group research + digital collaboration != FLOSS

It’s difficult to talk about ‘open source’ as if it were a unitary phenomenon. It’s telling, for instance, that one way of referring to it these days is F/LOSS (for ‘free/libre open source software’) an orally hygenic acronym which captures the ‘free as in speech’ meaning of ‘free’ by glossing it into its less ambiguous generic romance-language equivalent (“biella”: is really the expert on this sort of thing). The term is meant to knit together an ‘open source’ approach (think Eric Raymond and Bruce Pehrens) with a ‘free software’ approach (think Richard Stallman) which diverge on several key issues. But open source’s cup runneth over and has spilled out into our culture more generally. Academics, for instance, have developed the concept of ‘open access’ publications, while Lawrence Lessig has been just one of the many voices who have argued for ‘free culture’ as a model of and for the natural history of pretty much any kind of creative activity.

Both internal diversity and external diffusion, then, make nailing down open source’s ‘brand’ difficult. In recent comments Judd Antin “argued”:/2005/09/25/is-anthropology-averse-to-open-source/#comment-1633 argued that the heart of what it means to ‘open source’ is to engage in a collaborative ‘process’ of scholarly research, and that simply releasing a finished ‘product’ such as an article that can be freely circulated is secondary this more central meaning of ‘open source.’ John McCreery “argues”:/2005/09/25/is-anthropology-averse-to-open-source/#comment-1644 argues that Linux coders have “a shared project” and are “opposed to the notion that knowledge is private property” — a position which encourage cooperation while Anthropologists undertake “a jumble of private projects” under the influence of “an insistence on personal ownership of intellectual property” which discourage cooperation. Both contrast with my position about the role of ‘open source’ in anthropology not because we disagree about the importance of ‘open source’ as a cultural idea or movement, but because of our fundamentally different approaches to intellectual and creative production.

Judd’s idea, as I understand it, is to use digital technology such as blogs and wikis to facilitate group research. As someone who contributes to wikipedia and has my own (somewhat languishing) “research blog”: I obviously agree with this. But I don’t understand why he thinks what he is doing is ‘open source’. First, what he is doing is obviously a group research project. But this sort of thing is not new — think, for instance, of Griaule’s large-scale expeditions, or Steward’s ‘People of Puerto Rico’ project to name just a few. But the fact that you are working closely with others does not make something ‘open source’ — if it does then I’m in an ‘open source’ choir. Second, he is using digital collaborative tools such as wikis and blogs. But clearly, the simple fact of using new media to collaborate does not make something ‘open source.’ Anyone familiar with the great successes of open source software should recognize this immediately — believe it or not, many kernels and compilers managed to get written Back In The Day when people didn’t use blogs or wikis at all! And in fact, it seems that a lot of his group’s work is closed, not released under an open source license, and not available to the general public. I’m not clear on the details, but he does state, for instance, that their blog is ‘private,’ and I suspect that only members of the group can edit their group wiki. In sum, group research + digital collaboration != open source.

In fact one could criticize Judd by arguing that if he was truly committed to having an ‘open’ development process for his research, he would release all of his data and writing into the public domain so that it could be built upon by others. This criticism is two-pronged. From the point of view of a Richard Stallman, this critcism points out just how far short Judd’s program falls from the true ideals of ‘real’ open source coders. From the point of view of a generic professor, the criticism points out how bad it would be if Judd actually did this. I wonder, for instance, if the human subjects review board who ok’d this project would have done so if they knew Ito and Lyman (the PI’s of Judd’s project for whom, btw, I have enormous respect) planned to release onto the Internet the names and social security numbers of the children they studied?

This example — that human subjects have human rights which perl code does not — indicates one of the many ways in which the idea of “debugging culture” as if it were code rests on a raft of problematic assumptions about similarities coding and anthropology which I don’t have time to get into here. The point is just that although Judd claims to be hewing more closely than I to the model of open source as practiced by programmers, in fact his use of the term to mean “group research + digital collaboration” is in fact quite removed from a strict reading of what it means to be ‘open source.’

John McCreery argues that the ideals of anthropologists (and, presumably, the academy more generally) are orthogonal to those of the open source movement — a claim which will seem ironic (if not downright bizarre) to anyone familiar with the history of FOSS. The ideals of the university are, of course, what originally inspired F/LOSS — as anyone familiar with Stallman’s own history well knows. It is telling that in both his case and Judd’s they consider individual scholarly articles ‘products’ of a lone scholarly ‘process’ that needs to be opened up and made collaborative. For scholars themselves have a very different paradigm of creativity and production which does not oppose ‘process’ and ‘product’ in the way they do. This paradigm was captured very well in Machiavelli’s famous description of his study habits in his letter to Francesco Vittori in 1513:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

For Machiavelli, as for any scholar, academic production is not the ‘jumble of private projects’ that John seems to think it is. It is a participation in the ‘long conversation’ with other thinkers in the canon (a canon which is, to be sure, fluid and contested) that is part of a tradition that is literally thousands of years old. We see our articles and books as being a momentary intervention in an ongoing argument that has developed for centuries and that will continue for (hopefully) even longer. Where other people see a silent library full of books, we see a room full of voices.

