Savage Minds in American Anthropologist

Today I woke up to the usual quarterly flow of new journal alerts into my inbox and was surprised — delighted, really — to see a very complimentary article in the latest American Anthropologist on Savage Minds, Zero Anthropology, and the AAA blog. In another proof of its incredible capacity to do the work of our association, AnthroSource has the article behind a paywall while Wiley-Blackwell has it available for everyone to read (here is the abstract and you can download the PDF here sorry here is the actual link). GG AAA.

It is really a pleasure to be called “bright, engaged and [especially these days] young”. SM has been maturing over time and I think the unstable salad mix of career goals that created the blog has slowly separated out into the oil of a career outside the academy and the vinegar of life inside the ivory tower. Increasingly for many of us Savage Minds has become ‘something we are guilty we do not spend time on now that we have a career’. We are looking to take a producer’s credit on this one — if you’d like to do Public Anthropology in this space… let us know!

I’m glad that we are getting some recognition but I feel a little leery about being labeled ‘public anthropology’ since I think public anthropology is an activity that a) a small group of people have always been doing and b) a thing a much larger group of people constantly talk about doing but never get around to doing –as if just talking about it were enough. I’m hoping my Warcraft book will be ‘public’ — even ‘popular’ — but I can’t really claim to have done a lot of actual anthropology in public, although I do spend a lot of time going on about it.

If you care, however, let me state some theses, or better, hypotheses, about what public anthropology could and should be based on my experience at Savage Minds:

We are the bar at the conference, not the conference

It is the informal discussion that makes conferences interesting, not the presentations. We aim to be that informal conversation.

Public Anthropology is not simplified anthropology, it is good anthropology

I’ve often heard it said that anthropologists must learn to reduce, simplify, water-down, etc. their work if they want outsiders to read it. The assumption seems to be that 1) you know what the public wants and 2) you have a pretty low opinion of them (or alternately, a good dose of self-hatred at the obfuscation inherent in your discipline).

SM has always operated on an opposite set of principles. We’ve argued that

1) we do what we want to do for ourselves and for the work. This seems to be working ok for us so far.

2) People want the real thing. Just because you’re not a professor of anthropology doesn’t mean that you aren’t interested in anthropology like the real deal anthropology, not some fake-o anthropology. It’s insulting to tell readers we will give them simplified snippets of our work but hide the real thing behind a pay-for-content firewall. People tune in because they want to be dealt in. Public anthropology gives them a place at the table, not a view of the game from the back of the room.

3) Anthropologists like well-written pieces that are insightful and to the point just the same way that normal people do. I hear people often complain that they must write obtuse, jargon-laden prose to be successful as an academic. Really? Which one have you read more often, “Balinese Cockfight” or Kinship in Bali? Is it really the quantitative analysis or the sterling prose that drives people to read “The original affluent society”? Where is the jargon-laden theoretical prose in In Search of Respect? I admit there are authors like Foucault and Appadurai whose prose seems stylish to anthropologists and occult to others. But let’s face it, anthropologists  don’t need to write differently for a public audience, they need to write better for all of their audiences.

In sum, I think what non-anthropologists want to read is good anthropology. Is that really that surprising?

Recovering from Darcy syndrome

For years anthropologists have been caught in a dilemma: our work is so relevant, so important to today’s world and yet so few people want to read it. How can we make them see the truth? This sort of attitude reminds me of certain evangelical Christians who think that the reason Jews haven’t joined the one true church is that somehow over the past nineteen centuries we’ve somehow just never heard about Jesus. Let’s call this ‘Darcy syndrome’  — the idea that we are the most perfect companion to the public’s Elizabeth Bennett and they just haven’t realized it yet because they’ve been swept off their feet by the twin Wickhams of rational choice theory and sociobiology.

But are we Darcy, or Wiggins? Anthropologists need to take a step back and start assuming that the public knows something about us that we don’t.  We must not turn popularizing anthropology into a merely technical problem, the literary equivalent of those scary “how to seduce women through hypnosis” books that Amazon tells you you are interested in because you’ve also purchased some Foucault. Real relationship, healthy relationships, involve listening.

What if we stopped assuming that people needed to know what we wanted to tell them and attempted to disprove our hypothesis: if we recast the narrative of public anthropology as one in which we were totally superfluous, how much violence would this reading do to the ethnographic facts before us?

