
    1987 A Quarter Century of American Anthropology. In Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology. Herbert Applebaum, ed. Pp. 5-30. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Purcell, Trevor W.
    1998 Indigenous Knowledge and Applied Anthropology: Questions of Definition and Direction. Human Organization 57(3):258-272.

    Thomas, Nicholas
    1999 Becoming Undisciplined: Anthropology and Cultural Studies. In Anthropological Theory Today. Henrietta L. Moore, ed. Pp. 262-279. Malden, MA: Polity Press & Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

    Wagner, Roy
    1995 The Idea of Culture. In The Truth About the Truth: De-Confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World. Walter Truett Anderson, ed. Pp. 53-57. New York: A Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam book.

    Wallerstein, Immanuel
    2003 Anthropology, Sociology, and other dubious Disciplines. Current Anthropology 44(4): 453-465.

    Wilson, Samuel M. and Peterson, Leighton C.
    2002 The anthropology of online communities. Annual review of anthropology 31:449-467.

  21. Noah,

    With all due respect, I make my living in advertising and am thus a professional bullshit artist. I recognize it when I see it, as for example in the following,

    Indeed, anthropology is uniquely suited for the study of socioculturally situated online communication within a rapidly changing context. Anthropological methodologies enable the investigation of cross-cultural, multileveled, and multisited phenomena; emerging constructions of individual and collective identity; and the culturally embedded nature of emerging communicative and social practices. Recently there have been calls for an ethnographic approach to the issues of new media, an approach that is timely and indispensable as we begin to theorize the sociocultural implications of new communication technology (Wilson & Peterson 2002: 450)

    The key indicator is a long stream of abstractions, e.g., “cross-cultural, multileveled, and multisited phenomena; emerging constructions of individual and collective identity; and the culturally embedded nature of emerging communicative and social practices,” which suggest something remarkable while remaining ultimately vacuous.

    Compare, for example, “To the study of virtual worlds anthropologists bring a distinctive combination of perspectives rooted in their training in archeology, linguistics, and human biology as well as contemporary social and cultural theory, ethnographic knowledge of a wide range of human societies, and (best case) real world fieldwork experience. No field better prepares its practitioners for multifaceted exploration of human situations on as well as off-line.”

    WARNING: I just made this up. The training of particular anthropologists may not include all of the elements mentioned above. Employers in need of particular skill sets are advised to probe deebly to ensure that the anthropologists they hire do in fact have them.

  22. John – I’ll second the reservations about long streams of abstractions… I had wanted to reply, though, to your earlier point about the job market and disciplinary identity, to mention that I *also* agree with that – i.e., disciplinary identity may not tell us much about who can do what sort of research in a useful and meaningful way, but it can be terribly important in hiring decisions that get one into a position to do the research in the first place…

    My personal experience is that this was much more the case in the US (where I started academic work) than it is in Australia (where I work now). I dealt with the situation in the US by working in the private sector, which wasn’t so concerned about whether I were an historian, sociologist, journalist, or what have you – but I suspect it would have been a major issue had I sought an academic position.

    Since moving to Australia, and falling back into academic work almost by accident, I haven’t really had to worry about the issue – whether this reflects a genuine difference in how disciplinary identity is constructed, academically, here, or whether it just reflects the peculiar hybrid nature of my own university, I’m not yet sure…

    I can’t speak to the issue of whether the “vision quest” image is important for recruiting people to the field – my interest in anthropology was strongly theoretically driven. While anthropology isn’t the only discipline that thinks seriously about the mutuability and contingency of human social behaviour, it has thought about this issue at greater length and more systematically than many other disciplines – and this is why I find it useful. I suppose this might also explain why I’m less worried about the “physical” dimension of the anthropological fieldwork experience (immersion in smell, tactile experience, etc.) – since I first used anthropological scholarship to help me think through materials I was finding in an archive, I obviously think there is a strong value in the discipline, even for an “armchair” researcher…

  23. Dear N,

    I certainly hope that there is room for armchair researchers and other research strategies. My book Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers was, for example, based on a combination of armchair research and interviews with the Japanese researchers whose eyes I was borrowing to examine changes in Japanese society/consumer habits. It was informed by the model of my favorite teacher, Victor Turner, who began with analysis of social structure and conflict in Schism and Continuity and was highly critical, indeed, of scholarship that examined, myths, symbols or rituals without a solid basis in the material conditions of social life of the people he was studying.

