For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.
The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.
When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel “What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize?” to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:
I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.
While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.
After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.
I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!
(Here’s a guest post from Sareeta Amrute. Sareeta is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her first book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: an Ethnography of Indian IT Workers in Berlin (Duke U. Press). You can read more about her scholarship on her website)
Stuart Hall’s work is notable for the way it links biography, critique from within and of the ‘Left’, and a Marxian analysis of capitalism and popular culture. Hall passed away in February 2014, and is the subject of a series of talks on his life and work ongoing here in Seattle at the University of Washington. These remembrances inspired me to think more closely about Stuart Hall’s specific contribution to research methodology. Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended. Continue reading
Colleen Morgan and I are wrapping up the first chapter of MAD-P (Media Archaeology Drive Project), an experiment in extending archaeological method into the systematised analysis of media objects. This project began as a provocation — intended to prompt reflection (both within and beyond the discipline) on the place of archaeology in the wider media and cultural studies landscape. That provocation has exposed, we think, an obvious gap between what we do as anthropologists and what we could do, and the space that archaeology might occupy in variously exploring the past, exposing the present and anticipating or shaping the future. Our modest excavation of an abandoned hard drive hints at what happens when the taken-for-granted aspects of media products are subject to step-by-step archaeological recording. Such an investigative process draws your eye immediately to both the material and the discursive, to the layered nature of each, and to the impossibly entangled and slippery interconnections amongst them. The individual material constituents of the artifact, their assemblage, the labour behind their composition, and their various manifestations in both computer code and in complex virtual spaces are made obvious. Indeed, as discussed below, the entire concept of an artifact is destablised in such work. From our perspective, the productivity of such a project should not be underestimated in terms of its potential both to critique the past and to speculate about possible futures.
To facilitate MAD-P as a whole, Colleen prepared context sheets, using as a model those employed at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük. We recorded by hand and photographed or screenshot all elements of our process. We also kept an associated set of notes — perhaps the equivalent of a field diary, but logged electronically and as a combined output, weaving together observations that we’d made in dialogue with one another. Following the excavation, Colleen set about writing our archive report, a structured review of our field site, findings and interpretations, which we present here.
For the past two weeks, Colleen Morgan and I have been outlining the background to an actual “media archaeology” project wherein we extend the intellectual and methodological toolkit of archaeology into the study of media objects (especially, digital media objects). The impetus for this project is outlined here, and the theoretical context here. Having set up the framework, we delve now into our actual research programme, which we affectionately refer to as MAD-P: the Media Archaeology Drive Project.
As our aim here is to model good practice, and to benefit from the collective intelligence of Savage Minds, we present below the project research design for constructive critique. In brief, we’ve excavated a found hard drive, and while in the next post we’ll document for you our process, our written and photographic records (stay tuned for a Harris Matrix), and our interpretative outputs, here we detail the nature of our field site and field method, ethical engagement with our excavation, and sustainability/access to our data.
Colleen is the principle author of this research design, and it’s important for me to say that I’ve learned much through my collaboration with her. As someone who has spent the past 10 years outside of the excavation trench, it was very meaningful for me to jump back in—using single context recording no less!—with Colleen as my guide. Here is the project whose results you’ll see reported over the next week on Savage Minds… Continue reading
Archaeologists and antiquarians have been innovators, assemblers, critical interrogators, and remakers of media and media technologies for at least 500 years. Their outputs have been drawn into broader programmes of social theorising about modes of engagement, and they are often pioneers in the application of new media. While there are many people studying and broadcasting about these issues today – including a growing number of excellent blogs that deal directly or indirectly with the topic: see Digital Dirt|Virtual Pasts, Anarchaeologist, Prehistories, Archaeology and Material Culture, All Things Archaeological, Digging Deeper, Reimagining the Past, Rust Belt Anthro, in addition to some of the sites I highlighted in my last post), there still seems to be a conspicuous need to point out that this is not an uninterrogated subject matter.
There are a series of factors that I think contribute to this predicament wherein archaeology is simultaneously recognised as both highly and hardly theorised in terms of its mediation. I’ve discussed it elsewhere, but media studies tend to be relegated to the last chapter of archaeological textbooks, to little more than a single sentence of acknowledgement in other manuscripts, or to a discussion curtailed around only a few select modes of mass communication (i.e., film, television, the web). Where it does have presence, it’s often collapsed into a focus on “the public”, generating analysis that gravitates around popular culture alone.
But this situation is contradictory and fundamentally nonsensical.
