Digital Anthropology Group: Are we sure we want this thing inside the AAA?

Monday morning I conversed with staff at the AAA about the procedures for organizing an interest group. They were very helpful and it seems that getting our new organization off the ground will be fairly easy. Basically we need to produce a short statement that justifies our existence and demonstrates that we are sufficiently different than any current AAA group. If we can turn that letter in by the end of March the bureaucracy should spit it out after the executive board meets in May, meaning if we take steps now then we could “officially” exist by the end of the semester.

In last week’s post I asked readers to make a wish list of what they wanted such a “Digital Anthropology” group to do. Today I’d like to consider whether, given what we can realistically hope to accomplish, we still want to put our proposed group under the aegis of the AAA. I will start by laying out some of the pros and cons of being AAA affiliated.

Please refer to the Association’s protocols for establishing a new interest group. Notice that the AAA provides the option of self-organization as an interest group so that members may have a “vehicle for coming together.” Since it is the case that the web provides so many other platforms for pursuing our goals and shared interests, we don’t really need the AAA to help us make our group. There are plenty of other vehicles out there.

Most importantly calling ourselves a AAA interest group limits our potential membership and circumscribes our activities (see the AAA by-laws). One reader described this as “parochial” direction for us to take and that’s an apt turn of phrase. By forming within the AAA we will be, by definition, exclusive. Broke grad students and the un/underemployed, people outside the US, non-cultural professionals who belong to other associations may all be left out if they are not already AAA members. However, I would suggest that this limitation is not as consequential as it seems, more below.

There are still some good reasons why we should accept these limitations and proceed to organize within the AAA. Many of us are dissatisfied with the current state of our professional organization. On this very blog there have been calls to boycott and abandon the Association for what we perceive as its bad behavior. We want a different publication regime that includes Open Access principles and more recognition paid towards legitimating online activities for hiring, promotion, and tenure; we want everyone from the rank-and-file to Big Name Professors to join us in using net platforms for teaching, research, and communication.

These changes are not going to happen on their own. The AAA is not going to see the light unless WE flip the switch. Instead of giving up on our admittedly stodgy professional association, I am suggesting that we get inside the damn thing and take it over.

If the primary focus of this interest group lies outside the AAA then we shouldn’t organize under the AAA in the first place. If everyone is envisioning a collective that joins forces with international, cross-disciplinary organizations embracing all the net has to offer in linking everything and everyone in a new and truly global anthropology… fine. But then we’re talking about a whole other ball of wax. In that case the AAA would be a burden and we should just bypass it entirely.

If people want a AAA interest group then we’re going to have to be much more circumspect in what we actually do. As a AAA interest group our energies must be directed towards (1) fomenting change within the AAA, to bring it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and (2) serving the AAA membership, so that those of us who are wired can share our expertise and that others might be educated on why the issues that matter to us are important.

Is this parochial? Indubitably. Is this going to change the world? No, its only going to change our small part of it. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

I was and still am in awe of all the great ideas people floated in last week’s column. And being ambitious is great, in fact its encouraged. Our proposed AAA interest group does not have to curtail our dreams of global domination a truly transnational anthropology. Remember, we can always get together and talk about Anthropology 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever ’till our faces turn blue. An interest group does not preclude continued discussion and debate, nor does it limit who we can converse with. We can talk about anything, but what we do, the actions we take as a collective, are going to be rather narrow.

Ultimate and proximate goals.
Alright people, let’s all be realists now. Everyone has 101 things to do in their professional lives not counting all our personal obligations. Grad students gotta write, adjuncts gotta teach, junior faculty gotta make tenure. How much time are we really going to put into this thing? And given that our time is so precious, what are the most effective actions we can take?

If you’ve accepted my premise that the interest group needs to be “parochial” in its aims, then the ultimate goal is fomenting change within the AAA. Politically speaking, in order to accomplish that there are some steps we’re going to need to take in order to raise our profile and burnish our prestige so that the “powers that be” cannot ignore us. These comprise our proximate goals and, basically, they consist of serving the AAA membership.

