Tag Archives: #aaafail

Anthropology News: Announcing Open–and then closed again–Anthropology

I was just checking through my ridiculously full gmail inbox when I saw the latest “content alert” from Anthropology News.  One piece really struck my attention: the announcement of a new open access publication called Open Anthropology.  AAA president Leith Mullings writes:

I am very pleased to announce that at its May meeting, the Executive Board (EB) agreed to explore and implement a pilot open access publication. Open Anthropology, the first public, open access digital-only publication of the American Anthropological Association, is expected to launch in 2013.

Wow, that’s some great news.  Here’s more:

In making this decision, the EB considered the extensive transformations taking place in scholarly publishing, as well as the importance of sharing information as widely as possible. In keeping with the AAA Statement of Purpose, Open Anthropology will help promote anthropology and anthropologists and “the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.” We know anthropology has much to offer in this regard

Yes indeed, anthropology does have a lot to offer.  Nice!  This is sounding fantastic.  Almost too good to be true.  More:

By examining the conditions under which various practices and relationships arise, anthropologists have a great deal to say about how and why they change. It is this perspective that makes the discipline potentially applicable to addressing the pressing problems of today’s world.

Yes!  This is really getting good.  Tell me more:

Open Anthropology will be devoted to previously published AAA articles, review articles, book and audiovisual reviews, and reports and comments on topics of interest to the general public, and that may have direct or indirect public policy implications. Content in Open Anthropology will be culled from the full archive of AAA publications, curated into issues, and will be freely available on the internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full text of these articles.

A really important, exciting idea.  Pretty cool, no?  There must be some kind of catch, right?  Oh wait, this just in: Continue reading

open access advocacy behind a pay wall

Some of this stuff you just can’t make up. Check this out:

Over a week ago I got an email from Wiley saying that the latest number of American Anthropologist was available online. I saw immediately that this issue of the journal had an editorial from Tom Boellstorff, the outgoing editor of AA, arguing vigorously that the American Anthropological Association must move to a true ‘gold open access’ model where all of our articles are free for everyone, everywhere to read. It’s a big, huge, amazing deal that some one so experienced with our journal production, and so prominently placed within our organization, would make a statement like this.

Still, I put off blogging about it. I had read an earlier draft of the editorial, and I knew that getting the piece out into the blogosphere would involve responding to a lot of comments and rehashing arguments that, for me, are now years old. Finally I got an email from some non-americans asking about the editorial and my reaction to it, so I decided to get down to it and get my blog on.

Except I couldn’t download it.

Some of you may remember that over a year ago I complained that Wiley pulls a bait and switch on AAA members, sending out emails announcing that new journal issues are out, but then releasing them first at wiley.com and then, after a lag, putting them up on AnthroSource. To be clear, I believe this is the result of incompetence rather than malice, and frankly AnthroSource is so broken that I’m not surprised it takes a while for content to make its way on to the service. This belief was, for me, confirmed by the pushback I got from members of the ‘Committee on the Future of the Book’ or whatever it’s called, who argued hat I should have emailed them directly about the problem, since as the committee responsible for thinking about publications they couldn’t be expected to know anything about kinks in the production process unless a blogger alerted them to a problem. 

Well, the system is still broken. So all Wiley subscribers can now read a rousing pro-open access editorial, while the people who actually write and publish these articles will have to wait for sloppy seconds.

Truth be told, I don’t mind if the AAA and Wiley can’t get their act together and there’s a day or two lag between when articles go line on AnthroSource. but a week? After you already know there’s a problem? It’s just embarrassing. 

Luckily, Tom has self-archived a pre-print of his editorial and you can download and read it here.

I’d talk more about the editorial and its contents, but I just had to stop and for a moment and let some of my flabberghastedness spill out onto the page before gathering myself up and continuing. Thanks for reading — I feel better. Happy Weekend!

