Benedict Anderson’s* classic text “Imagined Communities” happens to be a pretty fascinating book to read while thinking about academia, communication, open access, publishing, and the formation of community. Anderson’s argument is that print capitalism provided a critical medium that facilitated the production of national identities:
Speakers of a huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper. In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community (2006: 44).
However, as Anderson goes on to point out, there are limits to this construction of imagined communities: “The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (2006: 7). Nations have edges–they do not include every possible member of the human species. These communities are inclusive and exclusive all at once. Language, transmitted through a particular medium (in this case print capitalism) can be marshaled to engender powerful shared social meanings and connections. But the reverse is also true. Language and communication can also be used (purposefully or not) as a means of exclusion.
Think about those ideas on a much smaller scale. Way smaller. Academics–and anthropologists in particular–form a certain kind of imagined community as well. This community, based upon a certain set of supposedly shared concepts, ideas, and texts, expands around the world–at least in theory. These networks definitely do extend across political and social boundaries, even if there are definite limits. But there is certainly an imagined anthropological community out there, even though the vast majority of us “anthropologists” will never meet one another. Fascinating, isn’t it? But this isn’t just about anthropologists, it’s about the formation of community. What borders surround these imagined anthropological communities? What allows people in, and what keeps them out? More importantly, what purpose is served by these borders and boundaries, and why are they upheld?
Our use of media (print, visual, etc) is one key factor, and this is why I am so fascinated by the recent discussions about open access and publishing in anthropology (see this link for a collection of some of these recent posts). It matters, in the end, how we use media. It matters who reads and “consumes” everything that anthropologists write and create. So it makes sense to start thinking about how anthropologists produce and disseminate their ideas through media, where those ideas end up, and how they are received by different audiences. It probably makes even more sense to actually do something about these self-induced and not-so-necessary borders. I have already mentioned this before, but Harry Wolcott once wrote that much qualitative social science is basically a closed system. In the case of anthropology, it is anthropologists who read and consume what other anthropologists produce. As Barbara Fister might say: We pretty much tend to our own little “walled gardens.” Why? Do we think that our ideas only belong in our own social circles?
So then…what will it take to begin opening the gates to our little enclosed academic gardens? Should be follow the path that economists have taken? Should we get inspiration from some early pioneers of open access? Does anthropology need to look to the future and go for the gold? When are we going to really start looking outside of our walled gardens?** What really needs to happen to make this a reality? Is there a need for more media-based training in anthropology grad programs? Do we need to rethink how we write and produce media? What about adding an emphasis on audio-visual training, design, etc? Photography? Video? Or maybe it’s time to encourage more collaboration with other depts in the production of anthropological media? Are some programs already doing things like this? What other avenues are out there?
Benedict Anderson argues that communities can be distinguished not by their relative authenticity, but instead “by the style in which they are imagined” (2006: 6). So how do anthropologists distinguish themselves as a community? As members of the general public or isolated specialists? How do we imagine ourselves? More importantly, how should we re-imagine ourselves in order to transform the community that is anthropology?
*We share the same last name, but that’s about it. To my knowledge I am not in any way related to Benedict Anderson. Just FYI.
**My first glimpse outside the walled garden that is anthropology was when I was doing some research for a paper on the INTERNET while I was an undergrad. For some, that is a crime right then and there. By happenstance, I stumbled upon this site called “Project Gutenberg.” Maybe I wasn’t the most savvy of undergrads, but this was my first run-in with open access publishing. Entire books, for free? Admittedly, many of them were old, but there was (and still is) a lot of good stuff to be found there, and the overall aim of the project is definitely admirable. It was a sign of things to come.