All posts by loomnie

Can social networking sites make money?

Social networking sites like Youtube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (the Web 2.0 bunch) are not making money. Recently, The Economist wrote about their business model which is, well, not working much:

Web 2.0 still had only one business model, advertising, and the Valley was refusing to admit that only one company (Google) with only one of its products (search advertising) had proved that the model really worked. The older internet firms, Yahoo! and AOL, were doing their best to grab a piece of the action. But the “next big things” were selling negligible advertising, often on one another’s sites. Not one of them has become an advertising success in its own right.

A suggested alternative is for them to make money through the interactions of their users (I don’t know why, but I find it a bit unsettling):

While today, these may not look like great businesses (which hasn’t stopped investors’ willingness to fund them), I’m convinced that the daily interactions of their vast memberships–and their users’ willingness to share their interests, tastes, relationships and intentions, and the massive amounts of data around users’ behavior–will eventually lead to substantial revenues and profits.

These discussions have got me wondering whether we might not be wrong in thinking of the sites in terms of how much money might be made from them. Don’t get me wrong, I use some of them, and I find them very useful, but I think that we should not throw away the idea that they might in fact not lend themselves to being turned into money-making tools.

I did not mean to imply that social networking sites should not be making money, and I did not wish to imply any distaste for money-making. As a person who uses them, and who would like to continue doing so, I would like them to make money so that they can continue operating. This post was meant to suggest that they probably would not make money because their model for generating revenue is largely based on advertising, which, as I noted, is currently not working. Another option would be to charge users for using the sites. I personally do not think this would work because people still view them as a sort of commons, therefore paying for their use might not exactly sit well with the users.

Anthropology in Nigeria – Extended Version

One could almost use the state of anthropology in Nigeria as a field of study to illustrate the state of the discipline in West Africa, but of course, in Nigeria, it would have a distinctive Nigerian flavour. First of all, parents are mostly the ones who are responsible for their children’s university education, and not many parents are willing to pay for their children to study anthropology. The first considerations are always about whether their child would be able to get a job after completion of the course. The way to sell a degree programme to potential students – and their parents – is by highlighting the job opportunities the programme would open graduates to. Only a few students end up enrolling in programmes that offer degrees in ‘non-professional’ courses, and most of the students are offered those programmes as ‘second options’ after they are refused admission into more attractive degree programmes. Sociology has been able to make itself remain relevant by operating professional masters programmes like Master of Industrial and Personnel Relations and Masters in Project Development and Implementation, and Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations.

One does not need to think of Bohanan’s work among the Tiv of northern Nigeria, or Abner Cohen’s research among Hausa migrants in the southern Nigerian city of Ibadan before one experiences a feeling of nostalgia. There were for instance Nigerians like Angulu Onwujeogwu, Ikenna Nzimora and Victor Uchendu. In Africa at large, efforts were not just expended on doing ‘good’ anthropology and sociology; there were in fact efforts to overcome the Western epistemic assumptions that underpinned much anthropological exercise of the time. I probably don’t need to mention that anthropology was often a tool for colonialists. See, for instance, Bernard Magubane’s criticism of colonial anthropology in this Current Anthropology article. It would also be useful to see Archie Mafeje’s article that is partly a response to Magubane’s article. The point is that there was a lively discussion in anthropology on the continent.

A cursory look at the credentials of many African anthropologists of the 60s and 70s would show that they were largely Western educated, partly because African states, at that point, had a developmental agenda, and that agenda involved awarding scholarships to students to study in Western universities. And when this was not the case, many African got scholarships from Western countries. One could say that even then, with newly independent African states, anthropology was not particularly popular. I think this is linked to the involvement of anthropology in the colonial project. It is arguable that sociology enjoyed a better image than anthropology, especially with its somewhat better image as a discipline that studies ‘more civilised’ societies. That is also probably why there are very few stand-alone anthropology departments in Nigerian universities.

Things became much worse in the 80s when Nigeria’s oil wealth started turning into a curse. Serious balance of payment problems, coupled with a succession of repressive military dictatorships finally encouraged many Nigerian scholars to leave the country, and those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to work. The already unattractive anthropology even became less attractive, and joint anthropology and sociology department started doing much less of anthropology and more of sociology. The fact that many development agencies want statistical data has meant that data provision and generation concentrated in the hands of economists and sociologists. This in turn meant that fewer people got interested in doing graduate degrees in anthropology. I recently visited a Nigerian sociology and anthropology department where there was neither a single lecturer who does anthropological research, nor any graduate student who wanted to do anthropological research.

It is also in this state of the Nigerian economy state that many parents would not be willing to pay for their children to study anthropology in universities. One could also add that a desire to be modern, and therefore to study something modern, is linked to the lack of interest in anthropology, especially as people still seem to associate anthropology with the study of the primitive – in post-colonial studies terms, the Other. There is bound to be a problem for a discipline that studies the Other, when the classical definition of the Other in this context would actually be the self. I know that the experiences of people in African countries are far from uniform, and that there is of course a multiplicity of Others, but those are the fine details that almost always get lost in the quest for modernity. Yes, I throw in that word, because no matter how much we discuss the faults and failings of modernisation as a theory and as a concept, the everyday lives of young Nigerians is modeled after the dream of becoming modern. Of course, I am an anthropologist, and I understood the importance of the kind of knowledge that anthropological methods and methodologies produce, even before I decided to do a Ph.D in anthropology. And of course, there are also other really intelligent anthropologists still in Nigeria. But when one starts framing a discussion in those terms one should realise that one is talking of the exceptions and not the rule.

