Category Archives: Conference Notes

NGO-graphies: On Knowledge Production and Contention

NGOgraphies logo

The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.

When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize? to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:

Dear All,

I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.

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Anthropology at the margins: A report of EASA 2014

(This guest blog comes to us from Theodoros Kyriakides. Theo is a PhD student at the University of Manchester social anthropology department, currently writing his thesis on the political and subjective dimensions of thalassaemia in Cyprus. You can follow him on twitter at @bio_karneia. -Rx)

I am reporting on the wrapped up EASA 2014 conference, entitled “Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution,” which took place at Tallinn University from July 31st to August 3rd. EASA is the main body of European Social Anthropologists, and the conference takes place once every two years. This was the 13th EASA conference, and with an attendance of 1,200 delegates it was one of the biggest gatherings of anthropologists in the world this year.

I arrived two weeks before the conference, as part of an exchange scheme the Tallinn anthropology department recently set up with the Manchester anthropology department, where I am doing my PhD. Tallinn finds itself in a marginal position, not only in terms of European history and identity, but also in terms of anthropological relevance. As a scholar of illness I have always been interested in the marginal, not as a space of withdrawal, but of creativity and production. This has been the case with Tallinn anthropology: a relatively new initiative, founded in 2006, the department in the process of producing the first batch of Estonian anthropologists, conducting research in Estonia and also abroad.  Continue reading

Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself,  who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States,  it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.

The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries.   This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.  This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.

These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t   a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together.   And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.

If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction.   The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.

The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.

A number of  strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change.   Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.

This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.

As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory   we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?

Stop Paying Conference Fees

Big expensive conferences cost too much and offer too little return. Fine, I’ll give it to you. Conferences are acceptable for professional development, almost good for networking, OK for your CV, and decent for being exposed to new ideas. I think some are well worth attending. But just stop paying the extortion fees for big conference. Only go to fee free or all expenses paid conferences. Yes, you’ll go to less but you’ll be better for it. Conference as they are at present are a relic from the patronage pre-neoliberal academy where universities accepted responsibility for their staff, faculty, and students. In those halcyonic days, travel and lodging were less expensive, conference fees were smaller, and most importantly, the university would foot the bill. Today, the extortion conference systems remain in place while the university has dropped its patronage responsibilities while the costs associated with conference attendance have skyrocketed. We must break the back of yet another exploitative system. Stop paying conference fees.

Conferences are of a very limited utility but a utility nonetheless. You should still go but only to select, useful, and economically fair events. Let’s break it down. There are three economic types of conferences: Continue reading

Digital Anthropology’s To Do List

At the 2012 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association we hosted the first business meeting of the Digital Anthropology Group. I ran the meeting like a focus group and the forty or so anthropologists in attendance, from grad students to senior professors, participated with gusto.

Growing out of conversations about Digital Anthropology here on Savage Minds the focus questions were arranged around six prongs. I know forks usually have four prongs… but DANG is a really big fork, okay? The purpose of the exercise was to discover what DANG’s mission should be for each theme and to come away with an actionable project.

You can access the notes on the topics we discussed via 01anthropology:

  1. Cyberworlds/ Digital Studies
  2. Blogging
  3. Public Anthropology
  4. Teaching
  5. Open Access
  6. Field Methods

In the coming weeks I’ll share with you our observations about the information we collected and reproduce the suggestions we came up with. In opening up the conversation to the Savage Minds community I am hoping to revive interest in a Digital Anthropology by including more voices.

I am also hoping to cheer, flatter, and shame my colleagues into contributing their time and talents for the future success of the Digital Anthropology interest group. Without a doubt my top priority at this juncture is to keep the momentum we gained from meeting in person from dying out before we meet again in Chicago, 2013.
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Dialogue with the Public: Adam Yauch and Academic Snobbery

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

Who is the audience for academic knowledge? When does that audience include not just fellow academics, but also the public? These questions are harder to answer than they should be. Our courses require enrollment and tuition. Our writings require effort to find and afford and read. Our conferences tend to be closed to outsiders and sometimes even to other scholars. As a profession, we simply do not have spaces where we regularly talk with an interested public about our research.

This is a story about academics silencing a public audience. It is about Ivory Tower condescension and how I once defended Adam Yauch’s right to ask a question. Here is what happened:

In April 2002, I participated in a conference on Tibet and the Cold War at Harvard University featuring distinguished scholars of China, India, and Tibet. The conference was a perfect fit with my research on Tibet and the CIA and was fantastic in many ways, until it wasn’t.  Continue reading

Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading

What do you want to do in Montreal?

So I was recently contacted by the undergraduate anthropology club at McGill with a very interesting request. Apparently they have some spare cycles and were wondering what, if anything, people would be interested in seeing them do to help out with the upcoming AAA conferences. Specifically, what could they do to make sure that we enjoy our stays in Montreal. I think between the bagels and the pommes frites this is not a difficult question for me to answer — for myself at least! But rather than make recommendations to them myself I thought I’d ask the Internet what it wanted and maybe see if we couldn’t come up with some ideas that enterprising undergraduates might be able to run with? Let me know in the comments — and join me in thanking these folks for taking the initiative on this one!


A highlight of the recent AAA conference in New Orleans was a visit to one of the three art galleries participating in Swarm: Multispecies Salon 3, one of the new “inno-vent” functions spun off from the usual conference proceedings. There was a “Multispecies Anthropology” panel at the conference itself, but sadly it was timed to overlap with the very panel I was participating in. As a multimedia art installation Swarm was highly stimulating and a lot of fun too, I would have loved to see it tied more directly to contemporary cultural anthropology and theory. Fortunately I can turn to the journal Cultural Anthropology Vol. 25, Issue 4 (2010), a special theme issue edited by some of the co-curators of Swarm that explores the intersections of bioart and anthropology, humans and non-human species, science and nature.

