Governance, transparency and sacred bundles

My recent comment on the AAA-Wiley deal (now on the website: here), and in particular the focus on the AAA’s lack of transparency, drew the attention of Dan Segal. Dr. Segal is the current secretary of the AAA and he has also been editor of Cultural Anthropology, president of The Society for Cultural Anthropology, an ex officio member of the AAA’s Exec council and a member of the AAA Commission on Governance among many other things. Which is to say, when Dan offers criticisms or advice regarding the AAA, I listen:

As to the specific case, I think you are absolutely right that the process of seeking and choosing among bidders for AAA’s publishing contract should have been announced as widely as possible in advance. What I am not sure of in this regard, and which I will try to research in spare moments, is whether there in fact were some public announcements to various constituencies, at some points, some of which you may have missed.

This uncertainty on my part speaks to a more general point. My view is that that the AAA professional staff and AAA elected officers are generally and deeply dedicated to transparency, and as such, they/we stream out an enormous amount of information–making the AAA genuinely more transparent than both of the other professional associations I know very well (the AHA and the APA, with the “P” being for “philosophers”). The problem is not that the AAA professional staff and AAA elected officers are stingy with information, but that there is so much that needs to be broadcast, with such differential interest on the part of so many differentiated constituencies in the AAA, that accomplishing transparency is very difficult. As long as you personalize this or attribute it to a lack of “effort,” you won’t see the systemic character of the problem—or be able to help make it better.

In my experience, all of the principals involved do somersaults to get out info: AAA President Alan Goodman and AAA Executive Director Bill Davis are both unquestionably committed to transparency. The problem we officers and the professional staff face is knowing what to tell whom. The officers and professional staff send out much info to AAA constituencies that gets ignored or ends up being of no interest. And then other issues unexpectedly become of great interest–to some constituencies.

There are three structural problems or more precisely situations that need to be taken into account to understand this. One is that the AAA is a fantastically plural or lumpy organization, which means that different constituencies want different info — and many people respond to flows of info they do not want by being less than attentive to subsequent flows. A second (and “merely” technical and financial) problem is that the AAA software for distributing information to specific groupings of persons (all editors or all presidents or all treasurers) is terrible—and so too, the AAA website needs (and is in the midst of) a basic overhaul, with the goal of allowing it to work better as a source of info. Finally, a third problem (related to the first) is that the AAA Executive Board (EB) has much too little structural linkage to the Section Assembly and the Sections—something that was done on purpose in the 1990s for the ideological purpose of supporting the “sacred bundle” (on this point, see the volume Sylvia and I edited). This fetish of the four-field model has structurally isolated the EB and thus done real harm. And that is why there has been a Governance Commission. Its proposals do connect the EB more to the Sections and will, therefore, contribute to a better context for transparency — once the reforms are adopted.

All in all, there are real problems with transparency for the AAA. On the issue of the new publishing contract, for instance, I do not feel we on the EB did enough early enough to bring the journal editors into the conversation. But the reasons the AAA has recurring problems with transparency are systemic and structural—rather than the ones your blog suggests.

Gulity as charged. I shouldn’t have stooped to cheap-shots and nonconstructive criticism of the AAA staff and their handling of the Agreement. It was a puerilty born of frustration, and frankly a bit of embarrassment, with the agreement and with the problems of transparency that are very real, if not easily solved. I also do not mean to suggest that anyone involved is opposed to transparency– I question no one’s motives here. I know that these issues are structural and systemic, and I do want to help solve them. Dan among many others have continuously encouraged me to join in the AAA at some level in order to do so. I may yet. But in all honesty, I do think that this forum and others like it can contribute, if only by trying to broaden the discussion, keep the AAA and EB honest, help circulate the information and debate, and try to create a sense that there is a public out there beyond the instrumental constituencies that the AAA serves. But I agree that personalizing the issue doesn’t help.

Indeed, I would agree wholeheartedly with Segal’s diagnosis of the problem. Let me condense it further: transparency is not simply a problem of communicating information, it is a problem of governance.

