Tag Archives: Field Reports

Blogging ethnographic fieldwork.

Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man

Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I’m the first to admit that I have a long way still to go. But for the past six years I’ve been teaching in Chinese and so I’ve achieved a certain degree of fluency even if nobody who spoke to me for more than five minutes on the phone would mistake me for a native speaker. In the United States there is a general assumption that everyone should and can learn to be a fluent English speaker, no matter where they are from. People are sometimes even fired for not speaking English at work [also see this]. But in Taiwan it is the opposite, there is an assumption that nobody who isn’t ethnically Chinese can learn to speak the language. For this reason, when someone sees a white person walk into a store or restaurant the first assumption is that there will be a problem communicating with you.

Of course, this happens in the US as well. I once read of a study where different groups of students were played the same audio lecture but with different photographs of the supposed speaker. When the photograph was of an Asian person the students performed worse on the test, actually retaining/understanding less of the lecture than when the photograph was of a white person. I don’t know if this study has been replicated, but I do think that expectations of communication problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in reduced comprehension. This problem is compounded in a society like Taiwan which has relatively few non-Asian immigrants. But not everyone responds to a foreigner in the same way, and over the years I’ve compiled a mental inventory of the various ways in which people respond to the challenge of having to talk to a foreigner. What follows is a list of seven ways strangers react when they have to talk to me.

First, there’s “foreigner panic” which is often evidenced when dealing with service people who fear having to use English in order to do their job. I’ve seen salesgirls hide behind coworkers who speak better English. I’ve had people standing right next to me turn around as if looking for signs of intelligent life because the very idea that they might be able to talk directly to me never crossed their mind. And I’ve seen people practically bang their heads on the ground apologizing for not speaking better English. Fortunately, a few words in Chinese, no matter how badly pronounced, is usually enough to calm the panic and establish a more routine service encounter (when dealing with young women, this is usually only after some giggling and additional apologies). Continue reading

Ethnography’s Sense

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali's prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

In this post I’m going to diverge a bit, writing not about my work for Cultural Anthropology, but about that other project of mine: an ethnography of breathing, and how the breath registers embodied signs of late capitalism (in the contemporary asthma epidemic and U.S. yoga industry). It’s a project grounded in my own yoga practice, a risky set-up, I think, for someone already working on the margins.

Deepa’s weekly prompt asks us about the relationship between form and content in our work. This prompt called to mind the way I position myself to my project, leveraging embodied practice for ethnography. Rereading Carole McGranahan’s post on teaching ethnography, I keep coming back to Ortner’s understanding of ethnography as “the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much of it as possible—as the instrument of knowing.” Tomie Hahn’s ethnography of dance transmission, Sensational Knowledge (2007), is a powerful example of how body and self become instruments of knowing. Working in the Japanese tradition of nihon buyo, Hahn shows how cultural knowledge is embodied through her own experience and practice of nihon buyo, a practice sustained over three decades. What I find most interesting about Hahn’s work is the way she translates movement and sensation into graspable material for analysis. The argument that culture flows through dance transmission is performed back to readers through Hahn’s own transmission; thick descriptions of sight, sound, and touch.

Hahn also speaks to the challenges and drawbacks of embodied ethnography – studying her own culture, wearing various hats, and negotiating multiple identities. Although my project, and my relationship to it, is quite different from Hahn’s, Sensational Knowledge is an enduring touchstone that inspires my work. It’s important to have one or a few of those in reach.

In the sections that follow I put yoga in conversation with ethnography. In the first section, breathing becomes an instrument of knowing; in the second, I consider how my yoga practice situates me as ethnographer. Continue reading

Minding the Gap

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 & post 2.]

I keep hearing the voice of Harding from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in my head with this post–I’m talking about form!  I’m talking about content!–but let me go out on a limb here with a colorful analogy: professional precarity (as we’ve been talking about it in this series) is to ethnography a bit like the London Underground is to…well, I was thinking London originally, but better to say “London Below,” the reimagined and mythological rendition of the London Underground in which Neil Gaiman’s television serial Neverwhere is set.  That’s at least as confusing as it is colorful, especially if you didn’t happen to catch the show, so let me try and explain.