This is why Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ approach is so popular for academics. Lessig’s focus on the way in which any individual creator in the present relies on prior art and will themselves be considered prior art by future creators captures perfectly the sense that academics have that they are merely one moment in an academic tradition that stretches from the past, through them, and into the future. For anthropologists Lessig’s approach has the added advantage of using the notion of culture in a way that is congruent with much of our own writing on the topic. Lessig sees culture as something that we get from the past and transform through innovative practice — something directly comparable to Sahlins’s work on the structure of the conjuncture, or Ricoeur on metaphoric innovation. This idea of any text being situated in a prexisting background of voices is clearly very apropos to the Bakhtinianly inclined or interested in (as Sherry Ortner glosses it) ‘practice theory.’

So while it is true — thank goodness! — that anthropology doesn’t have a Kuhnian ‘normal science’ paradigm in place, this does not mean that what we do is a jumble, or uncollaborative. It merely means that if you haven’t heard the first half of the conversation it’s not surprising you may have trouble figuring out what we’re talking about now. It is easy to miss the logic interconnections between different anthropological projects because discerning them requires a clear sense of their genealogy and interrelation. It would be easy to read this entire entry, for instance, without realizing that to a certain extent it represents a second-generation attempt to combine the work of Leslie White, Karl Polanyi, and Claude Levi-Strauss! And institutionally, obviously, the academy encourages people to contribute to this conversation as freely as possible. Unlike the music business, where people tour to support the album, anthropologists make their living doing live gigs, and sell records of their thoughts at little to no profit. But because our position within a univeristy is determined by how well-known we are outside of it, we have a strong incentive to write well, write often, and make our texts as widely available as possible.

Looked at in this way, the academy is like open source collaboration. Our open software project is The Sum Total Of Human Knowledge. Our SVN servers are libraries. Our articles are our contributions to the code and, like all programmers, we don’t want to commit anything to the repository that will break the tree. Once committed, however, we do encourage people to quote, copy, and reuse our words and ideas providing that they give us credit. Looked at from this point of view, scholarship (not surprisingly) looks very much like a FLOSS project, and an emphasis on open access licensing — rather than collaborative writing — is intelligible not merely as “an insistence on personal ownership of intellectual property” but indeed as a concern with keeping process open by allowing individual contributions to circulate as freely as possible.


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

22 thoughts on “group research + digital collaboration != FLOSS

  1. I want to thank Rex for continuing this discussion, which is, by far, one of the best on-line debates in which I have participated. Still, however, the curmudgeon in me wants to say something about “Teaching your granny to suck eggs.”

    When Rex writes, “The ideals of the university are, of course, what originally inspired F/LOSS—as anyone familiar with Stallman’s own history well knows” and cites Machiavellig his arguments become, I suggest, ahistorical and anachronistic in the extreme. The “openness” of medieval and early modern scholarship should be well-known, I believe, to anyone who looks seriously into the relevant history. As I recall, it was first drawn to my attention in 1964 or so by a professor of French literature from whom I was taking a course on the 18th century philosophes. He noted for us how scholars such as Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Diderot frequently quoted large chunks of each other’s work verbatim with no citation whatsoever, an activity that would now be condemned as palagiarism. They felt comfortable doing this, he argued, because they saw themselves as coworkers in the common project of understanding the system of the world and the knowledge they produced as the common property of all. Already, however, the devil of intellectual property had raised its ugly head in the form of the bitter correspondence between Newton and Leibniz and their respective followers over who had invented the calculus.

    Thus, as I see it, if Stallman evokes the ancient ideal of the open academy, he is making the same move as other reformers who evoke a golden age in pursuit of something new. To point to Machiavelli, who was writing long before the development of modern copyright law and the modern scholarly obsession with who owns what idea is mythological thinking—not sound scholarship.

    The same can be said for the worshipful references to Griaule and Steward’s projects (and at least one important omission, the Harvard Chiapas Project). We recall these projects precisely because they are so rare, the anthropological norm being monographs or articles written by a single author and based primarily on the author’s own fieldwork. Yes, they show us that, given the right circumstances, anthropologists can cooperate. But that does not answer the question why such examples are so rare, while in hard science fields collective research and multi-author publication are the norm.

    I think myself that Rex and I agree pretty well on what “open source” should be. But I am a skeptical old bastard doing what anthropologists in my generation were taught that we should be doing—developing theories using social structures and/or other material conditions to explain how people behave and what they appear to believe. Rex’s argument strikes me as a very “postmodern” pastiche of historical threads and patches torn out of their historical and cultural context to support a preconceived position.

    I eagerly await his demonstration that I am wrong in these regards. Error is the mother of learning.