Some questions of course beg answers. Does Nigeria, and by extension other African countries, have need of the anthropologist’s contribution in its present predicament? Can the problems thrown up in the country be framed in anthropological ways? Are these problems not always being framed in such ways whether or not people realize or admit it, whether or not people study their society, its mental, material and behavioural artefacts, and engage one another, self and other, with the benefit of ethnographic and theoretical training received in university departments of anthropology? At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think that it is always anthropology, good or bad—from Huntington to Soyinka.

Any insights from other areas?

Towards an Ontological Anthropology

I recently read Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, a volume edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. The manifesto of the volume, as presented in the introduction, is:

Rather than dismiss informants’ accounts as imaginative ‘interpretations’ – elaborate metaphorical accounts of a reality that is already given – anthropologists might instead seize on these engagements as opportunities from which novel theoretical understandings can emerge.

The editors, in the introduction, present a methodological framework that would do the job that the they set out for the volume. They first suggest that ethnographers have to do away with a priori distinction between persons and things; even hybridity as a concept would not do, because there is already an implicit ‘presumption of an initial separation.’ Instead, they want to ethnographers to ‘take “things” encountered in the field as they present themselves, rather than immediately assuming that they signify, represent, or stand for something else’.

They have Bruno Latour, Alfred Gell, Marilyn Strathern, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro and Roy Wagner as precursors. What they find most appealing in the works of these authors is the move they have been making from an epistemological anthropology towards an ontological anthropology, and they have been doing this by simply taking the perspective of their informants into account. Only that these authors, they have not taken their informants’ actions into account in order to ‘explain’ them away; they have accepted the categories – or the absence of any categories – that their informants provided, and followed them wherever they led. One central point they make, following from an urge to move from epistemological to ontological studies, is that epistemology provides what they term worldviews – different ways of ‘knowing’ the world, different ‘cultural perspectives’ or ‘beliefs’. They would want studies that are about ‘worlds’  and not ‘worldviews’. The statement on the way this is achieved is long, but I think it deserves to be quoted in full.

We start with the ordinary (representationist/epistemological) assumption that concepts are the site of difference. Then we argue that in order for difference to be taken seriously (as ‘alterity’), the assumption that concepts are ontologically distinct from the things to which they are ordinarily said to ‘refer’ must be discarded. From this follows that alterity can quite properly be thought of as a property of things – things, that is, which are concepts as much as they appear to us as ‘material’ or ‘physical’ entities. Hence the first answer to the incredulous question of where ‘different worlds’ might be, is here, in front of us, in the things themselves (things like powder or – as we’ll see in the contributions to this book – photographs, legal documents, shamanic costumes, cigarettes, and so on). So this is a method of ‘back to the things themselves’ as the phenomenologists had it, but only with the caveat that this is not because the ‘life-world’ of our experience of things has priority over a ‘theoretical attitude’ […] but precisely because our experience of things, if you will, can be conceptual (p 13).

A review of the book by Daniel Miller is available here.

Consuming Second-Hand Clothing

The recently demolished Tejuosho Market in Lagos, Nigeria, had a part that was devoted almost entirely to the trade in second-hand clothing. In the mid-nineties, I lived somewhere close to the market, and each time I left the house to take a bus at the Yaba central motor park I walked past stalls filled with second-hand clothes. Traders who hawked their wares on the road would usually call on passers-by to patronise them. The range of items in the market ranged from Armani suits to brassiere, from neck ties to blue jeans, from Hugo Boss long sleeve shirts to Gap T-shirts, from men’s underpants to ladies’ slips, and from jackboots to office shoes. There were even the odd winter jackets.

I was about 16 years old then, and it was about the first time that I really thought about second-hand clothing. I had been wearing second-hand clothes before then, but it was a particular episode that made me realise how much it was sewn into the imagination of many everyday Nigerians. A boy who was about eight years old walked into the living room of their house and said:

‘I can smell something new! Did mummy buy some new clothes?’

Everybody is probably familiar with the smell of new textile fabric; used-clothes too have their own peculiar odour. People said that it was the smell of the chemical that was used in washing them before they were packed up and shipped to Nigeria. That was the smell the boy perceived, and that was the smell he thought was the smell of new fabric. Of course, now, thinking about it, it was certainly new, only that it was a different type of new. For the boy, and for so many other people, it was simply new clothes; clothes that started a whole new life with them. One could of course start a whole discussion about values and commodities and what is new and what is not, but what my 16 year-old self found disturbing was that the boy was so used to new cloth smelling like second-hand cloths that it was what was new to him. I think I found it disturbing because most often, using second-hand clothes was linked to poverty. I learnt better some years later.

