Anthropology in/of Circulation

It was never announced officially here, in part deliberately, in part just because my life got the better of me… but let this be official: we (Me, Rex, Jason B. Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Tom Boellstorff, Michael F. Brown and Michael M.J. Fischer) published a Really Great Interview about Open Access in Cultural Anthropology. For those who subscribe, the paper copies have now arrived, for those who don’t it is an Open Access article available to everyone (even in AnthroSource!). It is also hosted at the CA website for your commentary and discussion using the CommentPress software of which I am so fond.

The fact that I am announcing this “too late” is also related to a discussion we started earlier in the month, regarding the issue of attention to and care for various new kinds of internetty and webliche zweipunktnullische projects. In particular, the difficulty academics have of devoting time and attention to such new projects, and the way in which what Rex called the “field of care” structures how academics take up and run with certain projects. There are a lot of really great points in that thread… and I think it’s worth continuing the discussion here, and hopefully, over at Cultural Anthropology as well.

What spun the discussion off in interesting directions, I think, were two points:

1) An issue regarding the different scales of temporality that people live within—from the 72-hr blogosphere horizon, to longer scales of semesters and years and multi-year research projects. One term we’ve used to capture this is “pace-layering”—originally a term Stewart Brand used in his book about buildings and how they “learn” or change at different paces (structures are there for decades while exteriors and interiors change more rapidly). This is a good metaphor for academic research projects which can often have unresolved core issues for years, decades, centuries even, but are surrounded with faster-moving forms of attention… from ongoing experiments, archival investigations, digs in the field, long-term fieldwork to short term paper-writing, data analysis, close reading of texts to even shorter term participation in the blogsphere, or local colloquia and collaboration. It’s my opinion that the new tools available to us on the Internet are obsessed primarily, if not solely, with only the fastest of these scales, the 72-hr bloghorizon. Few, if any, of the tools—like social bookmarking, rss feeds, wikis or blogs themselves have been designed with longer, slower scales of interaction—and keeping people’s attention—in mind. In fact, “longer” and “slower” are in some ways anathema to the ecstatic web 2.0 promises of rapid and large-scale effects which people are seeking from these new technologies. I think this is in conflict with the goals of academic work at all but the most superficial levels. The question is, can these tools be adapted to the deliberate, long-term, “future-proof” (as some information professionals like to say) aspects of scientific research and knowledge generation we angage in.

2) But this begs the question, in some ways, of what exactly are the scientific research and knowledge generation practices we engage in. Prompted in part by my assertion that students today are “more used to the idea of remixing,” Rex suggested that on the contrary, students are just people who have not yet been inculcated into the “field of care” that professionalized academics have been. I like this term very much—both for its prosaic familiarity and for its philosophical overtones of being in the world and attention-tuning of a more fundamental sort. A field of care structures our sense of participation and contribution, our time, our priorities, our horizon of the reasonable and our sense of value of our work. It is something more than a ethos, but something less than a habitus… or to put it differently, it is something learned, but not quickly, and something social—it is not possible to simply opt out of it. Whether or not people take up a project in academia is heavily structured by this field of care, which to outsiders starts to look like tradition, conservatism, expertise, or maybe madness, depending.

What matters for an issue like open access, therefore, is not just the better arguments, the more powerful ideology, the more efficient technology, or the cheaper alternative; rather that what is at stake is a deeply—but not too deeply—embedded way of doing things that structures how and when people can take up a new “field of care” with new technologies, new possibilities and new priorities (and I should say that such a field of care would exist amongst any group with members so inculcated—not just academics, but even more so amongst doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on)

I for one, am not surprised at what Rex called the “lackluster success” of certain projects—like the “modulations” of my book, or the Anthropology of/in Circulation article, or my attempts to make the Anthropology of the Contemporary project work… in large part because I have become more and more familiar with the tenacious grasp that sedimented habits and practices can have on people—even people who are just a couple years out of graduate school and might be expected to be generationally different somehow.

