Tag Archives: Field Reports

Blogging ethnographic fieldwork.

Academic Culture in Taiwan: Fairness

Back in January I posted some general thoughts about teaching here in Taiwan. Today I would like to talk a little more in detail about one aspect of Taiwanese academic life which has consistently struck me as different from that in the US: the emphasis on fairness. Of course, fairness is important in the US as well, but it seems to me that a concern with procedural fairness often trumps other concerns for Taiwanese, whereas in the US we are more willing to except unfair procedures if we feel the outcome is still legitimate. I notice this at all levels of academia, from the student who told me to fail her on the final exam, rather than rescheduling it around her eye operation, because it would be “fairer to the other students,” to colleagues who hesitate to punish a student for plagiarism because of the possibility that they might not have caught all the students in the class who plagiarized.

This attitude is widespread in Taiwan and can be found in other areas of life as well. My favorite example is the Taiwanese driving test, which is done on what looks like a miniature race course. The skills tested on this test are very particular to the test itself. You have to avoid rubber bumps in the road which sound an alarm if hit with the tire while completing various types of maneuvers: parallel parking, pulling into a parking spot, making an “S curve” forward and backwards, etc. It is like playing a life-sized computer game. Because the race track is so standardized, you can train on a practice course identical to the test course. Instructors will tell you exactly how many times to turn the wheel at each location. If you memorize their instructions, it is very hard to fail. (There is no need to even drive at normal driving speeds, you can take the test as slowly as you like.) This is very different from the driving test I took in NY which tested some similar maneuvers, but took place on a normal street with other cars and at a normal driving pace. Taiwanese would object to such a test because there is the NY version of the test relies too much on the judgement of the person administering the test, and so the test might not be the same for every candidate. (A friend who claims to have been failed on the NY test because she is an immigrant woman would probably prefer the Taiwanese system.)

Recent educational reforms have shift from a single national entrance exam towards the US system of having people directly apply to universities. While reformers point to the advantage of moving away from high-stakes testing (which the NCLB is belatedly imposing on the US educational system), many parents and teachers object to the possibility of increasingly unfair outcomes. Now, one could argue that a system partially dependent on how much parents can afford to pay for cram schools isn’t exactly “fair,” but for Taiwanese parents the new system imposed the possibility of personal preference, family connections, and perhaps even cultural capital, making it much harder for them to know the rules of the game. The end result was that Taiwan never fully abandoned the national exams and currently has two systems: you can apply directly to the university, or you can get in via the national exam.

From my perspective, as trained scholars, we should be trusted to make professional judgements about issues like plagiarism, student qualifications, etc., but I often run up against the objection that this would not be fair. While I don’t exactly disagree, it isn’t clear to me that the seemly more objective measures my colleagues propose are any less subject to bias. I’m still grappling with the exact nature of the differences, but I think I’m simply more willing to demand that my judgement be given some authority on the basis of my training, whereas my colleagues generally want to look for some external measure to which they can point in case their decision is challenged as being “unfair.”

‘Life at the Googleplex’: Corporate Culture, Transparency, and Propaganda

How the hell am I going to get access to study these uber-elite media companies? In my desperation to find ethnographic facts about ‘corporate culture’ at the new media conglomerated behemoths I am viewing these reflexive industrial videos Google and its subsidiary YouTube upload about themselves. What are these things? Part recruitment propaganda to solicit CVs from the world’s top engineers, part PR-campaign to provide proof of its post-China ‘do no evil’ mantra, part braggadocios chest bump and back slap these videos must have some information that can provide evidence for the ‘real’ internal values and dynamics that influence the 20,000 employees and the 100s of millions of networked people that use their digital tools daily.