I’ve gone on for a while, but I think you get the point: in my opinion (which is just my opinion) public anthropology is good anthropology which is sensitive to its audience. It is something we ourselves would like to read, and something we can recognize as our own. And above all, it is something that we need to stop talking about and start doing. Good luck!


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

47 thoughts on “Savage Minds in American Anthropologist

  1. Yay! Glad you liked it. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to facilitate a greater presence of public anthropology in AA – the Public Anthropology Review Editors are doing an amazing job and I look forward to all that they will do in issues to come.

  2. Me are forgetting to understand how the linked article titled “A Method for Measuring the Motion of Culture” is about savage minds. Where are this about the blog readings? I am not readings the right link here within to?

  3. This is so uncanny (Freud 1919). I just posted last week in response to a (Baba 1999) piece (Thought & Praxis II) that, as an applied anthropologist, I am “so over” the jargon of our field. What’s the big secret? Yeah, yeah, crisis of consciousness. We can all come down from the ledge now and I said:

    1) They over-think: Their insistence on complicating humanity (from grand theory to post-post deconstructionist modernism . . . you get my point).

    2) They over-talk: Their jargon is notorious. OK for some professions that need to speak each other’s language, but hey, we are talking about humans, so let’s not about them as if they’re not in the room, ok?

    3) They’re snobs: Anthropologists anthropologize each other. They snub anyone or anything that smacks of popularizing anthropology. I have two words for this: Margaret Mead.

    4) They’re stubborn: Academic anthropologists (or what I like to call high horse anthropologists, really) refuse to acknowledge what is the ACTUAL need in a given situation, like reducing death and destruction in the middle east occupation, no matter how painful the process may be and no matter who the intereventionists are professionally

    5) They are obtuse.

    And of course one the best books I’ve read in a while is Popularizing Anthropology (MacClancy, McDonaugh 1996).

    I so think the academics need to get over themselves, so I did the online equivalent of what every actor says (what I’d really like to do, is direct) I started a blog: Fractal Anthropology blog because everything in the universe is either connected and/or replicated.

    I get what you are doing and I like it.

  4. Oh, one more thing, I couldn’t help but comment LOL that when I first read Zero Anth, they struck me as the Hell’s Angels of anthropology, agh! They just look like bad asses. At any rate Savage Minds and Zero are the only two feeds I get these days.

    Anthropology is for everyone and everything is anthropology. C’mon over to my blog spot sometime. I am open.

  5. Not sure what you mean by:
    “What if we stopped assuming that people needed to know what we wanted to tell them and attempted to disprove our hypothesis: if we recast the narrative of public anthropology as one in which we were totally superfluous, how much violence would this reading do to the ethnographic facts before us?”

    Could you please elaborate?

  6. I gave up on the idea of a career in anthropology because I was sick of the way it was written. I felt very alienated by the language and jargon that I was obliged to engage with, and got very angry every time I read a sentence that could have been shorter. I also felt sad that a subject so interesting was so often reduced, by anthropologists themselves, to an obsession with being clever. I was, as you say, so over it.

    Some years later I feel this is a bit of a shame. I’m going to take the fact that anthropologists now say “yay!” as indicative of progress.

  7. As an anthropologist who doesn’t work in academia (aka “public”, “applied”, “practicing” or just plain anthropologist anthropologist), I appreciated this post and felt it had some good insights. And while I appreciate also the spirit of Lisa’s comments above, I felt the language was a bit strong, though I understand where she’s coming from. “Obtuse” can mean several things, but I think “tactless” is the implied meaning here.

    I have often felt that careful tact is crucial to communicating anthropological or anthropology-training-inspired insights to other audiences and potential publics. This is such a common lesson, but jargon is the enemy of anyone doing complicated research who then has to or simply wants to communicate findings to a non-expert audience. What seems to be further challenging about anthropological findings is that we so often challenge basic assumptions people have about their cultural reality, which is, at times, potentially jarring.

    But more importantly, I have written (and sometimes simply tried to write, but failed) pieces for non-anthropological audiences. And based on those experiences, I would propose that anthropologists should consider the process as much more than a duty or a curiosity, but actually an integral part of doing research in the contemporary world and as a kind of method to collect further data. For example, someone like Gillian Tett–who I wrote about in the AA “Public Anthro” review section–seems to me to have gained a lot of insight about her subject by writing about her subject and having her interlocutors respond to her writing. Writing for these audiences teaches us the “tact” that these communities themselves practice: what can be said vs. what can’t be said, how to put together an idea, what constitutes important knowledge or innovations, etc.