Name and Mission Statement – Open Thread

In this post I’d like to invite readers to contribute to a statement of purpose for our proposed “Digital Anthropology” group. The statement should be simple and concise, broad enough to allow some wiggle room but sufficiently narrow that it is clear how we are different.

Currently we are envisioning a group that, like a human brain, is divided into two hemispheres — one inside the AAA and one on the outside. The group will be dues free and without a budget or elected officers. This organizational structure is not set in stone and may change in the near or distant future as the needs of the group dictate.

We are also looking for a name that is authentic and catchy, but not ephemeral. It should convey to other anthropologists in an instant who we are and what we do without being confusing or overwhelming.

Input on a mission statement will be of great benefit to our working group as we collaborate this month to draw up something formal to share with you here and on Neuroanthropology. After we get enough nominations for the name, maybe we could put it up for a vote somehow.

With gratitude,

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.
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Alright, how about a Digital Anthropology Interest Group?

Following on the heels of Bill Davis’ letter to the White House that has been hashed out here and elsewhere it became apparent that many of us are concerned about the future of Open Access principles within the AAA. The suggestion that we organize an OA interest group has been amended to include working towards a broader, “digital anthropology” interest group. There are a number of advantages to adopting the “digital” moniker. While OA can still be one of the core issues of the group, it may be politically tactful not to include that in the name of our organization. By making the organization more inclusive we can get more people involved and, if need be, shift focus as issues related to OA develop and the group itself becomes more mature.

In this post I’d like to consider what else such a digital anthropology interest group could do. I compiled a list of different ideas readers brought up in the last column about an OA interest group. Let’s work together to add to the list! Being that we’re in the most incipient planning stages I suggest we brainstorm freely – make wishes even – and worry about sorting it all out later.

Once we’ve inventoried peoples’ ideas about the interest group we can draft a mission statement and share it here and on other blogs too in order to get the best feedback. So without further ado, here’s what we’ve come up with so far:

The purpose of a Digital Anthropology interest group

  • Officially we are for “networking and/or the informal exchange of information.” So far, four important trends have developed:
  • (a) Be a common meeting place for anthros to brainstorm about new platforms.
  • (b) Compile and communicate important information relevant to our purpose
  • (c) Be savvy about our place within the AAA
  • (d) Build coalitions with other groups outside the AAA

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Is there support for an OA interest group among AAA members?

Shortly after Bill Davis’s letter to the White House provoked debate here at Savage Minds and other anthropology blogs I joined a conversation in the comments section of one post about what actions advocates of OA ought to take. In this post I’d like to continue that discussion: what should we do next? I will suggest that one option is the formation of an “interest group” and I’d like some feedback from readers on the topic.

One reader suggested that “section groups” within the AAA might organize in order to jointly fund a new OA venue. Unfortunately the section groups have an uneven track record when it comes to cooperation, especially when money is involved. If you’ve witnessed factionalism play out in your home department then you’re no doubt aware that academics are all too willing to collectively poke themselves in the eye instead of cooperating.

But what really nixes the deal is that section groups do not have direct control of their finances. Of course they may set dues for their membership and their executive boards oversee the allocation of those funds for various objectives such as awards, publications, and section conferences. However, the sections do not keep their own bank accounts separate from the AAA. The parent organization holds the section group’s money for them. If funds are needed they must request that the AAA write checks on their behalf.

This passage, 4(h), from the AAA bylaws on the permissible actions of sections is also illuminating. A section, “May engage in publishing and program activities appropriate to its purposes; it may appoint editors and other agents of the Section and set publication and program policies for the Section, so long as the policies are not inimical to the interests of the Association” (my emphasis). Are we so sure that the Executive Board does not perceive OA as inimical to the interests of the Association?

