Fame of Sharing AnthropologyPrivileged to be on a wonderful 2012 American Anthropological Association meeting panel, Sharing Anthropology: Theorizing Anthropological Research in the Age of Social Media. My paper, “The Fame of Social Sharing: Lessons from an Anthropology of Value” explored twinned hyperbolic statements about social sharing and sharing anthropology: that sharing anthropology changes everything, or that sharing anthropology does nothing. I found unexpectedly fruitful material in an older anthropology of value, especially Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa, which though written to us before Twitter, from the Trobriand Islands, has much to say about the fame of sharing anthropology. Full paper follows after comments on the panel.

Update April 2013: See also Black Swan Anthropology Lessons for more thoughts on sharing anthropology.

Sharing Anthropology: Theorizing Anthropological Research in the Age of Social Media

Samuel Collins and Matthew Durington wonderfully organized the session, inspired by their work on Anthropology by the Wire. Their papers spoke to how sharing anthropology can be a vital part of the research process. They are not concerned with high-volume sharing anthropology as much as high-impact sharing anthropology, especially interested in how ethnographers and informants can co-create and co-analyze narratives in the digital age. Colleen Morgan’s paper, A Digital Ecology of Sharing Archaeology, discussed sharing archaeology as part of her Middle Savagery blog and a history of related digital archaeology ventures. I was especially intrigued by her mention of Tim Ingold’s idea of meshworks as a way to understand the practice of sharing archaeology–seems a fruitful idea for further development.

Colleen then gamely plunged into reading Ryan Anderson’s paper, Publishing without Perishing: Sharing Ideas & Challenging the Closed System of Academic Anthropology, which Ryan has put up in full at his academia.edu site. I was disappointed not to be able to meet Ryan in person, as he has been a tireless blogger for Savage Minds–see just today Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart–and editor of the anthropologies project. Ryan’s paper opens with a wonderful “joke” that his conference paper is behind an additional paywall. I was gratified–if a bit embarrassed–when Ryan’s paper turned to my piece on The Headline I Wish We Were Reading: Anthropology Changed Everything which Ryan praised as poignant.

Barbara J. King followed with “Co-Constructing Knowledge Through Blogging Anthropology” and Barbara has written up a blog-post riffing off her experiences, Dear Readers: Have You Yelled At Me Recently? Thank You! As is clear from her post and presentation, Barbara’s taken a more optimistic stance toward comment streams than I have, but it’s definitely well-worth considering. I am also intrigued by her invocation of Gregory Bateson’s work on interconnected organisms, which obviously relates to Ingold’s thinking on meshworks.

Jane Henrici’s paper “Anthropologists At Work: Framing and Sharing Anthropology” investigated the world of anthropology and social policy from Twitter. Jane’s paper touched on a lot of issues around the work of social sharing: how it is work, often gendered work, but what kind of work is it? Jane’s experiences also drew from the non-academic (and often non-anthropology) world of policy-making, grant-writing, and competitive pressures for professional presentation.

Taz Karim has thoughtfully written up a summary of the panel and other events, Getting Digital at the #AAA2012 Meetings.

The Fame of Social Sharing: Lessons from an Anthropology of Value

Fabulous papers, but it was late, at the end of a long day, and we were trapped in some strange Hilton room of Tower #3, wondering if we could ever make it to the next place we needed to be. I prefaced my paper with two anecdotes, the first I had heard the day before from Sidney Mintz, who said Eric Wolf had similarly warned him of the dangers of giving a paper in the final slot, “when people are tired, hungry, and the only thing left to do is turn out the lights and empty the ashtrays” (it was the 1970s). The second riffed on Ryan’s idea of a special conference paywall, that indeed you could add up your airfare, hotel, and registration fees, divide by the number of papers you had heard, and that was your conference paywall (I had Sarah Kendzior’s Closing of American Academia in the back of my head as an illustration of what people go through to get to the meetings).

Then plunged into my prepared text and slideshow:

Please share this. Be sociable, share. Sharing is Caring. Sharing is one of those words–like the words like or friend–which may be unalterably transformed by the internet age. Even after the ups and downs of KONY 2012 and internet activism, it’s notable how many people seem convinced their tweets are changing the world–that somehow sharing this, or sharing that, is in itself a political activity. Or even more grandly, that these are not simply political activities but transforming politics and human relationships.

I’ll admit I’ve fallen for this idea myself, after blogging something I imagine especially important about race, gender, politics, Jared Diamond, or the AAA presidential address. If only more people would share this, if only it could ricochet around the world. When it comes to sharing, we may cast a jaundiced eye on KONY 2012, or the tweets of the Kardashians commemorating the forgotten Armenian genocide, but it is perhaps not so different from the liberal illusion that captured early founders and anthropological popularizers: Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, who each to a certain extent believed that educating the public, selling enough books, or occupying the podium: that these educative activities by themselves would change the world.

