A Media Anthropologist in a Commune

My girlfriend lives on a commune, or, to be more PC and less 1960s, an “intentional community” in Southern California. The social glue that links the residents are a non-denominational spirituality, inexpensive/free living, shared work, collective food production and sharing, and “community.” From what I can gather, residents share a desire to link individual with universal consciousness, connect to nature through devotional work, and uphold an emotional honesty. The more humanistic or less numinous amongst the residents say “community” is the reason they live here. For these individuals, this commune’s attractions are the shared responsibilities and personal relationships. I am here now enjoying a kale and fig salad and handpicked/squeezed orange juice from the orchard (she is the reigning queen of the organic farm here) and entertaining research ideas.

In the 1990s there were a few anthropologists working on the American commune. These studies focused on history. Examples include Don Pitzer’s cross-cultural utopianism and developmental communalism and Susan Love Brown’s ethnography of a yogic community and her accurate description of the importance of generations for the growth of New Age religiosity. Honestly, the history of the American commune doesn’t interest me as much as the future of small-scale socialism. As a media anthropologist, I want to see how this bricks-and-mortar intentional community relates to the taste and affinity cultures online. How to create analogies that move between this commune and digital socialism?

Skeptics of social media like Andrew Keen and Neil Postman agree that there is a fundamental and substantive difference between real and virtual communities. Something profoundly human is lost in the virtualization of relationships. Personally, I tend to see social media as augmenting my strong friendships, extending my informal friendships, and providing opportunities for new friendships. Regular use of social media affirms or complicates preexisting relationships, provide opportunities for the creation of new networks, while creating something perhaps unprecedented: virtual communities. These virtual communities could be seen as historical extensions of communes, political groups, audiences, fan bases, and other communities unified by analogue media. However, in some ways they might also provide for the invention of new sociality. Clay Shirkey, Henry Jenkins, and danah boyd expand on this generative thesis.

As distinct as they are materially and physically, it is difficult to textually code in a single word the differences between “real” and “virtual” communities. Cultural relativists like anthropologists are rightfully wary of “reality” and how “real” creates “unreal” communities. So “real” won’t work. What about “embodied?” Engagement with social media at a laptop isn’t the most active of corporeal engagements but it is nonetheless embodied. Will “symbolic” community work for the “virtual?” In-person engagements are mediated by fashion, language, body movements, and other symbolic forms of communication. So “embodied communities” won’t work for the “real.” The terms “mediated” or “symbolic” won’t work for the “virtual” which we know isn’t just virtual but also physical. Recourse to archaeology won’t work because virtual communities produce many tangible artifacts and a substantial infrastructure. I will use in-person to describe those person-to-person interactions in shared tangible space and online communities to describe the digital relationships knowing that this definition is leaky.

So here’s the pitch. A comparison between this commune and a virtual community could provide evidence for what are the differences between in-person and online communities. It will be necessary to locate and work with a vibrant virtual community that is networked via social media and who share a set of ideological beliefs or a division of labor. A Facebook group that interacts around political or religious ideas would work. The primary data will come from an identical questionnaire that will be filled-out by both the residents at the commune and the participants in the virtual community. The correct drafting of this instrument will be necessary to elicit evidence about what differentiates and unifies the in-person and online communities.

The most important point that unifies this intentional community and social media communities is “intentionality.” Both populations elect to be a player in the chosen community. They are not born into it by their gender or generation nor are they forced into it by circumstance and history. Intentionality is enshrined in the very title given by members of this “intentional community.” Communes, despite having ideological ideas about nature, consciousness, and social work going back to the 17th century, reflect one of the emergent qualities for the creation of new online communities. Doubters could see intentionality as the social fabric for community development as but an extension of the consumeristic mentality that prioritizes individualism and a shopping mentality taken towards social formation. Regardless of the connections between intentional community development and capitalistic interpellation, intentionality as a force for community growth is a frame through which we can observe and critique the formation of numerous cultures of affinity, competency, and taste both in-person and online.

What would be a good online community for comparison? Are there any precedents for this research?

