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Public anthropology: urgent yet undervalued

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 17 November 2016

An education in anthropology encourages us to ask deep questions and look beneath the surface.

An education in anthropology encourages us to look beyond cultural assumptions.

In the days following the results of the US presidential election, there has allegedly been a wave of racist attacks and hate crime across the States against Muslims, hispanic Americans, black people, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. At the root of such behaviour is deep cultural ignorance and education is one of the most powerful weapons we have against intolerance and fear of the ‘other’. The humanistic sensibilities that an education in anthropology fosters can be paradigm-changing. It seems apparent that a commitment to an engaged public anthropology has never mattered more, or been more feasible in this digitally connected age. Many anthropologists, including the Why We Post team, feel the moral and political imperative to bring anthropology to a wider audience than was previously possible with traditional modes of research dissemination. But as anthropologists situated within today’s hyper-competitive academic job market, how can we navigate the often tenuous balance between public and academic output?

How can we manage to produce high-quality public content at the same time as managing the responsibilities that come with being professional anthropologists working within the demands of the academic job market? This was a question put to me by Alisse Waterston, the president of the American Anthropological Association, after a talk I gave at the IUAES in Dubrovnik back in May. The theme of IUAES this year was ‘world anthropologies and privatisation of knowledge: engaging anthropology in public’, yet my panel was the only one with the explicit theme of how to bring anthropology to the public. The panel convenors, Jenny Ingridsdotter and Kim Kallenberg from Södertörn University in Sweden, explained the difficult balancing act inherent in their academic lives: “In order to pursue an academic career we are encouraged to write peer reviewed articles and engage with research communities. Yet little time is left to engage socially and interactively with local communities or communicate important results to public spheres. As young scholars it might be even more complicated to legitimise designation of time to public output. Still we feel it is really important and at the core at what we do as ethnographers.”

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

The Why We Post course on FutureLearn runs three times per year.

I believe that there are several factors that enabled our team to successfully produce large amounts of public output at the same time as writing up their research, publishing, and applying for jobs (all of the 5 post docs have now secured academic employment). Firstly I think it’s important that public engagement shouldn’t be an afterthought to research, but like with Why We Post, should begin from a project’s inception if it is to be successful. Partly this is because the writing skills necessary for communicating to a general public take time to hone, and also because it’s important for researchers to understand early on in their work the kind of field material (video, photographic, textual) they need to record in order to produce engaging content that will appeal to non-anthropologists.

Given our topic of research is the uses and consequences of social media, our project was conceived as having a broad appeal from the outset; with selfies and memes we might be able to bring people to anthropology who otherwise might overlook it. Project leader Daniel Miller envisaged a spectrum of dissemination/engagement methods including open access books, an e-course, and a public-facing website, all of which was made possible by a generous ERC advanced grant which funded the project and has covered my salary as a public engagement fellow and research assistant. I was hired at the three-and-a-half-year mark when the team were in the process of writing up. Working with these talented researchers to produce our public content I saw how it was often difficult for them to juggle the academic and public output, even with the support of a team. The more conversations I had with them, the clearer it became: public engagement in anthropology is currently institutionally undervalued and needs greater recognition within the established modes of evaluation that researchers are subject to. I think that projects with more limited resources than ours would struggle to produce the same range of public output, despite the best intentions of individual researchers to reach beyond the ivory tower.

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

Can we draw people to anthropology through analysis of popular culture such as the selfie?

In addition to writing 11 open access books (aimed at both academics and lay readers, with jargon-free text and references kept to footnotes), the Why We Post team agree that producing visual and textual material for the online course was the most time-intensive of our initiatives, taking longer than expected. One of our researchers, Shriram Venkatraman believes that this was mainly down our high production values coupled with our lack of experience in creating such material – and a lack of existing models to follow. We were the first UCL course on FutureLearn and the first comparative anthropological online course of this scale. The sheer amount of material coming from our project also posed a challenge – how do you condense insights from a total of 135 months of ethnographic fieldwork across nine fieldsites into a concise course aimed at a general audience? The answer: a combination of Googledocs, tracked edits, miles of emails, and a lot of good will and humour. Support also came from UCL’s Digital Education team whose expertise in online learning was pivotal in developing a successful course.