I learned quickly to lift my toes toward the end of the escalators on the Tube.  Why?  Because the pace is frenetic, almost always.  Fast enough in fact that you become hyper-aware of not just your pace but your stride.  The “walking” you normally experience as a mostly fluid rhythm becomes a staccato series of “moves.”  Regulars seem to the outsider like formula 1 racers clustered on a straightaway: they can’t simply start moving faster if (say) they realize they’re running late, they have to anticipate and strategize.  Those who break the synchrony of the group are showing “bad form” and may get a snort of disapproval, or worse, get stigmatized as tourists.  If you don’t raise your toes at the escalator landing you’re just begging for an ill-timed trip, and heaven help you if pause mid-stream to look around for guidance.  You can practically discern the middle of Spring, Stonehenge-like, by observing the sharp up-tick of gruesome multi-passenger escalator-landing misshaps. Continue reading

Another Occupy is Possible

A guest post by Levi Jacobs.

black marker, brown cardboard, red flags, blue jeans

sage, cigarettes, sweat mix with city smog and fried food:

in a circle we stand, breaths fogging, arms raised,

lie fragile under layers of tarp, blanket and winter night,

layers of poverty, police, and political scrutiny–

the sun sets fire to polluted streams, raises

factory stacks like charred fingers clutching sky:

powerlessness and power war in the returned Gaze of the cops,

antipathy, anger, appreciation in the honks of passing cars,

(never) doubting a small group of people can change the world.

Occupy is on our minds. With the May issue of American Ethnologist featuring articles on Occupy, and the New York Times noting recent social science interest in the movement, Occupy seems back on the anthropological radar—just as it is dropping off many screens outside academia. While this may just be a symptom of the speed with which our research and publishing tends to move, I’d argue there’s a better reason why anthropologists are researching and writing on Occupy. Early on, we maybe all felt we knew what it was about: economic inequality, the bailout of the rich, the newly-homeless foreclosed-on middle class and a permanent protest of all this, starting with Zucotti Park. As Occupy encampments sprung up nationally, then internationally, then started to get closed down, many of us became less and less certain of what Occupy is really about—homeless issues? Direct democracy? The banking system, or capitalism in general? Reform or revolution? It’s difficult to get a read on Occupy, not only because the interests of ‘the ninety-nine percent’ seem so broad, but also because there are multiple ninety-nine percents, with each Occupy locality made up of local people working autonomously on local issues, as well as translocal ones they might share with the larger Occupy movement. Is it even a movement? Towards what? Even locally, the diversity of concerns, goals and people involved in Occupy make this a hard question to answer. Continue reading

Arrivals, routines, interviews, field notes and chance connections

Let’s call this an update from the field.  I would like to call it a dispatch, but that doesn’t sound right.  I have wireless, so that probably doesn’t count.  Can a blog post really be a dispatch?  I imagine that a true dispatch would have to involve something more…mechanical.  You know, like a telegraph or something.  I’m thinking that dispatches require clanking metal and moving parts.  I could be wrong.

Today I was thinking about arrivals, and how all anthropologists love to tell their arrival stories.  We like certain kinds of stories, and we like to write about them and compare them like treasured little baseball cards.  Ok, I do it too.  We start off in place A with all sorts of plans, ideas, theories, methods, and hopes…and then we find some way to get to place B, take stock, and see what’s really possible given limited money, sanity, and time.  Leaving one place and entering another–especially with the strange, self-imposed  job of “doing research”–has all sorts of jarring effects.  Some places more than others.  We deal with these transitions, I think, through some of the stories we tell.  Whenever we get the chance to tell them, of course.  Sometimes it takes a while to find a pay phone, or a friend, or a high speed wireless signal so we can get the stories out of our heads.  Anyway, here’s a classic arrival scene: Continue reading

Archaeology & place

It’s 8 am, and already bright.  I’m out for an early morning walk because it’s a good way to see what ‘s going on around this community–to see what people are up to, and also just to go check out the surrounding landscape.  I like to do this a few times a week…it’s good for getting the ideas rolling.  I walk up a small ridge along the coast.  I weave my way through the thorny, chaotic bushes that try to impose themselves on the trail.  Why is everything in the desert sharp?  As I walk up to the crest of the ridge, I get a view of a large, blue-green bay curving in front of me.  Down below the dark forms of the rocky reef peek through the shimmering water.  Other obscure forms dart around below the water’s surface: sharks.  I walk over to the edge of the ridge, and notice darker soil eroding out of the bank.  Amidst this soil: a slew of broken rocks and shells.  Another archaeological site, another testament to the depth of human occupation in this place.  The whole coast has similar remnants of the hunter-gatherer populations that lived here thousands of years before the words “international five start hotel” were ever muttered on the Baja California Peninsula. Continue reading

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movements each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

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Netroots, America, and Progressivism

Honestly, I did not know what a “progressive” really was until working the videocamera for Free Speech TV at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis lat month. I thought a progressive was just another name for a Democrat or a liberal. I was wrong.

