Category Archives: Interviews

Anthropology: It’s still white public space–An interview with Karen Brodkin (Part I)

The following is an interview with Karen Brodkin, Professor Emeritus in the UCLA anthropology Department.

Ryan Anderson:  You co-wrote an article back in 2011 with Sandra Morgen and Janis Hutchinson about anthropology as “white public space” (AWPS).  What’s your assessment of the state of anthropology three years later?  If you could add an “update” to this article, what would it be?

Karen Brodkin: The short answer is that anthropology is still white public space, especially in the consistently different ways that white and racialized minority anthropologists see race and racism in anthropology departments and universities. This is my reading of results of the 2013 online survey of the AAA membership (more on that in a minute). What I’ll do here is summarize the findings of the article, and then survey findings that buttress, complicate or contradict them.

AWPS was based on a survey of about 100 anthropologists of color about how they experienced anthropology. We used “white public space,” to sum up attitudes and organizational patterns that told anthropologists of color that they and their ideas were not real anthropology.

The 2013 survey (referred to hereafter as TFRR) was developed by the Task force on Race and Racism appointed by AAA president Leith Mullings (full disclosure, Raymond Codrington and I were its co-chairs). More than 15% of the membership, 1500 people, mostly white, took it. Half were faculty. We reported findings to the AAA Exec Board June 2014. Continue reading

“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

anthropology + design: nicolas nova.

[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

NICOLAS NOVA. design researcher. ethnographer.

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ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

The word “design” is problematic as it’s often related to furniture and glossy magazines at the local newsstand. And because this term is used in different fields, from engineering to management, you have different professions in which practitioners see themselves as “designers:” architects, engineers, people developing user interfaces for websites or video games, etc. A good way to approach design is to understand what “designers” do: they define the shape and the behavior of artifacts based on their understanding of potential users and the context in which they live or work. Said differently, they materialize “prospective futures.”

In order to speculate about near future possibilities, designers usually need to make their work relevant, useful, or believable by people. This is where the social sciences fit in. Knowledge and methods coming from anthropology–such as ethnography–are used and often repurposed by designers to help make different decisions over the course of a project. Observing people’s routines in a kitchen can inform the design of electric appliances, for instance. Interviewing users with a non-standard way of using their bike can also be curious and lead to new bicycle designs.

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“Divorce your theory” A conversation with Paul Farmer (part one)

 (This guest post comes from Ståle Wig. Ståle has recently completed a research based MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, with a thesis on development workers in Lesotho. He is affiliated at the Center for Development and the Environment, and teaches a class in Science Outreach and Journalism at the University of Oslo.)

Paul Farmer was never an orthodox anthropologist. As an undergraduate I remember reading his article, An Anthropology of Structural Violence. It took me by surprise.

Not because I was unaccustomed to scholars arguing that we need to link the ethnographically visible to history and political economy – or, in Farmer’s words, “the interpretive project of modern anthropology to a historical understanding of the large scale social and economic structures in which affliction is embedded”. No, my class had already read Sidney Mintz. It was somewhat fascinating to read an anthropologist who at the same time was a doctor committed to heal the sick in his ethnographic surroundings. But that’s not really what got me, either.  Continue reading

Inside baseball with Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of Cultural Anthropology

Recently I Skyped with Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of Cultural Anthropology to talk about the journal’s transition to open access distribution. Elfenbein, 39, took over the position of managing editor in July 2013 after a stint as assistant managing editor in Duke University Press’s book division and switching from the UNC – Chapel Hill Anthropology program to Information Science. The first OA issue of Cultural Anthropology debuted earlier this month.

 

­When did the SCA decide to go the open access route and what was motivating them?