Despite the time-intensive nature of scripting and filming course content, Jolynna Sinanan commented that the skills she gained were invaluable: “The time pressure was immense but the skills we learned in filming, writing, developing and translating content for the course were very valuable, especially when gaining public exposure for our research is becoming more important. We are also competing within an academic climate that values producing a high level of quality as well as quantity, so we need to display virtuosity as well as accessibility with our research outputs, from being able to write journal articles to making short films for YouTube.” The skills developed in public engagement can also benefit traditional academic output, as Xinyuan Wang explained: “producing the course actually helped my academic writing as in the course I needed to describe and discuss things in a straightforward and engaging way (which is actually more difficult in many ways than composing an academic paper). After working on the course, my own arguments actually became clearer and better constructed, which is definitely very helpful in my future writing and actually saved time rather than wasted time in the long-run.”

While the process of transforming research findings into public education was both challenging and rewarding, once the team’s contracts were nearing completion and they launched into job searches they faced a new challenge: the academic job market currently does not value online learning in the same way as offline learning. Dr Nell Haynes, our team member who conducted her fieldwork in Northern Chile explained: “The online course is not at all considered to be equal to teaching in-person courses, despite the fact that it actually took much much more time, revision, and creative thinking than preparation for a traditional lecture course. And while there has for some time been a strong movement by anthropologists to have administrations grant more weight (in tenure review and other institutionalised forms of evaluation) to public work, it certainly seems that search committees are often reproducing these very biases. Based on conversations with other job applicants this does seem to be a systemic trend.”

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

Our course is available in the 7 languages of our fieldsites on UCLeXtend.

If we as a discipline do not value public anthropology highly enough, is it any surprise that the public generally have little time for anthropology? How can it be that a discipline which claims to be global and encompassing in outlook is so limited in its output, often failing to give back to the very communities that it draws knowledge from? We decided to make our e-course and website (including 130 films) available in the seven languages of our fieldsites, and we are in the process of arranging translations of our open access books. The hope is that as public awareness of anthropology grows through such efforts, that there will be more demand for the discipline. As Shriram Venkatraman commented: “our effort is just the start of something big. When there is more recognition from within the field for public outreach and the social impact we can create, this will hopefully encourage many more such efforts which will increase the standing of Anthropology in the eyes of the general public.”

It is heartening to see other efforts towards quality and sustained public anthropology, such as the founding of the Public Anthropology Institute (PAI) at Wesleyan University, and we hope that such initiatives garner wide praise among anthropologists. We have a duty to promote the kind of cultural sensitivity that anthropologists take for granted to as broad an audience as possible, so that people who see cultural difference as a potential source of anxiety, might come to appreciate, and even delight in, the multitude of ways there are to be human.

 


Thanks to the Why We Post team for sharing their experiences of the public engagement balancing act. Also thanks to our lively panel at IUAES (Berna Yazici, Laura Korčulanin, Miha Poredoš, Aivita Putnina, Branko Banović, Margarita Barrera, Helleka Koppel, and Pascale Hancart Petitet) who continued conversations with me beyond the conference, and who are involved in projects ranging from public art installations of golden excrement in the ‘Give a Sh*t’ project, to an anthropological radio show in Laos.

Sharing anthropological discoveries on social media: ‘marketing’ or ‘interactive learning’?

By Daniel Miller, on 6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

Social media and engaging anthropology? (Photo: Pabak Sarkar CC BY 2.0)

Over the last year, people have often asked us questions like “Surely you will market your project using social media?” or, “What exciting campaigns based on social media will make your project a success?”