    It was also shaped, however, by the realization that for the chapter on the postwar political economy of Japan which frames the subsequent analysis I would have to demographers, economists and political scientists. Here, too, I took seriously Clifford Geertz’s observation in the introduction to Islam Observed that while fieldwork is great for generating insights, to survive they have to be tested against the observations of people in other fields.

    I must confess, too, that my dissertation fieldwork consciously violated Turner’s prescriptions. Previous work on Chinese popular religion and ritual in Taiwan was rooted in community studies. Its strength was relatively detailed grasp of the social situations in which anthropologists encountered the rituals they described. Its downside was was only observing a small and fragmentary sample of rites performed during the year or so that the anthropologist was living in a particular community. My research inverted this paradigm. Attaching myself to a Taoist healer with a practice that took us zooming in taxis all over central and northern Taiwan, I was able to observe repeated examples of the rites in his repertoire, literally hundreds of examples in the case of the simpler and more common ones. This put me on very solid ground for analyzing their “grammar,” but largely ignorant of the social background and events that occasioned their performance. I was also forced by the weakness of my Taiwanese to depend primarily on observation instead of native exegesis in formulating my analysis.

    Currently I make a large part of my living my translating advertising marketing research reports that depend heavily on either focus groups or quantitative analysis of survey data. I tend, then, to a broad church view of what constitutes useful research, noting that utility always depends on the objective in question.

    But turning to another question. What, if it isn’t too impertinent to ask, does your “N” stand for?

  24. The way you say “with all due respect” leads me to believe that I did not convey my intention clearly in using these quotes. I did not mean to necessarily endorse all these viewpoints, but merely present them as ways in which other anthropologists have answered your questions. You asked if “anthropologist” has any particular meaning, and these authors have answered that question in different ways. Does being an anthropologist mean you use particular words? Cite particular authors? Don’t cite particular authors? Attack other disciplines to promote your own? Use particular methodologies? Or does being an anthropologist simply mean that you are clinging to a relic of the nineteenth century?

    Now in regards to that particular quote, I would agree that it’s overwrought and quite possibly wrong as well, but I would not say it’s completely devoid of substance. As I understand it, it’s really just a fancy way of saying that anthropologists use participant observation with virtual communities because “being there” online helps you understand what’s going on in them, which is important because the Internet changes quickly. “Multi-level” just means that you use virtual ethnography and try to connect it with what people do offline and to larger social and political processes. However, I say it’s quite possibly wrong as well because other disciplines do the same thing. In other words, these are important things to do in virtual ethnography, but not really distinct to the discipline of anthropology. It seems to me that Wilson & Peterson are engaging in the sort of reification that Thomas mentions.

  25. Noah,

    Most gracious of you. I had, I must admit, taken the string of quotes to be something like a sustained argument and lunged for what I took to be the weakest link.

  26. Not impertinent, but the question does interact awkwardly with my commitment to keep my life from being too easily googled. If you’re particularly curious, the first (chronologically oldest) post on my blog links to the project website for my research – my bio is the very last one at the bottom of the researcher bio page (hopefully this inauspicious placement doesn’t bode too poorly for the usefulness of my contribution to the project…)

  27. As this discussion has evolved (devolved?) into a discussion of disciplinary cores and boundaries, I thought I’d steer you to a) a discussion of the problem of defining the disciplinary core of English, and b) Jeffrey Di Leo’s _Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture_, which suggests that there is some value in the very act of affiliating with feelows — which in turn suggests that anthropology may well be distinguished from, say, sociology or cultural studies more by virtue of who we choose to affilate with (both geneaologically — who we read and are influenced by — and institutionally — who we learn from, teach alongside, and schmooze with) than by virtue of what it is, exactly, that we do.

    Also, on virtual ethnographies, a class at Trinity University on online gaming worlds has posted a set of ethnographies of “World of Warcraft”

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