All posts by ckelty


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 1

It should come as a surprise that, as James Laidlaw says, “freedom is a concept about which anthropology has had strikingly little to say.” I’ve been thinking about the problem since giving a paper last year at the AAA on “Digital Liberalism” and the problem of Freedom as it relates to liberalism and technology. I’ve decided to break my radio silence at SM and post a series about Freedom, now that the fireworks are over, in part to see what reaction it provokes here, if any.

Why does Google think this is the universal image for freedom?

In fact the number of works that directly address freedom as either an anthropological problem for investigation, or a tool for making sense of ethnographic data, can be held in one hand. There are lots of other concepts that are similar to or related to freedom (enough that I defer to a second post on the subject), but as for the problem of freedom, a term which has more ideological and rhetorical use and abuse today than any other, anthropologists have been largely silent.

Contrast this with the fields of political theory, philosophy and history where one could be buried alive several times over with the number of detailed treatises on the problem of freedom? Why this dearth, this differential unconcern?

It should also come as a surprise that the dean of English language anthropology, that Polish-born fieldworker, scientist of culture and diarist extraordinaire, grandfather Malinowski ended his career, and his time in this world, at work on a book about Freedom, Freedom and Civilization. Continue reading

ckelty’s $10 thoughts on blogging in anthropology

I got roped into a panel on “Writing for a general audience,” which is, strangely, one that you need to sign up and pay $10 for, I think because it is designated as a “workshop” — i’m thinking that this might be a rip off, given what we already pay… and it’s not like I’m seeing that money.   But I digress.  In any case, here’s what I produced for the workshop, which I guess I should charge you $10 for just so that the people in the workshop don’t feel cheated and all.  Maybe you could buy a shirt instead

ckelty’s unimportant, quickly written, barely proofread, profound thoughts on blogging (in particular with respect to anthropology), including some clear ‘do as I say, not as I do’ moments.

Why blog?

  1. Blogging is so not for everyone.  The first reason to blog is to figure out whether it is for you.  And this is part of the point:  there is no cost or barrier to blogging.  Anyone can do it, and anyone who says that there is a digital divide is selling you snake oil of one kind or another.  What they usually mean is: not everyone is equal.  This is true, and sadly, blogging won’t change that.
  2. Blog because you want to, and if you are lucky because people want to read what you write.  Getting people to read what you write is not hard.  Getting the right people to read what you write is very hard.  On the other hand, it’s easier to get the anthropologist in the office next to yours to read a blog post about your last article than your last article—and might force you to elegantly and concisely communicate what it’s about and why it is important.  And if you don’t have an office, all the more reason to blog about your articles!  If you don’t have any articles, definitely stop blogging now.

Why blog in anthropology?

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Prototyping Culture: social experimentation

Alberto Corsín and Adolfo Estrella, of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), have organized a conference I’m going to called “Prototyping cultures: social experimentation, do-it-yourself science and beta-knowledge.” This is something Adam Fish has written about here, and which is perennially on my mind.

Here is how they orient the problem:

What do a self-managed arts and social squat in downtown Madrid, the monthly Critical Mass cycling assertion movement, or a new media and digital cultural public organisation working at the intersection of art, technology and science, have in common?

All of them, we want to suggest, express novel forms of socio-technical experimentation: precarious and very often temporal entanglements in which an abandoned building is turned into a public and open cultural centre; city streets are parenthetically transformed into bicycle-friendly environments; or the call-for and inclusion of amateurs in the production of cultural and artistic works redefines the terms of institutional expertise. In all of them a certain politics of the urban is enacted; all of them are prototypes of new modes of city life.
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How do we share the wealth?

Wiley has posted double digit gains in revenue this last quarter. What will all you anthropologists who have worked for Wiley-Blackwell for free (reviewing, editing and promoting W-B publications) do with this windfall? Please share your stories of how the 5% gain in total revenue affects you! What will you do with your share of the $79 Million in revenue that is pouring into WB’s higher-ed coffers?

I plan to upgrade to a double-tall cappuccino tomorrow. I might even add a scone. What about you?

Welcome, Michael G. Powell

In the spirit of self-serving, nepotistic favoritism which is my trademark, I’m pleased to welcome Michael Powell, graduate of Rice University Anthropology. Actually, the other Minds here all agreed that Michael would be an excellent choice for a guest blogger without my intervention, and it’s no surprise. Michael did his dissertation in Poland (and the global ecumene) studying the formation of anti-corruption laws and information access laws (like FOIA). He’s an expert in bureaucracies, paranoia, conspiracy and people who have information about UFOs. He recently published a fantastic article about Sharpie markers and redaction in the McSweeny rag The Believer (which is sadly in print only, cf. all my other posts).

