Tag Archives: Interdisciplinarity

Of Primates and Persons

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives.

When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been to, I was most eager to visit the Great Ape exhibit. As always, after sitting and watching the chimpanzees for some time, I inevitably start to feel a bit guilty. There’s something about the chimps, with their eerily human-like behavior, that makes it feel wrong to be watching them in an enclosure.

You can get at the familiarity from a biological perspective by rattling off scientific facts like “they share 99% of our protein-coding genes,” or “our lineages split just 5-7 million years ago.” As a biological anthropologist, I am prone to do so. These things are often invoked to shed light on similarities between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Between species. Yet, even to someone who knows nothing of biology, there is still something about chimpanzees that rings familiar. Something about the way they behave, about the way they interact with other chimpanzees and their environment. You don’t need the biology or the genetics to begin to wonder if perhaps they should be considered as something more than animal. It’s clear they aren’t humans, but could they be individuals? Can a chimpanzee possess an understanding of a self, be a someone as opposed to a something; can they be “persons?” Continue reading

Building Intellectual and Professional Bridges

One of the questions we asked in our survey of post-adjuncting anthropologists who are now gainfully employed was ‘what steps did you take to make yourself a desirable job candidate?’ Overwhelmingly, respondents identified publishing as the key thing they did in order to land a tenure track job. Among other common responses were networking (especially in the form of attending more than one conference each year), and being willing to move to an ‘undesirable’ location (which is pretty subjective). For those who ended up being employed in a non-academic job, acquiring new skills was the most important thing respondents identified. And this was the case for some who landed in academic jobs as well – which isn’t something that we often talk about, but, it seems, many people do.

One of the responses I found most interesting was this one (which I’m excerpting a bit):

I’m currently TT in a Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology–but I was hired via the Criminology portion. My ethnographic research was on police, and I was hired as part of a search for someone whose research focused on policing. I don’t know what steps I can say I took to make myself desirable–I feel pretty lucky. I didn’t have any real background in Crim, but my application caught the eye of the search committee just enough for them to imagine the creative possibilities of hiring an anthropologist to teach their policing classes.

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DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12

UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here.  I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.”  Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there.  Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.

I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument).  Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982).  Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do).  Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.

Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments.  If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case.  Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work.  Nobody said any of this should be easy.  If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever).  Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me.  It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes.  The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*

Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books.  And I think he’s right. Continue reading

Building an Anthropology of Bicycling

Researching bicycling, like many ethnographic projects, suggests a bodily incorporation of the ethnographer into some local practice. I mean, I could study the social and cultural life of bicycling and not also ride a bike, but that would be like a celiac studying people who sample bread. Actually, that’s kind of accurate, because there is not one kind of bicycling, just as there is not one kind of bread. The celiac could enjoy millet and rice flour loaves, while avoiding those with wheat flour. I study and practice urban transport bicycling, which includes what I think of as “urban recreational cycling,” but I don’t know much about mountain biking, long distance recreational cycling, or racing.

I don’t study those things, but I know people who do, like Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, who studies the history and practice of mountain biking. I don’t focus on gender, but I read the work of Elly Blue, a writer trained in anthropology who explores gender and many other issues in bicycling as a zine publisher. And I haven’t done fieldwork about the history of the larger urban biking movement in the U.S., but Zack Furness has. My individual project connects with a community of practice made up of these folks and many more.

In addition to providing an ethnographic subject that connects me to existing theoretical conversations in anthropology, studying bicycling has meant tracing the contours of an emerging field. For many years, transportation researchers have used quantitative methods to study bicycling and to make recommendations about infrastructure and policy. The study of bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon is a newer endeavor whose beginning is marked most clearly by the 2007 publication of Cycling and Society, edited by Dave Horton, Paul Rosen, and Peter Cox. Many of the essays in that volume used qualitative methods and ethnographic engagement to analyze the meanings of bicycling in various contexts, paving the way for more research in this vein.

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Annual Identity Crisis

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

Interdisciplinarity has been another definitive condition of ethnographic production for me. My formal graduate education has been in an interdisciplinary department, I go to conferences that are interdisciplinary in their scope, I teach within contexts that are highly interdisciplinary, and interdisciplinarity has also been an object of inquiry in some of my previous collaborations. Depending on the day and the audience, my (inter)disciplinary affiliations are located somewhere in between the fields of Cultural Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and South Asian Studies. And I do not really anticipate not being interdisciplinary in this sense any time in the foreseeable future. For one, I really enjoy working in such spaces. Reading broadly, connecting laterally across a wide range of scholarship is a highly stimulating experience. And too, interdisciplines can be extraordinarily rich sites of intellectual production: they are, after all, the “trading zones”—in all their pidginny messiness (and “busy” talk)—where new knowledges emerge. They are also, as a colleague reminded me recently, the spaces where the disciplinary aspects of disciplines are somewhat less pronounced. Equally also, not being a credentialed anthropologist makes it that much more difficult to imagine myself as part of a traditional anthropology department, in the context of U.S. higher education at least. For better or for worse, the sidelines, for me, are necessarily interdisciplinary.

