Cultural Anthropology’s Virtual Issue on Business Cultures

Cultural Anthropology’s ambitious website has not been as successful as some might have hoped — it’s forums are dusty (to say the least) and the ‘SuppleMentals’ section is not only an underused attempt to add multimedia links to supplement print articles, it employs that tired old ‘I capitalized something to make a pun! Get it?!’ styles of tired 80s avant-gardism that only James Boon still thinks is charming. That said, however, their decision to publish a ‘virtual issue‘ on business cultures is both extremely welcome and extremely interesting. Having unfairly mocked the stylistics of the website, I will save you rant about how anthropology’s recent turn to the study of ‘business cultures’ is problematic for the way it construes predecessors and fails to make possible interdisciplinary connections (you can read my article later on this later if it ever comes out), and move on to praise CA for making this material available and prompting us to think about what digital anthologizing might mean or signal.

The basic idea is simple. CA creates a web page with links to five articles written between 2009 and 2003 which are all thematically related. The articles are open access (huzzah!), and the web page includes a brief editorial introduction and a link to other articles which are related but which did not, apparently, make the cut.

Now, the idea of anthologizing greatest hits from a journal in order to present a picture of the past that enables research in the future is not a new idea. Colonialism and Culture collected several classic history/colonialism/power papers from Comparative Studies in Society and History, there is a three volume collection of papers from American Anthropologist, and Ethnos (I think it was) also did an edited volume of its political anthropology articles. Sage specializes in bookifying special issues of journals (such as Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods, a volume which is, sadly, largely off the radar of the new business anthropology) and the line between journal, conference, and anthology has become so tenuous over at Theory, Culture, and Society that they seem at times officially Beyond Genre.

But what is so new and interesting about CA is exactly the fact they they are not publishing this as a physical book. It is easy to see why — in an era of proliferating PDFs the value of physically collocating these essays has sharply declines (and remember, it used to be quite a value). CA is adding value to their work by selectively filtering it and, of course, making it available to everyone. What does it mean to anthologize merely by linking? It’s a fascinating question.

First, it makes us start to see the similarities between the edited volume and other genres that we might not have understood as being related to it. Is this a digital anthology or a syllabus? Is it an edited volume or a reading list? Is it a web site or a course reader? Syllabi, readers, and reading lists create usable pasts for students, while edited volumes are often authoritative presentations of work which in turn spawns new work. I guess I’ve always understood that both of these involve renarrating the past to move into the future, but here the similarities are especially striking.

Second: Because it is all links all the way down, there is no reason that CA had to stick merely with CA articles. Why not create a more wide-ranging edited volume? There are issues of rights, of course, as well as the problem of where you stop looking once your purview stops being just one journal and becomes an entire InterNetoSphere. It may be that legal regimes and our own imaginations result in us retaining the ghostly spectre of a physical journal issue in our heads as we imagine anthologization.

Thirdly, of course, is the fact that this is great for CA’s ‘brand’. Open Access means better publicity, and intelligent filtering (the selection of articles is great) mean that CA gets the credit not just for publishing these papers, but for wrapping them up in a nice little package for you. And of course in the future when people cite Mazarella and Ho with religious reverence as founders of The New Thing, CA can say “we were there first”.

At any rate, despite my snarkiness, I think CA has done something really useful and thought provoking, and I’d encourage you to check it out — and who knows, maybe even breathe some life into the forums.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Cultural Anthropology’s Virtual Issue on Business Cultures

  1. Thanks for the attention and kind words – and especially for the tag “experiment,” which is indeed how we’ve thought about everything on the CA website. I’d add a couple of things I think it’s important to consider in a further discussion of the limits and possibilities of these kinds of experiments:

    * The basic idea was not simple, nor website-based, nor ours. As part of Wiley-Blackwell’s marketing initiatives, they agreed to make three of these “virtual issues” available per year, for ninety days each. So it is only “Open Access” for a limited time period, and while the initiative is praiseworthy it may also be read as a kind of strategic measure to mollify the stronger open access forces. The CA editors choose the themes – we’ve done virtual issues on China, on cities and urbanism, and on democracy and elections, for example – but we do so with the knowledge that Wiley-Blackwell will mainly promote it through its proprietary email lists, which are organized rather traditionally by disciplinary interests and categories. Helping to prepare the Wiley-Blackwell emailer becomes the process by which the CA website page on the virtual issue is built. So as a Wiley-Blackwell initiated process, we simply aren’t free to choose essays or articles from other journals or books. It’s a way for WB to promote CA and, it hopes, increase subscriptions.
    * It’s also the case that the virtual issues, and everything else we do on the CA website, is a way for the editors and for SCA to promote the intellectual work of a particular “community of practice,” namely, scholars who have published in CA over the last 25 years. And the word “promote” has a different meaning for us than it does for WB: we promote CA essays through virtual issues and other mechanisms as a way of encouraging further reflections on what CA has, since 1986, done particularly well or not so particularly well. It’s a way to reflect on the conversations that this “community of practice” has been having, and that future CA authors would build on and/or divert.
    * We would have liked to see more of that reflection in the discussion forums that we set up on the CA website, but it’s true that these have been “dusty.” The new editors of CA, Anne Allison and Charles Piot, are going to try some new things in an effort to do something about that, so I would encourage all the readers of Savage Minds to visit the CA website and help them continue building these experiments.
    * There’s another “community of practice,” beyond the readership, whose cultivation has been part of the CA website experiment. That is the community of editorial interns who have designed the virtual issues, built the supplemental pages for essays, and created thematic lists. They are mostly grad students and postdocs from numerous anthropology and related departments around the country (and some international ones as well), and in the process of building the real guts of the CA website, they’ve become well-versed in the work of current and past CA authors. They’ve been great for CA, and we hope that the experience has done work for them as well.
    * Another intent of the experiment, for the virtual issues in part but particularly for the supplemental pages, was to help move scholarly work more into classroom use. The CA website seems to have been somewhat successful at this, given the number of hits it has been getting, but it will always welcome good new ideas that might further that part of the experiment.

    And as for 80s avant gardism – well, uh, “Rex,” you know what they say (bad pun alert!): time wounds all heels!

    Mike Fortun
    Outgoing CA co-editor

  2. I wish to offer a note of appreciation to Mike and Kim Fortun for their massive editorial investments in Cultural Anthropology. It is important to me to observe that they really worked hard to innovate during a very difficult time in AAA publishing. Part of their behind the scenes work has been to use the analytical tools of our discipline to ask difficult questions about the political economy of, and the ethics of, our publishing practices. While speaking specifically to Rex’s post, Mike’s comment offers a general (and rare) peek into the business machinery at work in the AAA/W-B publishing arrangement.

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