So how do we change this? How do we change habits and practices of this sort? On the one hand, we don’t. Those practices change slowly, and that is a very good thing. If they changed with every new whim in technology or every new academic fashion, it would be nothing but a good sign of their ephemerality, and the ultimate irrelevance of the work produced by those habits and practices. On the other hand, however, we change them by examining them carefully and I think it is this, above all, which new technologies let us do. Blogs and wikis are not tools to liberate discussion and interaction amongst academics trapped in a pointless traditionalism, but tools for examining the existing field of care, carefully. They are tools that reveal what has been naturalized. Rather than simply going on more efficiently with the going concerns of academic life, they reveal, they dis-cover modes of work and interaction that not so long ago seemed natural and unchangeable. But such a revelation is not a change, only a moment for reflection—a question is thrown out: is this the best way of organizing our work, our collaboration, our generation and preservation of knowledge… or should we change it? And if the latter, how, exactly?

If we want to take open access seriously, it’s not just because it’s a good idea, or because it gives us a public anthropology, or a warm fuzzy feeling about contributing to a better world… it is because it reveals really hard questions about how we do what we do: how we organize our research, how we make and distribute new knowldege, how we make it good and make it authoritative and how we trust it. These are issues of profound importance—and what’s more, issues for difficult and painstaking reflection—political work in the sense Arendt gave it, and not mere issues of bureaucratic housekeeping, or technical wrangling.


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.

12 thoughts on “Anthropology in/of Circulation

  1. While I am hoping people will visit the CommentPress version online, one place where an OA PDF version of the article/interview can be found in IUScholarWorks Repository at:

    Chris’ comments are very interesting and fruitful as always. I hope to come back to them as soon as I can. In the meantime, I wanted to share this link for the benefit of Zora, Henry and others who might be seeking the paper.

  2. my bad. I thought the deal was that this article would be open access through AS… but apparently not. I’ll have to investigate…
    In the meantime, the link Jason provided is as good as green…

  3. These are really good and important questions, and I’m glad to see academics, and especially anthropologist academics, grapple with them.

    I read the article, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It raises questions regarding authorship and scholarly authority, which are very worthwhile. Considering those in turn:

    Authorship. I find myself returning to what David Weinberger et al wrote in the Cluetrain Manifesto about the importance of speaking with a human voice online. All of our identity and presence is oftentimes reduced to our textual voice, and finding our own personal, and openly human voices is so important. That was the best part of the article: The fact that I could tell that it was an earnest discussion between seven people, each offering their own perspectives – and obviously not agreeing on all of the issues.

    Scholarly authority. Journals and Publishers lend their authority and brand to every article and they publish. Changing that would mean moving the trust from institutions to people, to faces who publicly review and comment upon articles as work-in-progress. I like the notion of the blogosphere as a world of first drafts, where articles can be in public beta, slowly maturing as people read and comment on it. Adding their voices to the mix. Latour talks about the scientific article as a black box of all the work it took to get that far – perhaps we should upon it up a little and show all the blind ends and mistakes it takes to make it that far?

    I think perhaps the core issue at stake here is not the means of distribution or access, but rather the end-product. Why aren’t people modulating the article or Two Bits? Because they are obviously finished, peer-reviewed and packaged to impress. There is no obvious room for improvement, only review and follow-up discussion like this.

    But if either had a big BETA sign on them, had a TODO file listing needed improvements, or came with a note asking for specific comments. People – like me – would read them differently. I would read not only to learn and reflect, but also to suggest improvements in the text as I went along. It would enter my field of care in a much easier way, as I would feel that I was part of a grander (new, exciting) process – not some academic afterthought.

  4. A very thoughtful piece, ckelty, many thanks. I think it will stick and we’ll be revisiting it for a while. I have done some work on practice theory and field theory lately (not only Bourdieu’s version, I hasten to add) and your remarks about “field of care” structures and different paces of Web life resonate strongly with my own findings and experiences.

    One dimension I would add to your account is power – the old Manchester School of anthropology focus on conflict within and across political fields (broadly defined). Far from being an aberration to be averted at all costs, conflict is part and parcel of any “field of care”. Fields of care are also battlefields, to use Bourdieu’s idiom.