Using the AAA annual meeting we can host panels, workshops, and roundtables that focus on how net platforms are challenging the way anthropology is taught, the way research is done, and how anthropologists communicate with each other, the public, and our subject communities. Technophobes can learn to tweet. Why blogging is awesome will be explained. The advantages of shared data can be considered. OA principles will be defended. Why do this in meatspace? Because our intended audience is not the choir, but the unconverted.

What about the anthropology of cyberworlds? I’m glad you asked. The people who study social networks and digital worlds can help shape our pedagogy and communication strategies. These are folks who have considered the consequences of the net for anthropology in depth and can help us develop best practices to disseminate to the membership at large. The number of people interested in, say, gender diversity in WoW is small, the number of people who can benefit from understanding what implications MMORP’s have on research methodology or making class assignments is, potentially, everyone and inclusive of non-cultural anthropologists. We want to harness the latter.

Using a website and blog we can archive everything we do, sharing our activities and insights with non-members. Annual meeting events (with the exception of the inevitable pub crawl) can be shared and white papers circulated to everyone who cares to point their browser at us. We’ll be one of the more public faces of the AAA and we can talk to whomever we want about everything under the sun. Will it matter that some people won’t be able to “join” us? Well, the fact that I am not able to “join” the faculty in your department does not mean we cannot collaborate. The same will be true here. You don’t have to be a member to see a website or leave a comment.

Once a year the Section Assembly meets and the Digital Anthropology Group (let’s call it DANG for fun) must file a memo accounting for everything we’ve done in the past year. The section chairs will see our report and say, “Wow, these DANG anthropologists are really useful to have around. Look at how they’re building connections across subfields.” This makes us look good in front of the Executive Board.

Later, once we’ve shown ourselves to be worth two shakes and we want to submit a resolution before the Board about recognizing online work or preserving OA principles the Board will say, “Oh yeah. I know these guys. They know what they’re talking about.” And board member Dick will say, “I picked up a great class assignment idea at their workshop.” And board member Jane will say, “I found out about this great journal HAU through their website.” That’s how you get people to listen to what you have to say and bring them into your sphere of influence, by gift giving, here the gift of our expertise.

As we serve more AAA members our organization will grow, especially if we remain as an dues free interest group. At the same time we’re helping people, we’re creating a political constituency of voters who are educated on the issues that matter to us. If we get big enough we might be able to recruit a viable candidate to run for the Executive Board and really start to push for change. Normally an associate professor at Name Brand University would probably prefer to have her eyes plucked out than try to win some popularity contest. But what if we’ve already got the emails for, say, 200 people who will check the box on the ballot? Now that ring is within reach.

The AAA office staff was enthusiastic about our idea to start a new interest group. I was told that interest groups are growing in popularity (because they’re free) and that the Association is considering doing more to promote this medium. There are no elected officials or governing documents for the interest groups, only a “convener” who serves as a point of contact with the AAA. I am volunteering to serve as convener for a year or two and Daniel Lende is willing to serve as convener for a year or two after that. There’s already a group of us willing to work together to write a mission statement which we will share with you here and on Neuroanthropology.

It won’t be that hard to make this thing happen inside the AAA. The question is, before we proceed, are we sure that’s the direction we want to go in?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

20 thoughts on “Digital Anthropology Group: Are we sure we want this thing inside the AAA?

  1. I really like this discussion and idea, but as a non-AAA person i worry that this model that will limit involvement of people who support the idea, who want to get involved but who are outside the AAA and/or overseas. What about others organizations ? Surely an advocacy body that aims to achieve your goals across anthropology globally is worth aiming for? There are good people in many of these organizations and you might achieve greater impact by including them. Power in unity, etc. Set up that body first, then use that to develop ideas and goals to be pursued in particular organizations and committees. Just a thought.

  2. One of my big dilemmas this spring has been whether or not to renew my membership in the AAA. I have been graduated and have a 2 year visiting contract, which means my dues almost double for the organization and more than double for attendance at the conference. That’s a large chunk of money for someone who isn’t making a huge salary, and it bothers me (do you know how much ramen that much money can buy?). Whatever I decide, I wonder if there is not some way this group can have it both ways – members of AAA and not? Is there no way to work this out so that interested people (many of whose expertise is interdisciplinary and not solely anthro-focused) can participate?