  2. Heh — how John got ‘worshipful’ out of my 1 sentence mention of Griaule and Steward is beyond me. In fact, I’m not clear how anyone who ‘worships’ Julian Steward could also be ‘postmodern.’ But whatever. I cited both because they were the first that came to mind, and were also relatively early attempts at group work. Suffice to say, I don’t endorse vibrations from the cosmic egg or anything else Griaulesque. As for Wolf, Mintz, etc. — yes, I think it’s safe to say I could get behind them. Ditto for the Harvard Chiapas project, which more than one of my own teachers have benefited from. The early Santa Fe research school might also fall under this category.

    My mention of Machiavelli was not meant to suggest that academics for the past 500 years have shared a timeless and essentialized understanding of scholarship, but simply evocative of a certain affective approach to scholarship which I identified with, even if it was written before the Statute of Anne. Obviously Stallman was thinking of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and not Machiavelli — _duh_. Sorry if he thought I was suggesting otherwise or that this blog entry was intended to be a review of the literature on the history of copyright, the development of modern citation, or the ideals of the American University.

    John asks interesting questions about why anthropologists do or do not choose to work together in groups — an interesting problem. I agree it is probably the result of social structures and material conditions (culturally understood, of course). But (to reiterate) this is a question about the nature of group research, not ‘open source,’ and claiming this is quite different from his earlier claim that anthropologists ‘insist on the personal ownership of intellectual property’ or that the field today is a ‘jumble of projects.’

    Finally, I’ll note that John’s mention of the philosophes seems to work against his own claims. Not only does it strengthen rather than weaken a claim that there is such a thing as an enduring scholarly interest in “coworkers in the common project of understanding the system of the world and the knowledge they produced as the common property of all” (my supposed claims about whose continuity he considers ‘anachronistic’) but it weakens rather than strengthens his claim that the philosophes had much in common with Stallman, whose GPL is a license _based on copyright_ even if it does, as Biella writes, use this power against itself to create a sphere in which information can circulate freely. Copying is one thing — attribution is another. Voltaire’s citation of Diderot’s words without attribution is not only plagiarism, but would be a violation of the GPL if Diderot’s had licensed them under it, since any use of GPL’d material must presence the copyright notice of the terms of the license. Simply because Stallman would like to live in a world without copyright does not mean he wants to live in a world without attribution.

  3. Just a footnote: Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that the concept of copyright emerged with the rise of the printing press, and the desire of publishers to protect their investments. The concept of the “author” was invented, she argues, with the first “advertisements” which were really the copyright page in the front of early books.

    I also wanted to plug my essay from last year: Open Source Anthropology. Which has lots of relavent links.

  4. yes, originally ‘copyright’ was about which publishers got the right to publish works. If I had done some bibliography in this entry I’d have mentioned Patterson’s “Copyright in Historical Perspective,” Rose’s “Authors and Owners” and Woodmansee’s “The Author, Art, and the Market” as well as her edited volume with Peter Jaszi on the invention of the Author, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Also I’d point out Anthony Grafton’s little book on the footenote, which is actually mostly about Ranke, since it deals with the origins of modern citation practice in history.

  5. John McCreery writes:

    The same can be said for the worshipful references to Griaule and Steward’s projects (and at least one important omission, the Harvard Chiapas Project). We recall these projects precisely because they are so rare, the anthropological norm being monographs or articles written by a single author and based primarily on the author’s own fieldwork.

    There was a moment for collaborative projects, though, and I think it bears mentioning. In the ’50s and ’60s, we saw the Fox Project (36 anthro and psych students over 12 years);Vicos; Tikopia; the start of Richard Lee’s San project; Murray and Rosalie Wax on one hand, Margaret Mead on another, advocating husband-wife teams; and so on. Actually, these anthros inherited a project- and team-oriented approach that went back to Lloyd Warner’s industrial anthropology in the early 1930s and which informed the applied anthropologists of the Indian New Deal and the War Relocation Authority.

    In many ways, the current moment looks like the state of affairs at the end of the ’50s, when Sol Tax was travelling the world talking to anthropologists about what they wanted from a new journal, ideas which he incorporated into Current Anthropology. CA was intended to be more than just a journal; it is better described, in its early years, as the “house organ” for an international community of anthropologists. Tax saw CA as something very close to what John McC. describes — a giant collaborative project incorporating incremental contributions from around the globe. This lofty goal was never really realized, of course, or we wouldn’t be talking about “what if’s” now, but that it started to be realized is, I think, a hopeful sign that it’s not entirely an “impossible dream”.

  6. It’s great fun, of course, flailing away at each other. I’ll concede that “worshipful” was a bit over the top, if Rex will concede—or provide evidence to the contrary—that collaborative research is a rare phenomenon in anthropology.