Interest groups offer another way for AAA members to organize themselves and may prove helpful to our cause, at least in the near term. Interest groups differ from sections in terms of their size (minimum membership for a section is 225, for an interest group 25). Interest groups may not set dues, so any AAA member may join one at no cost – although the interest group can charge fees for services provided if the AAA Executive Board okays it. Whereas sections are required to have elected offices and a President, there are no hierarchical political structures imposed on the interest groups. Sections must compose a charter that defines their governance, but interest groups do not. Continue reading

News: AAA Response about Public Access to Scholarly Publications

I just read about this news this morning (thanks to the wonders of email).  The American Anthropological Association recently published its comments to the Request for Information (RFI) from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) about the state of affairs when it comes to public access to scholarly publication.  All of the responses are here, and the AAA response is #282.  That’s right, scroll down and have a look at number two hundred and eighty two.  It’s worth it.

But, in case you don’t feel like scrolling right now, how about a couple of nice selections from the AAA response:

We write today to make the case that while we share the mutual objective of enhancing the public understanding of scientific enterprise and support the wide dissemination of materials that can reach those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge (consistent with our association’s mission), broad public access to information currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.


We know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system for making the content of scholarly journals available to those who might benefit from it.

Emphasis mine in both cases.  Take the time to check out the comments, which you can download as a PDF and share with your friends and colleagues (just an idea).  Comments?  Thoughts?


Update: Here is the direct link to the PDF of the AAA comment.

Update II: A few reactions from around the web:

Daniel Lende: American Anthropological Association Takes Public Stand Against Open Access

Dienekes Pontikos: The American Anthropological Association opposes open science

Michael E. Smith: American Anthropological Association joins the dark side of the force (with appropriate imagery)

Update III: For some background on what’s wrong with the RWA, check out this post by Barbara Fister

Update IV: Kristina Killgrove makes an excellent point about grad students who find themselves outside of the system, here.


Making the (Funding) Cut: The NSF, Anthropology, and the value of social science

Social science research isn’t on the firmest ground in these days of economic malaise, but it’s not like this news is exactly exploding into the headlines across the nation.  Funding cuts, like the recent “trimming” of the Fulbright program,* seem to take place somewhat under the radar.   The same can be said of the recent debates about the value of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences that took place about a month ago in a congressional hearing on June 2, 2011 (this link has PDFs of the introductory statements and the testimony of all the witnesses).  The social sciences face an uphill battle, in part, because some folks see them as mere “soft sciences” that do not merit public support.  The House panel subcommittee meeting was about assessing the relative merit of the social sciences and how federal funding should or should not be allocated to researchers.  Did you hear about this?  Well, I didn’t–at least not until just a few days ago.  Funny what can happen in the middle of the summer, isn’t it?  Anyway, here’s a recap of what went down according to a summary from the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA):

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) chaired the panel, which included the testimony of four witnesses:  Myron Gutman (Assistant Director for NSF’s SBE directorate), Hillary Anger Elfenbein (Olin School of Business at Washington University, St. Louis), Peter Wood (President of the National Association of Scholars), and finally Diana Furchtgott-Roth (Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute).  Here’s how Brooks described the basic purpose of the hearing:

The goal of this hearing is not to question whether the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce interesting and sound research, as I believe we all can agree that they do. I come from a social science background. I have a degree in political science and economics. Rather, the goal of our hearing is to look at the need for federal investments in these disciplines, how we determine what those needs are in the context of national priorities, and how we prioritize funding for those needs, not only within the social science disciplines, but also within all science disciplines, particularly when federal research dollars are scarce.

Brooks’ language sounds cool, rational, and impartial.  However, according to journalist Jeffrey Mervis:

Brooks may have been pulling his punches. In comments to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Brooks expressed serious doubts about the value of the social sciences. The freshman legislator said he “understands the value of basic research” because his constituents in and around Huntsville, Alabama, make up “one of, if not the most, highly educated districts in the sciences.” Brooks did say that “my priorities would be to protect basic research in the sciences as much as possible, even to the extent of cutting entitlements, in order to generate enough funding for basic research.” But his definition of the term “basic research” turns out to be synonymous with the so-called hard sciences, and to exclude the social sciences.