Pause: They may be ready for culture, but are they ready for history and power?

I here paused to disagree a bit with Ryan’s paper and to try and elaborate on a comment I made at a Neuroanthropology session, partially in response to Greg Downey’s idea that many in the neuroscience field are now “ready for culture.” My quibble here is that the problem has not solely been the writing and the insularity of anthropology–it’s that certain things get picked up and other things don’t, and if we wish to recapture Boas-styled popularizations, it’s important to remember how much of the Boasian agenda was virulently rejected.

A good recent illustration is Gabriele Marranci’s Prayer bumps, Muslim haters, and the danger of scientific popularization, which is to say, sure, certain people are ready for culture, but it’s a version of culture that we might think twice before delivering. As I’ve argued in Doubling Down on Culture, they have for many years been ready for culture, but continue to resist anthropological notions of history and power. Admittedly this was an aside comment, still not fully developed, but I find it interesting that in Taz Kerim’s panel summary, I “announced that ‘the world is ready for culture!’” which may prove the ironic point that even when trying to critique the notion that the world is ready for culture, it seems to still come out as positive announcement! Or it could be that I enthusiastically delivered one line and then mumbled the rest, which is also entirely possible.
As of January 2013, see also Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture: From Culture to cultures and Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires.

As with many things fad-like, and emblematic of what has been said about the internet for the last 20 years, opinions tend to divide into two camps. The first, as just described, celebratory, embracing, claiming radical and world-changing transformation. The second camp roundly deplores, condemns, rolls-eyes, proclaiming the worthlessness of these activities. Those aren’t social movements. Clicking, sharing, watching, all just new ways to burn fossil fuels and waste minds. Indeed at some points I’ve been tempted to believe that the more deliberately outrageous statements are simply meant to keep people sharing and un-liking, knowing that these outrageous shares are only going to consume the time of those who would never have even considered voting for Romney in any instance.

Underlying these two camps are older notions of value–those who celebrate the value, sometimes the monetary value of clicks, shares, and likes; and those who claim this has no value, and is at best a warping of values in the real world.

But perhaps these competing narratives of value, drawn primarily from the world of capitalism, or Marx’s analysis of use value and exchange value, miss essential elements. Long before social media, before the internet, anthropological notions of value emphasized the ideational; or the elusive, perhaps illusionary character of value. Things become valuable because we are caught in historical layers of fiction about value. Or as David Graeber put it, borrowing from Marcel Mauss, value is most profoundly realized as the false coin of our own dreams.

To understand the value of sharing we turn to those most classic of classic ethnographic settings, of the kula ring, and those circulating shells and armbands. As Nancy Munn recounts in The Fame of Gawa, what gives these objects value is their embedded history of action, that they get touched by certain people and then passed along. Similarly the world of social sharing, despite declarations of openness, more often resembles exactly these kinds of fame networks. Oh for the touch of a high-value tweet, a man with thousands of real followers, a page with thousands of real likes.

Indeed, Munn’s analysis of the Gawan search for fame is strikingly evocative of the very kinds of fame and influence sought by social media acolytes:

Fame is a mobile circulating dimension of the person: the travels of a person’s name apart from his physical presence. In fame, it is as if the name takes on its own internal motion traveling through the minds and speech of others. (1986:105)

In the context of overseas relationships, Gawans distinguish knowledge of one’s name from knowledge of one’s face, saying that when a man is widely known there are places where the people may have “never seen his face,” but they “know his name.” A man’s name can become known and used well beyond his particular face-to-face contacts because of his kula transactions, and the travels of named and especially well-known shells he has obtained and passed on. (1986:106)

Munn introduces the idea that for fame to work, it must be known beyond the bounds of the original two-person transaction, a witness:

In general, fame can be described as a positive subjective conversion effected by a particular transaction, which derives from the outside cognition of a distant other external to the transaction. Whereas an immediate transactor, or the particular event, starts one’s fame, fame itself must be a process that goes beyond this relative immediacy. (1986:116-117)

In sum, fame can be understood as a coding of influence–an iconic model that reconstitutes immediate influence at the level of a discourse by significant others about it. Fame models the spatiotemporal expansion of self effected by acts of influence by recasting these influential acts (moving the mind of another) into the movement or circulation of one’s name; this circulation itself implies the favorable notice others give the person–hence the latter’s “influence” with them. Acts are thus matrixed in a discourse or code that refers back to them. As iconic and reflexive code, fame is the virtual form of influence. Without fame, a man’s influence would, as it were, go nowhere; successful acts would in effect remain locked within themselves in given times and places of their occurrence or be limited to immediate transactors. The circulation of names frees them, detaching them from these particularities and making them the topic of discourse through which they become available in other times and places.(1986:117)

And yes, the male pronouns here are no accident, nor are they accidental when we talk about fame on the internet. This is primarily a male world, a mostly white world, a mostly first-world world, an English-speaking world, just like (at least until recently) 85% of Wikipedia content was written and edited by men.