    Watching how audiences misperceive and misinterpret our writing can be just as productive and revealing than the process of writing ethnography. It forces us to fail better, next time around.

  8. “I also felt sad that a subject so interesting was so often reduced, by anthropologists themselves, to an obsession with being clever. I was, as you say, so over it.”

    I felt the same way, and I sought out an applied program. There are many flavors of anthro., and you really need to just find one that matches you.

    As far as the other comments made by others, I also agree. I think it’s more about learning how to write for the non-initiated though. Each audience is different and part of what we can add to the mix is a deeper knowledge of how to communicate to different audiences. Before making recommendations for policy change, or whatever, it is key to understand existing motivations, jargon, wants, needs, etc… and then customize the language and presentation to those things. Too often we fail at our key mission, which is cultural mediation and translation. Academics suck at it.
    Too often they show up and present their findings and recommendations as though they are doing so in a historical, political, and value-free vacuum. Then when nothing happens they get pissed off and storm back to their depts. and complain that nothing happened and that “those people” just don’t get it. They are able to do this, because they’re gonna eat either way.

    Those of us who aren’t going to eat if we aren’t effective never test ideas out in the final committee of anything. We signal intentions and rate the response we get, we collaborate and adjust. I always say that congressmen don’t put something to a vote until they know what the vote will be.
    I learned this the hard way.

    We have to ask ourselves if we’d rather be self-righteous or effective. Otherwise, we are being seen by others to be acting like children that have to get their ways every time, and that conception is accurate.
    This also means that you have to actually make a case to people and sell your ideas. That is the real world. The point isn’t to simply dump ideas on the world and wait for the inevitable attacks and counter-attacks. It is this aspect of academic anthro. that I wanted no part of.
    I once asked a respected professor why all depts. split up and go to war with themselves after reaching a certain size, and she told me, “because at the heart of it, we work with people, but we are anti-social.”

  9. The other possible title for this post was “Its The Ethnography Stupid”. I imagine public anthropology to be well-written descriptions of lifeworlds that are important or interesting to a general audience, and written in such a way to bring them to life and make them seem vivid — in other words, great ethnography. It’s that great idiographic Boasian tradition of putting people’s lives on the record.

    In a lot of academic anthropology, however, the ethnographic material is put second. It is as if some anthropologists, to use Marshall Sahlins’s old old line, feel their collaborators “lived their lives so that we could manure our academic fields with them”. Increasingly these days ethnographies seem elaborate proofs-of-concept of what ethnography could be if anyone ever actually did any.

  10. Rex, so true.

    I’ve been taking an organizational/business anth. course (learning never ends in applied), which only has 3 of us in there. The rest are PhD marketing people, an ad guy, and a economic geographer.
    As in all seminars you spend the beginning discussing the assigned readings. Last week our readings spanned the field of organizational studies, so we could compare how each discipline approaches the field. The final reading was an anthro. that synthesized it all together in a brilliant way that showed the reality and messiness of organizations. I loved it, but the others didn’t so much. They loved an article titled, “The Smile Factory,” by Van Mannen. It’s a classic in organizational lit., and it was simply a very well written, ethnographic story.
    I like the obtuse article better, because it felt like real anthropology, i.e., messy like Foucault. I found that others, even in academia, loved the accessible story. Made me think.

  11. I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, but I really like the diversity of writing in in anthropology. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right? If I thought all the “jargon” in anthropology was of the same kind then we could solve the problem, if it is actually a problem. But there are a range of jargons, from the cloudy neo-darwinian language of adaptationist biological anthropologists to the technical terminology of time periods and strata in archaeology to the language ideologies of language ideology researchers to the reflexive madness of post-Writing Culture experiments to the Melanesianist penchant for refusing to say anything that isn’t about “relationality” (looks meaningfully at Rex)… There are a lot of jargons out there.

    The minor point is just that “the public” which is denouncing anthropological writing in this thread has the burden of proof on them: which writing? Maybe it is just bad writing, as Rex suggests, but maybe it is also a problem of “tact” in who the writing is addressed to.