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

35 thoughts on “A Media Anthropologist in a Commune

  1. My master’s work was with an intentional community and invented traditions in new religious movements, and there are a lot of references for that (I see you mentioned Brown, which I also used). I am doing my dissertation work with what I consider an intentional community, albeit a temporary one, that is an IRL extension of virtual social networking and SMS. There are a few works done in this area, and I am using material by Shirky, boyd, Wilson, Adams, Yans, and others (don’t know Jenkins, will have to look this up). I can forward you a partial bib if you’d like.

  2. A friend of mine, Terryl Ross, developed an intentional virtual community for his doctoral research. The community is the Multicultural Organization of Students Actively Involved in Change (MOSAIC). Dr. Ross is now Director of Community and Diversity at Oregon State University, and pretty easy to contact. MOSAIC continues.

  3. Open source communities are interesting virtual communities in terms of division of labor. There are many, Linux kernel being arguably the most studied and the most famous.

  4. This is a very interesting post and idea. A couple of ideas come to mind immediately. One might be to look at a World of Warcraft group. Although the ideology will be very different than in the commune and the fighting band, both are intentional and both have strong divisions of labor. You might also look at some of the interactive groups in Second Life. There are groups dedicated to all kinds of things there.
    Personally, I am working on Alcoholics Anonymous. So far, I have been primarily looking at the narratives, but I know that eventually I will have to get into the social structure, uses of authority, and so forth. I would be very interested to see your survey. If it works, perhaps I could gather some data from AA members (another intentional, though part-time) community, for more comparative data.

  5. Your research sounds interesting – you’ve listed some sources that will probably be useful for me too! (I’m also a graduate student working on anthropology of digital media.)
    This is probably something you’ve already thought of, but one major difference between online and offline communities is the degree to which the community is all-encompassing. I don’t know much about the intentional communities you’ve mentioned, but I’d assume they’re places where people spend a significant part of their physical and social life, whereas online communities are usually more along the lines of part-time communities.
    As for research suggestions, I’m not sure. I know there are quite a few religious communities in Second Life that might be helpful to look at. Another possibility might be an online message board, chat group, etc. that has similar goals to that of the intentional community/communities you’ll be looking at.
    Hope this helps!

  6. What is particularly ‘intentional’ about the commune community that is not present in so many other collocated communities?

    It would also be difficult to create a comparison without acknowledging that within a virtual community you can also concurrently inhabit other communities, even intentional ones (facebook group messaging in a classroom). This seems more difficult in the commune example.

    And of course there are questions about data retention, free labor and more.

    I’d suggest looking at:

  7. Stimulated by an earlier thread on Savage Minds, I am now reading Tom Boellstorff’s _Coming of Age in Second Life_. Would be curious to know what you think of it?

    Also, could you say a bit more about the sense in which you use “community”?

    When I think about communities, I find myself recalling diverse examples. At one extreme are the Lutheran congregations, which my parents helped to found, and in which I grew up. Weekly worship, choir practice, Sunday school, catechism classes, weddings, funerals, church suppers — a whole lot of stuff going on all the time. A particularly vivid childhood memory is of the time when our house burned down, my father’s father and brothers came up to Virginia from Georgia to build a new house, and the men from the congregation turned out to help them roof it, with lunch laid on by the ladies. At the other are “brand communities” about which I’ve had to write advertising, whose members have little in common except owning a particular product. Yes, they may share certain tastes and attitudes, but weddings? Funerals? Turning out in time of need? I don’t think so. Advertisers may take steps to promote more interaction; BMW sponsoring golf tournaments or handing out tickets to the opera — but these are few and far between. The online communities, mostly email lists to which I have belonged, are somewhere betwixt-and-between. I have gotten to know some people as individuals, even met a few in the flesh. Even so, these contacts still seem thin compared to the ones in those congregations I grew up in.

  8. Would it not be an overwhelmingly significant difference that members of an intentional community live in it and need to structure their lives in account of that and members of an online community are essentially transient and can log in or out of it anytime they choose? It isn’t quite like comparing people who live together in Japan with people who live together in Sweden, you are comparing people who live together and deal with all the responsibilities of that and people who don’t. That will have to be some ‘correctly drafted instrument’!