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This Valentine’s Day, a love letter to anthropology

I have a collaborative project that I would like to float out to the anthropology blogosphere on this Valentine’s Day: a love letter to our discipline

This won’t work for several reasons: First, because of my position on the earth, it is probably not Valentine’s Day where you are. Second, there is a strong chance that I’m opening the flood gates for endless cynical, bodice-ripping parodies. But I’d still like to give it a shot.

This idea is simple: in the next seven days, for a few thousand words, somewhere public on the Internet, write about why you like anthropology. Then we’ll make the guys at Neuroanthropology do a round up.

Back in the good old days of last month, when #AAAfail was on everyone’s lips, I suggested that we ask anthropology bloggers to provide ‘creeds’ or statements of belief about what anthropology was or should be. I let the idea drop because it seemed sort of dogmatic and unfun to list what you think The Deal is with anthropology. I’m hoping that the Valentine’s Day format will help accomplish a similar thing, but with a little bit of fun thrown in.

So let’s see whether anyone wants to take up the V-Day challenge in the next week and talk about what what anthropology is and why they like — nay, even love — it. Get cracking!

I mean, say what you like about the tenets of Critical Anthropology, Dude, at least it’s an ethos

If you are a Real Scientist, I it is reasonable that you believe yourself to be under attack from 1) ‘critical’ or ‘political’ or ‘activist’ anthropologists on the one hand and 2) ‘postmodernists’ on the other. However, it is unreasonable that you consider yourself under attack from ‘activist postmodernists’.

It is easy to see why. Being an activist requires two main ingredients: 1) moral certainty (that something in the world is wrong) and 2) empirical confidence (of the changes necessary to make things better). Postmodernism (to a first approximation) is characterized by 1) a suspicion of foundational moral thinking and 2) not a very robust theory of causation. Postmodernism, in brief, is inimical to intervention.

Intervention in the world by anthropologists — whether it be ‘critical’ or ‘applied’ — is typically grounded by a firm belief that you know what is going on. Indeed, the most famous cases of overreaching political planning (think Robespierre) were a result of too much faith in Science. While Real Scientists can have some sort of beef with ‘critical’ anthropologists, it will have to be a complicated and well-thought out beef about the relationship between scientific knowledge, civic participation, fair dealings with research communities, and ‘broader impacts’ (to use the language of the NSF) over research. But it cannot be a simple one that anthropology ‘ought not get involved’, at least not if one wants to avoid taking the untenable position that urban planners are deeply unethical when they embrace the value judgment that local communities deserve functioning traffic lights and graded roads. Neither can it be an epistemological one that critical anthropologists have no theory of truth, causation, and so forth, since in fact such a theory is necessary (to a first approximation) for any attempt at intervention.

In short, a commitment to positive knowledge unites critical anthropologists and Real Scientists against postmodernism, not the other way around.

A good example of this can be seen in the exchange between Bob Scholte and Steven Tylor in the pages of Critique of Anthropology (volume seven issue one if you want to look it up) in 1987. Scholte is a bit of a forgotten figure in anthropology, a leftist and philosophically-inclined anthropologist who was poised to become a major figure in the field until he passed away unexpectedly at a young age. His review of Writing Culture — a key postmodernist text in anthropology — was thus fairly influential in its time, and was a summary of white the older generation of Marxist scholars who came up in the sixties thought about the newer postmodern trends of the eighties.

For Scholte, postmodernism is not a fellow fighter against Truth and Objectivity, but rather a threat to it. A postmodern approach to the poetics of a text is insufficient to normatively ground anthropological critique. Scholte finds

an exclusive appeal to aesthetics and poetry politically inadequate. On the one hand, there is no guarantee that the ’Mephistophelian urge to power’ cannot also infect the poet. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that poetry by definition generates positive or desirable political consequences.