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]
On Friday my colleague, Dr Colleen Morgan, and I will be co-delivering a paper at the University of Bradford’s Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford, UK. For anyone not familiar with the still-emerging field of “media archaeology,” this is an exciting event, featuring some of its pivotal thinkers (e.g. Jussi Parikka, Thomas Elsaesser), and a diversity of researchers discussing everything from 19th century stereoscopy to statistical diagrams and animated GIFs. As the organisers stated in their Call for Papers, the conference is a gathering of various interests, all converging on “an approach that examines or reconsiders historical media in order to illuminate, disrupt and challenge our understanding of the present and future.”
Colleen and I are talking on the last day, in the last block of parallel sessions, in a line-up of speakers who appear to be the only other archaeologists at the event. While I’ll delve into the details of “media archaeology” in a subsequent post, it is notable that archaeologists effectively never feature in this stream of enquiry. Rarely do archaeologists or heritage specialists attempt to overtly insert themselves into the media archaeological discourse (Pogacar 2014 is arguably one exception), and neither do media archaeologists typically reach out to archaeology for intellectual or methodological contributions (but see Mattern 2012, 2013; Nesselroth-Woyzbun 2013). Indeed, the media archaeological literature has explicitly distanced itself from archaeology, with the editors of one keystone volume writing:
“Media archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media—cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boarding-houses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines…” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011).
I’ve been curious about this trend of archaeology-free media archaeology for a while now, particularly after attending Decoding the Digital last year at the University of Rochester (see Matthew Tyler-Jones’ excellent review of the meeting in two parts: I and II). At this conference, one of the attendees with an obvious media archaeological bent lamented the difficulties of studying abandoned virtual worlds wherein direct identification of human beings was essentially impossible (for all that was left in these worlds were fleeting digital traces). The implication was that few methodologies were available to negotiate this seemingly hopeless interrogative exercise.
[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design. This is our final post!]
LAURA FORLANO. writer and design researcher.
WHAT I DO.
I’m an ethnographic time traveler. For much of the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the ways in which the use of communication technology enables emergent socio-cultural practices around working and living in cities. For example, I’m interested in peer-to-peer networking, bottom-up organizing, co-located online collaboration, user-driven social innovation and open source urbanism, to name just a few. I’ve watched teens use mobile phones in Tokyo, observed activists building Wi-Fi networks on rooftops in Berlin, interviewed freelancers in Starbucks cafes in New York, watched doctors use computers in operating rooms, tested iPhone applications for navigating college campuses, visited design studios in Barcelona, and hung out with hackers in Budapest.
Big expensive conferences cost too much and offer too little return. Fine, I’ll give it to you. Conferences are acceptable for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference systems remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.
Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences: Continue reading
I’m DJ Hatfield, one of the guest bloggers for this month on savage minds. When thinking about possible themes for my blog, I just happened to be reading one of my favorite books on writing, Calvino’s Six memos for the next millennium. Originally, these memos were planned lectures about the values of good writing that Calvino was to give at Harvard; he died before giving the lectures and, indeed, before finishing the work. It might surprise several people who read savage minds that Calvino’s six memos (well, the five that he finished!) are what I turn to when I want to think about my practice as an ethnographic writer. And I think that there is much virtue in the structure of Calvino’s little book: the task he set before himself in 1984 was to describe particular qualities that writing should have if it were to meet the challenges of the next millennium–something that might have been envisioned by the editors of writing culture if a peculiar parricidal impulse hadn’t motivated that work. Of course, as a graduate student, the project of writing culture fit my bill. Now that I have a book and a few articles behind me, it’s Calvino’s project that incites my questions about what we do as ethnographers. What are the values that we would think of as central to the practice, what Macintyre in After Virtue called the “internal goods”–those values that we cultivate as we do our work in the field and out? I’d like to start a conversation on this question. As I am not sure whether what I will discuss will be values in the sense of the ends of our practices or in the sense of what orients them, I’ll leave you to give your preliminary suggestions. My postings on some of these values, plus some discussion of recent work, will appear throughout the month of October. My first internal good: friendship
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]
Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.
Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.
In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.
The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]
In this discussion by and about anthropologists working at the boundaries of academia, a reasonable place to start is with a statement of academic situatedness. But in academia today—and especially on its sidelines—talking about situatedness can be tricky business. In the traditional U.S. academic trajectory with a tenured academic position as the ultimate goal, a simple name, rank, and affiliation answer was sufficient and expected. Moreover, that small piece of information could offer a good amount of information about one’s intellectual pedigree and leanings, relative degree of success, and likely fields of expertise. For so many today, though, both within academia in contingent positions and those working outside of academia, describing one’s institutional situadedness requires qualifiying language of temporality, multiplicity, and fluidity. These qualifications we make, offered apologetically or not, stem, I believe, from the gap between the reality of academic careers in the U.S. today and the ideal(ized) traditional tenure-track career trajectory, which we still hold as the norm. This despite the fact that those with tenure and on the tenure-track comprise a distinct minority of faculty in U.S. colleges and universities. Recent statistics and studies indicate that somewhere between 65% and 75% of all faculty in U.S. colleges and universities are in part-time or adjunct positions while only 25%-30% are tenured or on the tenure track. And these numbers do not account for those who went into academe aspring to careers that looked like those of their own professors and mentors, but who now work fully or partly outside of academia. The next few weeks will take up these issues as they pertain to the field of anthropology and the practice of ethnography, and in doing so will offer ideas about centers and margins, success and failure, and tradition and innovation.
