Archives for posts with tag: anthropology

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and hackers (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc).

This, the second of two documents, is a broad outline of how I hope to structure my fieldwork. The other document, found here, is my attempt at defining the larger (still too large) scope of my project.

BTW, if you’re with a start-​up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-​wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.


Outline of scope and approach for ethnographic fieldwork

This project is conceived, following the work of George Marcus and others, as a multi-​sited ethnography. While the majority of my fieldwork will be anchored within a US City, the nature of this study requires me to follow my interlocutors as they, and their words and works, circulate within a broader network of individuals and institutions collaborating to “dream” the future of news.

The choice of city is based on weighing four primary factors. First, the ability to conduct research within and around existing, “legacy” news institutions engaged in news R&D. The second factor is the presence of start-​up news enterprises. These range from community media outlets to start-​up organizations specifically working to develop new “news” applications. The third factor is the presence and activity level of industry networking groups such as “Hacks/​Hackers,” which work to foster conversation and collaborations between journalists and technologists. Finally, I am also looking for cities in which there are academic centers which are actively involved in the study of the future of the news.

As part of this research involves mapping the terrain of this collaborative space of dreaming, in addition to local research, I also plan to conduct supplemental research at a number of extra-​local sites, in particular, trade meetings and conferences. Because the size, scope, format, and influence of these events can vary greatly, the choice of which ones to attend will be largely shaped by the priorities of my interlocutors. In addition to these sites, it’s my hope to conduct brief in-​person research sessions at one or two of the non-​profit institutions, like the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which are helping set and shape these discussions at a national level.

Additionally, I also plan to follow my interlocutors on-​line, as social networking tools have become a critical part of the day-​to-​day productions efforts that I hope to track. In addition to staying abreast of discussions carried out via blogging platforms, I plan to conduct participant observation around various news related “tweet-​ups”, regularly scheduled chat sessions in which groups of journalists hold guided open, public discussions about a specific “news topic.” My research methodology for this aspect of the project will draw upon the tools of linguistic and media anthropology to consider the interaction of individuals, culture, and mediating software, while, at the same time maintaining attention to the embodied grounding of all interactions.

This post is part of the revived Carnival of Journalism, a monthly event, organized by David Cohn, in which journalists and academics will blog on a given topic. I fit into the later group of participants, as I’m not a journalist, but an Anthropologist who is studying the transformation of journalism within the US. That said, I have a particular ongoing interest in this month’s CoJ prompt: Reflect on the Knight Commission‘s recommendation that universities should “Increase the[ir] role…As hubs of journalistic activity” and “integrate digital and media literacy….”

In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Applied Anthropology, sometimes also referred to as Public Anthropology. What specifically is the role of Anthropology in public discourse? Or rather, what could it be? What follows is a brief meditation on what Anthropologists, who lets face it, largely reside in Universities, can do to increase journalistic activities.

Roughly a year ago, anthropologist Chris Kelty wrote an insightful analysis of the situation in a post Savage Minds1 entitled Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? In the article Kelty proposed three big barriers to the integration of Anthropology into journalism:

  1. “Because there isn’t as much Anthropology as there is science [or humanities] to report on” — in other words, when looking at the wealth of research being conducted across the various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and humanities), the amount of actual anthropological work is relatively minuscule.
  2. “Because journalists already do what Anthropologists do, only better” — We are sister disciplines/​professions/​crafts, so there is crossover. But one thing that differentiates us is time scale. Journalism works to report immediate facts. Anthropology then takes years to build theories of what was happening behind those facts (or why a certain set of facts, as opposed to others, were taken as “the facts”). Journalism works at the speed of hours and days. Anthropology typically works at the pace of years.
  3. “Because Anthropologists [and Anthropology journals] do not report on their research” — Anthropologists (and many academics) have a tendency to talk mainly among ourselves, typically in big and scary words, and rarely, if ever, condense our research down to publicly consumable “elevator talks.” Instead, that the focus to publish in (pay-​walled) institutional journals and respond, in long form, to ongoing Anthropological conversations renders our work inaccessible to the general public.