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But before I begin this bite-sized Youtube videothon I want to query if anthropological tools exist for such research. First, how would an anthropologist contextualize and categorize these videos? Reflexive, check. Industrial, check. Commercial, probably. They are not viewer-created but they have the amateur aesthetic. Textual studies of reflexive and industrial media and websites in anthropology is under-developed. In that historic genre, ‘ethnographic film,’ there were calls for greater reflexivity. And there are ethnographic investigations into the social life of social media. Patricia Lang, danah boyd, Heather Horst, and Mimi Ito can be consulted for this. And I am sure that there are numerous anthropological studies of race/class/gender as exhibited on Youtube. Alexandra Juhasz and Michael Wesch use YouTube as a pedagogical tech. But as far as I am aware, nobody has thought to look at how governments, corporations, and other institutions self-visualize a public persona. Secondly, who has analyzed the particular limitations and possibilities of this new platform for cultural expression? There is more cultural material on YouTube than in anywhere in the world. We must be able to incorporate this data.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The first order of analysis would be to use a political economic widget to find out what they hope to get out of this video. Usually, saying something about increasing profit and consumption is enough here. The second order would be to use textual analysis to look for accidental data points. Start with the simple realization that you are seeing into the company, notice the use of space, of the personalization of cubicles, etc. Thirdly, mix these two approaches, political economy and cultural studies, to read the subtle cues and beyond the avowed interview revelations. Pretend you have ethnographic free-reign, knowing that would always be partial even with clearance. As partial and incomplete as these video documents are a conjunctive approach will be necessary. My girlfriend suggested to me that a corporation’s IPO documents are usually remarkably honest and revealing. Also high-tech investment firms/websites such as Techcrunch keep publically available data on acquisitions, investments, and other reflexive materials. Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World as we Know It, is incredibly revealing about Google corporate culture but is based on only a few interviews with Page, Brin, and a number with CEO Eric Schmidt. My point is that much can be done with little if the right tools are used.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The take-away nugget is that the internet provides tools and reasons for greater corporate transparency. Some corporations answer these calls to use the web to exhibit their tax records and to incorporate users/viewers/participants into internal and external regimes of governance and profit-generation. Other corporations expose their chain of production and distribution and how it misses layovers in child labor farms or despotic regimes and ecological disasters. This is all quite wonderful. But along with greater awareness and transparency is also greater capacity for manipulation of the veneer of transparency. So we must be vigilant in our textual readings of corporate transparency practices and perceive beyond the public persona to the numerous motives, values, and metrics for success that corporations deploy. We must figure out sophisticated techniques to study these powerful institutions. Textual study of the secondary and third order of values encoded in publically available online documents is one way. Even if new media corporations isn’t your anthropological fetish, it is certain that some strangely useful video about your fieldsite or subject exists on Youtube and you are going to have to explain your justifications for using it in your research.  I invite us to co-develop these tools.

Teaching Anthropology “In The Field”

This is a view of the building where I work. The College of Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University, in Hualien, Taiwan.


And here is a picture of the view (on a more typically cloudy day) looking back, from the balcony near my office.


Most of the people who live on the East Coast of Taiwan reside in a narrow valley between the Coastal Mountain Range (top picture) and the larger Central Mountain Range (bottom picture). The valley starts in Hualien city, and continues down about about a hundred miles, to the next coastal city, Taitung. About thirty miles south is the village where I did my fieldwork. Apart from the great scenery and the chance to improve my Chinese, that is one of the main reasons I took this job. But it is now four years since I came here and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made that thirty mile trip. That’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. I think the reasons give some insight into what life is like as an expat professor in Taiwan, what it means to teach near your field site, as well as some of the unique aspects of my current situation. Continue reading

Pandemic Anthropology

For those looking for a place to read more about the politics surrounding the swine flu pre-pandemic, Carlo Caduff, Lyle Fearnley, Andrew Lakoff, Stephen Collier and others at “Vital Systems Security” are madly, and intelligently, covering the unfolding events. Several posts in the last few days have addressed the issue of vaccine creation, the WHO and New York City public health surveillance of the disease. I also recommend Nick Shapiro’s posts on Bio-Agent Sentinels and Animal Biosecurity, which preceded the outbreak. All good stuff.

Viagra soup: a photo essay

In an earlier post, I wondered: Why are there a dozen local brands of sildenafil (the generic name for what’s in Viagra) available in Egyptian pharmacies, and only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill (ECP)? I’m not sure that I have a wholly convincing answer to this question, but I’ll lay out some parts of the puzzle. Jump in with a comment if you have other ideas.

Some Egyptian brands of sildenafil: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Phragra, and Vigorex

Local brands of sildenafil available in Egypt, including: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Vigoran, Phragra, and Vigorex. Photo by Lisa Wynn

First, Americans might think of erectile dysfunction drugs (EDDs) as somewhat shameful (think about mocking attitudes towards Bob Dole’s decision to do Viagra ads), but they have a more positive connotation in Egypt. Two reasons:

  1. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Egypt these drugs seem to be associated as much with the promise of exuberant, excessive sexuality rather than a shameful lack of erection. Maybe it would be more accurate to call them erection enhancement drugs rather than erectile dysfunction drugs. Continue reading

New ways to see the field

John jamming with the Saraswati band

My field site for the past several years has been an urban ghetto in India. We only have time to visit for a few weeks each year, and every time we return the place has transformed itself. A planned widening of the main road could demolish hundreds of homes by the time we return next year. That’s all par for the course. New York City transforms itself each time I return home. But this year we got to experience another kind of transformation. One which I think could be of interest to any ethnographer.

Our film focuses on an acting troupe, and we’ve spent almost all of our time there talking to the actors and their families. This time, however, we were working on the sound track. We wanted to capture the local sounds and extensive musical talent within the community to make a sound track that gives a sense of place. One of our inspirations is this video for M.I.A.’s song, Bird Flu, which we feel captures something important about what it is like to be in such an urban space.