Well the answer is that indeed we think we have learnt a good deal about social media. What it is useful for, but equally where claims are made that are not borne out by our evidence. We have concluded that this huge emphasis on marketing through social media has far more to do with the wishes and desires of the marketing industry for this to be the case than any sober assessment of what social media actually is.

Looking at our research as a whole, we find quite limited successful employment of social media as a form of mass marketing and promotion. Yes certainly in some cases, but in most of our field sites it’s force is quite limited.

Our primary theorisation of social media is instead as a form of sociality and the formation of small groups for internal discussion. It is not generally a means for trying to reach new or different people but rather for consolidating social groups that are largely known. Some platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter clearly command a wider presence but even here, social media generally works best for groups that are linked by common interests such as devotees of Star Wars, rather than in reaching a generic audiences.

We are not alone in this. Fore example, even people in business are starting to appreciate that Twitter is not always effective in driving traffic in the direction that they would wish.

So yes, we do envisage a role for social media in the dissemination of our project findings but mainly other than as a tool for mass marketing. We see social media as an important instrument for interactive learning. So people who take our online course will be encouraged to form small groups in which they can discuss the material and make and receive comments about what they are learning.

People who cannot meet physically in class rooms can use social media for discussion. Social media can also harness one’s personal networks to disseminate information in limited ways, and much of the more successful commercial usage we observe in our field sites relates to businesses where personal interaction is also important.

What people seem to imagine is that a project that studies social media will – for that very reason – concentrate on using social media. But we have never been advocates for social media.

The point of our research is to remain open and cautious about our findings, and we are just as comfortable noting the limitations and negative effects of social media as its potentials.

Our panel at the American Anthropological Association Meeting

By Tom McDonald, on 28 November 2014

aaa-annual-meeting

The Global Social Media Impact Study will be presenting a special Invited Panel entitled Global Social Media and Global Social Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association Meeting at Washington D.C.

Panel time: Thursday, December 4, 2014: 6:30 PM–8:15 PM
Panel location: Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)

Full details of the panel can be viewed on the AAA website. It will be a great opportunity to hear more about findings from our unique comparative research project.

We are incredibly fortunate to have the panel chaired by Heather A Horst (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). We will also be joined by Faye Ginsburg (New York University) and George E Marcus (University of California Irvine) who will be leading discussion of the panel.

We look forward to meeting many of you there!

Updated (01 December 2014): Our team will be tweeting during the conference using the #GlobalSocialMedia hashtag.

Thinking of writing cultures

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 15 June 2014

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

Project team selfie (Photograph by Xinyuan)

This blog post will try to give just a short glimpse of what our collective work means and how we envisage doing it.

This May, the entire project team reunited in London. This came after roughly twelve months fieldwork for each of us. Imagine nine anthropologists (Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Daniel Miller, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang) sitting at the same table and each trying to talk in a way that would make sense for the rest of the team while also addressing very different individual issues and concerns. In a way, this task was very similar with one of the main underlying thoughts since the beginning of the project: how to make our ethnographies really comparable?

We started by structuring our individual presentations into themes and focused more on ‘what went wrong’ or ‘what we didn’t do’ rather than on the positive aspects of our fieldwork. We felt we needed this exercise, as on the one hand we identified common issues and workarounds and on the other hand the kind of feedback we each received was incredibly effective. This was also one occasion to realise how much we have done so far: tens of questionnaires, exploratory interviews, in-depth interviews, close work with local schools and in a few cases (Turkey, Trinidad, and India) with local Universities, gathering of specific quantitative and demographic data, and so on. Besides, each of us followed their individual research interest, updated on a monthly basis the research blog, and circulated inside the team a total of around 70,000 words in monthly reports.

Next, based on our continuous discussions we started to draw a list with the main preliminary insights of the project. We qualified as ‘insights’ the kind of information based on ethnographic evidence that, even if could be strongly relativized between all the nine sites, it is nevertheless essential in understanding the impact of social networking sites on our society. After a few rounds of refinement and clarifications we ended up with around thirty preliminary insights that we will begin to publish on this blog. The idea beyond this is that we recognize that the earlier we put our findings in the public domain and under critical scrutiny the more social science will benefit.