When he says the problem is “knowing what to tell whom” I hear a problem of organization and hierarchy: who is in charge of what, is that hierarchy obvious to members and observers? who has the final say? what is the periodicity of decision making? how do leaders communicate what they are doing to deputies and other people in the hierarchy? Many of these issues are in fact fully internal to the AAA, and I can say nothing about whether that internal organization is functioning well… but if it is, it should make transparency an easier task. Even if (or perhaps because) Bill Davis and Alan Goodman “do somersaults” to get info out, it doesn’t mean that the process works. Transmitting is only half the problem– the other half is creating the demand, helping people to pay attention, and simplifying the issues so that people know where to focus their attention.

Lumpy and Pluralistic? And thank god. It remains one of the greatest strengths of the AAA that it is ecumenical and open, and of course that means that different people want different info. But again, is this not a problem of governance? Why isn’t the task of communicating to particular subsets devolved wholly onto the sections and interest groups (and why isn’t the AAA website organized clearly to represent these constituencies)? Shouldn’t there be a very clear sense, visible on the website and in the materials sent out to members, of what each section does, what issues are currently on the table and who is dealing with them? And what’s more, each of those sections should have access to the AAA website as a medium for communication on par with other sections and the AAA/EB. In some ways this means distributing the AAA staff in the same way– not just expanding representation on the EB– because these are really down-to-earth practical problems of managing communications and information, and they need dedicated people to deal with them. Perhaps these are the reforms the Governance Committee is proposing, but I haven’t seen those proposals yet.

The Software is terrible and so is the website. You’ll get no argument from me here. I’m obviously someone who lives and breathes 100% through the internet, so my criticisms may seem extreme. But I do in fact receive paper copies of AN, and occasionally I browse them. However, when I think: I want to read an article, I rarely go leafing through my paper copies, I go to Anthrosource (but I should be going to the AAA site, where AN would be freely available to the world). If I want to find out what the AAA is doing, I go to the website, and this is where my puerilty gets the better of me… it is really, really, really hard to find information that way. And I am a power user… what about the other poor souls in anthropology? Perhaps this will surprise though: solving this problem does not start with getting better technology, it starts with hiring the right people, and probably getting more of them than the AAA thinks it needs, and probably distributing them to the sections, rather than centering them all in the AAA. I don’t know what the thinking on this issue is, but as long as the website and communications are seen as clerical problems that a “web designer” can solve, the problem will not go away. However, if the AAA hires people whose dedicated job it is to deal with communications–and the communications people are involved in or at least understand the governance structure- the technology problem will get a lot easier.

The sacred bundle. If the AAA actually does exist to lend ideological support to the myth of four-field anthropology, then at last I know where all my money is going. (kidding, a joke 🙂 ). Seriously, I have a bad feeling about this “structural” problem, which is that if individuals involved in the governance of the AAA (either EB or sections or staff) really do believe that the AAA serves the four-field myth first and actually-existing-anthropology second, then I can see no hope. There is no way to jerry-rig a governance structure to be both a quasi-nationalist symbol of harmony and a practical bureaucracy at the same time. It’s a bizarre form of nostalgia that is, frankly, extremely dangerous to the health of a functioning scholarly society and maybe even the 10 or so people who are in fact doing four-field research. That being said, I don’t really see why this is a “structural” problem. Why is it not possible to have a federation of sections who represent the ongoing research of real organizations, and let the AAA continue to trumpet the great beauty and harmony and holism of four field anthropology? I don’t really understand why the myth has to be reflected in the org chart? Is it really?

I think the real structural problem of governance is that the AAA’s financial solvency and governance are tied up with its publishing model. Most members in the AAA don’t give a sacred bundle what the AAA does, they sign up when they have to (to go to meetings) and in the past, to get a journal. This would not be a bad thing necessarily (and increasing member involvement should be seen as its own separate task), if it were not the case that the financial solvency of the organization is built on a model of attracting members’ attention to journals and asking them to pay for research they contain, rather than on inducting them into a section that connects them to similar researchers and provides services other than publication. The fact that all members have to purchase AA first, and a section publication optionally seems to reflect the focus on the myth rather than the reality. I don’t want to throw the bundle out with the bathwater but It seems like this structure should be reversed, maybe?