Munn’s work provides a wonderful resource for understanding the fame and status of high-value shares, but what about the everyday sharing, all the accumulated clicks and shares which eventually deliver the needed numbers?

It should come as no surprise to anthropologists who have studied real-world sharing and reciprocity that the activity of sharing does not in and of itself lead to prestige or renown. Even in accounts of comparing relatively egalitarian gathering and hunting groups, the everyday food sharing from gathering–despite comprising the bulk of overall calorie consumption–does little to enhance status or fame.

If Ernestine Friedl is correct about Society and Sex Roles, it is the distribution of protein, meat, the hunt, which really makes for status difference. And even if we don’t want to wholeheartedly adopt this perspective, it seems nevertheless true that most everyday sharing around the world is quotidian, within families, and with little transformational effect.

It is also striking how in some more recent anthropological accounts of sharing among the relatively poor, sharing is a virtue that is as much extracted as volunteered. Elizabeth Chin’s stories of poor black children in New Haven are instructive: share or else (2001:128). Are there echoes of this in some internet sharing as well? Statements of “ooh, I have to share this” or feelings that one really should share. Perhaps a pleasure, perhaps an extracted virtue, but in any case learned through and through—it may not be any more natural to share than not to share.

It seems also worth mentioning here the Trobriand women and their economy of banana-leaf bundles uncovered by Annette Weiner. Strangely unnoticed and unmentioned by Malinowski–who, rumor has it, did pay some attention to Trobriand women–this is a vibrant form of women’s wealth and exchange. I can’t help thinking here of Pinterest, unnoticed and dismissed because it didn’t fit the standard models of hierarchized social sharing, then suddenly glorified, then again dismissed because it was just women and fashion and pretty pictures.

This general sketch of social sharing is hopefully instructive for considering whether sharing can change anthropology. Certainly there are the enthusiasts–those who imagine sharing as making possible new relationships of enhanced collaboration, from research design to fieldwork to write-up to publication.

But we might ask some skeptical questions as well:

  1. To what degree is any of this new? Anthropological fieldwork has always involved lots of sharing, from ideas and dialogue to the basic substances of life, food, drink, and tobacco. Does social sharing enhance these possibilities or might it in fact curtail or channel these in unproductive directions?
  2. Is this activity indeed radically changing anthropological inquiry and dissemination? Put differently and as an example, every single grant application to the National Science Foundation must now include a section on data management, with special attention to data sharing. Anthropologists, with our well-justified need for preserving anonymity and confidentiality, are often relatively behind the curve on the sharing of raw data. But even if we could be proactive, can following state mandates be so revolutionary?
  3. To what extent does the expanded world of social sharing reproduce, or even exacerbate, existing hierarchies, what Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson termed Anthropology as White Public Space? Last December I ran a relatively open if low-volume poll to figure out the top or favorite anthropology blogs. Most of the bloggers, especially at the top, were male, and almost all were white. As Virginia Dominguez pointed out in her 2011 presidential address, the anthropology blogosphere has lit up over the science issue, galvanized over open access, but had not a peep about the original AAA report on race and racism, and relative silence on “Anthropology as White Public Space?”

    Of course, many of those anthropology bloggers would themselves point to marginality. Their work is not at the core, they are the great uncited masses. However, I would not be so sure–I am beginning to suspect that the idea of who must cite whom is giving way to a new index of visibility, which is often online.

    I have no wish to indulge in jaundiced skepticism–nothing new to see, move on; or to invoke a simplistic reproduction of hierarchies–but it does seem worth attending to these anthropologies of value as we plunge into a world of digitized social sharing, lest we unwittingly pay ourselves with the “false coin of our own dreams.”

    Comment on Sharing Anthropology: Zora Neale Hurston

    We had a great and enthusiastic audience, even in a late session and cramped room. The first question was why none of us had mentioned Zora Neale Hurston, who could be considered an exemplar for this kind of in-and-out-of-anthropology work, and would have much to say about questions of the body at a time when bodies are digitally erased yet central to internet life.