More recently, Michael has been working in the so-called Real World, as an anthropologist employed at an architecture firm whose business is creating consumer environments, a subject on which I hope he will enlighten us here. Please warmly welcome and appropriately respond to…. Michael G. Powell!

AAA director condemns really stupid business models.

It’s administration-bashing week here at SM. I just posted an unconscionably long comment (in the age of Twitter anyways…) at the AAA blog, where Bill Davis has recently and magnanimously agreed to re-publish his September Anthropology News article on “Free Journal Access as a Public Issue”. The thrust of the piece seems to be that, after extensive secret analysis, the AAA staff have confirmed that charging anthropologists $5564 a piece to publish in an AAA journal is a Really Bad Idea. Bang-up job boys, keep up the good work!

a) it’s called open access, not free access. Please stop.

b) who was it that suggested the AAA should move to an author pays model? Can you please say who suggested this, because it is a really bad idea. A point we apparently agree on.

c) can you please focus on the problem: the AAA faces a severe funding crisis. RE-EVALUATE EVERYTHING NOW. Stop trying to fund the AAA by selling journals and figure out how to fund the AAA. I wish I could be clearer. Maybe it is my English that is the problem?

update: I originally wrote AAA President… when I meant Executive Director. Clearly evidence of fundamental confusion on my part, and not a Freudian slip indicating something about the nature of real power in the organization. I have no idea how Virginia Dominguez feels about stupid business models, but I sure hopes she agrees with Bill Davis and me.

How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made)

There have been several recent reports of the closure of Rice University Press (here, here and here). RUP made a splash when it was resurrected as an “all-digital” print-on-demand, open access university press, the first of its kind and for many in the ailing university and scholarly publishing world, a beacon, or at least a canary in what is turning out to be a very large, very dark coal mine.

So if it’s closing down, it must have failed, right? There must be no money in digital publishing of scholarly works, right? This must be proof that the only way to make money is with strong intellectual property rights held by massive conglomerates, right? Wrong Wrong Wrong. RUP’s closing is a crystal clear case of something entirely different: bad university administration. The decision, despite the claims in the various articles, had absolutely nothing to do with the viability of the ideas, or the expertise of the staff, or the realities of the marketplace. Instead, it had everything to do with short-sighted, self-important, autocratic management of a university by administrators whose interests are hard to identify though clearly at odds with any possible goal of producing high quality scholarship. (And don’t get me started about the other recent decision to sell the student-run 50K watt radio station, KTRU, one of the best in the country. Sign the petition)

As a board member of Rice University Press, a former employee, and a participant observer in the whole experiment, I’ve had a worms-eye view the fiasco as it has unfolded. I won’t detail all the ways in which RUP is innovative, but for those in the business, i’ll just say: you should all be madly copying their ideas, because RUP had and has no real competitors. Do not be deterred by the shutdown: take advantage of the fact that one less rich university is out there spending $$ on something innovative.
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Marc Hauser’s Trolley Problem

Many of you may be following the Marc Hauser case. If you aren’t: the NY Times has reported on it (here and here), the Chronicle of HIgher ed has published a leaked document from a former research assistant in Hauser’s case, Language Log, John Hawks and NeuroAnthropology have all posted some links, greg laden has a hilarious post about his perception that Hauser could make his new world monkeys consistently do surprising things. And so on.

I have a weak sense of the details, but I do know that accusations of fraud, regardless of whether fraud was committed, tend to have a range of effects on people involved, especially the administration of a university, the graduate students in a lab, and the fellow researchers in an accused’s field. One might think of this as Hauser’s trolley problem, a tool he’s fond of using himself in order to supposedly get at the basic biological modules or organs of morality. In this case, the person on the track, about to be flattened by a runaway trolley, is Hauser himself. One can imagine a number of scenarios: should one pull a lever to save Hauser? Should one push an unnamed (fat) graduate student or post-doc onto the track to save Hauser? Should one divert the trolley onto a track containing five other researchers who work on moral cognition, or leave it on the track towards Hauser to save those five? Should one derail the trolley and risk destroying a building (cognitive science at Harvard) that might contain sleeping researchers, etc. etc. etc.