  3. Denice, the way I see it anyone can “participate” but only certain people can be a “member”. Correct me if I’m wrong but being a member doesn’t really seem to convey any benefits unless you’re at the conference.

  4. The way some groups work this problem of AAA membership/non-membership is essentially to run two groups in tandem. I don’t want to mention any sections by name, but there are some that essentially have an inside-AAA group (DANG), another group of people that aren’t (say, Non-Aaa-Baloney-Boarders-Interested-in Tech, or NABBIT), and they share things through listservs, websites, and the like. They can even have joint meetings, if it gets that far. That keeps one foot in the camp pushing for reform, in a way that includes everyone.

  5. I think the AAA interest group can be a strategic wedge for accomplishing specific goals, and for lobbying within the AAA itself.

    That said, I am more gung ho about some sort of organization that exists beyond the clutches of the AAA. For many reaasons–among them the fact that many non-AAA and non-US folks have already expressed a lot of interest here. But also because I definitely sympathize with people who are on the fence about giving the AAA their hard-earned money.

    So there’s my dos centavos.

    In related news, I am working on updating and reviving the OA Anthropology site, here:

    If any of you folks have ideas or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. A couple ideas I have right now:

    1) use the site to link to OA projects beyond the US [edit: but of course also working to keep making links and connections to projects within the US too]

    2) devote a permanent page or part of the site to exploring and highlighting OA journals. that’s going to take some work and investigation, but it might be a good way to point some folks to particular journals.

    Other ideas?

  6. @Matt, who was responding to Denice: AAA membership does give online access to a wide range of AAA journals. That may not be as attractive to Denice if she is working in an institution that already has such access through a library, but it might be considered a valuable benefit for anyone lacking such institutional access.

  7. I think it comes down to whether you want to be able to leverage AAA resources and change the AAA from the inside and develop Digital Anthropology as an academic discipline, or do you want to develop Digital Anthropology as a practice?

    Let’s be honest, most of the community here are academics (and that’s a good thing) but much of the motivation for academics is validation in the eyes of their fellow academics.

    Myself and others here, don’t care so much about the validity of Digital Anthropology within academia because we’re out doing it, whether academics believe it’s a discipline or not.

    Now, I say that being a little bit provocative because I do know and appreciate that having a stronger academic discipline, provides better educated and trained students that people like me can employ.

    For me, if this becomes an AAA group then I’ll follow along on your blog and mostly watch from the sidelines, which will be the case for most non AAA members. If this is a non-AAA group then I’d be willing to bet you’ll get a broader (some may argue richer) level of participation from outside academia.

  8. @Tac – I don’t see it so much as seeking out validation, but of being evangelical.

    What about setting up franchises? Are there enough people affiliated with other associations that we could have multiple branches going at once?

  9. Fuji’s idea of parallel organizations makes sense, and it should not require all that much extra work to carry out.

    Shouldn’t one goal of this effort be to get anthropologists and others to post our papers online? Specifically, shouldn’t individuals who care about, and sound off about, digital scholarship be posting their papers on their websites (or in a repository)?

  10. Well, the AAA does have this rule about the interest groups not being allowed to publish. But I wonder if setting up a repository of papers – possibly fieldnotes and other data, too – would be enough of a grey area that that might actually be okay.

  11. “Well, the AAA does have this rule about the interest groups not being allowed to publish.”

    To me this is part of the overall problem, though. Why should we be worrying about the AAA telling us not to publish? If some sort of parallel organization exists, then any publications or repositories can be done under the name of the wider group. The AAA IG can be a specific subset of the wider group. The wider group works on establishing those wider connections, publishing, and projects like starting some sort of repository. The AAA IG can have specific goals that are focused particular changes within the structure of AAA. But to me it’s pretty important not to let the AAA start limiting things from the start. Again, that’s part of the whole problem, IMO.

  12. So we’re envisioning a parent organization that’s composed of different committees or circles, working on independent tasks and sharing their interests and the like. One of those committees happens to AAA members. Another one can be this repository project. Another one will be working on the blog.

    Is there any kind of hierarchy or organizational structure above the committee level? As long as there’s no budget, I don’t think we need elected officers. But if in the future we wanted to go after some funding I think we’d need to be open about instituting some more formal governance.