Then, we started to work on a list of tasks that we all have to do in the last three months of fieldwork. We ended up in defining 20 tasks, mostly qualitative, that respond to issues we overlooked so far or we decided collectively we have to have. Some of these are: we redrew parts of the in-depth interview grid, we defined a few common mechanisms to work on and to analyze the online material, and created a second short questionnaire to be done by the end of the fieldwork. Sometimes the endless debates on the various nuances and particular issues in each fieldsite had to be closed down by mechanisms such as democratic votes inside the project team: by voting, we collectively decided whether we will address that particular topic as a collective as part of the mandatory deliverables or it will remain to be further investigated by just some of us.

There are so many other things we worked on during this month and I do not have space to discuss here: gathering user generated content, producing short films on the main themes in each fieldsite, the course we’ll collectively teach at UCL/Anthropology in the second term of the next academic year, discussion on research ethics, methodologies, and data analysis, AAA conference this year, dissemination plan and our collective publications, as detailed here by Danny, the strategy for our online presence, and so on.

By the end of the month, when my colleagues also prepared their panel for the RAI conference on Anthropology and Photography, we all agreed that going through such an immense quantity of data and ideas, process, and plan our further common actions in a relatively short period of time was the real success.

 

Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

By Tom McDonald, on 12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

It’s not what we find, it’s what you learn that counts

By Daniel Miller, on 1 September 2013

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

Photo by Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

I have now completed two fieldsite visits. I will be visiting six more over the next five months. But already there is one issue that I am becoming increasingly anxious about. Anyone reading this blog regularly would understand why even after five months, which is one-third of our fieldwork, I would predict that this study will surpass even our wildest ambitions in terms of what should be our main criteria, that is the level of original insight this will bring to our understanding of the impact of social and new media on the world today. But that is just the half of it, because I feel the extraordinary richness of engagement at each and every site means that these nine studies should give us a depth of engagement with the wider lives of ordinary people across our contemporary world that is unrivalled.

The two site visits that have confirmed this feeling. In both cases I find the material revelatory. This is partly because the sites are so well chosen. The Indian case of 200,000 (soon to be 700,000) IT workers plonked into the middle of villages creating a radical juxtaposition is symptomatic of the transformation of India. In Brazil I had been very sceptical of this term ‘new middle class,’ because I could not see how you could apply this to the level of domestic cleaning staff and construction workers that populate our fieldsite. But now I have seen how squatting has turned into a strategy for long term property investment, and met the children who go to University and aspire to do post-graduate work abroad, I can see how this site also is perfect for understanding the future of Brazil.

So why I am anxious? It is because I learnt so much from actually visiting the sites themselves. In this project we do a good deal of internal reporting. Both Shriram Venkatraman and Juliano Spyer have already each written around 45,000 word descriptions of their projects. Both have long experience in writing in previous commercial employment and some journalism, and write unusually well. Having seen their sites I don’t see how they could have done a better job of conveying them. Yet to be honest there were so many things I didn’t really get until I actually visited them. The problem is that no one, other than me, will visit all these sites. We hope to gain a huge popular audience for our findings, but none of these people will be able to experience the sites as I have done. The ultimate point of research is not what the researchers have learnt, but what they succeed in conveying to the readership they attract. Even if they both write superb academic and popular books, which I fully expect they will do, it’s just not the same as actually being here.

All of which means that we have to do something else, to bridge that gap, if the project is to deliver as we intend. One possibility is that we learn from online behaviour as to how to use the online to convey academic findings more effectively, whether that be film, user generated content, animation, cartoon, clever graphics or photos, or some interplay between these. I am not sure I have yet seen an ethnographic work that quite managed this. It will be the topic of Sheba Mohammid’s contribution to the project which is a plus. But until this is accomplished, I am going to remain anxious about how we will manage to achieve this ambition. Also I feel very aware of a final contradiction. Since I will have visited all the sites, I will never be able to recreate the naïve state of pre-visiting. So how would I even know if we have succeeded in adding that extra dimension to our dissemination? Hopefully, the answer will lie in the reception of the results by others – hopefully.