I want to thank Dan for agreeing to air this in public, both because I think discussing it in public is important, and because I think that by archiving these discussions, new entrants to the debate will be able to learn more about the issues and the possible solutions that I have been able to.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Governance, transparency and sacred bundles

  1. There are important, structural problems at the AAA as Segal points out. That said, I think we should give the “personalized” explanation a run for its money. This is not a call for ad hominem attacks, but it _is_ a demand for _responsibility_. The AAA is made up of structures. It is also made up of agency. You can explain the failure of hard working and dedicated people to achieve their goals as a result of structural impediments. You could also call it ‘incompetence.’ We in anthropology know too much about the interplay of structure and agency to explain away the problems of the AAA solely with reference to one and not the other.

    The website is a perfect example of this — it is now TWO YEARS since the promised redesign. Surely this is just not that hard. I have been around the internet long enough to know just how illusory the “let’s start a wiki” solution to organizational communication is. But in the AAAs case the incredibly simple expedient of signing up with blogger would be a step forward — which is saying something.

    And finally, we would never had any of this — Segal’s letter, and what other dribs and drabs we’ve gotten out of the AAA — if SM hadn’t covered this story in the first place. The AAA may claim to ‘be committed’ to transparency but for all intents and purposes this is only because third party sources have ‘committed them to it’ by demanding information. That’s a track record you should be proud of, Chris, not one you should apologize for.

  2. Thanks to Dan, Chris, Rex and everyone else who takes the time to try to figure this stuff out and make things better through open discussion.

  3. From my experience working in a few big bureaucracies, I think the problem of communication that Dan Segal talks about – getting the right information to the right people at the right time – is inherent in large and lumpy organizations like the AAA. The AAA is a bureaucracy like any other, and it provides structure at the same time that it’s somewhat sclerotic. The entire business model probably needs to be revamped, as you point out – the communication is just symptomatic.

    Speaking of which, I found out that the AAA was opening the door to bids for its journals because I have a friend that works at Wiley who called me and said, “Hey, did you hear about this?” NOT because of anything I heard through the AAA. Houston, we’ve got a problem. That said, I agree, I think the Wiley deal could be really good for the AAA. Maybe they’ll make AnthroSource easier to use (I couldn’t find one of my own AN articles last week).

    Chris, you’ve done more thinking about this problem than most AAA members. Don’t apologize for being willing to pay attention, get involved and work to inform yourself, and to get others informed, too. We need more people paying attention, too. You opened up some dialogue between SM readers and the EB. Good stuff.

  4. Is the AAA “a bureaucracy like any other”? I’m not ready to assume that they are all alike. Just how big is this organization we are talking about? The administration (full time staff members) is certainly not very large. And even counting the large number of sections and the committees therein, we are still not dealing with something the size of a large enterprise.

    How the AAA works is something that is amenable to empirical inquiry, and I’m not sure we should take the natives analysis at face value. Based on my own participation in AAA governance, I’d say that the AAA is really about the size of a medium-sized ministry in PNG. And I’d guess (this is just a guess) that it is similarly structured: a small-world social network which attempts to present itself (I was about to say ‘masquerades as’) as a hierarchically-organized bureaucracy.

  5. Coming off an (unusual) week in which I was in communication with AAA staff and leadership on the practical side of the W-B transition, I would just observe that there is much patient educational work to do on many fronts. The existence of deep anger/frustration in the research library community, the availability content management software for maintaining websites, the existance of OA anthropology journals, the arguements of OA advocates, the availability of open source software (for many of the tasks at hand) (and the meaning of open source), even the existence of forums such as Savage Minds where colleagues can gather to discuss significant issues–these are (the kinds of) things that many smart, engaged colleagues know nothing about (yet).

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