This is, in fact, not a problem of postmodernism but of the Geertzian interpretive anthropology out of which it grew:

spinning textual tapestries inspired by native designs does not, of course, guarantee a moral center. In fact, the latter threatens to disappear from anthropological praxis altogether. And there is the rub. Politics may become merely academic – literally so. Specifically, the politics of interpretation in the academy threatens to draw a ’cordon sanitaire’ (p. 257) around the interpretation of politics in society. That, I would argue, is the greatest danger of symbolic anthropology and – by implication – its literary turn.

Thus Scholte, like some of the Real Scientists involved in #AAAfail, finds the politics of political correctness and academic posturing — the “politics of interpretation in the academy” — totally unappetizing.

While Scholte’s review — like much of his writing — tends to ramble, Tylor’s response does a much better job of summarizing Scholte’s charge against him than Scholte himself. Scholte, he writes, “faults the book for avoiding politics and praxis, for failing to confront the political realities that make the context of its own Mandarin concerns with literary effect” and being, in essence, “a cowardly retreat into a feckless literary aestheticism”.

Tylor was in 1987 nothing if not a poster boy for the more caricatureable branch of postmodernism, and his response to Scholte does not disappoint. “Where Bob finds these essays unpolitical, or evasive in their politics, or unmindful of political contexts,” he writes, “they strike me as being excessively political, too trapped in the discourse of RAYT – of power, politics, reason, epistemology, praxis, critique, and normative import.”

Tylor continues to use the term RAYT — get it?!? — throughout the review, taking Writing Culture to task because the chapters in it “still spin their tales cocooned by the security of representational discourse. Still unmetamorphased, they do not burgeon into light, nor challenge the dark hegemony of politics and epistemology, but presuppose it even in the ironies that enshroud their purposes.” As a result they “preserves the myth of a privileged discourse that founds or grounds all the others.”

In contrast, “post-modernism grants no priority to any discourse. It aims to deconstruct the divisions that give the illusion of separate, hierarchically ordered discourses… It is a way of using these discourses against themselves neither in order to re-hierarchize them nor even to overcome them, but to realize that parodic potential which is their fullest implication.”

This is clearly not a brief for intervention. In fact, Tylor seems to find the idea of intervention in the world ludicrous: “Who now believes that politics or science works any positive transformation? Anthropology, modem science, and history have all conspired to teach us to disavow this hubris of the modem age,” he writes. Even worse, critical anthropology leads to “boredom” since “those complementary modes of demystification called symbolic anthropology and critical anthropology” leads to a “dialectic that mystifies the past and projects an unreachable future that always escapes final totalization in the clash of conflicting interests – until – by this prattling parabasis lulled into slumber, succumbed to the rhythm of their rupture and continuity we are succussed into some new succession RAYTING still.”

It is not clear what Tylor’s solution is — except perhaps that he is beyond looking for one. It is useful, I think, to be reminded that ‘postmodernism’ can be something more than a term of abuse. And as this exchange makes clear, it is not automatically aligned with ‘critical anthropology’ in the fight against ‘Real Science’. After all, one of the ideas behind many brands of Marxism is that it is ‘science’. Too often we assume that we remember what the alignment of forces were in a debate, or we simply don’t learn the specifics of a debate at all because ‘we all know what someone said’. I think it is important that there is some precision and history is necessary in debates about our discipline.

