Ok, for the record, I am not a left leaning anthropologist

I am not a right leaning one either. I feel compelled to mention this due to a bizarre claim made by Hugh Gusterson in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine. Heres a partial quote related to anthropologists accepting funding from the Pentagon:

“Some will be concerned that the Pentagon will seek to bend their research agenda to its own needs, interfering with their academic freedom. Still others will be nervous that colleagues will shun them. But many will refuse simply on principle: Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline, and many people become anthropologists out of a visceral sympathy for the kinds of people who all too often show up as war’s collateral damage. Applying for Pentagon funding is as unthinkable for such people as applying for a Planned Parenthood grant would be for someone at Bob Jones University. One thousand anthropologists have already signed a pledge not to accept Pentagon funding for counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.”

Ok, let’s be clear. I don’t recall any poll or surveys going around inquiring to the political leanings of anthropologists, so I am not sure where the data is coming from that Anthropology is the most left leaning discipline.

Now, would Hugh LIKE it to be the most left leaning “discipline”, it sure looks that way to me. Why is it that the most ardent left leaner’s want to destroy real anthropology for the rest of us? Hugh, you adorable nut-job you. Just go ahead, toss in the towel and tell your students that Anthropology in your view is not an academic dicipline of any kind but a political ideology that can only be talked about by those that pass a special litmus test to ensure they are true believers. If you can agree to that, the rest of us can get on with repairing the damage of post-modernism and try to drag cultural anthropology back into a respected academic and applied subject again. Its supposed to be a real dicipline, not an ideology or (as it has become in recent times) poorly done literary criticism.

Do I think there are more liberals than conservatives in anthropology, sure… but thats a gut feel, not fact. In addition, I have never bothered to ask. I don’t care about someone’s political views. I care about good work. Many people seem to be able to do this without a political agenda.

I really wish the madcap “capitalism is evil, I care about the oppressed, Marxism is the best Idea” nut jobs would kindly get on with putting those ideas into practice in some oppressed community or country. Its pretty easy to make grand statements when you are in a safe air conditioned classroom and office typing. But its the classic applied / academic rift.. some people do the work, other people criticize from a safe, tenured distance enjoying all the privileges that they will never ever take the physical risks or pains to help others attain. Sweet deal for you.

Something about Homecomings and The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

 One of my favorite anthropology books is The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley.  It is a memorably written story of Barley’s experience doing fieldwork in rural Cameroon.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge out of the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense it is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and scientific ethnography typically assigned undergraduates in which the ethnographer somehow always ends up being always erudite, and insightful.  Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth is particularly memorable—and would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!).

The scene from Barley’s book I have been mulling since my return from Germany to California three weeks ago, though, is at the very end of the book.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon before returning home to England. He returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life.  The friend who complains because he left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?—provides the greatest homecoming dissonance for Barley.  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goats, shaman, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how adventures which are big for us as individuals often end, in a mundane question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler.  I suppose that such dissonance happens to soldiers and anthropologists returning from Iraq as well.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, easy to read, and a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, and why they do it.  Students I have had read the book generally appreciate it, even if they never leave the US.

When is Peer Review the Gold Standard, and When is it Only Tin?

Fair warning from an anonymous peer reviewer on one of my recent articles…

“The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following…”

As is well-known, “peer review” is the gold standard of academic achievement. It is assumed that peer review gives rigor and legitimacy to new ideas. This assumption persists even in the context of well-publicized fraud scandals involving high fliers in physics, human cloning, and cancer research which indicate that peer reviewers at journals like Science and Nature can be as sloppy as anyone else. Nevertheless, the process does often add to the seriousness of academic publication. Plus, if you did not have peer review, as is often said, you are no better than a newspaper, a blog like Ethnography.com, or (horrors) Wikipedia!