  13. I think it makes sense to think of two parallel organizations, since everyone seems so enthusiastic about it, and that there are wider issues and people involved in digital anthro than just the AAA.

    That said, I do think an easy first step is to get the AAA interest group organized. That will get a list of members together, some set of common interests, an ability for some of us to meet in person, and so forth.

    And Ryan seems to be taking on a wider initiative with getting the OA anthropology site updated and active again. Hopefully some people will also help out there.

  14. I agree with Daniel – I think 2 different groups sounds like it makes sense. The AAA group, since it’s focused on digital anthro, will clearly have it’s info available to non-members. And I think our AAA group could showcase the efforts of the other group which is publishing online, and encourage the AAA to make its materials more OA. And again, I think a big part of our role will be to assist those AAA members interested in these issues who don’t know where to start, with workshops and roundtables at the AAA meetings.

  15. First, this is a really good point made by Tac and I completely agree (despite being an academic):

    “if this becomes an AAA group then I’ll follow along on your blog and mostly watch from the sidelines, which will be the case for most non AAA members”

    If a DA group begins with AAA, it will probably end there. Those of us on the outside of AAA won’t be invested in developing the idea (or would potentially be excluded from it). I agree with Fuji and Michael and others – parallel development is ideal, initially though I see resistance to that.

  16. Moving forward with the two parallel groups seems to be the way to go considering the comments above. If the group needs a student liaison, I’d be willing to fill that position. As a graduate student, I do have to keep in mind all the normal time restraints, but this project capacity to both reshape the AAA from within and present anthropology to the public in a new and hopefully more accessible way has great potential for the future of the discipline. The endeavor is vital for maintaining the relevance of anthropology in the 21st century and I am willing to contribute in whatever way I can.

  17. As a European anthropologist I would argue against the AAA.
    There are a few reasons for the AAA. Mainly symbolic capital. But I think a paper-oriented organization is just not the right base for digital research.
    It will hold us back, make things more complicated and inflexible. It is hard enough to keep ones position cutting edge without an organisation stuffed with people who print out their e-mails.
    Also this would make us less good researchers. How should we get in touch with digital everyday culture when our organization is older than Mosaic?
    It will just hold us back in horrible “Vereinsmeierei” (you are free to look that one up. It is German.)!
    Our structure should reflect our needs and our means.
    And I do not worry about career effects. We should be way more effective than non-digital anthropologist in a few years. So we will produce better and more knowledge. We will just outnumber them in quality and quantity. We do not need an organisation that has not even understood the basic things about our field. And the Open-Access-discussion has shown us what to expect from the AAA.

    Why should we become members of something, that has as much to do with our field as a horse-doctor with a car-mechanic?

    Also: why limiting oneself without good reason to one country? There is no need to be held back by national frontiers. If we are global we might even play with organisations, fundings and research entities who aren’t. To our advantage.

  18. I think the possibility that the AAA could prove to be a “distraction” is a fairer assessment than claiming that building such a coalition is about seeking validation from others or pursuing symbolic capital. It’s politically naive to think that we can have an impact on our field without others recognizing what we do as significant. The issue is: what’s the best way of doing that? We certainly are not going to foment change within the discipline and produce new knowledge by being separatists. Boycotts don’t work unless your contingent is huge.

    The main advantage of building a coalition with the AAA and getting more of their members collaborating on digital anthropology topics is that it is easy. I am confident in my ability to act like a party whip and pull off some panels, convincing someone to participate in a conference isn’t that hard because it doesn’t take very much of their time.

    Again, I implore people to be realists about how much time will go into this project. Over the course of the next 12-24 months as we move forward with this parallel organizational structure we will see whether people are actually going to put their money where their mouth is. If no one does anything, this will go nowhere. Long-term, open ended projects require many dedicated people organizing and motivating themselves to work together in a sustained manner. By comparison recruiting someone to give a 15-minutes talk in San Francisco is easy. Which sounds more like your speed?

    If non-AAA members get an inferiority complex and wind up sitting on their hands then over time this will effectively become a AAA dominated club. On the other hand if people actually want to do something and not just talk about it, then we can do anything.

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