    Then we might try to see what common ground we share. I have, for example, great sympathy with the notion that we are all involved in contributing to “The Sum Total Of Human Knowledge.” My problem is that my personal relation to this vision now closely resembles my personal relationship to Luther’s Small Catechism, which I once knew by heart from catechism classes circa age 12-13. I have drifted so far from the faith that “The Sum Total of Human Knowledge”now seems to me to bear the same relation to Linux as, for example, Intelligent Design has to the theory of evolution. One is a pious hope, the other an open-ended research program with a solid body of practice (theory building and engineering) at its core. There is, to use Thomas Kuhn’s language, a paradigm in place.

    But there I go again, enjoying another round of intellectual Punch-and-Judy.

    I ask everyone here, but especially Rex, what sorts of institutional structures and economic resources will be required to make anthropologists comfortable with open source sharing of partially formulated ideas?

  7. it should be noted that one of the reasons anthropologists don’t do large-scale collaborative research projects anymore is because they are potentially so invasive. Marcel Griaule is the most egregious example, but the fact is that what anthropologists do — fieldwork — is a weird and potentially disruptive activity even when there is a lone anthropologist (or at most a couple) doing it. There is also the question of whether good fieldwork is possible if done by a group — one of the strengths of fieldwork comes from the fact that the anthropologist places herself in a vulnerable position vis a vis the community in which she works (an aspect of anthro that critiques of anthropology and power do not emphasize). Depending on context, at first she may speak the language well, she may not understand many things, she may not even be capable of getting food and shelter on her own, etc. etc. So: all of these things mean even one anthropologist in a community in an enormous imposition. Attempting 5 or 10 would be inexcusable! And, it means that the lone anthropologist has to negotiate her relationship with that community from a position of weakness, rather than as an insulated member of a team. For many kinds of field research, teamwork would be an obstacle in itself.
    Most anthropologists don’t deal with their (relative — they can always just leave) vulnerability via the gun-wielding Chagnon method. We use morally ambiguous means (gift-giving) and, increasingly, work through parameters set by the communities in which we’d like to live and study (contracts, permissions, research agreements, etc.). To get back to the idea side of things, having done all of this, much of the early, draft-stage, unpolished results of anthropological fieldwork are of interest only to a tiny set of people, with whom it is shared through immediate mechanisms — members of the community in which the work was done and the few other researchers who have also been there. I think it’s typical in anthropology that it is only the late-stage, more polished/crafted work that achieves a level of comparative abstraction such that it is of interest to a (relatively) large audience.

  8. Ozma has a point, although it depends on the context. The Fox Project I mentioned earlier was intended to be disruptive (hopefully for the better) although it didn’t start out that way. The first 6 field workers still managed to work over the summer together, in a society of about 500 people. But their support needs were fewer — they were in pretty much their own society, and could dash into town to pick up whatever necessities might come up.

    But if we accept that large-scale group work is not easy to pull off in the field, what about the “second-order” work? Drawing on the FOSS analogy, the average programmer him- or herself is likely to be something of a loner him- or herself. Code isn’t generally written as a team effort (with exceptions, as in fieldwork). FOSS development becomes collaborative a degree removed from coding itself — when a project coordinator of some kind (whatever his or her title may be) correlates and disseminates the software product, or correlates and distributes feedback (e.g. bug reports). The projects I mentioned above were notable for having strong organizers who, while they mostly kept their hands off the work itself, created contexts in which the work could be done. An example of this “second-order” work is the HRAF which, although I have lots and lots of problems with the ideas and some of the practices behind it, has still managed to become an important reference and research tool for a lot of anthropologists.

    It seems to me that there is room for the development of these second-order projects. Savage Minds, for isntance, is itself a second-order project — none of us is involved in the fieldwork or, indeed, research of any of the others, yet we’ve managed to create a more-or-less operative forum for sharing and exchanging ideas both with each other and with an audience. On Anthro-L, some of us have been discussing Wikibooks, a project to create open access, publicly editable textbook material that can be used in college-level courses. This is another admirable second-order project (although not limited to anthropology itself, and it will be interesting to see if anthropologists participate in the project very much). I have this kind of pet idea about “little books”, kind of like Paradigm Press’ pamphlets, which could be produced and disseminated online and through print-on-demand services, with minimal overhead and minimal profit-taking — after all, we academics hardly get paid for our writing anyway, why bother with academic presses that are going to have to charge $100 a copy just to break even? While the edited volume dies out among traditional publishers, for whom there simply isn’t enough market potential, new technologies seem to open up the possibility a new kind of edited volume, even new kinds of collaborative writing.

    One issue — and here we return to the topics that started this discussion — is that much of the research of the last few generations is locked behind the “paywall” of copyright law, hence the need for open access initialtives. Look at the kinds of thing technologies like Google print, rss, ultrafast search, distributed databases, AJAX, folk taxonomies, and so on are making possible to do with minimally structured text. Seems to me that we could put together a sort of HRAF 2.0, free of the constraints of questionnaires and trait lists, drawing across some database of ethnographic description. Researchers aren’t standing in the way of this, except inasmuch as their career advancement is dependent of participation in the academic publishing world (which provides services like peer review and editorial selection), and the academic publishing world locks its content behind restrictive copyright regimes that leave researchers from freely using their own work. Hence, again, the need for open access material that doesn’t get locked into restrictive business models — but that offers the same selectivity and validation that the current system does. I don’t know what that might look like, although fields that are more comfortable with Internet technology in general — comp sci, of course, but also physics, mathematics, medicine — seem to be working out ways of functioning with open access models, so it’s not impossible.