But, as the the quote at the beginning of this article shows, peer review is not always encouraging, nurturing, or in my view, very fair. In other words, sometimes there is only tin beneath the gold plate. Peer reviewers with the cloak of anonymity sometimes let loose on potential competitors. Editors do not always do their part by protecting writers from the more unreasonable attacks. Does this make for better science? Perhaps sometimes. My own view is that in the long-run peer review makes for a more careful and conservative science. But it also discourages challenges to the status quo, even though such challenges are what good science is about in the first place. Most crucially, writers without a thick skin are discouraged from pursuing good ideas further, all because some anonymous reviewer process had a fight with their spouse or teenager that morning, and took it out on you.

Scientific Publication—The Theory
The ideal of peer review is that rational, unbiased, and anonymous experts evaluate the work of others to verify whether an idea is new, rigorous, and important enough for publication. You submit a paper to a journal, and then the editor selects colleagues within your discipline to read what you have written. Anonymity is important to this process (ideally both the reviewer and reviewee do not know who each other are), because it is well-known that there are friendship cliques and elites within the scientific community which may bias review. Reviewers judged by editors as “possible for publication” are then sent to reviewers selected for their expertise and respect. The reviewers then submit their reasons for acceptance or rejection to the editor. Such reasons ideally entail 2-3 pages (single spaced) discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a paper’s data and argument, which are then forwarded anonymously to the author. Often, suggestions are made about literature that may have been missed in the paper, irrespective of whether the paper is accepted or rejected. I have found such suggestions helpful.
Based on 1-3 such reviews, the editor then makes a final decision about whether to accept, reject, or suggest a “revise and resubmit” to the author. Final acceptance of course is important within the scientific community. Besides the status and prestige associated with publication itself, papers published in such “peer reviewed” journals can make a difference in academic promotion and tenure decisions.
With revise and resubmits, a paper often has up to five reviewers (plus the editor) read and make anonymous comments for the author. Because so many minds are focused on the development of the paper, the overall quality, rigor, and accuracy of the argument is improved. The process is often slow. Between first submission, and the final arrival of a paper in print, months, and possibly years may pass. But this care is why your anthropology professor prefers to see you cite the Human Organization, American Anthropologist, or Anthropology Today, rather than Newsweek, CNN’s website, Ethnography.com, Wikipedia, or even Encyclopedia Britannica. All of these sources may be edited for style (ok, maybe not Ethnography.com), but there is not an expert review of the facts.

The result of all this peer reviewed literature is a scientific literature which academics (especially graduate students) pore over in order to find their own innovation. The peer reviewed literature is more valid and reliable because it has been through the rigorous review process. Acceptance rates in the most prestigious journals are often less than 10%, meaning that only the self-described “very best” is published, while the rest is rejected and perhaps submitted to a less prestigious journal, or perhaps find itself into publication in an “edited collection” prepared by a group of colleagues interested in a shared subject. Note that neither of these final two conditions are all that bad. A new idea is still “out there” for the diligent researcher to find.

Scientific Publication—The Practice
Anyway, that’s the theory of peer review. I have been through the process with two separate articles and a book proposal four times in the last six months or so. Only sometimes has it met the ideal. The book proposal has resulted in a contract (yippee), one article on neurology was flat out rejected once (ugh!), and from a second journal received a “rejection but you can submit again.” The third paper about African history was rejected, and the editor recommended I pay attention to one reviewer’s comments, and submit to another journal. All together, the reviews incorporated the opinions of six reviewers. Two were brief and insulting without redeeming value, and dismissed my work in a few short lines. One was insulting, but made good recommendations about things that should be incorporated in the article. One was frustrated with my “sloppiness” but the reviewer thought the paper was worth a “revise and resubmit” which the editor did not give me. The fifth thought the paper was worthwhile, but needed to be fleshed out for the “new parts” more, and the editor gave me the “reject but you can resubmit in a revised form.” The last was the “accept.”
In other words, three of the reviews were constructive, and reflect the very best of the peer review process. Two of them reflect some of the worst impulses found in the review process. The one which was insulting (called me naive, etc) gave good suggestions was somewhere in the middle.