And indeed, working within the space of STS has been extraordinarily exciting. For someone previously unschooled in the Humanities & Social Sciences, STS provided an excellent space from which to transition into these very different modes of scientific inquiry. It provided a broad introduction to the breadth of humanistic and social scientific inquiry: our graduate coursework was carried out under the supervision of anthropologists, historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, and STSers alike.

STS also offered a set of tools from which to interrogate the epistemologies in which I had been previously schooled: we read and debated how scientific knowledge comes to assume a seemingly universal character, how science travels, and how it can be complicit with various modes of domination. Needless to say, the experience wasn’t always comfortable: what was being deconstructed, after all, was an entire worldview—my own worldview at that. And this was a fraught exercise from the very onset: much like anthropology’s past complicity with colonialism, STS too had its own demons to contend with. The memory of the science wars was all too recent, and appropriation of STS-like critiques towards delegitimizing scientific authority in politically charged contexts (like those of climate change and evolutionary theory) was an ever-present risk. And yet, the tools for putting back together what we had pulled apart weren’t always readily available: the challenge for us, as I have come to understand it, was to formulate critique while also being attuned to the ecologies in which such critique circulated. It was this kind of figuring out, I think, that animated much of my graduate schooling. Continue reading

Caring for Our Sidelines

[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.]

What might one find on the sidelines of academia? If you’re the managing editor of an academic journal, such as Cultural Anthropology (CA), the sidelines are rich with activity – trouble-shooting Open Journal Systems and managing content on http://culanth.org; staying up on open access conversations; running CA’s editorial intern program; coordinating various projects and figuring out how best to archive them; overseeing the production of the journal, in print and online; and managing the redesign of CA’s website. You’ll spend untold hours with your email client, and talk about how much time you spend there (this is part of your “busy” talk).

I didn’t see my work with CA as academic, or ethnographic, until recently. “Sidelines” is a fitting concept for the work I do at CA – managing editor by day, and ethnographer – of asthma, yoga, and alternative healthcare systems – by night, and weekend. I told myself I would stay on the sideline just until my partner finished grad school, then we could go on the job market together. But this isn’t honest – CA is much more than a day job for me (especially when you consider how I really spend my nights and weekends). I am compelled by our professional gold standard, the tenure-track position. That’s the endgame for many of us, I think. On the other hand, I love the work I do at CA. It’s an incredible space of production, if not in terms of conventional social science research.

As for my precarious position – I work on a 12-month contract and I ignore this fact. For now. Continue reading

Transnationalism, Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration (Or, A Few First Words on Ethnography On/From the Sidelines)

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Aalok Khandekar, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

My scholarly trajectory leading up to these series of posts on an anthropology blog is perhaps somewhat unconventional, and yet, also more straightforwardly located within the aspirational tenure-track model of the academy than some of my fellow contributors here—for the moment, at least. Even though I have worked closely with anthropologists since the earliest days of graduate school, been associated with Cultural Anthropology in good measure (c.f. here), my graduate degree—like quite a few contributors to this series—is in Science and Technology Studies (STS). And my university education prior to that was in Electrical Engineering: at Mumbai University (India) at the Bachelor’s level, and at Pennsylvania State University at the Master’s level. My dissertation research, in turn, went on to investigate the conditions of transnational mobility for Indian engineering students and professionals (between India and the United States): it was designed as a multi-sited ethnography with fieldwork components in Mumbai and in parts of the United States (more on that in my upcoming posts). I received my Ph.D. in STS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Aug 2010, after which I worked as an Adjunct Professor at my graduate department for a year, and since July 2011, I have been based at the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands: first as a post-doc, and currently in the capacity of a Lecturer.

So, what does doing ethnography on/from the sidelines mean for me? What exactly do the “sidelines” look like when viewed from behind my work desk? In many ways, the sidelines, at present, do not relegate me to the margins of the academic hierarchy. Sure, I did was a freshly-out-of-school looking-for-jobs adjunct at my graduate department for a year. But since, I have been fortunate to find a position, which albeit temporary, affords me all the benefits of a full-time academic scholar: I have a (small) personal research budget, a printing-and-copying budget, regular library access, I don’t have an overly demanding teaching load (my time is evenly split between research and teaching), and I have access to a wide array of institutional resources including research funding specialists and a range of administrative support staff. There are certainly ways in which academic hierarchies do matter, but often, these are equally issues of navigating through a new work environment with a significantly different organization of higher education. My position at present, that is, is hardly anything that can be termed precarious.

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