As many journalists have noted, there is irony in the fact that Hauser’s forthcoming book is called Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. But it’s more than irony, it’s a question of scale and temporality. Whatever evil is at stake here, it might have both a distant cause (evolution) and a proximate one (the institutional pressure to publish and the problem of being a star scientist), and neither Hauser nor anyone else seems able to mount a theory that would accommodate both. If there is a problem with Hauser’s style of research, it’s probably not that it is fraudulent. More likely, the problem is that his theories cannot explain the possibility of fraud arising as a result of the intense desire to prove that fraud has an evolutionary origin.

Understanding the Current Future of the AAA

The AAA’s section assembly recently called on a set of advisors (principally editors of section journals) to write memos to the Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing (CFPEP) that would make recommendations about the future of publishing in the AAA. As is the way of governance, these memos by advisors will go to the section assemblies who will read them and decide whether to make recommendations to the Executive Board who will make a final and official decision which the staff of the AAA will “execute” (I love that word).

I’ve read a handful of these memos, most of which seem to say something like “our section is still alive, so we have no complaints.” This is kind of worrying, since a bunch of memos recommending no action will lead to no action by the Section Assembly, no decisions by the Executive Boards and no executions by the Staff.

One memo stands out though: the one by Kim Fortun, which she wrote as an advisory member and outgoing co-editor of Cultural Anthropology. [Full disclosure: yours truly and the debates on this site are cited several times within. She sent it to me for review, and I’ve posted it here with her permission]. Kim’s memo could be a handbook for understanding the current crisis and politics of scholarly publishing in general, and the promises, fulfilled and unfulfilled, of the AAA’s union with Wiley Blackwell, in particular. It is incredibly detailed, well-sourced, well organized and throughtful–far beyond the call of duty of a memo. I hope all the section assembly advisors get a chance to read it, as well as all the Section Assembly representatives and as much of the membership as possible.

At stake immediately is the question of renewing our contract with Wiley Blackwell, something I personally consider a done deal because of the lock-in and sunk costs of the initial switch. Switching at this point in the state of publishing will just be way too costly, but i’d love to be proven wrong by a really detailed analysis of the costs and practical challenges of switching to something else.

In a more longterm sense, however, at stake is the very definition of what AAA’s roles and duties are vis-a-vis multiple different stakeholders–not only members, but readers, authors, editors, universities, librarians, students, and reviewers. Fortun’s memo outlines responses and ideas communicated with respect to all of these stakeholders.

If you feel at all in sympathy with what Fortun’s memo advises (keep in mind she is acting as an advisor, not a member of the SCA, which will have its own ideas about this), but you are not a member of SCA, then I urge you to communicate your thoughts to the members of your section(s). As I say, it appears from a cursory glance that not all the sections see the same problems, and that might just be because you aren’t talking about it. So forward this post and the memo, and talk it up, please. The current future of the AAA is too bleak, it’s time for a different one.

QDA or not QDA?

For years I’ve been asked by students “Which Qualitative Data Analysis software should I use?” I have no effing idea. Despite the fact that I am a Scholar of Teh Internets, I’ve never used QDA software. There are lots of reasons: a) it’s proprietary b) it’s expensive c) none of my advisors or fellow students or any journal editors ever expected me too d) etc. etc.

But recently I reviewed a paper that employed QDA to try to make a point. In my estimation it added exactly nothing to the paper. Conceptual distinctions were fuzzy, terms were assumed to refer to concepts when they may only have been co-occurent in different samples, the distinctions apparently provided by the software were fuzzy at best, at worst totally indistinct, and most annoying of all, the authors could not say what their methodology consisted in, only that they had used software to do something.

Now I could rail against the misplaced scientism and ideological blindness of QDA here, but I do not (want to) think this article was in any way exemplary. Rather, what I want to know is: what are the best articles where QDA has really made a difference? What are the canonical articles? Is there a review article of the best of the best of QDA results? When Atlas.ti costs $1800 a pop, and Nvivo costs $600, doesn’t it seem like there should be a really clear list of all the super advances we have made because of it? Really, shouldn’t the “greatest hits of QDA” be something all anthropologists can easily recount?

ACTA, a TRIPS down memory lane

Alex Dent sends word of the next international legal nightmare: the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The first thing to say is that, like TRIPS, this agreement is currently being negotiated behind closed doors, without any apparent consultation from any civil society representatives of any of the signatories. But unlike TRIPS, it is an “executive agreement” not a treaty, representing largely industry interests. If it were a WIPO treaty, it would be more transparent. I never thought I would say such a thing.