It is corny to admit it but what I discovered was a worldview and mode of political action that aligned with my own belief system as a person and an anthropologist. The core concept of progressivism is progress–that culture changes through time because of the actions of vision-driven groups and individuals. Now, how much agency individuals actually have to enact cultural change is a hotly debated topic in both political and academic circles but few disagree that “a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” as it was that activist anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said that most famous of hummus container quotes.

Progressive philosophy is aligned with the base theory of cultural anthropology, that is: culture is not a static or conservative thing that we need to stabilize at some nostalgic and unrealistic moment but rather a dynamic process. Progressives want to direct that process towards a more inclusive future. Progressives are not hung-up on retaining or reverting to an antique sense of ethnic, gendered, or national purity. They don’t romanticize some false sense of the securities of 1950s Americana. However, as I will describe below, The American Dream as a concept was a focal point for progressives at Netroots Nation this year. Continue reading

Information Imperialism?

By the end of the year the US State department will spend $70 million on stealth communications technologies to enable activists to communicate beyond the reach of dictators according to a recent NYT article. Prototypes include a suitcase capable of quickly blanketing a region with a free wifi network, bluetooth devices that can silently share data, software that protects the anonymity of Chinese users, independent cellphone networks in Afghanistan, and underground buried cell phones on the border of North Korea for desperate phone calls to “freedom.” These are political tools deployed to promote the agenda of one nation over that of another. How should we address information imperialism? The use of networked communications tools to subvert so-called regimes exposes a proclivity for digital intervention that likely also includes digital literacy projects to provoke revolutionary actions, propaganda campaigns to make celebrities out of bloggers, and covert code warfare. Let’s review the spectrum of information interventions to ascertain the ways and hows of information imperialism. Continue reading

Introducing Guest Blogger Eleanor King

In a series of forthcoming posts, my friend Eleanor King is going to reflect upon the tsunami in Japan and the use of social media in attempts to resist the ways in which catastrophes are taken out of time and spun according to particular political, economic, and social trajectories that in turn shape our modes for consuming images of disasters.

Please give her a Savage welcome!

This is how others describe her:

A third year graduate student in Cultural Anthropology, Eleanor came to the University of Iowa with an M. Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York.  Before landing in Iowa with her two cats, Eleanor worked a variety of non-profit jobs from facilitating social justice seminars at the Church Center for the United Nations to assisting elderly New York and displaced New Orleans jazz musicians through the Jazz Foundation of America.   Eleanor’s interests are diverse, but she continually returns to issues of ethnographic representation, technology, desire, the (gendered, racialized, sexualized) body, and new formulations of personhood and “life”. After writing her Master’s paper on voice, language ideology, and early film narration in Japan, Eleanor continues to explore the effects of new technological forms in Japan.  For her dissertation research she will be looking into the relationships, subjectivities and affects created between humans and machines, and the ethical implications of such encounters.

Critical Pessimism & Media Reform Movements

The American satellite television network Free Speech TV asked me to write up a blurb for their monthly newsletter about my participatory/observatory trip with them to the National Conference on Media Reform in Boston. This is my attempt at what Henry Jenkins calls “critical pessimism”–an “exaggeration” that “frighten readers into taking action” to stop media consolidation, exclusion, and the absence of televisual diversity.

Free Speech TV at the National Conference on Media Reform

From its inception in 1995, Free Speech TV’s goal has been to infiltrate and subvert the vapid, shrill and corporately controlled American television newscape with challenging and unheard voices. Fast forward to 2011, and in the age of viral videos, social media and ubiquitous computing, the same issues persist.

An excellent young pro-freedom-of-speech organization, Free Press, called all media activists to Boston for the National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR), April 8-10, to celebrate independent media and incubate strategies to fight the tide of corporate personhood, monopolization in communication industries, and the denial of access to the public airwaves.

These are issues FSTV has long fought, first with VHS tapes of radical documentaries shipped to community access stations throughout the nation, then through satellite carriage in 30 million homes, and now via live internet video and direct dialogues with the audience through social media.

FSTV was at NCMR in full force, covering live panels on everything from the role of social media in North African revolutions to media’s sexualization of women; developing strategic relationships with print, radio, internet and television collaborators; interviewing luminaries like FCC Commissioner Copps; and inspiring the delegates by opening up the otherwise closed and corporatized satellite television world to the voices of media activists fighting for access and diversity during a frankly terrifying period in American media freedom.

One question haunted the many stages, daises and dialogues at the NCMR: Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet – by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized – becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?