    The major point and one that get’s lost here is that *it is possible to do both*– sometimes a modicum of jargon is the best way to make conceptual progress *amongst your peers* who are working on the same problems. I certainly wouldn’t ask the archaeologists to give up on their jargon, and I won’t ask cultural anthropods to do so either. However, we can do both– write for anthropologists in a telegraphic, cryptographic language, and write for other audiences. Combining it in the same book is a great challenge, and a hard one… I know… but I would never require it of everyone in anthro.

  12. I don’t think anyone is asking us to give up jargon, and I don’t think that would be possible. It is having some thought in who you are talking to.
    My doctor doesn’t not speak to me like he does another doctor. I’ve got a lot of AP education, so he can speak more technically than with others, and he does, but nothing like an MD. When he talks with someone that hasn’t memorized ever muscle and bone in the body like me, then his language will change.
    Some doctors suck at this, and so do most anthros.

  13. I think I am with ckelty and rick on this. There is room in the capacious world of academia for all kinds of writing and language. Concepts that are sometimes born in a storm of jargon find their way into much more clear exposition over time, as various people wrestle with them and talk them back and forth until they become more refined. Sometimes working through a concept in a faculty seminar helps me teach that concept in a class of undergraduates, or helps me explain it to my doctor. Just as my interlocutors in Botswana sometimes will discuss a theoretical concept on a level that I cannot grasp among themselves as they grope for an ethnographic example to help me understand.

    There are some conversations that are primarily methodological or theoretical that are of interest primarily to a subset of anthropologists and that is fine. The problem comes in when there is policing, and gatekeeping that hamper or threaten this diversity of approaches and forms of expression.

    This isn’t to say that clarity of expression and quality of ethnography doesn’t matter. I am in deep sympathy with Rex’s post — which I think clarifies the stakes here in crucial ways. I think public anthropology is vital. But I there are other kinds of work that are equally vital — and in an ideal world they are in dialogue.

  14. bq. What seems to be further challenging about anthropological findings is that we so often challenge basic assumptions people have about their cultural reality, which is, at times, potentially jarring.

    Allow me to suggest that it is time to retire this now ancient cliché, The plain fact of the matter is that what used to be shocking, titillating, or fascinating about anthropological observations has largely ceased to be so. Cable TV and the Internet have transformed the once-exotic into the numbingly familiar.For students and members of a lay public now comfortable with current programming like Robot Chicken, there is very little in what anthropologists offer to cause more than a mildly raised eyebrow.

    We need to move on and think a bit more seriously about what we have to offer.

  15. bq. The plain fact of the matter is that what used to be shocking, titillating, or fascinating about anthropological observations has largely ceased to be so.

    Who decides what is anthropologically interesting, anyway? I don’t mean this in any ugly way, but so many of the things deemed worthy of anthropological attention seem to me to be things that someone from Middle America would find fascinating and/or important.

  16. What will make us relative is if we take risks and get our hands dirty in the world, the same way our theories expose the world. Somehow and somewhere being an anthropologist meant that you had to be extremely timid, self-righteous, and a great shit talker all at once.

    This reminds me of one of my archaeology profs., whose retired now and working with National Geographic as a Mayanist. He came up in Harvard at a time when you sometimes had to carry a gun and you didn’t lay awake at night sweating about the ethical implications of actually defending yourself if you had too. He was a former Marine officer, as were many of his peers. Very different than the quasi-anarchist, techno geeks running around these days.

    In his last year, he got into trouble by saying something like women really don’t belong in serious archaeology digs, because it’s too hard for them. The whole department was abuzz and he just looked at everyone like, “what are you gonna do about it?”
    The balls on that guy.

    Most of us got into the game because we have adventurous, wondering souls. I think we’ve lost a bit of that mystique that we once had with the big names of the past. The ones that weren’t afraid of their own shadows.

  17. @MTBradley At the end of the day, each of us decides what is interesting for him or herself.

    To what I said before I would add that many of the things that anthropologists now find interesting, e.g., poverty, disease, social inequality, gender, corporations, nation-states, consumption, virtual worlds, whatever—are not specifically anthropological. They are topics of interest to people in all sorts of disciplines. So it can’t be the topic that defines us. It is, if anything, how we approach the topics we choose.

