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Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 1 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.*

Ryan Anderson: Thanks for doing this interview, Keith.  Let’s just jump right in here: What do you think about this whole ‘open access’ conversation going on in anthropology?

Keith Hart: Obviously I am in favor of it. The form that the discussion takes in contemporary anthropology seems to be specifically American, where the contradictions of established practice are most acute. In the most general sense, OA is a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons, any commons. As such it is central to the intellectual property wars. But here I think we are talking about a much narrower issue of how to make research publications freely available without undermining their role as cultural capital in academic career advancement. This reflects the interests of a mass of unemployed young researchers who can’t afford to pay for information and yet still hope to find academic employment some day. The tension is between maintaining the intellectual commons and conserving ideas as private property. The situation is exacerbated in American anthropology by the peculiarly obdurate policy of the professional association (AAA) which elevates a closed regime of private production for profit above sharing knowledge with the general public. I am reminded of Marx’s early journalism against restriction of peasants’ access to fallen wood in the Westphalian forests. Most OA activists can’t fight privatization with his polemical intensity because they have already bought into the premises of an academic career. I met some anthropology friends on Twitter in 2009 who were as agitated then by the AAA’s restrictive (I am inclined to say “insane”) policies as they are now. We formed the Open Anthropology Cooperative–but we will return to that later. I am still struck by the insularity of American anthropologists who rarely consider if the French, for example, have come up with interesting responses to this general problem. Is OA an issue in Brazil or Scandinavia, in Japan or India? American anthropology isn’t the world and I hope that the OAC’s global membership will discuss these questions fruitfully. But then we run up against the limitations of language. Being able to read and write in English is not universal, yet how often is concern with OA extended to the issue of language barriers?

RA: These are some really important points you bring up.  First of all, let’s talk about the idea that American anthropology “isn’t the world,” as you say.  What do you know about some of the OA-related conversations that are taking place in France, Scandinavia, Brazil and elsewhere?  Where can or should we look to connect with those conversations?  Also, why do you think language barriers are so rarely addressed in OA discussions in the US?

KH: It doesn’t take a lot of effort to put “open access France” or wherever in a search engine. If you do, you’ll find a government paper of 2010 in English on the subject. But you won’t get far without French. Still, the translation machines are getting better all the time. My wife, Sophie Chevalier, edits an open access online multimedia anthropology journal in French called ethnographiques.org which was founded a decade ago by a cooperative of young French and Swiss researchers. It now has the highest rating awarded by the Agency for Evaluation of Higher Education and Research (AERES). The journal is open to the English-speaking world, having published interviews with Goody, Sahlins, Barth etc, and it provides French subtitles for clips in other languages. It is extremely open in its form and content, but effectively closed to monolingual Americans. The French are very sensitive to having lost their status as the global lingua franca in the 18th and 19th centuries and that has led the universities there to turn inwards. Curiously the Americans and the British often exhibit the same tendency despite benefiting from the rise of English as a second language. Sophie is on the editorial board of a more traditional journal and has taken up the issue of open access publishing as a leading administrative figure in French anthropology. She is an active member of revues.org, a platform for electronic resources in the human and social sciences run by the Centre for Open Electronic Publishing (Cléo) in Marseille. This innovative portal publishes many open access journals and scientific documents and is now joining up with similar operations in Spanish and Portuguese. You may be interested to know that France also has the second largest blogosphere in the world after you-know-where. But the first question for any researcher concerns the language of publication, rather than open access as such.

Only an American would ask why language isn’t an issue for Americans. Just think “Empire”. The rest of us know that Americans expect us to come to them, not the other way round. It was so for the British when we ran the world. It used to be said that African colonial politicians could only meet each other between the wars in Paris and London. It is the same for the world’s anthropologists these days, with the AAA annual meetings offering us all a chance to meet colleagues from our own country! SM’s readers should check out what open access means for Africans today, for example. For many there OA means having access to any research publications at all and of ensuring that national research standards have a point of comparison. The obsession in much of the periphery is with not dropping off the table altogether or somehow finding a place at it, however precarious. In South Africa, where I work, the government pays researchers handsomely for publishing in accredited international journals. The fear is that South African universities will be parochial (little do they know!), but this institutional drive is conservative and does little to promote OA there. Brazil is an interesting case. It is a huge diverse country, like the United States, with a flourishing anthropology that has recently broken out of the Amazonian ghetto to offer commentary on urban life in general. It is also rather insular, like the US. The academic publishers there are experimenting with OA, but, until I brush up on my Portuguese, much of that is closed to me. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro is well-known for his “perspectivist” approach to ethnography, but he has also put a lot of effort into online cooperation and dissemination of Lusophone research. We live at a time when the old imperial anthropologies are giving way to many national and regional varieties. The institutional framework is everywhere different. There is a debate over at WSIS on “Is open access only for rich countries?”. You would think that anthropologists would study open access in comparative perspective, but apparently they don’t.

RA: And where does the creation of the Open Anthropology Cooperative fit within all of this?  How and why did that come about?