Forming groups

By Tom McDonald, on 5 October 2012

Our team of researchers

Studies of how people form groups is something of a staple of the anthropological diet. In this context, the coming together of our team of researchers to work on the new comparative study on social networking has been an interesting process on which we might reflect, least of all because it will inevitably affect the nature and focus of our research. Befitting of the study, we ourselves have actually been using social networking platforms such as Skype and Facebook to get to know each other and formulate ideas for the project before it had even officially started. Despite the fact that we were located around the world, with researchers drawn from Brazil, India, China, Australia, Italy, Romania and the UK, we found it incredibly useful to meet regularly online to discuss our ideas for the project, and how we might want it to progress.

Now that we have all finally converged on the UCL Department of Anthropology in London, it is great to encounter the same people face-to-face, and we are now gathering as a group frequently for intense discussions on the precise nature and scope of our research questions, the methodologies we will be employing, and how we will work together as a group and disseminate the findings of our research. Our spatial co-presence means that the relationships between us are becoming strengthened and the animated discussion relating to our project frequently spill-over into our after work time, where we continue our conversations together in the collectively effervescent situation of the pub, as is typical of the British working tradition.

This group-style of working has led to some particularly exciting ideas, that are quite different from more established ways of carrying out anthropological research we are familiar with, which typically focus on long periods of lone research by a single ethnographer. Undoubtedly  too, working as a team might also bring elements of compromise. In that context it will be to see how our project, and the relationships between us, will develop for years to come.

On what a blog can do

By Tom McDonald, on 2 May 2012

Woman wearing veil using smart phone

Photo: Ikhlasul Amal (creative commons)

It is incredibly exciting to write the first post for the blog for the UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project, not least of all because with this blog, just like with this project, we have little idea of what it will develop into. Of course, it is our intentions and ambitions that have propelled us to create this space in the first place, so we have formulated at least some initial thoughts of what this blog might become.

We would like to think that the blog would provide a commentary and analysis of some of developments in the Anthropology of Social Networking as they occur, presenting particular papers or findings to those interested in this topic. Hopefully it would provide a valuable addition to the website in terms of a place where researchers could gather new ideas and inspiration for their own research.

The blog might also give us the opportunity to disseminate social networking research in new ways. Many people, whether  or not they happen to be anthropologists, have somewhat of an inkling of the tremendous effect that social networking is having on humankind. As we enter a period where disseminating research to wider audiences becomes ever more important, we may be able to ask how blogging might provide an opportunity to share our results with people who may not otherwise come into contact with anthropology? While traditional media outlets appear to be in a state of decline (and typically gave little affordance to anthropological studies anyway), and academic anthropological journals (with some notable exceptions) remain accessible only by means of expensive subscriptions or through university libraries, could it be that blogs offer a useful in-between space through which we can experiment with different kinds of writing to reach out to audiences?

Also, a blog could be considered as a form of social networking in and of itself. This blog will have the opportunity for readers to leave comments and we of course welcome debate and feedback to posts. There are fast-developing plugins and interfaces that link blogs with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. One could envisage that blogs might open up parts of the research process that remain hidden from many: meetings, solitary fieldwork or discussions. Research is often a collaborative endeavour, could blogs provide an opportunity to throw problems or discussions out to an altogether different set of people to solicit further opinions, helping to iterate and develop our research?

Finally, maybe a blog could just be a place to share. Claude Levi-Strauss commented that “anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations”. Undertaking anthropological research is an all-consuming, exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting, tear-jerking, laugh-making and life-affirming endeavour, and if a blog could encapsulate at least some of those feelings we personally think it would be no bad thing.