    In my particular case, where the topic is the world of Japanese advertising, I combine social network analysis, close reading of documents, and interviews with industry figures. What makes what I do different from how a sociologist, historian or journalist might approach the topic?

    I can only think of two things: first, personal experience, in my case nearly three decades as an observing participant in the industry, and, second, understanding informed by having read a lot of anthropology. I also read a lot of sociology and history; but having done a Ph.D. in anthropology makes the anthropology the core of my academic identity. In practical terms, the ideas that come to mind as I work with data or documents or interviews are more likely to be taken from Levi-Strauss, Geertz, Victor Turner or Mary Douglas than Charles Tilly or Norbert Elias. It is a certain location in relation to the webs of significance created by these and other scholars, and not any universal attributes or sharply defined boundaries, that make me feel comfortable calling what I do anthropology. Though I must admit, heresy of heresies, that the deeper I get into social network analysis, sociology seems appropriate, too.

  18. Very cool. I lived in Japan for 4 years, and married a Japanese woman. I loved the commercials. Crazy stuff.

    1. How did you get a gig in Japan, because I want to move back.

    2. SNA isn’t specifically sociology. It began first with social psychology and anthropology, before used in sociology. It is multi-disciplinary. They’re even giving a seminar on it at the up coming SfAA meeting in Merida. As with all things the way we do SNA differs as well. I think for us, the method is matched to the data you are trying to get which is determined by the question. SNA is often appropriate, but other methods might be more appropriate. If you look at our Field Methods journal, you’ll see a lot of SNA, which is mostly used by organizational studies people.
    Much of the use of SNA in sociology and elsewhere seems to diverge into graph theory, and matrix algebra, with less qualitative analysis of what findings mean in a more holistic context. I think that Agent-based modeling also complements SNA.

    I am in the process of imputing a few dozen ego networks in egonet for analysis to see how.. it’s complicated. Anyway, I’m doing it in a way that no sociologist would do it.

  19. I just posted an entry about the AA paper on Ancient World Blogger’s Group, called “Blogs Don’t Get No Respect.”

    It includes this:
    “My conclusion is that American Anthropologist is not giving much respect to blogging. If this was considered a serious topic, they would have given more space for analysis, and they would have published a paper that focused on the blogs rather than devoting most of its space to a bunch of irrelevant tutoring for the internet-challenged.”

  20. I agree with Kelty that we need a big tent in anthropology. I mean I’m a four-fielder. You need a big tent for that.

    I also agree with Kelty that we need multiple genres. In this I disagree, I think, with Eric Lassiter’s book on collaborative ethnography, where it seems Lassiter imagines all anthropology ought to be comprehensible for non-specialists.

    And then there is the issue of value-relevance and audience…

  21. What do you think about a collaborative ethnography among just us? Ever since I read Anna Tsings: Friction, I’ve thought about how using technology in real time, could create a kind of global collaboration. This would be more difficult for academics, who rely on publishing secret knowledge before others, but it would be a great way for practicing anthros. to be more relevant in the academy. Academics could also help, and we could all help each other. This is because we all now specialize, so not everything we know is going into each paper.

    So, say I’m working in the US, and someone is working in Malaysia and someone is working in Botswana, etc… and we see something happening, let’s say surveying for a damn. We could get on something like an “Anthroweb 3.0” and say, “hey, I’ve noticed this going on, anyone else?” Then someone could say, “yeah, that is coming from this country, because of these political forces, etc…” Like a global triangulation of knowledge that could be made available to the world. Like our own CIA factbook, but is would be mapping real-time flows of capital and culture. We could collaborate with geographers and set something up for GIS.

    We would each be giving up some of our special knowledge, but we would be gaining much more, like the open source movement.

  22. I got a gig in Japan by marrying one of the smartest women I know. Her grant brought us to Japan. Another fellow in the Japanese Lit program at Yale provided the list of names that got me my first job. The timing was just right. Arriving in 1980, we were just in time to rise with the economic bubble and be solidly established by the time it burst. Now with the economy in the pits, the aging population, and a lot of general angst about the future, similar strokes of luck are harder to come by.

  23. Tell me about it! I came back to the states with the intent of moving back in a couple of years, and the recession hit. I looked up jobs and there was nothing, not even for English teachers. Maybe I can figure out a way to social engineer something that’ll get couples to have 3 or 4 kids and save Japan from population collapse.