    In the plane-car ride back from the conference, my parenthropologist colleague remarked that we were never able to answer that question. I bungled something at the very end, a phrase I had heard earlier from Brackette Williams, to the effect that the more senior anthropologists needed to be taking risks, and using their positions to fight for a different kind of anthropology. I bungled this as “needed to have blogs” which people correctly interpreted as just another way to increase senior anthropological fame. It didn’t come out right, but I was thinking more of how senior people needed to get out of the tenure-publication-security game and take some risks lest anthropology lose its way. Or, to return to an earlier point, the world may be ready for culture, but is it ready for Classifying to Kill: An Ethnography of the Death Penalty in the United States? And in this sense, perhaps worth considering Hurston as an alternate-to-Boas in this topsy-turvy world increasingly bent on devaluing anthropology.

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  • Discuss White Privilege

    Another great post, Jason. Just a quick thought relative to a link between this post and comments I made at Savage Minds recently. How does your astute reading of fame (in relation to the Gawa book) change if one thinks of infamy instead of ‘fame’ per se? What about when a person is famous through slander/defamation, for things they have not actually done? Additionally, and relating fame to shame, infamy, collaboration, power, and anthropology as ‘white public space’, what about thinking about the ways in which anthropologists often already do collaborate and share, even if deleteriously: i.e. senior anthropologists closing ranks to cover up wrongdoing in a department, because maintaining departmental prestige is part of the “tenure-publishing security game” you write about above.

    It seems to me that analyzing how (white) anthropologists work together to keep anthropology ‘white public space’ is its own type of ‘sharing’ and ‘social networking’, and highly effective ‘collaboration’ at that. This is what I thought as I read your excellent post, and thought about relative to what lessons about ‘sharing’ could be learned from extant anthropological/academic power relations so as to re-form an anthropology which has not lost its way.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thank you Discuss White Privilege, I definitely had at least some of your Savage Minds comments on my mind, but this takes things quite further. Certainly the issue of fame and infamy brings new levels to notions of what is “gated” and “ungated” anthropology, all the paywalls that can be thrown up.

      Part of this seems to be the superstar system in academia. Your comment reminds me–interestingly–of something Michel-Rolph Trouillot commented to Virginia Dominguez’s A Taste for “the Other”: Intellectual Complicity in Racializing Practices:

      Within academe itself, we can and should make intelligent use of the contradictions inherent in these very practices to influence their reproduction. We should contribute to making multicultural programs deliver something more than what many students and administrators may have first intended. We should push the few minority superstars to use their positions to modify the segmented market that produced them. When will the number and quality of minority Ph.D.’s they mentor decrease the market value of race in their respective fields? In sum, besides the verbal deconstruction of the categories involved, we should consider the numerous micro-practices of resistance, including the relative deracialization of our own specialty. In recent years, the proportion of blacks with higher degrees has declined in anthropology as in most research fields. Academics are not responsible for this decline, but we certainly have not done much about it. (1994:345-346)

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  • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

    Great post, Jason. Wish I could have been there.

    “My quibble here is that the problem has not solely been the writing and
    the insularity of anthropology–it’s that certain things get picked up
    and other things don’t, and if we wish to recapture Boas-styled
    popularizations, it’s important to remember how much of the Boasian
    agenda was virulently rejected.”

    That’s a really important point. I was thinking about some of this on my long drive up from Baja. Insularity is part of the problem, but it’s not the only or even most important problem we face. The point that some things “get picked up and other thing don’t” is key. This applies to our publications, sure, but also to lots of other things: what we cover on blogs, what gets attention in conferences, what is accepted or desired for grant applications, and then also what kinds of things actually attract public attention. Many things will get ignored or dismissed, whether because they are inconvenient, uncomfortable, etc. So I think we need to work on breaking out of our insular little offices and conferences and writing styles–yes–but we also have to prepare for a lot more than that. Ultimately, a more public anthropology enters into the realm of politics, and that’s not an easy move. But, it’s something I think we have to do, especially since I think the work we do matters. And there are reasons why certain folks want to dismiss what it is that anthropology is all about.

    “the anthropology blogosphere has lit up over the science issue,
    galvanized over open access, but had not a peep about the original AAA
    report on race and racism, and relative silence on “Anthropology as
    White Public Space?””

    Ya, these silences are pretty blatant. We do get all riled up about small things that the AAA does, or open access–but certain larger issues aren’t exactly getting a lot of air time. This is what Dominguez was talking about, at least in terms of race. And I would also include the discussion about the labor issues we face in academia today (adjuncts, etc). but even that gets more air time than conversations about race/racism.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ryan, thank you for the comment and thoughts on the long drive from Baja. You are so gracious even when someone is disagreeing with you! If I could go back and re-agree with your original point, however, it seems like the position at least some anthropologists have taken of “well the public (or any non-jargoned anthropologists!) won’t like it anyway, so I’ll just write in esoteric insularity” is untenable. As you put it, we must make that move, if we expect this work to matter.

      • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

        Jason, I always appreciate your comments, and you always have good points that make me think more about things. I talk a lot about public anthro and communicating with wider audiences…but I also realize that I need to watch out with that argument so that I am not read as simply saying that we need to popularize anthropology and that’s that. There’s a lot more to it, and that’s what you’re pointing to here. And I definitely appreciate what you’re saying. Basically, I think we have to step outside of our own insular circles and conversations if we are ever really going to address the things you are bringing up here–and if we are going to find some new way of engaging with a wider public. I also think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about some of the limits of earlier anthropological (and basically liberal) attempts at public engagement–Boas, Mead, etc. So I think that some of those folks can be examples, but only to a certain degree. We also have to look at things in a completely different way if we are going to actually get involved and take part in these conversations in a more meaningful and engaged way.

        • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Ryan, thank you, and likewise. Part of the problem–at least I think–is that many of our calls to “get out there and popularize anthropology” have been aimed (many of my own included) squarely at other anthropologists. That’s something you also pointed out in your paper, that our conversations continue to be mostly internal, even as we are urging external engagement.

          • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

            I think my comment got eaten. Here goes again…

            Ya, I agree. A lot of the attempts to “bring anthropology to wider audiences” have really been directed at ourselves. A lot of my projects and writings fall into that trap. The most I have moved outside anthro circles is when I cross-post on sites like Daily Kos. That actually worked out fairly well, so I should start doing that again. But I was just reading an older SM post by Alex about the book “Questioning Collapse,” which was meant to be a publi rebuttal to Diamond’s book. Alex’s basic point is that while the book is actually a really good counter to Diamond’s arguments, as public outreach its pretty much a failure (in large part because of how it was written and presented). So it was yet another book written for anthropologists. I’d make the same argument for books like “Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong.” One issue, I think, is that we fall into a trend of doing direct rebuttals–against folks like Diamond, or Tom Friedman, etc, rather than just writing books about issues that are meant to stand on their own. I think the direct challenge sorts of books appeal to anthropologists, but not as much to general audiences. But I am just guessing here. Anyway, here’s the link to Alex’s post:

            http://savageminds.org/2010/03/16/questioning-collapse/

          • Discuss White Privilege

            The problem of not writing books directed to a larger audience that are not direct rebuttals is another issue directly related to academic precarity and the steps one is expected to take in order to get tenure (and become an academic superstar in anthropology). Being seen as a ‘popularizer’ of anthropology does not get you the kind of symbolic capital that is often most rewarded in socio-cultural anthropology, especially in the top-ranked departments, where jargon-heavy ‘philosophical anthropology’ is valued.

            I was always interested in writing anthropology for a wide, non-academic audience, precisely because I was doing research on whiteness in the US, and I was attacked for this commitment, by both students and professors. The mobbing i’ve been subjected to by professors has been to cover up all the racist-sexist/antiblack comments that were made to me in my graduate program (because of the departments hostile racial climate and unwillingness to acknowledge its ‘white public space’ problems such that they might actually be addressed and remedied) about my race-critical work not being “smart” such that the white male graduate students who were bullying me felt completely entitled to verbally abuse and bully me–precisely because a black female anthropologist wanting to write a book on racism/whiteness in the US is so devalued in that department, and devalued even more if it is not going to be in obtuse academese that orients itself only to interlocutors from Euro-origin philosophy and post-structuralism. Accordingly, I was told to “keep your ‘privileged’ critique at home” by bullying white male grad students, and that everything I had to say about the intersection of race/color/gender/class is “meaningless” by bullying anthropology professors.

            And while my situation may represent an extreme case, it is not unrepresentative of the theoretical and pedagogical priorities of anthropologists in that department and departments like it. If you want to be seen as a ‘smart’ anthropologist in that department, you don’t write the kind of book that has mass appeal to non-academic audiences; and you certainly won’t get tenure writing such a book. So…

          • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

            Ya DWP, I think you’re right that writing books for wider audiences is definitely not what is expected or valued in the tenure process. Interesting to think about why that’s the case.

            As for all of the jargon heavy theoretical anthropology…well, I’m not really against all of that. Some of the theory stuff can be good–but it depends. Some of it is good, some not so much. Regardless, when it comes to communicating ideas to non-anthro audiences, that takes a different writing style. But then, I also think that theoretical writing doesn’t have to be as dense and unreadable as much of it ends up being.

            And if you were interested in writing for wider audiences, I think you should still do it. Why not set up a blog and go for it? Could be a good addition to the anthro blogosphere. Just sayin.

          • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

            Hi Ryan, Discuss White Privilege, sorry for some delays and sorry Ryan to make you re-type something. I’ve never actually met either of you in person, hopefully someday, but before we even met online, I wrote about
            Anthro-Flop-ology: Lessons from Public Anthropology Collections
            . I’ve used Alex’s review of Questioning Collapse quite a bit, and although I didn’t include Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong, it would probably fit well with the genre.

            These days we have yet another Jared Diamond book out that looks like it will complete his theft of anthropology and re-direction away from the real history people like Eric Wolf were trying to write; and anthropologists flounder around with apparently no response on gun violence. It’s December 18, and all the AAA blog can do is call for action on American Diggers? I mean, sure, it’s an issue, but jeez.

          • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

            A couple weeks ago Alex from SM wrote that Diamond is basically the new Margaret Mead. Not because anybody chose him, but mostly because there’s no real alternative (well, Graeber might be the one). But Diamond has the public’s attention and speaks for anthropology basically by default. And we generally just write lame books in response. I am right there with you in thinking that the anthropology of Eric Wolf etc needs to be reasserted (ie his focus on politics and power in history).

            As for the AAA and it’s lack of a relevant response to Newtown, or pretty much anything else, I am not shocked. Have you see their latest post about “race”? Check it out:

            http://blog.aaanet.org/2012/12/12/new-race-item/

            Only $4.99 for members! What a deal. In all seriousness, I think the AAA folks have gone off the tracks. They are all too mired in their own PR.

          • Discuss White Privilege

            AAA is also a neoliberal institution at this point, as is much of the rest of academic anthropology, so it should not really be surprising that AAA has gone off the tracks as you say. For a while now I have been dismayed by the extent to which neoliberal logics of individualism have infected anthropology and anthropologists. This goes back to David Graeber’s comments on your Savage Minds “Stop the Silence” post, on what kind of behaviors and entrepreneurial self-promotion are now expected and rewarded (as’success(ful)’) in the academy.

            This issue of Anthropology’s own neoliberalism also relates to Jason’s questioning why there has been such a response among (white) anthropologists, especially in the blogosphere, to open access and academic precarity issues, but almost no response to the 2010 AAA minority report or the AA article on Anthro as ‘white public space’. ‘People’ (i.e. most white anthropologists) have a very neoliberal conception of race, rooted in individualism (both in terms of caring primarily about themselves and their own narrowly defined racial self-interest, and in terms of prioritizing individual conscious intent over structural/systemic/institutional racism regardless of individual conscious intent), and so there is little response to “Anthropology as White Public Space?” because most white anthropologists don’t have any deep, substantive commitment to racial equality and antiracism, just a superficial neoliberal response that is about understanding antiracism as individual statements about not being racist(s). In this regard Sara Ahmed’s borderlands article “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” is particularly instructive: http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm.

            Wonderful as the 2010 report and Brodkin et al. article are, they end up being as ‘non-performative’ as the Race poster you linked to. Though, clearly, the $4.99 poster shows the farcical non-performativity so blatantly that it makes its (effectiveness as substantive antiracism) irrelevance blatant. The 2010 report and Brodkin et al. articles end up being ineffective in producing the hoped-for antiracist effects because they rely on neoliberal logics of individual goodwill/charity/’responsibility’. Individuals are supposed to read these articles, care, and take action. But if the individuals who are supposed to be reading these texts don’t actually care about white privilege/racism in anthropology and whether or not anthropology is in fact ‘white public space’, then they are not even going to bother to read these publications, much less do anything with or about them. There has been minimal response because most white anthropologists just do not care about (this) racial inequality which is not adversely affecting them personally–unlike issues of open access and academic precarity. White privilege and selfishness, neoliberal anthropology.

            The *structures* of academic anthropology, and certainly the AAA, would have to be very different to effect a ‘performative’ anti-racist outcome. AAA would need to be able to compel departments and individuals to comply with its antiracist directives, censure individuals and departments, withhold funding, etc., in ways that it does not do now (though certainly could, if it wanted to). But at the level of antiracism, most of what anthropology and AAA does is non-performative. And as Ahmed astutely points out, generating racism reports–or AAA race statements–becomes a way for individuals and institutions to say that they are in fact NOT racist because they care enough to generate such a report/statement–or care enough to be a practitioner of a discipline which does.

            Jason, I have *deep* respect for you and the work you have done to point out the silence on these reports and to keep raising these issues of racism in anthropology. Deep respect.