 

Cultural Anthropology may have been one of the earlier AAA journals to start our own website. Kim and Mike Fortun were responsible for the initial site. They wanted to know what extra materials they could put up that would supplement the journal’s articles. I think that experience probably spurred the idea that there is some of this publishing stuff we can do ourselves. The Fortuns are also heavily involved in science and technology studies (STS), where discussions about open access have been occurring for a long time. When Anne Allison and Charlie Piot took over as editors of the journal, they continued to push for an open access alternative in our publishing program. The Crow report is what really spurred the AAA into action. Last year, the AAA decided to put out a call to all the sections to see if anyone would want their journal to go open access. The SCA formed a task force to evaluate the AAA’s proposal and the feasibility of shifting the journal. At the time, we were the only ones who put our hands up and I think it is probably because we were the only ones who had been already been seriously thinking about this. Continue reading

Understanding the risks and resisting the Kool-Aid: An interview with Karen Kelsky about student debt

This email-based interview with Karen Kelsky is part of the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Kelsky runs The Professor Is In, an academic career consulting business.  She is a former tenured professor and department head with 15 years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  You can find her on twitter here: @ProfessorIsIn

Ryan Anderson: How serious is the student debt problem?

Karen Kelsky:  NSF data shows us that almost 50% of all Ph.D.s in the Humanities and Social Sciences are finishing with debt. In the Social Sciences, almost 10% of all Ph.D.s are finishing with over $90,000 debt.  Over 13% have $50K-$90K.  So almost a quarter of all Ph.D.s in the Social Sciences have more than $50K of debt just from graduate school alone, not including the debt carried forward from college.

In the Humanities, while only 6.8% have debt above $90K, almost 13% have $50K-$90K debt, and a whopping 33.2% have debt of $10K-$50K.  Again, these figures do not include undergraduate debt, which is usually higher than grad school debt, since so many Ph.D. programs carry some form of funding.

I’m using NSF data here because it’s “scientific” and harder to deny than the entries on my informal and unscientific Ph.D. Debt Survey.  But the Survey, an open source Googledoc spreadsheet that is now well over 2200 entries (and still open to more!) gives the human stories behind these numbers. Continue reading

Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this interview with Kirin Narayan as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesKirin is currently professor in the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University, after a distinguished career in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. She is the author of numerous books and articles, written across all possible ethnographic genres, including the monograph Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching, folklore such as Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales, the novel Love, Stars, and All That, her memoir My Family and Other Saints, and the writing guide Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov.)

This past month, I interviewed Kirin Narayan over email, she in Australia and India, and me in the USA. Inspired not only by her writings, but also by an ethnographic writing workshop she led for faculty and students at the University of Colorado a couple years back, I wanted to share her insights and inspiration with Savage Minds readers and participants in our ongoing writing group. Below is our exchange. Enjoy, learn, write!

  • CM: One of the things so unique about your writing are the many genres and forms you write across: academic prose, fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, writing about writing, storytelling, editing, books, articles, and so on. What has your writing path in anthropology been like? How much have you purposefully shaped what and how you wrote versus how much have embraced what invitations and opportunities have serendipitously come your way?

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An Interview with Allegra

The folks at Allegra drew some attention on the Internet recently with their fish out of water story of visiting the AAA annual meetings in Chicago last year. I ran into the main authors of the site, Miia and Julie, in Chicago and was blown away ( ‘wilted under’ would be a better description) by their energy and enthusiasm.  So what is Allegra? How does a website manage to be ‘deadly serious’ ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and ‘sexy’ all at the same time? How does it fit into the Internetoblogosphere? We sat down together for a (virtual) interview recently so they could tell me about their site.

Beware, Internet: Miia Halme-Tuomasaari and Julie Billaud
All up in your internetz: Miia Halme-Tuomasaari (left) and Julie Billaud (right)

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Savage Minds Interview: Kristina Killgrove

Kristina Killgrove is a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida. Her research focuses on theorizing migration in antiquity and on understanding urban development and collapse through the analysis of human skeletal remains. She works primarily in the classical world, attempting to learn about the daily lives of the lower classes in Imperial Rome through osteological and biochemical analyses, but she has also worked on questions of population interaction in the contact-period southeastern U.S. and in Medieval Germany. A strong commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching help her bridge the sometimes large divide between classics and anthropology.  For more about Killgrove’s work, check out her website or blog, email her (killgrove@uwf.edu), or follow her on twitter (@DrKillgrove).

Ryan Anderson: What brought you to anthropology?  What made you choose this as your career?