  5. Andreas and John point to the same issue in different ways, I think. For academic contributions to feel meaningful within a field of care, they must also feel special, in the sense of participating in cutting edge research, in work that needs to get done, and to something that plays to one’s strengths… in some ways this was indeed the experience of *writing* that interview, and not the experience of reading it or discussing it. So absolutely, there may not be much more to discuss in the frame of that interview simply because the moment of participation is over. What’s more it was conducted in an old-schoolish way, via email and on a private google docs document, and maybe it should have been on the comment press site all along, with invitation for people to comment as the core content unfolded… but that would have been too much of a free for all, and relates to my point that the tools don’t necessarily support the kinds of collaborations we know well and care about.

    In turn, this is also related to the issue of power. The seven of us get special credit for what we’ve done, and the commentators would get less, far less maybe. I tried to convince about 12 people to become “special commentators” on the piece, to open up new questions, respond critically or what not… but no one wanted to, probably because the action in creating the piece was over in an academic sense… such commentators don’t get to put it on their cv–but we do. And that simple issue, what we can put on a cv, is a huge determinant of what we can and will do in terms of our contribution to the millions of good projects there are in the world.

    Add to that issue of power, the one that prompted the piece in the first place… the editors of CA wanted me, in particular, and Michael Fischer, who is an established and respected scholar, to lend legitimacy to the issue of Open Access through my expertise, and my new book, and through Dr. Fischer’s status. We are all fed up with the AAA treating OA as if it is a minor issue of accounting and publishing strategies, rather than a core part of our professional mission, and wanted to drawn on what little power and authority we have to do that in this case.

  6. Some thought to ‘complexify’ the picture:
    1. Longer time frames are very much a part of librarian and IT concerns about creating online archives — they worry endlessly that digital is not as robust as paper, that the costs of upkeep are super expensive, and so forth. So there are ‘slow’ ‘digital’ project.

    2. There are also ‘fast’ ‘scholarly’ projects — to wit, ‘science’. I’ve often been struck by the way that cultural anthropology types don’t want people to read their work until it is completely and totally polished (and sometimes not even then!). The Archaeology and Physical Anthro folks that I know tend to have publication sensibilities that are more similar to what I’ve seen working in the physical sciences — publish early, often, get the data (and that fact that they are _your_ data) out there as soon as possible, preferably before the journal article is actually published.

  7. ckelty, I think you’re spot on when you point to the issue of academic credit as a determining factor. Especially since credit (getting to put it on your CV) is the central currency in academia.

    Perhaps a central challenge will be to rethink the way that such credit is given and administered. Already now, smaller contributions like reviews and comments are typically acknowledged for such contributions at the beginning of a book or in a footnote in a paper. Perhaps such work could result in more formal credit?

    I suspect that the writerly and artistic sensibility typical within cultural anthropology, which Rex hints at, is part of the problem, since anthropologists become so attached to their work (as part of their work of personal transformation?) that they’re unwilling to let be commented and developed in a more collaborative setting.

  8. Cranky, without coffee.

    Consider this post an act of sophistry. I don’t necessarily agree with myself, but the discussion triggered a few ideas. React away, but please do it playfully.


    Come on you guys make this sound like such a complicated issue. The reason academics avoid collaborative settings is they have no faith in their work, since they are stuck writing about traditional topics (fields of care?) that are of no interest to a larger community.

    The fact is anthropology bores anthropologists and the public alike. It is written to prove that one works hard, and that one is disciplined. More simply, it is written to get jobs, and to keep jobs.

    We tactically pick up language that we understand will empower us within the anthropological community, and through that language specialization we separate ourselves from possible collaborators.

    The internet has revolutionized our ability to communicate and collaborate at a distance. It is simply much easier now to work within a larger group of people. I believe it is revolutionizing the topics anthropologists deal with, and making obsolete traditional “fields of care”. [this is in part due to increased collaboration with those outside the field, who bring different interests.]

    That so many academics refrain from publicizing their work, or even allowing it to be promoted publicly is revealing of that feeling anthropologists have deep down, that they do what they do as part of a job and less as a service to others.

    Who is worrying that digital archives are not as robust as paper? From discussions I’ve had with librarians, digital is the way to go. They take online subscriptions over print subscriptions whenever possible (maybe this is just cost related? interesting angle to investigate…)

    Scientists actually have more to gain from hiding their work. Most scientists work for private institutions that do not allow early publishing of results (or publishing results at all). It’s misleading to say that hard sciences are more willing to publish early.

    “but that would have been too much of a free for all, and relates to my point that the tools don’t necessarily support the kinds of collaborations we know well and care about.”

