Is anthropology averse to open source?

Several of our “sister websites”: have been commenting on a “recent article”: in Anthropology News which seemingly sounds some gloomy news for open access scholarship in anthropology. Indeed, Judd Antin goes so far as to ask whether “there something fundamental about anthropology that makes the discipline averse to an open model”: The short answer is: no. The long answer is: yes, if by ‘open source’ you mean ‘AnthroCommons’.

What did this article actually find? The authors wanted to understand how people use digital genres to organize scholarly meetings. They concluded that people used email and face-to-face interaction. No surprise there. Although many people liked the idea of posting conference papers on the internet, in practice very few were willing to do so themselves, and most people thought it would be better to make abstracts easily available online.

So: people like to use email to send papers to each other. Why? Because it’s private, they already know how to use it, they use email as a file system to store, index, and retrieve attachments, they’re not actively interested in adopting new technology for its own sake (if it’s not broken, don’t fix it), and new genres are not obviously sufficiently better than existing onces to induce a switch. In other words, we use email because it is a good tool for the job we want to do.

Why would people be averse to publishing their papers online before the AAA meetings? Two things occur to me here. Come on, folks: we write our papers the night before we give them. Let’s just come clean about that, ok? Our aversion to choosing a Creative Commons license has less to do with concerns about intellectual property, and more to do with the fact that we don’t want to admit to our session organizer that we haven’t finished our paper. Second (and more importantly), conference papers are some of the worst work we produce — they are poorly edited, the citations are often incomplete or wrong, and the arguments we make in them may change over time. There is nothing wrong with this — it is just another way of saying that conference papers are the first step to a final polished document that we do want to make available to the world. David Weinberger once glorified the Internet as a form the raised the first draft to the level of art, and I don’t have any problem posting my informal work on the internet (hence this blog) — but why in the world would we as scholars want these hesitant, initial steps of our thoughts to appear at the top of a Google search for our name?

Much of the article’s discussion of open source and anthropology came in the context of evaluating AnthroCommons, a ‘virtual community’ (i.e. bulletin board) for anthropologists. They found that people didn’t like AnthroCommons. But just because people don’t like AnthroCommons doesn’t mean that they don’t like open source. It means they didn’t like AnthroCommons. Duh.

And people really don’t like AnthroCommons — only five of the 619 people surveyed said they’d actually posted anything. Now admittedly, I’ve not read the full report — while the news article states that “the full report is available through the AAA website” there is no clue on the website as to where it is. There isn’t even a link to the report in the article! This is an egregious flaw for which the gods of useability (or any webdesign 101 teacher) ought strike them down. Regardless, five out of 619 does not bode well.

It’s easy to see why people don’t like AnthroCommons. First, the site is graphics heavy (the text in the ‘about’ page is actually an image of text, not CSS styled text). Second, it is hard to use (if you want to get at the content of the website, you must click the ‘browse’ link, not the ‘content’ link). Third — what is the point? To repeat, email is easier to use than AnthroCommons. There is no real reason to make conference papers public, much less open source their contents. And believe it or not, despite my own enthusiasm for open source models, I would argue that there is no point in releasing your forum comments under an open source model. I mean, thank god: finally, someone can mix, rip, and burn such earth shaking creative works as “what time is the conference again?” Let the revolution begin!

People clearly want AnthroCommons to be a place where they can quickly and easily browse through session abstracts and — after the session — make papers available to fellow participants and selected others (but not everyone). We desperately need this because those little catalogs we all have to carry around are a pain, and I can think of ways of adding value to these catalogs when we digitalize them. What if you could login (easily) and search (easily) for sessions (and topics, and people), and then save the ones you were interested in on a personalized schedule page? You could even rate them so you could figure out which ones to skip once Conference Fatigue set in. And then you could print up a little schedule, map, and room guide and carry it around with you. If the site was well designed and standards compliant, you could even browse it on your cellphone as you were walking around the hotel trying to decide what to do next. And none of this, of course, has anything to do with open source.

Open source is a superb way for us to share the information with the world that we want to share — the polished scholarly work on which we stake our reputations and careers. But it is not a magic sugar shaker which can be sprinkled over any project with the word ‘community’ in it in order to make it even better. Similarly, technologies are not necessarily better because they are newer. Poorly designed technology designed to do something users have no interest in is not going to be successful. This does not mean that anthropologists hate open source, it means that we need it to be applied where it counts — in the distribution of our journals, magazines, and other scholarly products, not in forum postings or incomplete rough drafts. Is it really a surprise that anthropologists are averse to the use of open source when it is done poorly? No. Can we imagine a way to do it well that anthropologists might love? Yes. Does such a thing exist now? No. Should we create one in the future? Obviously.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “Is anthropology averse to open source?

  1. Pingback: TechnoTaste »
  2. Talking about open publishing models is important, but I don’t think we should be stuck with the narrow view of anthropology or ethnography as simply a product rather than a process. The Halloween memo points out that process is the thing that open-source software does really differently than its proprietary competitors (e.g. Microsoft). And once we start talking about process there are many more opportunities for open source anthropology than open publication models and projects like AnthroSource provide.

    I am working on a research team studying kids’ informal learning with digital technology. Like Rex we’re also worried about our work not being ready for primetime, but we’re committed to open sourcing our process as much as possible in order to develop a community of ‘developers’ and ‘consumers’ around our work. So we’re doing it in stages:

    -We use site-specific wikis to share fieldnotes and other research documents within the various working groups.

    -We use a private blog to share research memos and links, and to discuss relevant literature amongst the larger research team.

    -We’re talking about sharing informal reports on our findings and developing themes on a weekly basis via our website (not yet up…).