            I actually don’t see the solipsism around open access/academic precarity v. Anthro as white public space as a separate issue from how anthropology has made itself irrelevant to most ‘public’ debates and/or ceded the proverbial floor to the likes of Jared Diamond. I think we need to have some more frank (and yes, uncomfortable) disciplinary discussions about what Ahmed refers to as Anthropology’s narcissism in her borderlands article, and the ways that anthropology has long been rooted in white narcissism and a detour through ‘the (non-white) Other’ so as to study the self. If this is what, implicitly and unconsciously, attracted many a white anthropologist to anthropology, not surprising that not many are running to discuss Anthro’s white public space issues. These are, of course, the comments of an ‘affect alien’ and black ‘feminist killjoy’, to reference Ahmed’s work once again. But it’s the uncomfortable place to which we must go, because we are indeed off the rails.

          • Discuss White Privilege

            Also, what is really to be expected, or should be surprising about how anthropology has helped male itself be seen as irrelevant to ‘public debates’ if your discipline is fundamentally rooted in (white) narcissism and detours through (non-white) alterity so as to focus on yourself, and you are the discipline which in contrast to sociology, is rooted in NOT study the behaviors, motivations, social formations/relations, and cultural practices of elite whites and white normativity (because to the extent that early (US) anthros studied groups in the US, it was either a matter of studying non-white/racialized subalterns, or studying whites after studying non-white subalterns–and this latter pattern continues to persist in anthropology, with many established older anthropologists thinking that you ‘need’ to have a foreign field work experience before you can do fieldwork on the US, and looking askance, if not down upon, those of us who do not–all the more so if we are not white, and then want to study elite/normative whiteness to boot!)?

            Seriously. after decades of NOT focusing on whiteness and studying white people in the same critical ways that we have studied foreign/non-white Others, I just don’t think we should be surprised by how we/AAA has gone off the rails, or that not a whole lot of white anthros give a sh*t about Anthropology being white public space. Sorry to be harsh, but at some point we just need to be honest about what is going on and why.

            AAA shouldn’t be doing things like selling those ridiculous posters, they should instead be doing things like writing a NY times piece explaining why they are abandoning the AAA race statement because of the deep ‘white public space’ issues and the refusal of much of its membership to care about it. Of course such a ‘radical’ move/gesture would never happen–and we can have a conversation as to why, especially as I think it would be fairly illuminating in understanding where priorities really lie and why certain forms of change never happen. Imagine the uproar if Leith Mullings wrote an op-ed in the NY Times saying the race statement was being revoked because AAA realized how its non-performativity was (re)producing disciplinary ‘white public space’? Such a move could have salubrious effects inside and outside of academic anthropology, as well as being an opportunity to anthropology to *do* something to make itself relevant to ‘public’ debates, including by directly challenging extant neoliberal discourses of race (e.g. colorblindness, post-racial claims, white as the targets of ‘reverse racism’ and ‘reverse racism’ as the new ‘real’ racism, conflations of racism with individual conscious and intentional blatant bigotry). Instead of these stupid posters and the so-called ‘outreach’ related to them, AAA should be all over the place publishing op-eds and policy recommendations for tackling specific issues of structural/institutional racism and implicit bias, convening multi-disciplinary conferences to which actual policy makers are invited to directly address issues of ongoing structural racism (such as implicit bias in employment, education, law enforcement); and they should not just be targeting elites, but actively encouraging grassroots activism on these issues.

            But I expect none of this to happen because, as much as it pains me to say it, is just not what either Anthropology or AAA are actually about. We should take seriously that we call it an academic *discipline*. And also going back to the comment stream of your “Stop the Silence” post on Savage Minds, we just need to be honest about what the academy is and is not: an institution for the reproduction of bourgeois privilege. So long as anthropological careers are primarily tied to the academy–and its neoliberal values, practices, worldviews, metrics–this is what you are going to get. People may fancy themselves radicals speaking truth to power, but it doesn’t really mean that this is what academic anthropology is in the end.

  • http://twitter.com/ethnografix ryan anderson

    PS: I want to share a quote from a book I have been reading:

    “To teach in a university no longer requires a terminal degree or brilliant research. The government has created an unimaginably stultifying system, managed by bureaucrats rather than educators, in which professors are required to grind out useless and unimaginative books and articles and hold tedious conferences at a rate more like an assembly line than a university.”

    –Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (545).