  24. Alternatively, if you are serious about wanting to make a career in Japan, you could use your applied anthro skills and think about the situation. The aging population means that, even if other kinds of business are slumping, healthcare, nursing care, gerontology — most anything having to do with caring for the elderly — is still a growing market.

  25. Pingback:
  26. What is the Japanese word for anthropologist anyway? I could never find one, so I always just said, Benkyo no hito.

    Back to the subject of the writing and themes in anthropology though.
    A couple of days ago I went to a presentation of research at my university. It was about the differences of beauty concepts between young Latina, black, and white girls. It was a very limited study in Kentucky for a program called “Fit Kids.” Anyway, there were no surprises in the findings.
    However, what I noticed was that I was the only guy there. Everyone else was a woman, and there was tacit agreement and approval of various themes, which weren’t automatic and uncontested in my mind.

    This made me think about the reversal of anthropology graduates from a majority male, to a majority female. Has anyone looked into the correlations between this reversal and an incorporation of a certain themes and writing styles in the discipline? I don’t know, it’s not a rhetorical question.

    That is, are we seeing a feminization of anthropology, beyond critical feminist theory. That anecdote about the old school archaeologist I wrote above, alludes to a masculine past in the discipline, so does that mean we have a feminist present and future?

  27. “I’ve gone on for a while, but I think you get the point: in my opinion (which is just my opinion) public anthropology is good anthropology which is sensitive to its audience. It is something we ourselves would like to read, and something we can recognize as our own. And above all, it is something that we need to stop talking about and start doing.”

    Agreed. I definitely do not buy into the idea that public anthropology has to be watered down or any less anthropologically valid/powerful. And there is no reason why good anthropological writing (etc) has to be written in an opaque manner. It CAN be readable, and it can be compelling. This is a point that Renato Rosaldo made a long time ago in the book Culture & Truth. Anthropologists work on some pretty fascinating projects, and it’s amazing how BORING the work can come across. But there is no reason why things have to be like this–and sites such as Savage Minds, Zero Anth, and others are providing spaces for some different ideas.

    (I also think that anthros could take some cues from certain journalists, writers, and others. One of my favorites of late is Rebecca Solnit. There is a lot of good writing out there.)

    Also, I like the analogy that you used about blogs being more like the bar than the presentations at conferences. Personally, I am a lot more interested in discussions, ideas, and dialogue than I am 15 minute power point presentations. But that’s just me.

  28. Dear Michael:

    In response to your posting about mine:

    “As an anthropologist who doesn’t work in academia (aka “public”, “applied”, “practicing” or just plain anthropologist anthropologist), I appreciated this post and felt it had some good insights. And while I appreciate also the spirit of Lisa’s comments above, I felt the language was a bit strong, though I understand where she’s coming from. “Obtuse” can mean several things, but I think “tactless” is the implied meaning here.”

    You are right to observe that my language came off strongly. I used the wrong word! I didn’t mean to imply academic anthropologists were obtuse “tactless”, I meant their jargon can be “abstruse” (incomprehensible). It seems I’m guilty of committing the very thing I am complaining about: being unclear with my language and I apologize.

    Academic anthropologists may be many things, but tactless they are not. They, like you, are very sensitive to other people, places, conditions, and ideas.

    “Fractally” yours —

  29. Part of it is the education. The discipline has ruined my ability to write in a non “abstruse” way. I’ve gotten around this by always having a non-anthro. check my writing before I present it, or hand it in.
    The thick nature of our theory lends itself to being hard to understand and write. I’d say that philosophy and modern physics have to deal with many of the same problems. That it, when your subject matter is complex, it is a real skill to write about them simply.
    There are certain fields which operate on the other side of this coin. For example, while social network theory is multidisciplinary, many of the prominent people that write the “how to” texts are sociologists, social psychologists, or organizational studies people. They manage to take rather simple and intuitive concepts and turn them into a complex set of jargon akin to something you’d read in an electrical engineering manual.
    Actually, I was trained to fix electrical equipment in the Navy, and I have to say that electrical engineers are not as abstruse.

    The other issue Lisa, is where we both went to grad. school. It shaped our thinking of what anthropology was, and what we could do with it in a way that most people don’t get.