Since neither of us are particularly talented musically, we looked for some help. We were very lucky to find an excellent musician who not only has experience working on film scores (he’s worked together with my wife on other film projects), but who also has experience traveling and working in India. John Plenge doesn’t speak Hindi, but he does speak “music,” and having him there allowed us to explore the fieldsite in a whole new way. We met wedding bands, a dubbing artist who sings vocals for the Gujarati film industry, and heard folk songs sung by women at weddings. I’m not trained in ethnomusicology, but I was struck by how this musical project transformed our experience of the community. Music is always a part of life there, being blasted out of rooftop speakers every day for some wedding, festival, or just because. But not being particularly knowledgeable about music I never would have explored this aspect of life there if it hadn’t been for John.

When I studied yoga the teacher would emphasize trying to do the opposite of what you normally do: start with your left leg instead of the right, or stand on your head. These exercises are aimed at bringing greater balance to the body, like rotating the tires on your car. Although the very act of going to another country and doing ethnography can sometimes serve to shake our preconceptions, we all too easily settle into new habits in the field. Sometimes it might be good to find a way to shake things up a bit and do something which allows you to see your fieldsite in a new way.

Using informed consent forms in fieldwork

I spent this July in Papua New Guinea. The trip was mostly pleasure — to catch up with friends, talk with fellow academics and policy wonks, and of course to see my adopted family in Porgera. I did however, do a bit of research (mostly to satisfy the requirements of the grant that sent me there). What counts as ‘research’ as an anthropologist is difficult — as a recording instrument human beings never switch off while they are awake — and during my time in PNG I had no explicit research design or method. My goal was simply to interview a few people and take notes during my holiday in PNG. The human subjects people at my uni took a look at my research proposal and suggested that I file an exemption for a full IRB review since all the information I would be gathering was more or less public knowledge in PNG. However, they did still ask that provide a one page informed consent sheet to everyone I interviewed so that they could read it, sign it, and keep a copy of it.

In the past I’ve been quite skeptical of this sort of bureaucratization of the relations I have with informants. However, as I think more and more about the politics of doing fieldwork and writing about it over the course of a whole career, and the more I read Rena Lederman’s “posts on IBRs”:https://savageminds.org/author/rena-lederman/ the more strongly I felt that informed consent sheets, no matter how silly they seemed to some of my informants, were an important way of establishing some boundaries for myself and my ‘research subjects.’

So this is how it went down:
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Boy are my arms tired

I just flew back from Papua New Guinea, so after a long summer off I am now finally back and plan to be blogging regularly. Going back to my field site after years and years away was really really great — life affirming even. Over the next couple of days I’ll try to gather some of the things I learned this time around into a couple of blog posts. Hopefully they’ll be interesting to people who have yet to do fieldwork (who might learn something) and to people who have been doing fieldwork for years (who can have a good laugh and my slowly-evaporating naivete).

Science Studies is Anthropology

I’ve just come off of a week long visit with Bruno Latour. He came to Rice as the “NEH Distinguished Visiting Scholar” and gave a public lecture, three seminars, screened a video about his recent art exhibit and participated in three classes (two in anthropology, one in architecture), in addition to dinners, lunches, talks with undergraduates and graduate students, trips to the mall, and a tour of Houston. In short, we got our money’s worth. It reconfirmed for me my sense that Latour is a gentleman and a fantastic teacher; his curiosity is boundless, as is his ability to converse, in depth, with an astonishing range of people–from scientists to lawyers to evangelicals to architects to philosophers to American historians to undergraduates to the wine buyers at Specs (The World’s Largest Liquor Store, about which Bruno said of its immense and varied selection from all over the world “Now I understand relativism. You know, you aren’t supposed to be that open-minded”). The only people he seemed unable to connect with were the French, which is not entirely ironic. He is a fantastic teacher– better at clarfying his ideas in person than in print–and incredibly patient with questions and the inevitable attacks that come based on his reputation (one colleague asked if he felt responsible for the Holocaust– I think this was meant to be “provocative” rather than puerile).
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Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Physicists hate it when Anthropologists misuse Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to give added weight to the commonplace observation that the ethnographic observer has an impact on the subjects and activities being observed. Not only is it unnecessary to evoke physics, it is bad physics:

Another common misconception is that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is equivalent to the statement, “You can’t measure a system without changing it.” In fact, it applies to unmeasured states and does not really take account of the effect of measurement.

Nonetheless, it has become anthropological shorthand to refer to our academic concerns that we (the observer) might be unduly influencing what we observe. The same concern affects documentary filmmakers, as it is not uncommon for the presence of the camera to have a strong influence on the events being recorded.