    Sounds pretty familiar to me. I suppose what I am mostly advocating is a fight against this bureaucratization of universities, a fight against turning eduction into the mere production of the useless, the unimaginative, and the tedious. One way is to rethink how and why we produce media (articles, books, etc), and another (and this speaks to your points above) is to pay close attention to the kinds of issues that get covered up, ignored, and dismissed. To ask why this is happening, and to push these conversations forward one way or another. One thing that concerns me, though, is that so many people are concerned with getting a job or finding some way to make it into this system that a certain level of acceptance or complacency is continually fostered. Sure, we publish and it’s good for our CVs and all that. But that’s not the main or only reason why we are doing all of this. Anyway, thanks again for all your work and the great post.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Great quote! To throw one back at you, something related from Ingold’s Being Alive:

      British anthropologists like myself currently find themselves working in an academic environment that is profoundly hostile to the task of being alive. Crushed by an avalanche of mission statements, strategic plans, audit reports and review exercises, ideas born of the sweat and toil of an engagement that is nothing if not observant wilt and wither like plants starved of light, air and moisture. The prostitution of scholarship before the twin idols of innovation and competitiveness has reduced once fine traditions of learning to market brands, the pursuit of excellence to a grubby scramble for funding and prestige, and books such as this to outputs whose value is measured by rating and impact rather than by what they might have to contribute to human understanding. (2011:xiii)

      I’m hoping to write a longer post about that quote in relation to the bureaucracy of Student Learning Outcomes Assessment, but for now must go back to grading!

  • Discuss White Privilege

    Great comments Ryan and Jason.

    I think there is another connection between the quest for prestige/status in the neoliberal corporate university displacing a focus on scholarship and knowledge for its own sake, and the refusal of many (white) anthropologists to engage and acknowledge the ‘white public space’ issues raised in the Brodkin et al. article: the work of minority scholars is ignored/dismissed/marginalized because they are often *fundamentally* (at the level of implicit bias and despite conscious claims of antiracist principles and commitments) as not being either persons or scholars of equal status; and because so many are focused on prestige, status, and playing the academic game–as opposed to knowledge and scholarship for its own sake, such that they would be interested in seriously considering and thinking critically about all knowledge regardless of if they think it comes from a person ‘at their level’ (v. those viewed as lesser-than, either because of race/gender or academic position)–many (white) anthropologists see the concerns and race-critical scholarship of minority scholars as low-status, “meaningless” pablum to be ignored.

    There is a lot of “‘those people’ are unimportant’, not prestigious and high-ranking enough, so who cares what they have to say” behavior going on–precisely because scholarship and knowledge for its own sake is not what is the prime academic motivation, unfortunately. In this context, and given the demographics of the ‘celebrity anthropologists’, it is just one more reason for the majority of anthropologists, who are white, to not care about the discipline’s ‘white public space’ issues. You can easily advance your career as an anthropologist, and become a celebrity anthropologist, without really having to care about ‘those people’. And because many white anthropologists study non-white people, it is easy not to have to acknowledge that they are participating in this kind of academic/anthropological (de)valuing.

  • Discuss White Privilege

    Great comments, Ryan and Jason.

    I think there is another connection between the quest for prestige/status in the neoliberal corporate university displacing a focus on scholarship and knowledge for its own sake, and the refusal of many (white) anthropologists to engage and acknowledge the ‘white public space’ issues raised in the Brodkin et al. article: the work of minority scholars is ignored/dismissed/marginalized because they are often *fundamentally* (at the level of implicit bias and despite conscious claims of antiracist principles and commitments) as not being either persons or scholars of equal status; and because so many are focused on prestige, status, and playing the academic game–as opposed to knowledge and scholarship for its own sake, such that they would be interested in seriously considering and thinking critically about all knowledge regardless of if they think it comes from a person ‘at their level’ (v. those viewed as lesser-than, either because of race/gender or academic position)–many (white) anthropologists see the concerns and race-critical scholarship of minority scholars as low-status, “meaningless” pablum to be ignored.

    There is a lot of “‘those people’ are unimportant’, not prestigious and high-ranking enough, so who cares what they have to say” behavior going on–precisely because scholarship and knowledge for its own sake is not what is the prime academic motivation, unfortunately. In this context, and given the demographics of the ‘celebrity anthropologists’, it is just one more reason for the majority of anthropologists, who are white, to not care about the discipline’s ‘white public space’ issues. You can easily advance your career as an anthropologist, and become a celebrity anthropologist, without really having to care about ‘those people’. And because many white anthropologists study non-white people, it is easy not to have to acknowledge that they are participating in this kind of academic/anthropological (de)valuing.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Discuss White Privilege, definitely this seems to be part of the picture, the celebrity-prestige-status, and how it is mostly played out within the academy. My hunch–although I could be wrong–is that this is changing, and not (at this point) in a good way, as the entire field has been increasingly disparaged. And I’m just starting to catch up with Fran Barone’s comments on this over at Analog/Digital: “Anthropology’s problem is at least two-fold: how we engage with each other and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. Both go hand in hand. Alas, if recent history is anything to go by, burying our heads in the sand hoping for positive changes to materialize from one day to the next will leave us waiting for a long time indeed.”

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