First, though, a quick look to my academic and professional trajectory, offered as a kind of case study. After getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology (with a big dose of dance thrown in), I decided to work for a year or two before going for my doctorate in anthropology. At the encouragement of an esteemed professor, I applied to work in the Dance Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), attracted by the possibility of immersion in a completely different world. Months went by with no word from the NEA. I took that as a sign that I’d better get on with the grad school plan without the detours, so I applied to doctoral programs in anthropology. Mere days before replies were to go out from graduate programs and almost a year after applying to the NEA, I was called down to Washington, D.C. for a job interview. I was offered and accepted the job, deferred my acceptance into Rice University’s Cultural Anthropology Ph.D. program, and stayed at the NEA for a year and a half. It was the right move—not only did I learn about arts funding, concert dance in the U.S., and how to work outside of an academic environment, I also gathered information for my eventual doctoral disseration, a multi-site ethnography on contemporary dance in the U.S. which included the NEA as one of the field sites. (The other field sites were dance organizations and communities of dancers in New York City, where I moved to do fieldwork in 1997 and have never left.)
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]
Note: Updated on 7/27/2012 with links to all posts contributed as part of this series; please see below. With thanks to Savage Minds admins and readers for a fantastic four weeks.
The idea for this group guest blog on Savage Minds began serendipitously, as I suppose many projects do, with random conversations in hallways or after talks—this time, after a talk I’d just delivered at Rice University’s Department of Anthropology. I’d been asked for material by which to introduce me anew in the place where I grew (professionally) up, to the new students and faculty who had joined after I’d left. I offered the following bits, alongside my CV: after 10 years as tenure-track and then tenured faculty at UH-Clear Lake, I relocated to India in 2008; I continue to work for the University of Houston, however: I teach as an adjunct online and I serve as UH’s liaison in India in an administrative/ counseling/ recruitment-oriented role; I look increasingly to collaborations as the means to make ethnographic research viable, from where I now am situated. A series of conversations with friends and colleagues ensued, face-to-face and virtual, each considering situations such as my own as raising important and increasingly relevant questions about the production of ethnography in the intellectual spaces that line the margins of the academy.
Humph, I remember thinking, but of course. I’d been so immersed in making this relocation to India work as smoothly as it would with a husband still in Houston and a family to care for on my own in India, suddenly a single parent of a sort keeping my professional connections alive and my own research going—so much a participant in this process had I been, I’d neglected any observation/ reflection on what sort of intellectual space it was that I was now occupying, even myself creating, and within which I was attempting to (re-)create “ethnography.” And not just me, but so many colleagues and friends, people I knew and those I’d heard about, who’d left the academy but kept tethers to it, or who’d finished graduate studies and were struggling to get back in on firmer, more independent footing. What might a wider conversation on the precarities of the discipline look like—particularly when we think about just what sorts of intellectual spaces of production are produced as a result? What would ethnography produced from such spaces come to look like?
And so was born, longer story cut short, the conversation to unfold on Savage Minds all July.
In case you haven’t heard, one of the ideas/concepts that I have been exploring is value. Check out this post here on SM for a little background. The concept itself is either really, really interesting, or, as one of my friends put it: little more than a big weasel word.
So which is it? Both, I think.
Reading books and articles by Keith Hart, David Graeber, and Julia Elyachar, among others, has convinced my both of the fact that value is interesting and somewhat maddening. It’s incredibly rich, and terribly vague at the same time. I mean, how do we determine the value of particular things, ideas, and places–and how are different value regimes or systems comparable (e.g. is there a really useful way to compare or juxtapose moral value systems with those based upon money and markets)?
Going into fieldwork I decided to put the whole value question to the side a bit, and let things go where they may for a while. Sometimes it’s a good idea to let certain pet ideas and theories take a back seat for a while to open up room for a range of possibilities. You know, let the empirical stuff run amok for a bit and keep a notebook on hand just in case. Besides, I was getting to a point where the whole value thing was starting to seem a bit too abstract. So I gave it a rest. Continue reading