  9. It seems these days there is no group that does not have the fever for the flavor for the free and open source. As someone who studies open source, I have admittedly been less interested in how to pragmatically transfer the model than studying the phenomenon in relation to geek culture, liberalism, and trying to get a handle on the conditions for its promiscuity and the series of travels and translation under which it gets embedded in new social contexts. But since I have spent so many years on this topic, I can’t but help think about how to transfer it and why we even desire to do so.

    I tend to agree with Rex that we academics are participating in a long, more or less open, conversation, a form of scientific production, that in its ideal form (as explored, for example, in the works of Merton), influenced Stallman’s vision and project for freedom in software production.

    Collaborative in nature, we are engaged in a constant building and (undermining) of other works, not to mention piggy-backing, reformulating, misrepresenting, and sometimes, refining. We perhaps don’t have the everyday ideologies to give full voice to such a form of production (though as Rex points out, there are a host of scholars who do) but it nonetheless exists. In books, the usual place you find the open acknowledgment of collaboration is of course in the acknowledgments. And perhaps one of the most exciting prospects about the fever for the flavor of F/OSS is that, through its existence and influence, we can come out with our dirty little secret and start to build a more refined vocabulary that admits, relishes, celebrates and furthers they types of collaboration(s) that do exist. And with such vocabularies, bolstered by new technologies, I imagine we will see new types of collaborations crop up, as already evidenced by blogs like SM (the second order collaboration oneman talks about). Like F/OSS, no doubt this will take time and perhaps a new generation or two of budding technoratis that will lead the way 🙂

    I tend to agree with Rex, also that open source “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” and with Ozma that given the conditions of fieldwork (which are *disruptive* or at least initially very awkward and from that point you have to somehow gain the trust from a group of strangers), there are limits to when and where collaborations can occur.

    I think just as interesting question is why open source has become such an vibrant icon to mold our scholarly aspirations. On the one hand, as I already mentioned, I think it represents an opportunity to capture, in language, some of the processes of collaboration that do exist and an opportunity to extend them in novel ways that fit our form of production, which is decidedly not like coding (much messier, not so modular, harder to track changes, and not so easy to tell if “it works.”) Added to that is this represents a political opportunity to loosen the tight screws of IP regulation that have seemed to put a hamper to innovations, collaborations, of if nothing else, access, in various fields. This is where I tend to focus my energies because the grip has become too strong and I think represents a real problem in some of the hard science and esp the pharmaceutical industry.

    But then I also think that some of of the wonder involves a desire for infusing academia with a dose of democracy, or at least leveling of the playing field through access, but this is often left underspecified.

    This move to emulate open source is also sometimes is accompanied by a romanticization of the nature of open source collaboration. Sure there is tons of knowledge to access, and geeks working through some complicated hitch in seeming perfect harmony, but that can be a facade too. How one seeks help is very stylized and a geek must proceed with great caution, if not the flame throwers will not hesitate to throw a harsh rebuff to put someone in their “RTFM” place. F/OSS collaboration is not always for the faint of heart. One must become a trusted member and prove their worth to receive the respect of others. So while there is a strong populist element, that demands a recursive re-distribution of knowledge, there is a strong elitist element in which geeks are constantly proving their worth to others, through the clever display of their individual work.

    Also, what is bount to the hopes for access and collaboration, in other words. If it is some democratic thrust, well, the problem is that universities are really not all that democratic and I am not sure if collaboration and access would change the strong hierarchies or the very specific ways academics advance in this hierarchy, which does require being published by vetted, prestigious publishers who of course heavily rely on copyright ( (whole other topic I am afraid that I don’t want to get into). Open source may have an academic spirit but hackers are not bound by the professional mandates we are bound to and this is going to color the nature of any joint efforts or even access.

  10. Re Ozma’s point that, “one of the reasons anthropologists don’t do large-scale collaborative research projects anymore is because they are potentially so invasive,” I point to a tacit assumption that anthropological research always involves small, vulnerable communities. As I have mentioned elsewhere, my own research has been in Taiwan and Japan, working with people who are frequently smarter, richer, and more powerful than I am. But even be that as it may, it isn’t hard to imagine large-scale projects in China, Japan, India, Brazil, etc., that involve multiple researchers gathering information on similar topics. In China, the work of Arthur Wolf, et. al., on household registers comes to mind. In a broader sense, one of the most successful informal collaborations I know of is that between social anthropologists who have studied kinship and popular religion in China and their colleagues in Chinese history. The historians have picked up anthropological ideas and issues and gone looking for relevant data in the periods on which they concentrate. The result is a very rich and substantial body of work with serious historical depth.