  9. The first thought that came into my head was very similar to Erica’s comment.

    One option, that has been mentioned, would be to go down the path of looking at a virtual community that interacts around projects in the virtual world. I assume that could include team based online multiplayer games or Second Life communities.

    You could look at virtual communities that communicate about a topic and even choose a topic that would be of significance in the intentional community, such as food production. However I am not sure if you would be able to make significant comparisons in the area you outlined as I imagine the most significant difference in interactions between members would be because the consequences of one person’s actions would not be shared by the other members of the virtual community.

  10. I agree that the virtual community chosen needs to be far more interactive than a Facebook group. What makes a commune (sorry, “intentional community”) so intentional is the fact that each individual within the community is consistently held responsible for his/her contribution. Each member understands their interconnectedness and holds both themselves and the other members accountable. The only kind of interactive virtual community I can think of that could even come close to comparing would be a real-time on-going game of some sort where several members are responsible to one another. Or maybe a real-time Sims community (do they have those?). Best of luck to you! This is a fascinating topic!

  11. so, what if the distinction is the wrong one?

    I just visited a squat in Madrid, called Patio Maravillas. It is an intentional community if ever there was one–community focused, organized around socialist principles, communal kitchen, open to anyone. But it is governed through and through *online*. Every aspect of governance and deliberation takes place via social networking tools and the hacker collective within the squat is called hamlab, run by a collection of people who all refer to themselves as isaac hacksimov, most of them devoted to the principles of free software, even if they are not actively creating it. Their only ideological focus is “maximum openness”– anyone with any political or religious orientation is free to join the group and stay, so long as they abide by the communally developed rules. For me, it is one of the purest expressions of a “recursive public” in its aesthetics and organization. I’m flabbergasted that it works, but that makes me so happy.

    I suppose it’s just one counter-example, but making the distinction between a real and a virtual community strikes me as a big dead end. I think it is no longer meaningful to “drop out” in the classic sense.

    Seems also that Fred Turner’s book should be central to this pitch…

  12. In my view the term ‘community’ is too vague, emotive and normative to be of much help as an analytical tool. Community is a cherished ideal and often a rhetorical device, not an empirical actuality. With Amit (in Amit and Rapport 2002) I see community as signalling a field of political contestation over social organisation rather than an actual empirical referent. My suggestion would be to study it as a vague folk notion not as an empirical actuality (or even an approximation to an empirical actuality): because it can mean anything to anyone, it is ultimately meaningless as a social scientific concept.

    But what if the people I’m working with insist that they live in a community? you may counter. As someone once said on a scholarly mailing list when the subject of community came up: fear of globins does not goblins make.

    Amit, Vered and Nigel Rapport (2002) The Trouble With Community. London: Pluto

  13. bq. My suggestion would be to study it as a vague folk notion not as an empirical actuality (or even an approximation to an empirical actuality): because it can mean anything to anyone, it is ultimately meaningless as a social scientific concept.

    You could always give the term an operational definition, of course.

    I do wonder what Robert Redfield would make of all this, though…

  14. Perhaps a compromise along the lines suggested by Howard Becker in _Tricks of the Trade_.

    Like other students at the University of Chicago, Becker had acquired the habit of asking, “How is that defined?” and searching for the necessary and sufficient attributes required by scholastic logic. Then, he met Everett Hughes, from whom he learned the trick of turning the question on its head. Here the case is ethnic groups, but the logic applies to communities as well.

    bq. An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary, because the people _in_ and the people _out_ of it know that it is one; because both the _ins_ and the _outs_ talk, feel, and act as if it were a separate group.

    In other words, a social fact has been created. That fact is, following W.I. Thomas’ dictum that “What men believe to be true is true in its consequences,” an objective reality. It is not, however, the researcher’s job to prejudge what elements constitute that reality. That remains to be discovered.

  15. I think it is imperative that we distinguish between folk notions that refer to empirically researchable social realms (e.g. pubs, committees, schools, peer groups, websites) and folk notions that refer to transempirical realms that exist – in all probability – only in people’s minds (e.g. nirvana, the Afterworld, communities). That doesn’t mean we should ignore the latter, but rather that we should put them in a different category, the category of emic notions that matter to the people we’re working with but are beyond our empirical reach *as social realms*. We can report that people in village X talk a lot about nirvana and believe in its existence, but we cannot go there to do fieldwork. Where we can go is the local watering holes, schools, houses, temples, etc.