Kristina Killgrove: I’ve written a bit in the past (originally as a response to a Savage Minds post on love letters for anthropology) about how I’m an “accidental anthropologist.”  I never really set out to have a career in anthropology, as I honestly wasn’t entirely sure what anthropology was until maybe my third or fourth year in college.  What eventually brought me to anthropology, though, was a dissatisfaction with the field I’d chosen to major in: classics.

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Savage Minds Interview: Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is a writer for Al Jazeera English. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University and researches the political effects of digital media in the former USSR. You can find her work at sarahkendzior.com, and on Twitter: @sarahkendzior

Ryan Anderson:  First of all, thanks for doing this interview.  Let’s start off with the basics:  Why anthropology?  How and why did you end up in this field?

Sarah Kendzior: I got interested in anthropology while working as a research assistant for an anthropologist, Nazif Shahrani, while getting my MA in Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. Before I was an anthropologist, I was a journalist, but I was frustrated with the superficiality of foreign coverage. Journalists often cover foreign conflicts without knowing foreign languages, talking to local people, or examining the history and culture of the place they visit. I wanted to do things differently.

In 2004, I used to joke that anthropology was journalism with more work and less money. Of course, now there is no money in journalism either, but my point still stands. Ethnography is journalism that takes too long. I mean that not pejoratively but as an affirmation of the discipline’s values –– long-term observation; scrutiny of methodological practice; respect for history; commitment to understanding local beliefs and traditions.

I got spoiled working for Dr. Shahrani. He is an outspoken intellectual who spares no criticism of systems that he finds corrupt – including academia. He saw anthropology not as an abstraction removed from public life, but as a source of insight from which the public could benefit. Continue reading

Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).

AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.

It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:

How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?

OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters. Continue reading

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 3 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.* (See Part 1  here, Part 2 here)

Ryan Anderson: Let’s bring things back to the issue of OA and the academy.  You have said that many OA activists are inhibited from fighting against the privatization of the intellectual commons because they have already “bought into the premises of an academic career”.  Why do you mean by this?

Keith Hart: Intellectual life is intrinsically individualistic. We may like to think of ourselves as social creatures, but unfortunately they only hand out brains one at a time. Collaboration is particularly developed in the hard sciences and the academy has always depended on an informal cultural commons: teaching, seminars, conferences, free sharing of ideas, equal access to libraries and so on. Everyone wants personal recognition, but up to the 1950s, this aspect of academic life took a back seat to the university as a community of scholars, teachers and their students.

The Cold War and the drive to restore home food supplies after the Second World War boosted research on armaments and agriculture. The post-war boom saw lots of public money being directed to universities for research. Private companies also poured money into research on chemicals. Student enrolments took off in the 1960s, so that universities now became big business. We think of them as medieval institutions, but the late twentieth-century university was something unique, a mass production line for workers in bureaucracies and the main research arm of the state. The academics had always ruled their own institutions, but this expansion gave power to administrators. Research came to dominate other academic activities. The humanities and social sciences didn’t have much to offer, but they too jumped onto the research bandwagon. Continue reading

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 2 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.(See Part 1  here)

Ryan Anderson: Earlier you referred to OA as “a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons”.  Can you elaborate on that point?

Keith Hart: I meant that private property is still the great unresolved contradiction of modern society, not least because its ubiquity often makes society invisible. For Rousseau, the invention of private property was the origin of social inequality. The liberal Enlightenment looked to anthropology for the knowledge needed to realize a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. Morgan (followed by Engels) used Rousseau’s framework to make the history of unequal society the main object of a democratic anthropology. More recently, Lévi-Strauss, Wolf and Goody renewed this tradition, each in their own way. Now David Graeber has taken it up again. But the ethnographic turn made this a marginal current in twentieth century anthropology.

I grew up in a working class district of Manchester. The doors of our houses had to be kept open for neighbors to come in and out as they wished. Even inside the house, bedroom and bathroom doors were never closed. Privacy was the opposite of being open to the free flow of solidarity. I thought that spirit had gone forever, but I found it again when I moved to France fifteen years ago. Here the tradition of people occupying the streets (manifestation) is very much alive and the notion of a public sphere that belongs to all is palpable. Continue reading

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 1 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.*

Ryan Anderson: Thanks for doing this interview, Keith.  Let’s just jump right in here: What do you think about this whole ‘open access’ conversation going on in anthropology?