This fact struck home yesterday as we were interviewing a key subject. His kids came tearing across the frame: an older sister chasing her younger brother. As she ran, the sister yelled: “They should film our fight!” As shooting anything else had become impossible, we complied.

PS: I’m happy to say that DER has made our short film (which the current project is building upon), Acting Like a Thief, freely available from Google Video in its entirety. If your university library doesn’t yet have a copy of the film, please request that they purchase one. Doing so will help us demonstrate the wisdom of such an Open Access model, as well as supporting our current production!

Getting our effervescence on: AAAs 2006

Ah, the AAAs: the only event I know of that combines endless reflexivity with overwhelming and alternating senses of total abandomnent and total communion. And yet if there was anything that struck me about the 2006 AAAS it was that we as a collevtivity had some trouble getting our effervescence on.

A lot people that I know blamed the venue. The San Jose convention center is huge. As a result, there was massive amounts of acreage at the front of the space where people could hang out, sit, check their email, and buy and drink coffee. There was even a large patio for the smokers! And there were three or four (or five or six) hotels where people could stay at, rather than one massive hotel and a couple of outliers.

Now, it is true that a lot complain about the terrible aquarium-like sensation of milling around in an over-packed hotel lobby amongst thousands of other anthropologists desperately looking for someone else to go out to lunch with between the morning and afternoon sessions. But was I the only one who missed the opressive, punishing meat-market atmosphere of the lobby? And that wasn’t all that was missing…
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Community Consent

Yesterday, William Hipwell gave a talk at my department about “Research Ethics and Aboriginal Peoples.” I won’t go into the details, but the emphasis was on the importance of informed consent. I was reminded of our recent discussion on SM about “anthropology and the IRB” and, indeed, some of those issues came up in discussion. The point I raised, however, was slightly different and came from my recent work in India. The issue there is that while we have the full consent of those we are working directly with in the film, the concept of “community” and who has the power to provide consent on behalf of the community (as opposed to individuals) is one of the things at stake.

The group we are working with are reformers who are challenging the old system of community governance. One of the processes we filmed was the establishment of a new form of self-government that aims to more democratically represent the needs of the community. However, there are still several competing traditional councils, or panchayats, that have significant power in the community. The group we worked with was reluctant to go to those groups for permission because their activities were challenging the authority of the panchayat and some panchayat members were actively seeking to hinder those activities.

At the same time, discussions within the group of reformers revealed that there was some concern that failure to secure community-wide consent could result in blow-back. Already two members of the group have been arrested for violent crimes on the basis of false testimony provided by their opponents within the community, and everyone was nervous.
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DC Scandal in Indian Country

Wampum has been detailing the greater significance of the Abramoff scandal, tying it to the decade-old disgrace of the Cobell affair. Elouise Cobell is a Blackfoot banker who brought a class action suit against the Dept. of Interior for a century-plus of mismanagement of trust funds owed Indians for the use of tribal lands. By her reckoning, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) owes Indian peoples over $150 billion. The ruling in Cobell v. Norton held that because many of the documents needed to do a full accounting at the BIA had been destroyed (many at the order of Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton), it would be necessary to audit the companies that had profited from the use of tribal lands — mostly timber, mining, and oil companies. In the meantime, the BIA has been essentially mothballed, it’s already small budget going primarily to legal costs and accounting fees.

Which is how I indirectly ran into the Cobell affair. Soon after I arrived in Iowa to do research on the Meskwaki Settlement, the tribal council was overthrown following its refusal to recognize a recall election. Not much was different when I stopped in to the tribal offices to visit the tribal historian, John Buffalo — the only outward sign that anything was happening was a handful of men sitting around a campfire burning just outside the main entrance. Buffalo filled me in on what was going on, telling me that the supporters of the new council were occupying the building until they could get a ruling from the BIA recognizing the recall and authorizing a new election. According to the news, the occupiers were armed, with rifle-wielding Meskwaki prowling the rooftop, but in my visits, I never saw anyone with a gun, and I was never questioned or even given a second glance as I entered and left the building.
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Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.

It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.

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Roxy Gagdekar, Bridge Blogging Chharanagar

While we are working on the film, we have been having our meals at Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, and we have had many long talks. He is a tremendous source of information about the Chhara community, denotified tribes, and the politics of Gujarat. A reporter at one of Gujarat’s leading newspapers, Roxy is also an excellent writer. So I am very happy that he has decided to start his own blog. He plans to use it to write about Chharangar, the activities of the Budhan Theatre, and even some short fiction he has written.

In one of my first posts on Savage Minds, I argued that there would be a resurgence of “armchair anthropology” as a result of the internet. Central to this argument are what Hossein Derakhshan calls “bridge bloggers.” Such bloggers are able to bridge the same linguistic and cultural barriers that anthropologists seek to overcome. In some cases they may even do it better. I believe that Roxy Gagdekar is one such person.