    There are no ‘local communities’ other than in popular rhetoric because ‘community’ could refer to just about anything. It is too imprecise a term to be helpful as a guide to the empirical actualities on the ground. There may be local mosques, rowing clubs, tavernas, gangs, etc, to investigate, but investigating whether or not there is an actual or imagined community is analogous to setting out to determine the sex of angels.

  16. PS – Incidentally, I’m not arguing that all social realms are visible to the human eye. Take the example of fields of practice such as art, sociology or acupuncture. Although these fields are invisible (unlike, say, rugby fields or battlefields) there is abundant empirical evidence to suggest that they do actually exist, forming dynamic configurations of objective relations among variously positioned practitioners (Bourdieu). In contrast to communities, angels or goblins, fields of practice are *not* figments of the imagination.

  17. John, I am interested then, what you make of the term “communities of practice” by Lave and Wenger and others (see “here”:http://www.ewenger.com/theory/ for a definition) which refer as far as I can tell to what you call “fields of practice”.

  18. In what sense is community more imaginary than art, language, religion, or the nation-state? Consider, for example, the nation-state, conceived by Benedict Anderson as “an imagined community.” The Wikipedia article on Anderson describes it as follows,

    bq. These communities are imagined as both limited and sovereign. They are limited in that nations have “finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations”.[1] They are sovereign insofar as no dynastic monarchy can claim authority over them, an idea arising in the early modern period:…[T]he concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the [direct relationship] between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state. (pp. 6-7)

    bq. Even though we may never see anyone in our imagined community, we still know they are there through communication.

    bq. Finally, a nation is an imagined community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

    It is plausible to argue that the term “community” is used of so many different configurations of objective relations among variously positioned practitioners, that it tells us little except that those who use the term of themselves and others are ascribing a kind of collective identity. The specifics of that identity must be discovered empirically.

    That said, it seems a bit harsh to say of, some other instances, mayors of small towns, bishops describing dioceses, or a Naval officer describing herself as a member of the aviation community (not surface warfare or submarines) is not pointing to something as objectively real in precisely the sense that Bourdieu describes.

  19. That’s it, you all gang up on this poor little Briton who’s only trying to help out 🙂

    No, seriously now. John McCreery concurs with me when he says that when people use the English word ‘community’ to refer to themselves they’re only pointing at the possible (and I stress the term ‘possible’) existence of a social universe that the researcher will then need to painstakingly explore through empirical as well as theoretical means. In itself, though, for the purposes of sociological mapping – as opposed to the study of vernacular rhetoric – vague statements such as “We’re all one big community here” are of very little use.

    When a naval officer says she is a member of ‘the naval community’ she is using a perfectly valid colloquial English expression in the context of an informal conversation or, say, in that of a service memorial or a bit of a PR spin for the local press. But if a PhD candidate in social anthropology or sociology went back to his supervisor and told them that they’d been studying the naval community the boss would be justified in querying this folk expression, with all its heavy normative and ideological charge. ‘The naval community’ may be what those with a stake in this alleged social universe may want to call it, but we social scientists should be using more precise, less ideologically loaded terminology when talking among ourselves.

  20. A visitor from Mars would surely be forgiven for being confused as to why someone would assert that 1) there are things called ‘fields of practice’ simultaneously constituted by and constituting multiple human agents & 2) these multiple agents do not constitute a group. So much work put into making such seemingly trivial distinctions! Very Bourdieuian, if nothing else.

  21. Glad to hear that John Postil and I are on the same page, but before saying the following a bit of easy-to-do online research might have been in order.

    bq. When a naval officer says she is a member of ‘the naval community’ she is using a perfectly valid colloquial English expression in the context of an informal conversation or, say, in that of a service memorial or a bit of a PR spin for the local press.