Here is a sampling, with some of my own comments:

“…There is little that is based on original research and no substantial intellectual or theoretical content…I am sorry to be so negative, but this [paper] is simply a non-starter.” (This comment was on a 40+ page paper, and the whole review was only about six sentences long. This reviewer has an ego problem and is lazy).

The second review on the same paper was three pages long, and pointed out in excruciating detail a number of errors on my part:

“Despite this rather frustrating sloppiness [which was pointed out in excruciating detail], I am willing to see the author revise and resubmit…” (ok, ok, you got me this time…I will go back and fix things)

Comments on the sociology and neurology article included the following. First the extremely short dismissive review:

“This leads him to highly fatuous arguments…” (Not as fatuous as your stupid review).

A second comment on the same paper:

“The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following…(this review included some good references to what the reviewer thought were key to the discipline, so he got me on that one. I will cite them, but also note that they present an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of basic sociological literature…which leads to ludicrous statements. Except I will say this with more respect, and not anonymously.)

The paper was resubmitted to another journal after I took a number of issues raised in the second review into account. I received the following comments back:

“I’m very sympathetic to one of the paper’s central claims…but I don’t believe that the paper as a whole has a sufficiently clear and sustained focus. .. What exactly do the two ideas have in common (apart from a central metaphor) and how do they differ? What can we learn from the comparison … But to make a substantial contribution to this more general debate, it would need to canvas a range of examples, … and to break some ground; advance some new arguments or shed new light on old ones.” (This comment ended in a rejection and resulted from the comment below from the editor. But thanks for the thoughtful comments!)

“I agree with the reviewer`s opinion that the basic line of thought in this paper is interesting and plausible. But I think the reviewer is also probably right that these basic ideas need more sustained development…”(ok, you have a good point. I will do it, and get back to you in a couple of months which incorporate some of the specific points raised—thanks for being encouraging even though this was not an acceptance!)

And finally a note from the one acceptance out of the four submissions:

“I’m not sure if I have a plan to order things differently than they are currently ordered, but it strikes me as potentially a little awkward…” (I think that this reviewer was probably right—but this comment was from the review which resulted in the book contract, which made me pretty happy in the first place)

My own strategy for working with this range of commentary, is to assume that anything complimentary is really correct, suggestions for including other books as a citation should always be followed, and that anyone that includes words like “naïve” or “ludicrous” means that I have a really good paper and should try again, and that the reviewer is in need of psychiatric help.

Why we Need Peer Review
So there you have peer review, from the nasty to the constructive. If you are ever asked to do peer a review, I would urge you to avoid the nasty side. Be constructive in your comments, even if your conclusion is to “reject.” Remember too, that many papers go through many iterations—papers are only rarely accepted on the “first try.” My own experience is that papers might be accepted on the second to fifth try. And usually—though not always—the peer review process is a constructive part of the development of a paper. Also remember, there are a lot of journals out there, and a rejection is sometimes the luck of the draw. How could the editor have known that the reviewer he met a conference five years before had tortured frogs as a child, and was also going through a bad divorce? Ignore the comments about being naïve, simplistic and ludicrous, and fix what is fixable, while also recognizing that you cannot please every reviewer all the time.

While peer review eliminates poor scholarship, in my view the greatest contribution peer review offers is in its ability to encourage and nurture good scholarship in others. Some of the more prestigious journal in sociology note this, telling reviewers that despite the fact that 90% of the submissions are not published, their comments are important because eventually many papers are published somewhere. Indeed, many of the most important and revolutionary ideas are first described in remoter areas of the academic literature—it is only after validation there that they make their way into the more “prestigious” mainstream literature. This I hope is the case with the two papers described above. I hope in the next few months to finish revisions, turn them around, and seek publication somewhere in the scientific literature. Rejections are part of the academic game. It is just too bad that nastiness is too.