  30. In defense of social network analysts, yes, there are people who seem to complicate things to an unnecessary degree. That said, network analysis is a game with many levels. Metaphorical use of network concepts can make them sound straightforward. But get into the math in a serious way and start thinking about how it does or does not apply to specific situations — then things can get pretty hairy very quickly. Even then, however, a bit of work put into understanding the mathematical notation employed goes a long way to clear things up. A lot of what is being said is basic matrix algebra and a bit of set theory—utterly abstruse if you aren’t familiar with them; not so hard if you take them time to get your head around them.

  31. Right. The issue, I think which is made explicit by many, is that SNA is not properly standardized, due to its history and its use and development across the social sciences. So, there everyone wants to make sure that things like “cliques,” “walks,” “bridges,” etc… have standard meanings. However, I don’t think that the fact that we are really just talking about people, organizations, or events and their relationships. I’m one of those anthros. that actually likes statistics, and even 6000 levels stats courses and texts aren’t as abstruse as a lot of SNA educational texts.
    Most statisticians make sure they ground examples in concrete things when they are writing for social scientists.
    On the other end of the tools spectrum is GIS. The geographical theory and concepts needed for GIS aren’t hard at all, but ArcMap is probably the most unintuitive, and buggy program I’ve ever used; and I’m been formally trained on it. Personally, I think its done for job security.

  32. What would “properly standardized” mean in a still evolving bundle of methods that sprawls across disciplines from epidemiology to political science and is, as far as public perceptions go, still at the buzzword stage of development?

    Consider the idea that Clifford Geertz borrows from Susanne Langer at the beginning of “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.”

    _After we become familiar with the new idea….our expectations are brought more in line with its actual uses, and its excessive popularity is ended. A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-universe view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and is capable of extension; and they desist where it does not apply or cannot be extended. It becomes, if it was, in truth, a seminal idea in the first place, a permanent and enduring part of our intellectual armory._

    In my judgement, social network analysis is only partway up the rising side of this arc. To call for standardization at this point is a bit premature.

  33. That quote reminds me of Rabinow’s reflection in his ethnographic account with Ali.

    I’ll have to defer to you in this matter, although I’m skeptical if you can say that SNA is in any way new. It’s been around since the 1940’s, and has evolved steadily since. It’s about as standardized a method as you are going to get at this point. I mean Bott was doing SNA of families in England in 1957. I think it’s used more as a tool in practicing anthro. than in academic anthro. though, which is why I don’t think it’s taught in very many depts.
    I’d have to say that SNA is more standardized than statistics, which has a huge gap between actual practice, and best practices. I had a stats. prof. who used to say that if something was useful in stats., it meant there was more than one name for it.

    I’ll defer though, because SNA is the one method I had to teach myself out of necessity, so I’ve never been involved in a community of practice like other methods. John Scott’s book is probably the more abstruse, with other’s been slightly more clear. I think SNA needs a Bernard to write a book about it. That, or have him include it in his methods book. He’s very prominent in the SNA world.
    Personally, I don’t know what’s worse, having to collect people’s SN’s and filling out matrix’s, or having to transcribe open ended interviews. I guess it’s like that for ever advanced profession. Doctors spend most of their time on paperwork too. I went into anthropology so I wouldn’t get stuck at a desk, and I spend most of my time in front of a computer!

  34. “I think it’s used more as a tool in practicing anthro. than in academic anthro. though, which is why I don’t think it’s taught in very many depts.”

    I’m gonna have to eat those words a bit. I think this might also be a difference between British and American anth. It seems like this method is used and taught more among the British than us. I can’t say that for sure, but it seems like much of the literature is coming from the British.

  35. A couple of comments. First, the basic idea that studying the actual networks through which transactions or information flows goes back a long way. But the current acceleration of interest in the field begins in the 1990s, when computers and software improve to the point that processing and visualizing network data became something that individuals could do using PCs. In just the last few years, the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of online social networking and the creation of mammoth citation databases for those more academically inclined, has added fuel to the fire.

    Second, I see where you are coming from. That said, the hard slog of contacting people, gathering structured information, coding, cross-tabulating and analyzing the results has always been a regular feature of social survey research. That is what makes folks who can now have Web crawlers gather information for them and do data mining with off-the-shelf tools get so excited about this stuff.