    The Naval officer in question (my daughter, Annapolis, Class of ’98) wasn’t talking about “the naval community.” She might have said, “The Navy community” referring to the service to which she belonged, which in uniforms, traditions, ranks, military specialties, ships, submarines, aircraft, and other technologies–not to mention favorites in the annual Army-Navy football game — is about as objectively real as any institution gets. The specific usage I referred to, however, was that by which the U.S. Navy is formally divided into Aviation, Submarines and Surface Warfare communities. Annapolis graduates choice of or assignment to one of these communities has a major and material effect on their careers.

    Consider the following bit of ethnographic data, an answer to the question “What does black shoe and brown shoe Navy mean?”

    bq. Naval aviators and naval flight officers (back-seaters) are authorized to wear brown shoes with their khaki uniforms while all other officers wear black.

    bq. I think the “split” is because only aviatiors can command aircraft carriers. These high profile assignments are stepping stones to flag rank. Additionally, command track aviators often have a deep draft command before commanding a carrier, so I’m sure it is felt that too many at sea commands are reserved for aviators, limiting opportunity for those officers whose careers are spent on ships.

    bq. I’m not sure how prevalent this split is today, but I know it was particularly acute during and immediately after WW2 when the carrier became the centerpiece of naval warfare.
    bq. Source(s):
    bq. USN 1985-92

    See http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080509115219AAc3HrY

  22. Re M.T. Bradley’s remark. “Group” like “community” is a term whose application has been extended and distended all over the place. “Field of practice” is a way of trying to be more specific. Consider, for example, soccer (what the rest of the world, outside the USA, calls football and, by the way, one of Bourdieu’s examples). Here “field of practice” refers to the game. Its rules are consistent worldwide. Its prototypical exemplars play with the same kind of ball, wearing similar uniforms, playing on similar fields, and, if professional, in similar stadiums, supported by similar sponsors. Is every soccer player, from kids kicking a ball around in Bulgaria or Jamaica to the stars who play for Manchester United or Barca Junior members of the same group? To say so seems a bit of over-stretch to me.

    The art world, the business world, indeed almost any profession or craft you can name are all similar examples.

    It is not out of sheer caprice that mathematicians distinguish unordered and ordered sets from groups and groups from fields, to distinguish different types of entities and relationships. Could we learn something here?

  23. bq. Is every soccer player, from kids kicking a ball around in Bulgaria or Jamaica to the stars who play for Manchester United or Barca Junior members of the same group?

    Yes – they are all members of the class ‘individuals who play football.’ Not the same as the class ‘members of River Plate’ or even ‘anyone playing in the Primera División,’ but a group nonetheless.

    bq. It is not out of sheer caprice that mathematicians distinguish unordered and ordered sets from groups and groups from fields, to distinguish different types of entities and relationships. Could we learn something here?

    Yes! That there are different types of groups. I could go on and on, but I won’t, as I have noticed the tendency from many on this blog (not you, John!) to be more takers than givers.

    bq. “Field of practice” is a way of trying to be more specific.

    To me, there’s an uncomfortable circularity to the concept. If I buy into it, then I recognize myself as engaged in shaping my field of practice. Anyone who disagrees with the concept and contests me/it is simply proving that the concept exists. As with much of Freudianism, this logic does not on its own invalidate the concept. But it does strike me as convenient.

    I do find the concept interesting and perhaps useful. I think I am turned off by the Bourdieuian tendency towards rigidity and polemics. It is liking trying to enjoy an Oliver Stone movie for me – it is interesting in its own unique way and it seems to say something to me, but the director comes off as so self-righteous and hell-bent on proving that this is the way it is that I feel like he puts me in a with us or against us corner. YMMV.

  24. M.T. See, we actually have a substantive disagreement. To you a group is simply a class, a set whose members share certain properties. That’s a possible usage, but one that I would discourage. In every true group that comes to mind when I try to envision a prototype there’s a lot more going on than members sharing uniform attributes. Even a baboon troop has age and gender differences and a pecking order to consider, as well as a boundary and a territory that distinguish it from other similar groups. Leave those out, and there doesn’t seem to be any point to saying “group” instead of, for example, an unordered set whose members share properties x, y, and z. And even that is step one on the slippery slope to gross stereotyping.

  25. Hi Adam,

    It sound like a very interesting research pitch you’re developing. If you’re curious for more on open source communities (prime examples of collaborative, intentional communities online). Make sure to check out Chris Kelty’s book “Two Bits”.