For example, while we were in the conference, the House voted to block the FCC from protecting our right to access an open Internet. The mergers of Comcast and NBC-Universal and AT&T/T-Mobile loomed behind every passionate oration. And yet FSTV was there to document when FCC Commissioner Copps took the stage stating he would resist the denial of network neutrality and such monopolizing mergers.

Internationally, examples of the power and problems of the internet exist. The Egypt-based Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said” had 80,000 members, many who amassed at Tahrir Square on January 26, instigating a wave of democratization that began in Tunisia – also fueled by social media – and hopefully continuing to Libya. Two days later, however, the Mubarak regime was able effectively to hit a “kill switch” on the internet and target activists using Facebook for arrest, an activity that worked against the desires of the repressive regime. At the NCMR, Democracy Now! reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous said,  “Facebook was down … so they hit the streets. It had the reverse desire and effect that the government wanted to happen.”

In 2010, Reporters Without Borders compiled a list of 13 internet enemies – countries that suppress free speech online. The U.S. wasn’t on the list, but U.S. companies Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and Apple were pressured to cut digital and financial support for whistleblowing WikiLeaks. The point is obvious: A vigilant press aided by an open, uncensored and unprivatized internet are necessary yet threatened and are the focus of FSTV’s coverage at NCMR.

FSTV embodies that ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites. Today, every issue, from class inequality to ecological justice – is a media issue. However, our media sources, from journalists to internet and television delivery systems, are being co-opted by monopolizing corporations and lobbyists. As an independent, open and interactive television network, FSTV is an antidote to the problems facing free speech and democracy as more media power is centralized in fewer hands. Thankfully, as we found out in Boston, FSTV is not alone in this dangerous and difficult operation of media liberation.


Jenkins hyperbolically describes “critical pessimists” as people who “opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses”. This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production.

Participation, Collaboration, and Mergers

I work at UCLA’s Part.Public.Part.Lab where we investigate new modes of co-production and participation facilitated by networked technologies. Internet-enabled citizen journalism such as Current TV, public science like PatientsLikeMe, and free and open software development like Wikipedia are key foci. In the lab I investigate the vitality or closure of a moment of freedom and openness within cable television, news production, and internet video when the amateur and the alternative disrupted the professional and the mainstream. What are the promises and perils of social justice video in the age of internet/television convergence? Will internet video become as inaccessible, vapid, and homogenous as cable television? In our recent paper, Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation, we draft a guide to identify two species flourishing in the internet ecology: what we call “formal social enterprises,” which include firms and non-profits, as well as the “organized publics” the enterprises foster or from which they emerge. These two types share a vertical or inverted relationship, power comes down from visionary CEOs and charismatic NGO directors to provoke rabid social media production, or a viable movement foments amongst grassroots makers that percolates upwards towards the formation of semi-elitist institutions. In light of this research and with a discreet fieldwork experience to think through I would like to clarify and address three types of social interaction: participation, collaboration, and mergers. Continue reading

On the Front Lines in Wisconsin

by Gwen Kelly

Last Monday, February 14th, having heard a preview of the budget proposals to come, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison decided to try a different sort of tack in protest. Perhaps one that had never been tried before. They organized a campaign to get thousands of undergraduate and graduate students to sign valentines, big cards with hearts on them, saying “I <3 UW. Governor Walker, Don’t Break My Heart” (image below). It was a great idea, or at least it seemed so at the time, when we didn’t realize just how uncompromising Governor Scott Walker was going to turn out to be.  It goes to show how naive we were.  We knew something bad was coming, but we didn’t know how bad it would be.

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Digital Labor

My colleague Ramesh Srinivasan and I just submitted an article to a journal in which we analyze social entrepreneurs’ digital labor practices. The argument we are making is that one needs to focus on (1) organizational missions, cultures and histories, (2) the nature of the labor (its level of creativity or its invocation of routinized, uncreative time-motion studies!) and the level of agency for workers to choose this labor versus various alternatives, and (3) the level of capitalization of the labor, notably who profits and to what extent from the contributed work. Our case studies, Samasource, a digital labor firm that brings digital work to developing world populations, including refugees and women, and Current TV, a cable network that self describes as “democratizing” documentary production, maintain an interplay between for/non-profit and social empowerment/exploitation. Instead of waiting the 4 months for reviews, or 8 months for publication we’d love some real time feedback on some of the more illustrative examples and concerns that drive this research. (I’ll be presenting this analysis at the American Anthropological Association meeting on Friday at 5 if you prefer embodied engagement).