  11. That last example seems to shade over into regular old scholarship as we know it — reading others’ work, finding good insights, applying them in our own work, and so it goes.

    Obviously what I was saying was immediately evocative of the “one village, one anthropologist” model. But I don’t think it is limited to that setting. Take laboratory ethnographies — people are *busy* in labs, and while they might be happy to have one anthropologist trained as a tech hanging around making solutions and taking notes on the quiet, having a half-dozen of them running around would gum up the works of the lab itself. It’s hard for me to imagine many settings in which what anthropologists do — insert themselves into the complex relational fabric of others’ lived worlds — would work in big numbers. It’s not the same task as “gathering information on a topic”.

    One could of course imagine a research problem and setting for which a dozen ethnographers would be just the ticket. But I think *in general* what we do is better done by a lone bunny rabbit rather than a herd of turtles, and the fact that we don’t as a rule form collaborative teams has less to do with our jealous territoriality than just the practical logistics of our form of research. I wasn’t making a contentious point, just pointing out a less contentious reason for our disciplinary dearth of large-scale collaborations.

  12. Ozma writes, “It’s hard for me to imagine many settings in which what anthropologists do—insert themselves into the complex relational fabric of others’ lived worlds—would work in big numbers. It’s not the same task as “gathering information on a topic”.

    Quite true if you are imagining more than one anthropologist and a relatively small group (be it band, village, or lab). Less so if you envision, for example, say five or six anthropologists working in five or six labs (villages, etc.), posting fieldnotes and interpretations on a blog as the project evolves, getting continuous feedback from advisors/mentors, and aiming to produce a joint ethnographic description of a field, industry or region….

    The practical problems seem two-fold: First, funding the project in the first place and, second, ensuring that there is a payoff for cooperation in terms of job placements. That was, I suspect, more possible in the heyday of the big projects already mentioned here—since the field was expanding, placing the students of a big-name project organizer was a real possibility.

    On a personal note, I observe that the McCreerys and Gary Seaman had no trouble with locals or each other when we were both doing research in the Puli Basin in Taiwan circa 1970. Simply a matter of scale. Puli was a market town, population 35,000, with another 35,000 or so elsewhere in villages elsewhere in the valley. Gary was in a village on one side of town. We were on the other. Puli was, in any case, already a highly “contaminated” fieldsite. Our first day in town, the foreign affairs policeman to whom we had to report asked if we knew Susan, a 16-year old Rotary Club exchange student living with the family of a local doctor. Our first night in the field we saw 2001, A Space Odyssey at a local movie theater.

  13. I must admit, I fail to see how you jumped from a suggestion of looking into a more open process of collaboration to illegally releasing the social security numbers of minors.

  14. It’s heartening to see John is moving off his earlier assertions and now asking a much more interesting question about why group research projects are rarer in anthropology then they are in, say, chemistry — a point I’ll gladly conceed, although I must say honestly I have only my intuition here and no real hard data about this. It’s an interesting question, but it’s also interesting that we choose to ask it at all. Why is group research somehow preferable to individual research (other than the fact that ‘real scientists’ do it and therefore it is desireable)?

    More importantly, how has it somehow become emblematic of ‘collaboration’ — as if the only form that ‘collaboration’ with colleagues could take is in a shared lab? John asks what sorts of mechanisms anthropologists have in place for sharing partially formulated ideas and the answer, of course, is: LOTS. In fact, these institutions were the topic of my original post. We give papers at the meetings of professional associations. We give papers to colleagues in our own universities. We give papers at other universities as guest speakers. We regularly email drafts of our papers to other specialists in our area. We go out to coffee, for beer, and invite people over to our house for dinner. We have reading groups and presentations. Often times our partially formed ideas aren’t even written up — we just talk about them with people. When we write them up, we do do sometimes do so collaboratively. When we publish them in edited volumes, a good editor will have a huge impact on strengthening and improving our contributions. All of this clearly constitutes ‘sharing partially formulated ideas’, although whether you think it counts as ‘open source’ or ‘collaboration’ is of course up to you to decide.

  15. Rex asks:

    Why is group research somehow preferable to individual research

    It’s not, of course — except when it is. I’m sure there are plenty of scenarios where “one village, one anthropologist” is most definitely the way to go. But surely there are situations in which collaboration adds something that a lone researcher could not or would not be able to do on their own? If not in the field (however loosely defined) then in the classroom, in the library, in the writing-up process, and in the kind of stuff I’ve called “second-order” work (which I agree with the writer of TechnoTaste is a bad name) — the post-ethnographic analysis and cataloguing of said analyses. After all, the original study didn’t ask if anthros would be willing to share their “fieldspace” with other anthrs (which we do anyway, in virtually every instance) but whether we’d share our works-in-progress publicly.

