Culture Rears its Head in the US Presidential Campaign

There is a good editorial about that classic anthropological question “What is Culture?” in the New York Times today by Ta-Nehisi Coates.   This is salient because presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently made assertions about the nature of culture and its relationships to economic activity while he was in Israel recently.  His statements, made in the heat of a political campaign, have meant that the Culture Question will at least briefly (and probably ephemerally) push itself again into the national consciousness.  Still it is a good entrée into the subject for anyone teaching an Intro to Cultural Anthropology course this Fall.  Note that in the very first sentence, Coates gives credit to anthropologists as having a unique identity relative to “triumphalists!”


Romney’s Side Course of Culture


Published: August 9, 2012 259 Comments

When Mitt Romney asserted last week that “culture does matter,” he settled into a pose that was more triumphalist than anthropologist. Romney had begun by asserting that culture explained the difference in G.D.P. between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but soon he was claiming that culture also made the United States “the greatest economic power in the history of the earth.”  His attempt to define American culture settled in on vague attributes like “patriotism,” “family orientation,” “honor and oath” and “freedom,” a list that seemed cribbed from Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness.


Is it worth noting that America, itself, was secured from its aboriginal tribes through centuries of oath-breaking, through a malleable regard for freedom, and through the auctioning of families? Continued Here

The Internet Archive

As of this morning, The Internet Archive is now offering content via the BitTorrent P2P networking protocol: Internet Archive Torrents

There is a nice (if unorganized) collection of early anthropology among the 1.2 million books in the archive. As you might expect, there is a large assortment of early journals and classic works. But, there is also a surprising amount of  grey literature: lectures, occasional papers, and so forth.


This Week in Ethnography: Writing Live Fieldnotes With Social Media: Towards a More Open Ethnography | Ethnography Matters

This Week in Ethnography, the big news was Mitt Romney “using” the word culture but that news is already very well described by Jason Antrosio.

So I found another hidden gem that came out this week: a great post on “Writing Live Fieldnotes“.  It describes a technique that could solve a challenge I am facing in a research project where I will be tracking the behavior of a group of high school students. My challenge is to generate solid data on their entire lives without actually following them (minors) off campus.

TECHNOLOGY: I’ve used diary techniques elsewhere but I fear high school students will be less reliable than the college students I have studied earlier.  In the post below, Tricia Wang describes a technique that got me thinking about a solution to my problem.  Technologically I’m considering purchasing a number of Ipod touches, distributing them to the subjects, training them in some basic observation and self reporting techniques and seeing what happens.

METHOD: Shirley Brice Heath was is the first person I ever heard use the phrase guerrilla ethnography at a talk she gave at the U. Penn Ethnography in Education Conference in the mid 1990s.  Basically, she took a group of high school students and trained them to extend her observations at a high school.

What I am thinking of doing is have my subjects, read Tricia Wang’s post and follow her lead.  I’ve added the first few lines of her post her, but I urge you to read the entire thing.  There is real knowledge there!

Writing Live Fieldnotes With Social Media: Towards a More Open Ethnography

I just returned from fieldwork in China. I’m excited to share a new way I’ve been writing ethnographic fieldnotes, called live fieldnoting. I spoke about live fieldnoting in a recent interview with Fast Company that also featured a slideshow of my live fieldnotes. I want to elaborate on the process in this post.

At one point in time, all ethnographers wrote their notes down with a physical pen and paper. But with mobiles, laptops, iPads, and digital pens, not all ethnographers write their fieldnotes. Some type their fieldnotes. Or some do both. With all these options, I have struggled to come up with the perfect fieldnote system.

I have experimented with the Livescribe Pen, regular old notebook, and a laptop. The Livescribe digital pen didn’t work for me because it’s really uncomfortable to use after a half hour of writing and its dependency on digital paper makes it inflexible for fieldwork outside of the US and longterm extended fieldwork (my review of the pen on The notebook seems like the most practical solution. But I can’t seem to find the “perfect” notebook. Do I use a really small one that fits in my pocket? A medium size one that allows me to write more? If it’s too big then it looks like a “notebook.” And what should this notebook look like? Does a black moleskin look too nice for my fieldsite? Does it look too official? Does my notebook allow me to fit in with teens? But the notebook with bears and hearts that I use around teens doesn’t work for my meetings with government officials. And in the end no matter what kind of notebook I use, I still have to type all my notes to Evernote. So using a laptop is inevitable as all notes eventually end up there and are cleaned up there.

But the problem with a digital pen, notebook, and laptop is that they are all extra things that have to be carried with you or they add extra steps to the process. If I forget to charge the Livescribe or if it runs out of batteries, then I would have to remember to pack a backup notebook and pen. If I was in an area where I couldn’t get electricity, then I couldn’t charge my laptop or pen. If I’m in situation where I can’t take out a notebook because it would distract from the situation or it would be too cumbersome, then I would have to memorize everything.

I still haven’t found the perfect fieldnote system, but I wanted to experiment with a new process that I call, “live fieldnoting.”

via Writing Live Fieldnotes With Social Media: Towards a More Open Ethnography | Ethnography Matters.

The Ecological Annum

I have to admit I laughed at the phrase “ecological annum” when James used it as a foil for his post on the duration of fieldwork. The phrase (real or invented) dates from a period when anthropologists primarily studied agriculturists and hunter-gatherers with long trips to the field and little concern for budgets. At first glance it is exactly the kind of old fashioned advice that seems at odds with the realities of conducting fieldwork in the early 21st century. But, working in Silicon Valley over the last year has turned me into a militant luddite and left me with an appreciation for the old ways.So, I want to throw a wrench into James’ vision of “moving beyond” traditional approaches into bright new future(s) and focus for a couple paragraphs on this anthropological koan.

The definite article indicates that a particular annum is specified. Not a universal annum or a hypothetical annum but a concrete thing known to the listener. Ecological and annum are indexical to context and temporality respectively. Ecology calls attention to the ongoing, interactional of work of people and materials at play in every social situation and implies a manner of working which has its roots in natural history. Activities, cognition and emotions only take on meaning within context, and further, they are both formed by and forming of that context. A natural history approach hints that action is not preordained, but rather unfolds contingently in time. An annum is literally the period of time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun, reminding us that phenomenal, lived time, is circular, not linear. Activities must be made anew on a periodic basis and in this remaking people and relationships are reestablished and renewed. These three terms invite us to ask the practical questions; when and how, rather than why, a phenomenon occurs.

Take the phrase “the ecological annum” not as literal advice to spend a full year in one place (unless it makes sense to do so) but rather as an injunction to follow concrete action from start to finish and back. This is sound and practical advice whether you are studying an alpine meadow or an afternoon of laundry in a suburban home. Investigating the “ecological annum” of laundry might take as its starting point the moment a shirt is declared “clean” and end with the moment it is re-declared to be “clean”. In between those two temporal points is the narrative of how a shirt becomes dirty. Or it might focus tightly on the wash cycle and take the moment “out of clean clothes” as a starting point and end with the declaration that the laundry is done. There is a fractal quality to the phrase. The scale may change but the elements retain the same relationship.