    Why shouldn’t more anthropologists be opening up their process the way we’re trying to – and the way the FOSS community has? In The Cathedral and the Bazaar Richard Stallman laid out many of the principles that make open source work – principles that could work for anthropology as well. Let’s drawn an analogy, for example, between debugging code and analyzing ethnographic data (‘debugging culture?’). Stallman says ‘parallel debugging’ (thousands of developers simultaneously working to identify and fix problems in the code) is essential to the open source process because, as Linus Torvalds said, every problem is bound to be transparent to somebody. I’d say the same for the task of analyzing ethnographic data. Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes we can’t see the obvious because we’re too entrenched in the data. Sometimes a colleague or an informant has just the right knowledge and context to provide that ‘ah hah’ moment.

    I’m not saying it’s the sort of thing that all anthropologists ought be doing, but rather that it’s the type of thing that would truly constitute open source anthropology. In a nutshell it’s this: adopting open access publishing models is about the product, but debugging culture is about the process, which is where the open source model really hits its stride. Could anthropology be open to this? Yes, I’d like to think so, but maybe not anytime soon. (See previous argument)

  3. A similar discussion has taken place on anthro-L. There I suggest that we look at the structure of anthropology considered as a job market. My argument is that the field is now so fragmented by hyperspecialization that anthropologists who compete for academic jobs must compete for only those jobs whose descriptions fit their own specialties— specialties in which they only compete with a handful of other people. The market segments are so small that sharing information yields little benefit in terms of relationships that lead to other openings, and revealing a fresh insight that others may act on more quickly to seize a competitive advantage is a frightening prospect.

    As a field we are caught in a system highly analogous to that which Clifford Geertz desecribes in Agricultural Involution, his study of Javanese peasants trapped in a vicious cycle of cultivating ever more intensively smaller and smaller plots of land. Arguably, then, what we need is a shakeout, with most of us going off to do other things, leaving behind the enterprising consolidators who will reshape the field into larger, more valuable chunks. I’m not saying that we need to pursue a monoculture agribusiness model—that would be utterly tasteless. But some big family farms growing organic produce—that might be interesting.

  4. “.. But some big family farms growing organic produce—that might be interesting.”

    Nice allegory.
    Latour 1997 said in a nettime interview with Geert Lovink, openness would be a complete nightmare for scientists and that small isolated niches were the ultimate condition to produce scientific knowledge.

  5. The problem with small isolated niches is that, at least in a world dominated by the market economy, someone has to be persuaded to provide the scientists’ livelihood. When the scientists’ product is both esoteric and seems to lack both practical utility and larger purpose, the market is bound to be a small one and the habits that George Foster associated with his model of “the limited good”—treasure tales and witchcraft accusations, factionalism and patronage—are likely to flourish.

    The grand narratives of yesteryear were, if nothing else, good marketing tools for the discipline. We have yet to find their replacements.

  6. P.S. The Open Source community has found its grand narrative in Linux, a project to which programmers all over the globe contribute. Anthropology, by contrast, now seems to much like a jumble of hobbies. One is irresistibly reminded of Edmund Leach’s comments on anthropological butterfly collectors.

    P.P.S. I say this not to condemn anthropology—a hobby of which I am, I must confess, inordinately fond—but to urge younger anthropologists to take up the task of elaborating theories that actually attempt to explain something in unexpected, interesting, and verifiable ways.

  7. I agree with what Rex has to say about polished publication being “open source ready” and other stuff — not so much (amen especially in re: the hasty nature of conference papers). but I wanted to add a word from the community of late-adopters, of which I am a devoted member. I’d never heard of AnthroCommons before Rex posted about it here, and I haven’t gone to look at it cause I can already tell it’s the kind of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. I use email and face-to-face because I know *how* to use those things. I’m guessing there are a lot of anthropologists who, like me, just figure if they wait a while a more user-friendly version of digital anything will come to them. It’s not that we are against the latest technology (or the freedom of informational exchange it implies), it’s just that we don’t want to have to spend much time figuring out how to use it, especially when there is a familiar alternative. I had a cell phone for about two weeks and I couldn’t figure out how to change the ringtones or retrieve messages, plus it didn’t work in half the places I wanted to use it. So I returned it, happily confident that when I gave that bit of technology a second go-round a few years down the road it would in the interim have had all the bugs worked out. I am sure I’m right — and in the meantime, land lines still exist, you know? Anyway, all of this is to say that I don’t think a lack of current use or current enthusiasm is necessarily diagnostic of people’s closedness to open source. It could be the hunch that based on past experience, we don’t have to go to the mountain — eventually it will come to us.

  8. I disagree with Rex and Ozma. Releasing only polished publication-ready material into the “open source” arena is a clear violation of what open source is all about—creating a situation in which semifinished ideas are tossed out, picked up, improved and returned to the commons, where they can be picked up, improved, and returned to the commons….

    Why does open source work for Linux programmers and not for anthropologists? The Linux programmers have (1) a shared project to which they are all contributing, making Linux a betteer operating system, and (2) an ideology strongly opposed to the notion that knowledge is private property. Anthropologists have (1) a jumble of private projects and (2) an insistence on personal ownership of intellectual property. One system encourages cooperation, the other discourages cooperation.

  9. Just a correction. The Cathedral and Bazaar was written by Eric Raymond, not Richard Stallman. Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project and original author of the GNU General Public License. Mr Stallman prefers the term “Free Software” to “Open Source” and sees the “Free Software” project in political and ethical terms. Eric Raymond feels that “Open Source” is merely the most efficient way to produce software.

  10. In addition to AmaZone, mentioned in comments on the FLOSS post, Keith Hart has made a number of his recent and ongoing writing public at
    These do seem to be extremely rare exceptions in the world of anthropology (as opposed to, say, philosophy, where it is now standard practice to post articles on the web). Then again, anthropologists might just be more computer illiterate…

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