Valuing & Devaluing Anthropology

Fame of Sharing Anthropology

I was privileged 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 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? In December 2011 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.

    Update on Classifying to Kill: I had been looking forward to Brackette Williams’s research and work to produce An Ethnography of the Death Penalty in the United States. However, it appears the book was not ready for the world; or the world was not ready for the book. It’s gone unpublished.

    To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Fame of Sharing Anthropology: Valuing and Devaluing Anthropology.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 11 December 2012. Revised 22 September 2017.

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