There’s a lot in Kelty’s analysis that’s worth addressing. For this post, I’d like to side-​step points one and two. Let’s assume that regardless of quantity of output, anthropologists have something valuable to say, and that this knowledge can be applied to events as they unfold, as opposed to focusing on retrospective events.

Instead, I’d like to concentrate on point three (lack of reporting) and think about it in terms of another recent anthro post. Almost a year after Kelty’s article, Miami University’s Mark Allen Peterson made the following pronouncement in a post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s blog:

One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic Anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established.

Peterson goes on to suggest a number of ways for individual anthropologists to build “public expertise,” including constructing homepages and maintaining blogs, editing Wikipedia pages, adding content to YouTube, and using social media. All of these are steps that make sense, and can help raise one’s “Google index,” making it more likely for a journalist to find you when they are researching a story. But it does little, at least in the short term, to increasing engagement.

The big issue2 that Anthropology faces is that we’ve, for the most part, bought into a “field of dreams” sort of mindset: if we produce good scholarship, they will come and interview us. This tends to ignore the barriers that prevent journalists from “getting at” that scholarship (firewalls, arcane language, expectation that you’re at least familiar with the texts/​arguments that one is engaging). It also ignores the reality of the practice of journalism, especially how fast stories have to come together. As I keep re-​learning through interviews with journalists, the average journalist doesn’t have the luxury of reflection when facing a daily (or even weekly) deadline.

Here’s the immediate problem: the values that shape “good Anthropological scholarship” render that scholarship useless to journalists. The impasse that needs to be acknowledged and resolved is that, up to this point, the expectation is that the journalists are supposed to bridge the gap.

Peterson’s posting is a nod towards changing this. And in general I agree with what he’s saying. But outreach on social media is fundamentally different than direct outreach to journalists (and journalistic institutions).

So, what can be done on the institutional, university level? Beyond the usual “change tenure requirements“3 , here are a couple tactical ideas based on my discussions with journalists and my past experiences as a visiting professor:

  1. Accept that journalists are not undergraduates. Regardless of how interested they are in a topic, they typically don’t have time to read and absorb the paper, the chapter, or the book. The responsibility of boiling it down is on you (and note that I said boiling it down, versus dumbing it down). Which leads to…
  2. When it comes to publicizing your work, take TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) to heart. Love the 140 character limit — if you can’t make me at least curious in 140 characters, there’s little chance of convincing a journalists to pay attention. Likewise, in interviews, start simple and let the journalist guide the conversation.
  3. Embrace existing institutional solutions. The majority of universities are already engaged in press outreach, go talk to these people. Get registered as a subject matter “expert.” They can help with access to various media outlets, because the more an individual scholar is seen as an expert, the more the institution is seen as the home of experts.
  4. Begin to cultivate individual relationships with reporters and editors who work in topic areas of interest. One method of getting at them is via the letters to the editor page. Other options include direct email engagement and …
  5. Building off Peterson’s point, start to follow journalists working within your field, especially on twitter, and be ready to respond. This isn’t about them following you, though that’s a hopeful outcome, it’s about you following them.
  6. Pitch stories. Seriously. There are a number of amazing academic journalist engagements going on right now — see The Atlantic’s ongoing publication of Syllabus-​as-​Essay feature as one example of this sort of collaboration.
  7. Write content for public consumption [thanks to Josh Braun for reminding me that this should explicitly be stated]. Anthropology, especially in the first half of the century, had a history of doing this (See Mead, Benedict, and Powdermaker as examples). Like it or not, the chances that most journalism outlets are going to add a social sciences beat are slim-​to-​none. Again, that doesn’t mean that content needs to be “dumbed-​down” through the removal of any nuanced analysis. And, btw, learning to write this was is a challenge unto itself (for one of my attempts at finding the “sweet spot” check out this post on the inescapable politicization of the Tucson shooting which tries to work with Sahlins and Evans-​Pritchard without getting too “academic-​ie”)

Much like Smokey Bear reminds us that “only you can prevent Forest Fires,” at this point, only Anthropologists can make Anthropology relevant again. Doing that will requires an active engagement with the press. And said engagement means that we (Anthropologists) need to come more than half-​way in order to reestablish a relationships that was largely lost quite some time ago.