Saturday evening, after the SANA business meeting and a catfish po-boy, I slinked back to my cheap hotel for a change of clothes and to get the address of The Ironworks studio on Piety Street. It turns out hailing a cab in New Orleans on a Saturday night can take awhile, especially when you’re in the CBD. And when I did get a cabbie, he confessed to not knowing where Piety Street was and his sole map seemed to be a tourist brochure which only listed major intersections. (“Here put these on,” and he gave me his reading glasses as if this would help.) I bargained that waiting to catch another cab would take longer than navigating with a lost cabbie and so we set sail on the streets of New Orleans.

After the confusion, a train, and about six blocks of streets without names we arrived. The Ironworks was an ideal setting for this experiment in art and anthropology. At the end of a city neighborhood, under the comforting glow of the street lamps, the building suggested a past life as a warehouse or place of light industry. Inside a high fence folks gathered around a keg of beer or perched on picnic tables on the edge of a interior yard whose distance brought darkness and a sense of privacy. This is where the robots roamed, clacking and blinking.

Inside I soon found my friends, alums from my alma mater New College – many of us became professional anthropologists – had agreed to swarm the Swarm. Much to my surprise there were even some undergrads who spotted me right away by my tattoo of the school logo and a fellow from my class who became a criminal lawyer and now lived right down the street. Also there were tamales. And a band of noise musicians. It was good crowd to be in, a mix of ages, anthropologists and artists.

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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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EPIC: Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations

One of the most vigilant members of the SM community, John McCreery (PhD Cornell, 1973), just returned from EPIC, Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations, a conference which took place August 29th-September 1, 2010 in downtown Tokyo with this guest blogger report. It was a local event for John who has lived in Japan since 1980. John is a pioneer in the creative application of anthropological training in corporate contexts having first worked as a copywriter and creative director for Hakuhodo Inc. (1983-1996) and later becoming a Partner and Vice-President of The Word Works, Ltd. ( Kochira koso, John, for this excellent look at EPIC. –AF

An EPIC Experience by John McCreery

All is not well in the world of EPIC, Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations. That said, there is much to envy and admire. Having struggled over the last fifteen years to establish ethnography as an essential component in the corporate research toolkit, participants in EPIC 2010, held this week in Tokyo, confront an environment in which economic recession has slashed budgets and shortened projects, while acceptance has led to routinization, erosion of perceived value, and the threat of deskilling. Above all, corporate ethnography, like the survey and focus group, is threatened by the rise of analytics that draw on the Internet for near real-time access to changes in user behavior. There is, however, a notable lack of panic and despair in the EPIC community. These are, after all, people who have faced tough times before and created new roles for themselves.

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Anna Tsing in Smangus


I wanted to share some thoughts about a particularly interesting workshop I attended over the weekend. Entitled “Rethinking environment, localisation and indigenisation,” the star guest of the workshop was Anna Tsing, whose work has inspired numerous blog posts here on Savage Minds. Anna Tsing was discussant for all the papers, and presented a talk about her current research as well. David Reid has a nice writeup of the workshop, to which I just wanted to add a couple of observations.

Anna Tsing is an incredibly generous scholar. Her comments on each paper managed to highlight the strengths of those papers while simultaneously suggesting ways in which their arguments could be extended. I say “extended” because her comments were largely internal to the logic of each paper, as opposed to imposing her own framework upon them. I only regretted that I did not have time to update my own paper (hastily scrapped together from a conference I attended two years ago in order to meet the workshop deadline during end-of-the-semester madness) in order to reflect my own recent engagement with her work, and the fieldwork I have done since I wrote that paper. Doing so would certainly have made the weekend all the more valuable.

Anna Tsing’s current research (or at least what she focused on in her talk) is about mushrooms, focusing on the ways in which mushroom cultivation reuses damaged (“blasted”) landscapes. Drawing on the work of Deborah Bird Rose, she emphasized the way in which these practices allow for a kind of “recuperation” for all the species inhabiting the landscape. She also talked about “multi-species anthropology” as an alternative to Actor-Network Theory. She argued that whereas ANT is useful for inanimate technologies which are animated by their interaction with humans, it is less useful for species which are already alive. Obviously, not all living organisms are relevant to every study, so once again the question of scale is important, and must be determined ethnographically. (See Juno’s Savage Minds review of When Species Meet.) In addition to SW China and Japan, one of her field sites for this work is in Oregon. A while back the New Yorker actually had a great article about mushroom hunters in Oregon which is well worth reading. Unfortunately, the full article is only available to subscribers.


The workshop was also notable for it’s location. Located in the middle of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range, the village of Smangus 司馬庫斯 is about 1500 meters above sea level. Since I live around sea level, I really felt the altitude when we went for a hike on the second day. (You can see the rest of my photos from the hike here.) During that hike I was astounded by the depth of Anna Tsing’s ecological knowledge as she engaged a visiting ethnobotanist and a member of the local community in a barrage of penetrating questions about landscape use which they often struggled to answer. Besides its location, Smangus is unique for three reasons: The first are the ancient cyprus trees which are the main attraction for the ecotourism which is the mainstay of their economy (see the picture above). The second is the fact that the community, inspired by a trip to an Israeli kibbutz, is run as a cooperative. And third, because of a high profile court case which pitted local community members against the national Forest Bureau in a battle over who controls the natural resources. Lin Yih-ren’s 林益仁 talk at the workshop gave some important background to this battle, focusing on the planned creation of a new national park, and a group of five authors presented an interesting parallel case from ‘Tolan 都蘭, a coastal Amis community which experienced a similar struggle.

UPDATE: Added some text missing from the end of the post.