Keith Hart: Obviously I am in favor of it. The form that the discussion takes in contemporary anthropology seems to be specifically American, where the contradictions of established practice are most acute. In the most general sense, OA is a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons, any commons. As such it is central to the intellectual property wars. But here I think we are talking about a much narrower issue of how to make research publications freely available without undermining their role as cultural capital in academic career advancement. This reflects the interests of a mass of unemployed young researchers who can’t afford to pay for information and yet still hope to find academic employment some day. The tension is between maintaining the intellectual commons and conserving ideas as private property. The situation is exacerbated in American anthropology by the peculiarly obdurate policy of the professional association (AAA) which elevates a closed regime of private production for profit above sharing knowledge with the general public. I am reminded of Marx’s early journalism against restriction of peasants’ access to fallen wood in the Westphalian forests. Most OA activists can’t fight privatization with his polemical intensity because they have already bought into the premises of an academic career. I met some anthropology friends on Twitter in 2009 who were as agitated then by the AAA’s restrictive (I am inclined to say “insane”) policies as they are now. We formed the Open Anthropology Cooperative–but we will return to that later. I am still struck by the insularity of American anthropologists who rarely consider if the French, for example, have come up with interesting responses to this general problem. Is OA an issue in Brazil or Scandinavia, in Japan or India? American anthropology isn’t the world and I hope that the OAC’s global membership will discuss these questions fruitfully. But then we run up against the limitations of language. Being able to read and write in English is not universal, yet how often is concern with OA extended to the issue of language barriers?

RA: These are some really important points you bring up.  First of all, let’s talk about the idea that American anthropology “isn’t the world,” as you say.  What do you know about some of the OA-related conversations that are taking place in France, Scandinavia, Brazil and elsewhere?  Where can or should we look to connect with those conversations?  Also, why do you think language barriers are so rarely addressed in OA discussions in the US? Continue reading

Opening our anthropological conversations: An Interview with Tom Boellstorff

I had the chance to conduct an email-based interview with Tom Boellstorff during this past month to explore some of his views about Open Access (hereafter OA) publishing in anthropology.  Update: You can download a PDF of this interview here.

Ryan Anderson: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Tom. Here at Savage Minds we write about Open Access (OA) a lot, and many of our contributors seem to be in agreement about the need to look into alternative publishing options. But not everyone knows about OA or is in agreement with the push to head in that direction, and this includes many people who are well established in anthropology. So, what’s your opinion about OA? Is this an issue that should matter for anthropologists who are already successful within the current publishing regime, for example?

Tom Boellstorff: I think there’s an urgent need to build on the advocacy work a number of people have been doing within and outside the AAA to reach the goal of “gold” OA (meaning that articles are freely available to download online). In my September 2012 “From the Editor” piece in American Anthropologist I try to set out my current thinking in regard to this issue. If I can quote from that piece:

There are three primary reasons why this transition to gold open access is imperative, reasons that are simultaneously ethical, political, and intellectual. First, there is a fundamental contradiction between the often-repeated goal of making anthropology more public and relevant on the one hand, and the lack of open access on the other hand. Second, there is an incompatibility between the broad interest in transnationalizing anthropology and the lack of open access. Third, it is wrong for any academic journal to be based on a model where the unremunerated labor of scholars supports corporate profits. I see no way that the current subscription-based model can be modified so as to adequately address these concerns.

In terms of people not being in agreement to head in that direction, which as you say “includes many people who are well established in anthropology,” I think we need to reach out and work with those folks. The reality is that running a journal well takes money, particularly a larger journal, and I don’t think we want a future where publishing relies on unpaid graduate student labor, farmed-out copy editing, and so on. For me, the issue is that (1) regardless, we need to find a way toward gold OA, and (2) I just refuse to believe that so many smart people can’t find a way to do it. Continue reading