  1. an academic blog specifically focused on the practice and culture of Anthropology []
  2. The second issue is that, by and large, Anthropologists, especially since WWII, have allowed our focus on where we are studying (field site) to overshadow what we are studying when we get there. So when someone is reporting on a medical crisis in Haiti, for example, its easy for a reporter to think about how they can integrate Anthropology into a story. Unfortunately, if it’s a story about medical crisis in general, reporters, and most of the general public, are not trained to think that a Medical Anthropologist has much to say on that topic. This operationalization is our own fault, as, in many ways we operationalized ourselves years ago when, post WWII, the field tied it’s overall program to area studies, ceding the majority of direct engagement with modern, western culture to sociologists. []
  3. a topic over which so much blood, sweat, ink, and pixels have been spilled that there’s little I can add, and given my state in the overall process, any attempt at addition would be the height of presumption []

On Friday, August 6, Techcrunch reported that Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab and founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) association, proclaimed that the physical book would be dead in five years. A short article that I wrote in response to the subject is now live at Internet Evolution. Normally I’d mirror it here, but since there’s a lively discussion going on there, I’, just going to link to it instead. Give it a read and join the conversation!

I’m also happy to announce that our panel “Virtuality, Simulation, and Social Life” got accepted for this year’s American Anthropological Association Conference! Even more exciting, one of my discussants is an “anthro hero” of mine: Lucy Suchman! How cool is that!

Thats about it! School starts next week and I’m heading down to Ithaca this weekend.

Today was the type of day that makes the past few years of theory worthwhile.

Before I go any further, a brief digression: I’m not good with philosophy. Not in the “I don’t see the value of it” way. Nah, I’m at the more fundimental “I don’t understand it” way. I wasn’t trained to read it. And stuff like Marx’s “negation of the negation” stuff just causes my eyes to glaze over. It’s not for lack of trying mind you. But its been a stuggle since I dove into the social sciences.

Digression completed, my exciting news is that I think I finally “get” Hagel’s dialectic — the key to unlocking a lot of stuff. After an excellent lecture in my Professional Seminar class, it’s making a lot more sense. My professor, Dominic Boyer, gave an amazing lecture that really connected a number of dots for me (not the least of which was getting me beyond “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” to “becoming, negation, sublimation”).

Have a lot more to write about this, but I need to cut it off here so I can hopefully get in a proposal for Siggraph 2009.

So if you’re asking “What’s up with this grad school thing? Why????” this post will hopefully help (If you haven’t read the last post you may want to do that first, I’ll wait for you to finish before going on… ok, now that that’s taken care of). Either that or you may leave thinking I’m completely full of it (not much for me to do if you think that is the case). As part of applying to the program I need to state my research goals. So I though sharing my draft of that statement might better explain my ideas:

I am writing as a candidate for the Masters of Arts in the Social Sciences (MASS) program at the University of Chicago. My goal in enrolling in the program is to develop the necessary social science skills to study the ongoing evolutionary effects that photographic and video technology are having on geographically dispersed networked communities and visa versa.

For the purposes of this letter, I use the term “networked communities” is used to refer to any group of individuals that use networked communication tools (such as internet chat) as a method of communication within the group. While the application of the term “community” to social networks that develop through the use of these tools is a matter of great debate, it is still the case the prevalence and diversity of these social networks is expanding. Their methods of communication and interaction are constantly evolving based in part on the evolution of their communication tools.

One such tool is digital photography. As the technologies that enable social networks integrate visual media sharing tools (pictures, photography and video), photographs play an increasingly important role in interpersonal networked communication. Traditionally, the home user’s primary used photography to documenting memorable moments. Photographs serve as “memory containers”: visual cues to access the memories of specific events and times. However, members of networked communities have embraced digital photography as a method to bring visual context to traditionally text based communication tools like online discussion boards or instant messaging programs. For example, members of these communities use pictures as avatars, visual representations of themselves in the tools, and as replacements for emoticons (i.e. :-) , ;-P , etc.) adding new visual context to their previously one-​dimensional comments.