    One area that collaboration technologies can be especially helpful in is in ethnology — the process of comparison and theory-building. Think of the great classic works of theory — Mauss’ _The Gift_, for isntance. While written by one person, Mauss’ work is intensely collaborative, with fieldworkers around the globe sensing him reports they thought might prove useful to his project (talk about theory in practice!). MOst of us lack the intensive knowledge of cultural contexts outside of our own area of expertise to do the kind of comparison Mauss did — let alone to advance the field beyond what Mauss did. Of course, there’s the library nad the postal system, the same resources Mauss depended on, but given the availability of vastly increased technical resources, it seems odd that we should be unwilling or unable to improve on those old-school sources.

    In short, it’s not an either/or proposition — either lone wolf anthro or collaboration from start to finish. The open source model hasn’t significantly changed the physical process any given programmer uses to writes code — open source has simply allowed individual programmers to magnify their efforts drastically, so that instead of a text editor, an entire office suite can be developed. That doesn’t mean there’s no need for text editors.

    To put it another way, why blog? Why is blogging better, and what is it better than? I think you can see that it’s a useless question — I’m sure we all have our personal resons for being on Savage Minds, but I doubt any of us is here because, say, it means we no longer have to go to association meetings. Blogging accomplishes something that association meetings cannot, just as those metings do something blogging can’t.

  16. Exactly.

    There are many many ways in which anthropologists can and do collaborate, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses and are appropriate for certain circumstances. I don’t understand why John and others have argued that ‘collaboration’ must mean a multiauthored paper that has come out of a group research project like a lab, or that this sort of work somehow marks an advance over other forms of collaboration and signals the strength and maturity of the discipline. And in light of Oneman’s comments, I don’t see how the proposition that “anthropologists are unwilling to share their ideas or data because they have see them as their intellectual property” can stand.

    As I attempted to say, and will say again, I’m not sure what the academy can gain from trying to adopt an ‘open source’ (whatever that means) approach when the entire discipline is already acting in an ‘open source’ way (hence my analogy at the end of this blog entry). I’ve maintainted throughout this discussion that the key things we gain are a new series of legal forms (licenses)which institutionalize our prexisting professional commitment to the dissemniation of information. I think this is a more enduring and more important benefit than what Biella has appropriately called ‘the fever for the flavor of foss’ (which may even just be the flavor of the month). I’ve argued that such a fever is less central than licenses for two reasons. First, because a strict reading of ‘open source’ — in which we literally make our sources and data available — is problematic (for reasons I outlined above) and a loose or metaphoric reading of ‘open source’ (or being ‘inspired’ by FOSS) seems only to present the old wine of academic collaboration in new FOSS inspired bottles — and may only be tenuously related to the actual practice of coders.

  17. I can’t help but feel that this whole discussion is avoiding looking at the five hundred pound gorilla in the center: Do we believe in the notion of cumulative knowledge or not? When we are dealing with a technical task it is clear that cumulative knowledge exists. We don’t have to re-learn how to build an arch every-time we build a new building (although sometimes we may wish to re-invent the arch). With anthropology, however, it seems less clear to me that we are all engaged in a common task. Instead, and not unlike the blogsphere, it seems to me that we are involved in many different conversations. But at least on the blogsphere we can listen in on the conversations others are having.

    For other disciplines – such as medicine – it seems much more important to be having a single conversation. At least with respect to a particular problem. I think that, more than the issues of funding, this is why you see medicine embracing Open Access. While I personally don’t think anthropology shares the same systems of knowledge building that we see in medicine, I would still like anthropology to move in this direction. I don’t like the fact that anthropological theorizing is so faddish, and often so insular. I would like to see conference papers published on the web so that our corridor conversations are brought out into the open for all to see. I personally suspect that anthropologists share a deep insecurity about the epistemological foundations of their discipline and they don’t like airing their dirty laundry for this reason; but I think anthropologists should get over it and adopt more open methods of knowledge sharing. And not for the sake of collaborative research, but for the sake of sharing that knowledge with the people about whom we’ve produced that knowledge – people who are more and more likely to have some kind of access to the web no matter where they are in the world.

  18. Rex asks, “Why is group research somehow preferable to individual research (other than the fact that ‘real scientists’ do it and therefore it is desireable)?”

    oneman wrote, “There are plenty of scenarios where “one village, one anthropologist” is most definitely the way to go. But surely there are situations in which collaboration adds something that a lone researcher could not or would not be able to do on their own?

    Kerim writes, ” Do we believe in the notion of cumulative knowledge or not? …. With anthropology, however, it seems less clear to me that we are all engaged in a common task.”

    Here, I believe, we come to the heart of our dilemma. The histories of science, religion, law, business—any large-scale human activity—demonstrate repeatedly that both individual genius, often laboring in obscurity, and collective, organized effort are required to achieve important results. This is, of course, a central lesson in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where long periods of normal science, gathering data and performing experiments within an established paradigm, are occasionally punctuated by paradigm-shifting revolutions. An analogous point is made by historians and political scientists who distinguish between transformational and transactional leadership, the former supplying the inspirational, initially individual vision, the latter doing the grunt work that transforms vision into effective organization.