The second thing to say is that this is an agreement seeking a problem. It is ridiculously broad in scope, seems to have no respect for due process, and looks to me more like an attempt to institute a legal framework for automatically citing and fining non-sanctioned producers, users or distributors of just about anything covered by IP law. That’s just my reading though, check out what the large and growing community of critics say:

ACTA is the predictably deficient product of a deeply flawed process. What started as a relatively simple proposal to coordinate customs enforcement has transformed into a sweeping and complex new international intellectual property and internet regulation with grave consequences for the global economy and governments’ ability to promote and protect the public interest.

If you are a glutton for legalese punishment, check out the detailed analyses of the leaked documents and the pages on the KEI and Public Knowledge sites.

More Inertia! in AAA publishing

AAA has sent out another survey (all members should have received it), this one ostensibly about AAA’s relationship with Wiley-Blackwell and your satisfaction with that lovely partnership. Sadly, the survey asks no questions (well, half of one, maybe) regarding the Borg that is Wiley-Blackwell, and a number of irrelevant questions about Anthrosource and your satisfaction with the print publications that WB/AAA distribute.

SM reader Celia reminds us that Jason B. Jackson has written an excellent post about how to opt out–well worth re-visiting early and often as you rise in the ranks of the discipline.

What we really need at this point is not another survey about member satisfaction with the AAA publications program, but a survey about what members really want from the AAA, full stop. Three points:

  1. We are stuck with Wiley-Blackwell, there is no use asking members how they feel about it. If you thought the sunk costs of developing Anthrosource were huge, well, they have nothing on committing ourselves to WB. WB uses its own proprietary software and business logic to organize, manage, publish and monitor the AAA’s publications, and even if the AAA membership wanted to jump ship to another publisher, the costs of converting everything from WB’s system to some other mega-publisher’s system would thoroughly bankrupt the society. Welcome to the future, we saw it coming. (And btw, dismantle Anthrosource now–it has become nothing more than a non-working, user-unfriendly, feature-poor interface to WB’s Interscience system. Give up the ghost).

  2. The AAA needs to stop talking about publications as if it is a minor component of its problems: it is the rotten core of a huge problem of sustainability and governance. The AAA has run for decades on the promise of revenue from publications. It sells memberships to anthropologists by promising them copies of section journals + American Anthropologist. It’s whole business model is built around toll-access publication, which has in the past, i’ve been told, provided as much as 75% of its operating budget. Unless the AAA gets in on the ground floor of the iPad right now (like tomorrow), this is a majorly losing business plan.

  3. What we really need is a survey that asks honest questions about what members expect to get from a scholarly society. Questions like: would you even bother to pay dues if you didn’t get a copy of American Anthropolgist? (yes!); would you pay dues if you knew they were being used for purposes you could monitor and respond to? (yes!); would you pay dues if AAA promised to make all AAA publications open access? (doubleplusyesyesyes!); would you pay dues if all you got for it was reduced registration fees at a yearly conference? (even so, yes!); would you pay dues for career counseling, job listings, and news from the field (yes!)… and so on until it can be made clear what exactly membership in the society means, beyond a print copy of American Anthropologist (I can already prop open my door in extremely heavy wind, thank you very much, I really don’t need any more of those).

Interview tips from Colin Marshall

Honestly I don’t know why I’m on a journalism kick lately, but here I go again: Colin Marshall, host of a podcast and radio show called The Marketplace of Ideas recently posted an excellent list of interview techniques, including things like “have a conversation” and “reveal your ignorance”. Two things are interesting: 1) journalists, like anthropologists, frequently fall prey to an ideological sense of what makes a “scientific” or objective interview (a rote list of questions asked like the advancing front of a battle), and it often makes for bad journalism, by which I mean, journalism that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know; and 2) everything Marshall lists might be understood as ways to get outside the “framing” of discourse. This latter point is essential to me: anthropologists are doing good work when they figure out how to de-frame discourse, i.e. how to work a conversation out of the frames that restrict people from thinking. The salience of “framing” is obvious to sociologists, linguists, political scientists and others today, and there is much quality research on framing… but very little research on resisting the framing of discourse and enabling the progress of thinking. I read these tips as clear strategies for doing just that.

neosocialism spam locker server lag discussion problem

I just want to point out to readers that there has been all kinds of discussion around Dominic Boyer’s post on Neosocialism which has been disrupted by a slow server and an overly aggressive spam filter. I apologize to everyone whose messages have been disappeared by our totalitarian spam control Stasi. Curious that this post should cause this problem so acutely…

In any case, take a second look at the discussion, if you have a chance.