This use of digital photography as a communication tool has caused a shift in the meaning and intent of a photograph. For members of these communities, the purpose of digital pictures is to convey immediate emotional or factual data. As such the personal attachment of these pictures is typically short-​lived. Unlike traditional photos, these pictures are not printed or archived. Their content is an immediate moment that typically has no lasting emotional significance to the picture taker. Unlike those traditional home photographers, who capture moments of personal, lasting significance, members of these communities act more as photojournalists, documenting and communicating ideas to a broad audience with pictures. The behavior of these new picture takers suggests that, due to the proliferation of these new tools, home photography has evolved more in the last seven years than in the previous fifty.

The rate and social scope of this evolution only stands to increase with the continued proliferation of affordable, portable recording and transmission devices. Mobile phones stand ready to supplant the “traditional” tools of networked communities, such as the PC and web browser, offering opportunities for increased participation in existing networked communities as well as the rapid growth of new communities. There are more Internet enabled mobile phones in the world than Internet enabled PCs and monthly worldwide camera mobile phones sales have begun to outpace traditional digital cameras sales. Because these new tools don’t require a hard-​wired connection to the network, unlike an pc connecting to the internet via a phone line, they allow members easy access to their communities from any location a cell phone can broadcast from. All signs point towards a continual rapid evolution of these networked communities over the next five to ten years.

This evolution has all ready starting to affect society on a broader scale. For example, when Kennedy was assassinated the Zapruder film was a unique occurrence: amateur footage of a global event. On 9/​11, due to the evolution and availability of video technology, almost every network carried footage of the event captured by amateurs using home video cameras. In recent months the BBC issued a call for participants in political rallies to “phone in” live pictures of the events using their mobile phone cameras. The potential uses of these devices are also beginning to raise significant legal and ethical debates. Some Pacific Rim countries have already banned cell phones in numerous public and private locations such as locker rooms due to privacy concerns. All of these factors suggest that this is an area ripe for social study.

My interest in this area of study began with my exposure to fledgling Networked Communities such as Usenet groups and Multi User Dungeons (MUDs), online text based multi-​user games, as an undergraduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. These experiences led me to work with RIT’s School of Printing Management and Sciences to develop an interdisciplinary concentration in New Media Publishing in order to study emerging computer based publishing, community, and community tools.

This exploration of online communities continued throughout my tenure with Eastman Kodak. During that time I served as a Kodak representative on numerous online digital camera communities, co-​hosted a weekly Internet photo based chat, developed a proposal for a “Gen-​Y” media sharing community, and served as the implementation and production manager for a short lived collection of photo based networked community tools (chat and discussion boards). My interactions with existing and fledgling networked communities fostered a deep interest in studying the fundamental social building blocks that drive their development and evolution. Additionally, Kodak exposed me to the potential of digital photographs as a communication tool and a form of social currency. These experiences, coupled with a firm belief that the only way to truly understand the social implications of these new technologies is through the social sciences, lead me to the University of Chicago.

The multidisciplinary approach of the MASS program provides a unique opportunity to craft the best selection of courses to study social developments that occur at this intersection of social interaction, photography, and technology. My professional experience allows me to bring a unique perspective to an academic program. It solidified my view that the social sciences have a crucial role to play in both the academic and professional arenas. This experience will be an asset in interactions with other program participants and faculty members. I will be able to present ideas and views that might not normally be represented in the Division of Social Science’s environment. At the same time, I look forward to being exposed to ideas and methods that I could not possibly gain in a professional environment. This is a unique opportunity to “empty my cup”, setting aside lessons learned at Kodak and embrace new challenges and ideas.

I cannot speak to all of the potential academic applications of this research. That is a perspective I would gain as part of the graduate work. However from a professional view, there is no way to develop credible product and service offerings in this rapidly evolving environment without significant guidance from social scientists. Ultimately it is my expectation that the knowledge acquired at the University, supplemented by professional experience, will reveal new avenues of exploration in this area and interesting applications of research.

It is my hope that the university sees the same potential as I, both in this area of study and in me as a student.

Respectfully yours,

Matthew Bernius”

That’s basically it in a nutshell. I think that the social sciences need to take an increased role in product development. And that’s an area that I’m really interested in working on. Of course, any thoughts on this are welcomed.