Some thoughts as my additions to ethnography.com wind down

Hello Folks-

I have been avoiding writing much about the Human Terrain System since I am not an “official voice” of the program. Also, as I have written before, I don’t consider myself a scholar in any way. I don’t write (or desire to) create the usual peer reviewed materials. I am part of the long proud tradition of tradesmen… craftspeople. I am an anthropological handyman if you will. People have a problem or issue and I am happy and lucky enough to use my training to help them with a resolution.

But what to make of my next adventure? It is of course an adventure, albeit a very serious one. When I started this road a few months ago some issues were pretty academic. Now, 4 months later, people I have known have been killed and injured pursuing this commitment to an idea.

Its hard to put into words how it makes you feel. I have been a corporate person for many years, my friends and colleagues span the corporate and academic worlds. Few of us have ever considered that there is a chance of getting killed during the fieldwork.

So why am I doing this? God knows, the program has its warts, thats hardly a mystery. As far as the nattering of the Concerned Network Of Anthropologists go, (yea, I am looking at you Gusterson and González), I see you as bolstering your flagging careers on the backs on both the people of Iraq and my passed colleagues.

I think its important to say that never, as in not once, has a corporate or academic anthropologist ever given me a moments grief about my choice. Most are very supportive and even the most conservative express their reservations by saying “no, I am not comfortable with this, but I will be interested in seeing what your experience is..” See people, thats science. You question, you may or may not agree and you say “ok, lets wait and see what the data tells us.” Thats always a respectable position.

The objections to Social Scientists working the corporate or military sectors is a vocal minority at best. Look, its 2008: Marx is dead, global warming is real, tobacco causes cancer, fossils are not “gods little jokes” and the experiment of communism really, really didn’t work out. Get the hell over it already. Most of us like to work, own homes, play nintendo Wii and send the kids to college. Money, as opposed to clam shells, seems to be the primary method of making this happen.

Its not the money… life would be safer (and my base pay was higher) in silicon valley, I would have done it for far less than I am making. For me, I feel like after all my time in the corporate world, I have something to give back, I hope. I am wiser than I was the year I got out of grad school, meaning I have learned I don’t know everything. But i can say without modesty that with my teams, we have provided advice to companies that have saved or earned them many millions of dollars over the years.

Surely I can turn that skill to something more meaningful, and a longer lasting effect?

So thats why I am doing it. I need to put my money where my mouth is. Do I believe in the power of cultural understanding to prevent violence or not?

I do. Of course, I might be wrong. Thats just the way it goes with human endeavors. They are uncertain, dangerous, it seems often outright stupid, but we all plod on regardless. I like to think that most of us do it to our own drumbeat that is guided by what our gut tells us is the right thing to do.

Will this all blow up in my face? Maybe.

Hurry, Deadline July 25th! Scholarships Announcement

I just received this from the EPIC folks!

Scholarships Announcement 2008 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

We [EPIC, not ethnography.com] are pleased to announce 3-5 scholarships for the EPIC conference in Copenhagen, 15-18 October 2008. Any student (undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D.) can apply! Scholarship recipients will receive free registration, in exchange for working 12-16 hours before or during the conference.

Deadline for applications: 25 July 2008

Application process: Please submit a curriculum vitae and a cover letter to scholarships@epic2008.com. In your cover letter, indicate whether you will be presenting a paper or organizing a workshop. Also, explain how you will benefit from attending the conference. Thirdly, we want to make sure that the scholarship recipients carry out their conference tasks in a responsible and effective manner, so you should describe any relevant experience of this type.

Scholarship recipients will be chosen by 4 August. Priority will be given to

  • Those who are presenting a paper or organizing a workshop
  • Those whom the conference would benefit the most
  • Those who seem most likely to be responsible and effective in their work for the conference

Questions? Contact Christina Wasson, Scholarships Committee Chair, at cwasson@unt.edu.