    Also, you might be interested in reading my thesis on the Ubuntu Linux community, which touches on some of the issues you raise – like the difference between virtual and non-virtual engagement. You can find the thesis here:

    Also, I’ve written a blog post addressing some of the typical misconceptions about doing fieldwork online: http://andreaslloyd.dk/2009/02/online-ethnography/

    As a resident of commune myself, I find these issues most fascinating, and I’d love to hear more about your work.


  26. Skip the “even” in the last sentence. It should read, “And that is step one on the slippery slope of gross stereotyping.”

    But that’s just a quibble. Let’s think some more about this. Let us assume with M.T. that group=class=a set whose members share certain attributes.

    What, then, is the difference between a group and a field? A field has no boundary. An electromagnetic field is generated at a point from which it diminishes as it extends — to infinity.

    Are there ethnographic data that illustrate a similar phenomenon? Yes. A classic example is the traditional Southeast Asian kingdom, the sort of polity that Geertz describes as a theater state. There is the capital where the king resides, where his power is celebrated and appears absolute. His power diminishes with distance from the capital until we reach zones where it intersects with the power radiated by other kings sitting in their capitals. These are not, however, sharp boundaries. They are zones of interference, whose scale fluctuates with the rise and fall of kings.

    Consider, then, a more modern example, the art world conceived, a la Bourdieu, as a field of practice. Here, too, there are centers where exemplary figures (artists, objects, museums) reside. Influence radiates from these figures but diminishes with (more social than physical) distance. Critics constantly struggle to impose them, but there are, in fact, no well-defined boundaries. In fact, some would say, the very essence of art lies in boundary violation; but where those boundaries lie is subject to unending debate.

    Serendipitously, we are translating a Japanese curator evoking the philosophy of Marcel Duchamp, famous for challenging the art world boundaries of his time by placing a urinal in a gallery and calling it a work of art. Duchamp argued that all art is made of found materials; in the case of modern art industrially produced ones, the commodities sold at art supply stores. What, then, is art? Art is whatever the spectators who see it are willing to regard as art. And that, of course, is hugely variable. Once again, the image of fields intersecting and creating interference zones seems far more to the point than the classifications deployed in classical taxonomies. What does one gain by thinking of artists as a group? Not much, it appears.

  27. bq. What, then, is art? Art is whatever the spectators who see it are willing to regard as art. And that, of course, is hugely variable. Once again, the image of fields intersecting and creating interference zones seems far more to the point than the classifications deployed in classical taxonomies. What does one gain by thinking of artists as a group? Not much, it appears.

    Doesn’t this conflate the study of art with the study of artists? The question seems germane to Adam’s research. Adam, do you foresee your research more as a case study of (an) individual commune(s) or are more as a study of processes and social institutions?

    bq. In every true group that comes to mind when I try to envision a prototype there’s a lot more going on than members sharing uniform attributes.

    So would you agree that cohorts of students at art schools, members of artists’ unions, and (to try to make some effort to bring this back around to Adam’s original post) residents in artists’ communes are all groups and not just epiphenomena of a field of practice?

    bq. Even a baboon troop has age and gender differences and a pecking order to consider, as well as a boundary and a territory that distinguish it from other similar groups. Leave those out, and there doesn’t seem to be any point to saying “group” instead of, for example, an unordered set whose members share properties x, y, and z.

    I am curious as to what you would make of the common Latin American “tocayo” relationship, in which individuals sharing a common given name immediately enjoy a familiarity with one another. Is it really so wrong to conceive of this as a number of groups the members of which share a dyadic relationship?

    I find it strange that this sort of discussion isn’t more common among anthropologists. Elman Service, for example, touches on the difficulties of defining the ‘community’ concept in the introduction to his _Primitive social organization_—if it was an interesting enough topic to him then, why not to more of us today?

  28. Yes, I agree with MT Bradley’s last post: it’s important that we’re having this kind of discussion. There’s nothing trivial about examining carefully the conceptual tools of our trade.