A Changeling Discipline

Worrying about our status as a science is not a new habit for anthropologists — in fact its one of our perennial concerns. Its useful, therefore, to see how our predecessors have worried the same way we have about the same topics since, a lot of the time, they did it better than us.
One wonderful brief piece of such rumination is Kroeber’s The Personality of Anthropology, available free and open access from the good people of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, along with tons of other great, free and open content. The piece is a speech that Kroeber made in 1958, near the end of his life. These were important questions at the end of the 50s, when ‘science’ was everywhere, funding was rife for it, and a wave of anthropologists were interested in making anthropology more ‘scientific’ whether it be in the form of componential analysis or Stewardian ecologism.
His main concern in the piece is to compare Anthropology’s unique personality and status among the discipline, particularly with comparison to sociology, British social anthropology, and ‘applied’ anthropology. Is anthropology ‘science’? Is it useful? What is unique about anthropology when so much of what it does is also done by other discipline?
“What impulse is it that drives anthropologists as a group to participate in so many fields which are already being cultivated by others?” Wondered Kroeber. The answer, it seemed to him, was
A two-prong impulse to apperceive and cenceive at once empirically and holistically. We constitute one of the smaller learned professions, but we aim to take in perhaps more phenomenal territory than any other discipline Our coverage must of necessity be somewhat thin. Yet it is rarely either vague or abstruse — we start with concrete facts which we sense to carry an interest, and we stick with them. Perhaps our coverage can fairly be called spotty; though without the implication of being random, irrelevant, disconnected. If a whole is steadily envisaged, the relation of its fragments can be significant, provided the parts are specifically known and are specifically located within the totality. So the holistic urge is perhaps what is most characterlistic of us.
For Kroeber, anthropology’s uniqueness is its empiricism, what ie calls “a love of fact, an attachment to phenomena in themselves, to perceiving them through our own senses”:
This taproot we share with the humanities. And we also tend strongly here toward the natural history approach. Sociologists have called us “nature lovers” and “-bird watchers,” Steve Hart says; and from their angle, the epithets stick. There are anthropological museums of tangible objects, but no sociological ones. We are strong on photographs, films, and tapes that reproduce sights and sounds. We write chapters on art in ethnographies and and sometimes offer courses on primitive art. How many sociologists would venture that, or even wish to venture it?…. We insist on field workd as an opportunity, a privelege, and a profesional cachet. We want the face-to-face experience with our sbjects. The anonymity of the sociological questionnare seems to us bloodless.
For Kroeber, it is abstraction that is the mark of a certain type of science which anthropology is constitutionally unable to appreciate. Not because it is not a science, but because its definition of science is different from the fads in social science which Kroeber responds to:
Since personalities are initially determined by their ancestry, it is highly relevant that anthropology was not a social science at all originally. Its father was natural science; its mother, aesthetically tinged humanities. Both parents want to attain reasoned and general conclusions; but they both also want to reach them by way of their senses… anthropology settled down to starting directly from experienced phenomena, with a bare minimum of ready-made abstraction and theory, but with a glowing conviction that it was entering new territory and making discovery. The visions was wide, charged,and stirring.. It may perhaps fairly be called romantic: certainly,it emerged historically about at the point when aesthetic romanticism was intellecturalizing. The pursuit of anthropology must have seemed strange to many people; but no one has ever called it an arid or a dismal science.
Now, maturity has stolen upon us… The times, and utilitarianism, have caught up with us, and we find ourselvres classified and assigned to the social sciences. It is a dimmer atmosphere, with the smog of Jargon sometimes hanging heavy. Generalizations no longer suffice; we are taught to worship Abstraction; sharp sensory outlines have melted into vagueoness.  As our daily bread, we invent hypotheses in order to test them, as we are told is the constant practice of the high tribe of physicists. If at times some of you, like myself, feel ill at ease in the house of social science, do not wonder; we are changelings therein; our true paternity lies elsewhere.
To me, this remarkable piece is immediately relevant to contemporary debates about anthropology’s status as a ‘science’. One of the most interesting is the way it focuses on abstraction — not ‘being about the facts’ or ‘being true’ — as the aspect of ‘science’ that anthropology is most reluctant to embrace. Like a faerie child raised in a human house, anthropologists feel ill at ease with attempts to conform to the (imagined) standards of physcists and other ‘real’ sciences. While others have argued our unwillingness to conform is because we don’t ‘believe in facts’ or ‘that some things are true and others aren’t’ it is rather our commitment to the actual reality of the world — not a ‘postmodern’ attempt to ‘destroy truth’ — which makes us unwilling to become something other than what we truly are.