    It is also why, in my particular case, I have become an advocate of piggy-back ethnography using found data. In my current research, I am using credits data from ad contest annuals, combined with books by and published interviews with the central figures in the winner networks. Other folks may have an assistant or two in the field. I have a trade press that generates hundreds of pages of “field notes” per month. When I get around to the depth interviews with key informants I will know why I picked them and be able to ask smarter questions based on the SNA and desk research.

  36. I see what you mean now. There are very new and creative ways of using SNA with what people call web 2.0. I’ve heard of it, but don’t know much about it.

  37. @Mcreery:

    Have you ever worked with networks, specifically ego networks using SPSS, as outlined in a Wellman et al. article on the subject?
    If so, I have a few questions. This seems like a fantastic resource for what I’m doing, and there are some aspect of the process that are not clear to me.

    Thank you.

  38. The short, sad answer is no, I haven’t worked with SPSS. When I got into this, a fellow Mac user suggested DataDesk, which I have been using as my statistical package ever since. If I move one, it will probably be to R, but that’s a pretty steep learning curve.

  39. P.S. I use Pajek for network analysis, one reason, besides the fact that the program is free and powerful, is that there is an excellent book called Exploratory Network Analysis with Pajek to refer to. Google “Pajek” and you will find it in a flash.

  40. Wow, thanx. I’ve been using Ucinet 6, Netdraw, and Egonet. I’ve already used SPSS to analyze the ego networks statistically by aspects of certain variables. However, you can apparently analyze the entire composition of the networks by aggregating alter/tie data, with ego data from two separate data sets. You can do that for complete networks with Ucinet and others, but not with ego nets.

    I will check out Pajek. I avoided it when I first started to learn SNA because all the “how to” books said that other programs required more extensive knowledge of graph theory and matrix algebra. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’d be able to learn a new program by the time my report is due. I have a one page summary that I have to present to the client tomorrow.

  41. P.P.S. If, at some future date, you decide to play with Pajek, you will save yourself a lot of grief converting data files if you use Jürgen Pfeffer’s Text2Pajek utility. My current toolkit is Filemaker Pro for data storage and extraction, Text2Pajek for converting text files exported from Filemaker, and Pajek for SNA analysis and visualization. I’m working with two-mode networks, multiple attributes and multiple relations, and this set up makes it easy to extract and analyze interesting looking subnetworks.

  42. I’ll do that the next time I get a gig requiring organizational anth. skills. Right now I’m trying to get a sense of how ego networks are patterned across geographic space in a very large city. Working with one person that has 103 significant alters, scattered over a city, and it would just be impossible to get the alter to alter data, beyond kinship and work ties.

    I’ve got to figure out a way for the city to increase dialogue with residents, so that we can plan inclusive development. We’ve actually got residents working with architects to preserve the unique character of communities. When all this is done, I’ll probably present it at the AAA, and see how it goes. I’ll have to join the AAA I guess.

  43. Without alter-to-alter relations, what’s the point of the network analysis? To say one person has 103 alters all you need is a list. To classify them, all you need is categories. I could see, maybe, plotting them on a map of the city, to see if they are concentrated in certain places.

  44. This is based on geography. My field site contains two major ethic groups, Latinos and Blacks. These groups are refined into other groups, but my question was how does information flows from households in different sectors of the field site, and to other areas in the city outlined for development. Gender and ethnicity do not vary significantly from each other when it comes to overall numbers of alters, but the ego-networks are patterned differently by ethnic group. They are also used for different kinds of support and information flow depending on the area.
    This is mostly exploratory type research. It is just one part of other ethnographic techniques (PO, interviews, surveys), used to triangulate data for a rapid assessment.
    I agree that without alter-alter data SNA used by itself is kind of pointless. The same way you are using SNA to ask better questions, I’m using it right now to augment data so that I can make better recommendations.

  45. Still curious about how you are using SNA. Partly arising from my own work, I’m imagining a couple of possibilities: (1) a branching tree pattern in which one person tells two or three others, who tell two or three others…… (2) a fireworks pattern, in which one individual tells a lot of people he knows and a few of those pass it on to others who tell a lot of people: a triggering sequence in which, in effect, you get a series of explosions of information, e.g., the word passing from one preacher to another, with each incorporating the message in their Sunday sermons. Just brainstorming, though.

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