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Indigenous Theories of Published Informants

As anthropologists we research compact and ornate cultural practices that can scale up to something larger. Our informants usually aren’t aware of how their statements and practices reflect larger issues evident in broad social theories and histories—if they did than the world wouldn’t have anthropologists. They are often surprised to discover how meaningful their lives are upon reading our interpretations and manuscripts. That is, all subjects except those who have already done the literary and library work needed to contextualize their lives and passions within larger theoretical and historical trajectories. These informant-authors, in effect, know who they are–or at least who they would like to be. Anthropologists have studied text-makers–scientists, journalists, and governmental scribes–and their texts can be obliquely read as reflexive documents. Rarer still are anthropological accounts of living subjects constructing autobiographical, political, or social scientific texts. These well-published informants present a problem and opportunity that needs exploration.

It is wonderful to have hyper-literate informants, collaborators, and subjects who write and publish books, articles, and blogs and make films, documentaries, television programs, and online videos. In the history of anthropology, however, this is rarely the case and because of this paucity anthropologists are at pains to construct theories that are native to the informant. I do not envy the anthropologist who must contextualize their subjects’ interviews and practices in terms of theories and theorists that are not a part of the subject’s worldview. Using French literary and poststructural theory to describe nonliterate tribal practices seems profoundly unanthropological and yet such practices proliferate in academic journalis at an astounding rate. We need to interpret local actions and performances with the aid of indigenous theory somehow devised from observations and pronouncements of subjects. For instance, in The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff identifies a local indigenous theory of the self emerging from island life in Indonesia and uses it to guide the contextualization of his gay and lesbi informants. My job is certainly easier than Tom’s because self-publishing subjects provide so much more already contextualized information with which to construct a local theory of identity and community. My informant’s published social scientific work does much of the nuanced labor of theory building for me. The citations and name-drops in their texts make explicit the forbearers, influences, and heroes an anthropologist would archaeologically extract and artificially graft onto the informant in later chapters of extrapolation and upward scaling.

What are the rare opportunities and theoretical complexities associated with doing ethnographic investigation into subjects’ lives that are already reflexively situated in autobiographical texts?

The problems include the fact that the informant/authors offer autobiographical documents about their lives in richly theoretical prose that threatens to trump the work of the anthropologist. Without the reflexive published documents the anthropologist’s primary job is to proceed to first order contextualization–what was the cultural context of this practice? What is this practice like in a comparative sense to other proximal native practices? The opportunities for the anthropologist working with this citation-rich autobiographical literature is to take the level of extrapolation and abstraction one-step further. With bibliography dense self-authored accounts, the first tier theorizing is sufficiently complete–they tell you where they are coming from–leaving the second level of extrapolation open to answering questions like: within the field of all possible indigenous theories why did the subject gravitate towards these influences? How does this native epistemology compare to others in similar–or more daringly–dissimilar contexts? Anthropologists working without self-textualizing subjects surely can get to this second tier of extrapolation but it is more difficult and the conclusions made in that ethereal space are more tenuous.

All anthropologists work with edited documents. This includes interviews which are themselves performed edits of quickly self-truncated statements. These edits–oral, performative, or textual–makes for excellent granular units of data. But at the fieldwork stage, anthropologists need more data not less, we need less self-awareness and self-censorship and more roguish personalities, off-the-cuff actions, and improvisational performances. We need the backstage along with the front stage. Self-editing is a social fact of life but such highly edited texts cut out several important phases that would have been instructive if observed–the subject’s first impressions; selective shuffling, ordering, and prioritizing of issues; the gathering of supportive sources and examples–these are all in the data rich realm of practices and negotiations around which subjectivity and the social self are framed and performed. For example, a ghost writer is writing a book for one of my informants and I want to get the transcripts, edits, and feedback in this process to see how they are contextualized by themselves and the ghost writer for a perceived and corporately constituted audience. Finely edited books, combed over by agents, managers, editors, and colleagues do not furnish such raw data.

To what degree should we be critical about how these authors prefer to textually edit themselves into particular subjectivities? Contradicting or challenge author’s stated affiliations and origins is a practice in literary studies for revising the preferred automatic claims of dead authors but like stamping non-indigenous theory on indigenous data this too is quite unanthropological. The safe route is to step off from this first tier of reflexive theorizing into a higher level of abstraction. The more dangerous path is to read the authors cited by the informant and develop a still deeper sense of indigenous theory–this is going textually native–revealing where the informant glossed over contradictions and leaned on over-simplifications in arriving at their particular framing of the self. Using this critical textual reading of reflexive indigenous theory the jump into the second tier can be made along with the informant’s peers and mentors.