    Seen in this light, we might ask why have anthropologists as a discipline remained largely content to insist—albeit with self-doubt and professional anxiety— on the value of the small sparks of insight derived from individual fieldwork and resistant to the value of sustained, on-going cooperation to accomplish collective projects that do, indeed, demonstrate belief in cumulative knowledge?

    Speaking only for myself, I can note that I was, indeed, attracted to anthropology by the jumble of possibilities it offered—where else could I go on doing research that combined aspects of the philosophy, medieval history, psychology and mathematics I studied as an undergraduate? What other field would leave me so alone, and, indeed, encourage me, to do my own thing, while at the same time (we are talking about the late 1960s) offering the chance to go off on the personal vision quest called fieldwork at someone else’s expense? For a fat, astigmatic kid who had never been good at sports, a watcher standing on the edge of social groups, never comfortable immersed in a group, a smartass who wanted to be able to say, “Look what I’ve done” and have it mean more than doing what teachers told me to do, anthropology looked like heaven.

    It is not accidental, then, that I read Claude Levi-Strauss’ description in Tristes Tropiques of two types of French university students, the monkish, scholarly types whose dearest wish was never to leave school and the hearty, athletic types eager to get school over with and get on with their careers and felt instant empathy with the former.

    What I learned from social anthropology, however, was to look beyond the ideas and feelings that shaped a single self to examine how institutions, economic conditions, and other social facts shape the situations in which a self is embedded.

    Here is where I feel a bit mis-read by Rex. My job-market approach to the sociology of knowedge and cooperation or lack there of in a field called anthropology is by no means an attempt to justify the current situation. It is rather an attempt to understand it and—I can’t resist, having at various points in my life, been seriously involved in both business and politics, where the watcher must summon the courage to act—ask how new technologies might be used to facilitate change. Because, at the end of the day, Kerim’s question is, to me, right on the money.

    If we do believe in cumulative knowledge, we then have to ask ourselves how knowledge accumulates. We have to ask ourselves what questions will make our knowledge valuable in a world where information is increasingly overabundant, thus cheap. Then we have to ask what kinds of cooperation are needed to produce valuable knowledge.

    History’s lesson is clear. Transformative genius is rare, and most of us won’t fit the bill. What, then, do we need to do collectively to test and refine insight and build theories (frameworks, interpretations) with solider foundations than, “This is what I believe.”

  19. “For other disciplines – such as medicine – it seems much more important to be having a single conversation. At least with respect to a particular problem”

    Actually I think many fields, hard or soft science, have a problem with over specializations and then an inability to have this long, meta conversation. Medicine is a classic case in fact. Many current chronic disorders span different speacialites, such as rheumatology and neurology and these docs are not talking to each other and frankly also have problems keeping up with the knowledge in their own fields, even if they had “more access.”

    More than ever doctors have to take examinations to keep up to date with just their own fields, or rely on patients who are on the ground, connecting the dots, as best they can, because their doctors don’t. This has caused somewhat of crisis in medicine, seeing information sharing among patients as suspect. This is probably where one of the largest open source projects does exist btw, among patients, sharing information and experience about medical conditions that are only half heardedtly accepted by coventional med. I guess my basic point is I think hyper-fragmentation and specialization is more the norm, than not, in most of disciplines. And give this state, the question of access and collabortation does change some.

  20. Those concerned with the relationship between anthropological inquiry and free, open-source, collective efforts may find the following of interest:

    The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, having written over 500 pages of a long-promised book, loathe to put an end to the process of revision, addition, and debate that others´ contributions stimulate, decided to “publish”–ie, make public–his work on a wiki entitled AmaZone (I´m afraid to put the link here because of spam or whatever, but googling ´amazone wikicities´ will get you where you need to be). There, some rough text originally by Viveiros de Castro forms the basis of a continually evolving, collective effort to whom anyone may contribute, modifying, adding, subtracting, etc. The wiki concerns amerindian ´perspectivism´ and is centrally focused on amazonian ethnography, but its themes run from art history to the philosophy of language.

    The wiki is multilingual though predominantly in portuguese. Viveiros de Castro admits that the format is more conducive to established professors than young, perish-threatened scholars. Anyway, the project presents an alternative forum and process of “authorial multiplication.”
    I know of no other comparable effort within anthropology.

    AmaZone is also associated with the Abaete Network for Symmetric Anthropology, which has its own wiki.

  21. I strongly suspect that Biella is right here. The scholar as hyperindividual, armored in academic freedom and concealed in classrooms where Teacher is the one, ultimate authority is a prototype that my personal experience suggests is pervasive, not just in anthropology but throughout the modern university—the exception being those fields, mostly hard science, where shared use of expensive laboratories and the need for grunts to mind experiments enforces more cooperation than normal.

    But this is largely conjecture based on a life that has, for the last few decades, included only tangential connection with academic organizations. Does anyone have any data?

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