    From time to time it is worth reminding ourselves – and one another — about the possible new uses of half-forgotten anthropological concepts we may have learnt years ago. For instance, I have found the notion of ‘action-set’ (which I first came across as an undergrad but quickly forgot) to be a useful addition to my conceptual repertoire when studying internet activism in Malaysia.

    Another important area worthy of public discussion is conceptual innovation. Chris Kelty’s book Two Bits has been mentioned already on this thread. In this remarkable ethnohistory of Free Software geeks Kelty coins the notion of ‘recursive public’ to refer to Free Software practitioners – a notion that allows him to think beyond the ubiquitous (and, like community, overused) notion of ‘public sphere’. This is a good example, I think, of a conceptual innovation that raises new questions and opens up new research avenues.

    To reiterate a point I made earlier, as a discipline we need to broaden our conceptual lexicon, as I’m sure my tocayo John McCreery will agree with me on this one.

  29. John Postil, could you say a bit more about “action-set” and the sense in which you are now using it? My Google search produces 55,000,000 hits, of which the first include a term of art in software design (= a set of actions generated by a single command), a different term of art in relation to health care (=a specific sequence of actions required to identify and treat a particular condition), and yet another term of art, this time from the toy industry (= a set of action figures, G.I. Joe and Cobra).

    As I have continued to think about groups and fields, it has occurred to me that, not only do groups have boundaries where fields do not, their constituent elements are also distinct. A group is made up of persons (individuals or smaller groups treated as individuals, e.g., corporations) and relations between persons. A field is made up of practices and relations between the objects and actions that constitute those practices.

    Thus, for example, theater is a field, whose elements include scripts, stages, costumes, stage-directions, choreography, musical scores, etc. Actors participate in groups, called casts (for single productions) or troupes or companies (whose members jointly perform multiple plays). Their performances are practices that embody or, if particularly powerful, may modify the field.

    John, M.T., how does this sound?

  30. Hello again, JMC.

    I’ve used the term ‘action-set’ to mean a set (not a group) of human agents who come together to attain a common goal but without a unified, corporate identity. This is a variation of the definition given in the glossary of Barnard and Spencer (1996), Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Action-sets are not built to last; they are designed, as it were, to be unsustainable, and yet they can have lasting repercussions (a lesson here perhaps for our contemporary fixation with social sustainability?).

    As for your example of a theatre, I would regard is as a field *site* rather than a field – a key site for many (Western) practitioners in the field of acting.

  31. John Postil, So, if I am right, your action set is what the business world calls a project team.

    P.S. Are you confusing perhaps a theatre, i.e., a place where plays are performed, with theatre, the hobby, profession, obsession of thousands of actors and wannabes worldwide?

  32. Yes, it sounds to me as if a project team could be categorised as a subtype of action-set.

    Re: theatre vs. a theatre, you’re right, I got mixed up. I think what confused me was the material description that you gave which made me think of an actual theatre. Also, by analogy to the field of journalism, I suppose I automatically think of the field of *acting* rather than the field of theatre because when I think of a field I visualise its practitioners – in this case actors – and their uneven distribution across an invisible set of positions (Bourdieu again).

    Just as journalists can work throughout their careers for different kinds of media organisations (radio, TV, newspapers, newsagencies, etc.), it is common for actors to work not only in the theatre but also wherever else they may get paid (TV, films, radio, schools, etc.).

    ‘Follow the practitioners’ is my rule of thumb when seeking to determine the existence of a field.

  33. Hi Adam,

    I’m only an undergraduate student so am not even going to pretend to know what I’m talking about, but I like your comparison and think it could work.

    I stumbled across your blog looking for inspiration for my essay regarding virtual communities and our inhabitation within them not only while we are online but also how they inhabit our “real lives” when we are logged off.

    Suggestions for this are that the social norms we develop through these online communities infiltrate into our everyday lives and also the ettique that we employ in one community how does that differ from another? There is likely to be a cross over.

    I think that Facebook is a valid community to study as with most things, it is what people make of it and turn it into. People have used the technology for their own intents and purposes and facebook has morphed from a site intended as a college year book photo page for Harvard uni into a social network available for everyone regardless of geographic location or education status.

    This probably doesn’t help, but thought I’d add some potential food for thought.

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