    – Too much of a free for all, and yet free for all discussions are possibly more valuable than the discussion you finally published. I think that’s the root of the issue. Journal publications in anthropology serve no purpose aside getting jobs and promotions. They do not help society, they do not help communities, they help anthropologists! This demands a complete reworking of anthropological fields of care, and I say increased collaboration among academics and others is doing this. [big question: how does publishing in a closed journal help anyone other than the anthropologist?] I’m not asking anthro’s to save the world, (that would be nice though), but I’ve found arguments for making research relevant to involved communities to be very convincing.

    And for students who aren’t publishing yet, these tools are extremely liberating, since it gives us a place in the overall discussion. Aka, we become team members and not grunts.

    Kelty, I think your Two Bits site could be very effective if you give it time and continue to work on it. Last I checked it needed a spam filter really badly. The fact it had hundreds of spam posts as comments stopped me from contributing my pesky commentary!. I was impressed with the work that went into setting up a means to publish comments on your work, and I hope you keep pushing it (since you didn’t push it much here on Savage Minds.)

    What would really work is getting a class to read it and contribute ideas online. Let them do it anonymously for those who are nervous about making fools of themselves in public (some of us enjoy it more than others! 🙂 ) And yes, academics credit is definitely part of the game. The attempt to be promoted, marked, and eventually paid certainly does influence where I think.


    One love,

    boo to Anthrosource for failing to make your OA publication OA.

    I’m sitting here pondering the submit button. I’m playing with a position, but I’m not locked down even if it sounds like I am!

  9. Booing AnthroSource is not exactly the response that I would want to promote. Under Chris’ leadership, the authors of the “article”/”interview” that we are talking about used the Science Commons version of the SPARC author addendum ( ) to secure all the rights needed to post the piece in repositories (as with the IUScholarWorks version I pointed to above) and to remix it in forms like the CommentPress site ( ). While there were certain kinds of frictions in the system, the American Anthropological Association did not block the effort. As Chris suggests above, the project was prompted by the OA concerns of the journal’s editors and they totally helped rather than hindered the effort. I do not think that stand alone, item level OA access is realistically possible within the now moribund (i.e. soon to be replaced) AnthroSource architecture. I am not sure if the article could have been made OA inside Blackwell Synergy, but had this been possible, it would have entailed arrangements that we did not, to my knowledge, seek to make. (There are author-pays ways to do this in other corners of the Blackwell journal universe.) Our approach to opening the piece was predicated on retaining the rights needed to do it ourselves (DIY) rather than looking to AAA or Wiley-Blackwell to do it. Much remains to be discussed vis-a-vis AAA policy on OA, but I do not think that we were wronged in this particular instance. I never imagined that the AnthroSource or Synergy instances themselves were going to be open. This is why getting a stable, open version posed in a well tended repository as soon as possible was a key goal of mine.

    I am very thankful that we were not significantly hindered by AAA or anyone else in this effort. I cannot describe them yet in public, but the article has had some rather dramatic and positive effects in some (non-AAA) corners of the scholarly communications landscape in which I work. Not all communal impacts of a piece like this show up in clear, recognizable formats. Thanks then to everyone who has been reading and thinking about the piece, even if they are not commenting on or remixing it in public places. I am presently very excited by some of the more private effects that it is having.

  10. I think the confusion about the AS version is something we started to address in the interview itself…namely the proliferation of versions of an article… green, gold, pre-publication, last clean copy, pdf version, print version… which one do you cite? That was, and will be, an issue, though not a very important one. Jason is right that the architecture of AS and WB-Blackwell don’t necessarily permit one-off OA articles unless you go through a pay-to-publish route, but I DID expect that the AS version would be OA… I just didn’t check with anyone, and so I was wrong to assume it would be without vigilance on that issue…

    As to owen’s provocations, I can’t find too much to disagree with except: 1) variation is the exception that proves the rule in terms of what acacemics expect from their work and whether they make it public… I refuse to generalize and 2) thanks for the feedback on the twobits site… spam (yes always an annoying problem that I cannot keep up with) and encouraging conversation… I promise to try harder and I felt like I was already promoting it too much, so I’m glad to hear from at least one person that it isn’t the case

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