KH: In the 90s, after launching Prickly Pear Pamphlets (the predecessor of Marshall’s Prickly Paradigm), I founded a mailing list called the amateur anthropological association or the small-triple-a (motto: amateurs do it for love). It was supposed to be the anti-AAA, giving a place for outsiders as well as professionals and students. It lasted a few years. Then in May 2009, Kerim Friedman expressed his disappointment over the AAA’s foot-dragging in a blog post. (The same issue was brought up again in 2012 by you, Matt and others at SM).  Kerim’s post led to a heated denigration of the AAA’s impenetrable bureaucracy. Chris Kelty said it had become a mini-welfare state for its employees; a “neurotic institution” run by non-university staff. Casual griping quickly spread to Twitter, where a loose network of anthropologists had already formed. Before long, quasi-revolutionary suggestions were made to start a new, open, less bureaucratic and more inclusive worldwide community of anthropologists. Twitter was ideal for spreading the news and gaining momentum, but more space and organization were needed when the discussion actually became a movement to build a new network for anthropologists. Justin Shaffner and I set up a forum on The Memory Bank website with that in mind.

A small group of us committed to specifying a name and purpose for this proposed collective. The key voices were: Kerim Friedman, Paul Wren, Keith Hart, Fran Barone, Carol McGranahan, Jeremy Trombley, Steven Devijver, Cosimo Lupo, Olumide Abimbola, Àngels Trias i Valls and Justin Shaffner. We shared a strong attachment to anthropology, an interest in new media and a commitment to open access. In the new forum, participants brainstormed about two pressing development issues: “structure” and “function”. What would a new organization look like and what would it do?

Jeremy Trombley suggested that “we should begin by offering a structure that is open enough to allow it to become whatever it can down the road”. In contrast to the AAA’s bureaucratic intransigence, he proposed that “every member [should] be able and willing to take an initiative. There’s no need to get bogged down in unnecessary voting; if there’s something you think needs to get done and you can do it, then go for it”. The team, in hosting a new online organization for anthropologists that used only digital tools, aspired to a truly global scope, egalitarian ideals and the abolition of hierarchy. Its model was the negation of formal academia’s typical malfunctions. This antithetical framework proved to be both liberating and stifling in the weeks, months and years ahead. We made a lot of mistakes and some of the founders left in a huff. We have been trying to catch up with our own uncontrolled expansion ever since.

Fran Barone and I are finishing a chapter for a book, Media, Anthropology and Public Engagement, edited by Simone Abram and Sarah Pink, so it’s hard to compress our thoughts in a few sound bites. We moved to Ning on the suggestion of Max Forte who joined us later and left soon afterwards. Membership exploded: 1,000 in the first three months, 7,000 today. The OAC consistently receives on average 500 visits a day. The top ten countries varies, but the United States accounts for most visits with Britain a clear second, followed by India, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Brazil. Visits are divided roughly United States 30%, other Anglophone 30%, Europe 30%, Rest of the World 10%. This distribution understates the remarkable geographical and social range of the OAC’s membership which is much broader. The leading countries are much the same, but the OAC has drawn members in double figures or more from over fifty countries. Active participation through posting comments on the site is much lower and skewed towards the main Anglophone countries, although the OAC early on hosted specialist groups operating in German, Norwegian, Italian, French, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish. The language issue is crucial. Despite this initial diversity and the OAC’s global reach, the trend is inexorably towards the dominance of native English-speakers. We are, however, running an online seminar by a Brazilian anthropologist in English and Portuguese later this month.

You can see that this history links the OAC closely to SM. I think you do what you do well (certainly I am a regular reader), but the focus on American academic anthropology is rather narrow. I have even seen the OAC described as being “European” on SM, which says something about the insularity of American anthropologists. The OAC is still searching for an identity, but there is no parallel in world anthropology for the kind of interaction on offer there. I could say a lot more, but that will have to do for now. I am really grateful for the bridge that you make personally between our two organizations, Ryan.

To be continued… (See Part 2 of this interview here)


*Keith Hart lives in Paris with his family and co-directs the Human Economy research program at the University of Pretoria, South Africa (web.up.ac.za/humaneconomy). He is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London and has taught in a dozen universities on both sides of the Atlantic, for the longest time at Cambridge where he was Director of the African Studies Centre. He has published widely in economic anthropology, especially about money. Website: www.thememorybank.co.uk. Email: johnkeithhart@gmail.com. Facebook and Twitter: johnkeithhart.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Dear Ryan,
    This is an excellent interview and I’m very excited to learn about Prof. Hart’s Open Anthropology Cooperative. I believe these are the kinds of projects which will push the envelope with regard to moving us towards a Global Anthropology.

    In that vein, I wanted to put a fairly recent development at the World Council of Anthropological Associations (www.wcaa.org) on the radar of SM’s readership. In early 2013, WCAA will begin the publication of Déjà Lu (or “Already read”) which plans to publish one article from all the associations which are members of the WCAA. Later editions of Déjà Lu plan to accept submissions from all the journals listed on the WCAA website. This site will be completely Open Access. For more information see Gordon Matthew’s recent post on our blog http://www.wcaanet.org/blog/?p=60

    Additionally, I would highly recommend the recent post at the WCAA blog by Michael Buchowski and Setha Low regarding Global Anthropology and a panel they hosted at the AAA in San Francisco that touches on this topic.

    Finally, I would highly encourage SM readers to please make comments on the WCAA blog and by all means feel free to send your own posts to cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk as we are happy to open the blog up to a variety of authors and languages.

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