The general name for second-hand clothing in Nigeria is okrika. The name was derived from the name of a small port town close to the more famous Port-Harcourt, in the now infamous Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. According to old-time second-hand clothes traders, that was the port through which used clothing was first imported into Nigeria, and the people of Okrika were the first to start consuming second-hand clothing, largely because that was where it was first imported. So, the name okrika stuck, and it is still the general name used to refer to second-hand clothes in Nigeria.

But there are other names too. One of them – bo si corner – is a mixture of Yoruba and English, which means, ‘go to a corner’. Buying used clothing was supposed to be a shameful thing so one only bought it in a ‘corner’, where nobody could see one. Another popular Yoruba word is wo o wo, which means ‘try it on’. Normally, shops that sold new items of clothing are reluctant to permit potential buyers to try them on; second-hand clothes traders actually encouraged their customers to try them on, while they continued haggling on the price. Another term that is used in describing second-hand clothing is ‘bend-down boutique’. Many of the traders in the market had the pieces of clothing on a huge pile through which one could rummage, looking for a piece of clothing that might catch ones attention. Once an item is picked up the haggling process starts. (The Zambians call them Salaula, the Bemba term that means ‘to rummage through a pile’ – Karen Tranberg Hansen

In some cases, one does not need to bend down to check them out because some traders ‘add value’ to the items they sell by taking time to launder them, starch them, iron them and display them on hangers at their stalls. The prices of those are higher, but they are also easier to inspect so the potential buyer does not have to take the time to rummage through a pile on the ground.

Big boys
In university I realised that many of the campus ‘big boys’ got their Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace etc. attires from some students who would go to the used clothing market to make special selections. The student-traders would pay a certain amount of money for the privilege of being the ones who make the first pick from freshly opened bales. (The clothes are packed in bales of about 55kg for exportation in the source countries). They would then take the clothes home to wash in order to get rid of some of the distinctive second-hand clothing smell, before they are sold to the ‘big boys’. Most of those who consume the higher-end products know that the items are ‘okrika’, but a popular way they justified using them was by saying that most of the new brand-names that are available in the market are in fact fake. They would fall apart after just a few washes. But one could be sure that the okrika brand-names are in fact the real deal because one was sure that they were ‘imported’ from Europe. That is actually a reason many people give for buying second-hand clothing. They are the authentic ones, not the China-made that are of much lower quality, and that are sometimes even cheaper than the second-hand ones.

All this happen in a country that bans the importation of second-hand clothing. Most people have no idea that second-hand clothing is actually not allowed into Nigeria. One of the main things I am trying to do in my dissertation is to show how second-hand clothes get to Nigeria from the source countries in Europe and North America.

Anthropology in Nigeria

I just found this pdf document of a slide presentation by Ifeanyi Onyeonoru, a Nigerian senior lecturer at my old university in Ibadan. Although he is a sociologist, the presentation pretty much captures the state of anthropology in Nigeria.

My Interest in Things

Thanks Kerim!

Like Kerim wrote in the post introducing me, my ongoing dissertation is on the trade in second-hand clothing. I am trying to tease out the relations that surround the trade as it moves from the United Kingdom to Nigeria through Benin, and I am trying to deal with the pieces of clothing as what they are wherever they are. This in effect means dealing with what are at some point described as gifts (at least that is how the ‘donors’ of second-hand clothes describe what they drop in clothes banks) at other points as commodities, fundraising tool, a source of livelihood etc. Of course, Appadurai’s Social Life of Things, and Kopytoff’s cultural Biography of Things lend themselves as a framework for approaching things of this nature. The Social Life of Things was a groundbreaking work. Read what James Ferguson wrote about it in a review article:

But following the last decade’s preoccupation in anthropology with production […] on the one hand, and consumption [...] on the other, Appadurai’s approach to commodities as “objects in motion” has the feel of a new departure, even while appearing at the same time as a kind of homecoming.

In short, what it did was to put culture back in the analyses of things. Ferguson writes further:

The key claim here is not that things are “social” but that they have lives; the suggestion is that the social dimension of things can be narratively approached through the conventions not only of traditional historical exposition, but through that venerable anthropological device, “life history”.

That was really groundbreaking in so many ways, and thinking about it as I am writing this, I don’t see any reason why that should not be enough for studying the trade in second-hand clothing. Save for the fact that, as a friend noted, writing a doctoral dissertation is as if one were producing an affirmation of ones existence – an affirmation that needs to be underscored by the discovery of something original. In this case, I suppose that it is not as much a desire to discover something original as it is a desire to do as much theoretical exploration as possible (although I know that I would not live up to this expection). There, of course, have to be some more recent anthropological theorising on commodities in particular and things in general so why settle for a framework from 1986?

The product of that question is what I will be blogging about during my period as a Savage Minds guest blogger. I am currently digging into the literature on commodities and things, since I see commodities as a form of things (see Keith Hart’s explication of Marx’s conceptualisation of commodities as resulting from a historical dialectic). I will be sharing and discussing some of the stuffs I read. It is an ongoing process so I welcome suggestions on where to look and what to look at.