A A A

Archive for December, 2012

The ‘true meaning’ of Christmas

By Tom McDonald, on 24 December 2012

The sacred and the profane double juxtaposed in a Facebook post (Source: GodVine/Unknown)

Complaining about the excessive consumerism of Christmas seems to have become as traditional a past-time as putting up one’s christmas tree, or stuffing the turkey. Christmas and materialism have always seemed somehow opposed to each other, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which somehow seemed diluted by the fact that people in Western societies appeared more concerned with rounds of shopping and what appeared to be excessive consumption on gifts, crackers, and shiny sparkly things.

And yet, it cannot be ignored that this is how people actually seem to be concerned with experiencing Christmas. In his essay on the rituals of Christmas giving, James Carrier (1993: 55-74) looked at how people wrapped and gifted presents. He argues that the wrapping of the present was an act that appropriated an otherwise commercial gift, and made it something of the gift-giver’s own. This transformed the gift from a material good to something with a capacity to express love and care between human beings, and thus appropriate for a fundamental aspect of human behaviour: gift exchange (see Mauss 1967).

On the face of it, God and social networking appear to have similarly little in common. The rituals and rites associated with the former are anthropology’s bread-and-butter; whilst the latter is frequently derided as being mundane and of little consequence, inherently unsuitable for anthropological research. And yet, we similarly cannot ignore the fact that this is, for many, an important space where connections with the sacred are contemplated, enacted and observed. And in this sense I do not necessarily mean those events that gain mass-media coverage, such as Pope Benedict’s twitter feed.

Instead, I am more interested in something like religious memes, religious messages that normal people themselves encounter and share through their online networks (see the example above). These are occasions where user-generated religious themed messages might be created, posted or shared. At the moment, I have little idea what these things mean. But when we start our 15 month period of fieldwork researching the effect social networking is having in seven different countries next year, I think it would be reasonable to expect that this phenomena (either from Christianity or other forms of religious expressions) is something we might encounter and want to understand more deeply.

I think anthropology carries with it a pledge: that we take people’s opinions, expressions and beliefs seriously, regardless of what these may be, try to live inside these opinions and understand them for what they are. We do this by living closely with people, and sharing their life for a prolonged period of time. This is not just in order to execute an act of scientific analysis, but is also, first and foremost, a duty that we owe to our research participants.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a very happy Christmas, New Year and holiday period.

References

Carrier, J (1993) The rituals of Christmas giving In: Miller, D (ed.) Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mauss, M. (1967 [1928]). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (I. Cunnison, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

The face in Facebook

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 18 December 2012

Photo by Jolynna Sinanan, effects by Charlotte Mohammid

After my first month of fieldwork in El Mirador, I had gotten into a comfortable pattern of hanging out in hubs around the town, chatting with people and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the news and what people were talking about.

The big issue in Trinidad a couple weeks ago surrounded Dr Kublalsingh, a prominent academic at the University of the West Indies (UWI), well known environmental activist and the face of the Highway Re-Route Movement. Dr Kublalsingh and his supporters are opposed to the construction of a section of the highway that is proposed to link the southern towns of Debe and Mon Desir. The protest culminated when Dr Kublalsingh went on hunger strike for 21 days, he set himself up in front of the prime minister’s office in Port of Spain during business hours and continued until the government agreed to review the plans for that section of the highway and release the information informing their decision so far to the public.

Back in El Mirador, I was hearing different opinions on whether Dr Kublalsingh was right or wrong, that the highway is good or bad, that what he and his supporters were doing was meaningful or pointless. I decided that if I was going to understand this better, my camera and I needed to spend some time in Port of Spain.

My first day was Day 15 of Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike and the protest had taken a dramatic turning point. His health was deteriorating rapidly with grave implications for permanent organ damage and his family had become far more vocal with concerns that he should stop. On the other hand, Dr Kublalsingh had become very much a celebrity figure and charismatic leader as the face of the movement and for democratic expression in Trinidad. And most of this played out on Facebook. I uploaded my photos from the day and within hours, particular photos had been shared, liked and tagged amongst people I didn’t even know. I followed the movement until it ended, mostly photographing and following the effect of posting photos, which has now opened up a key question for me while I do this research: What does the face in Facebook mean in Trinidad?

Trinidadian anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan reminds us that ‘in political anthropology, the hunger strike is seen as a front-of-stage social drama. It is a cultural performance for a broad audience. It is not just the hunger striker who is on stage. The authorities, politicians, media and general public all become performers in the drama too.’

Here, a lot of the drama was portrayed, polarising and mobilising people online and in the media. More so, I would argue it was the images of Dr Kublalsingh, the toll the strike was taking on his body, the determination in his eyes, the effort that was captured in his media comments at the end of the working day that people responded to and cemented their views on what he was doing. The body was both viewed as “Look at how passionate this man is about his cause” as well as “Look at how crazy this man is and what he is doing to himself” and the same image could be used to reinforce both views.

Dr Gabrielle Hosein at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI argues that Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shows hunger for information, reflective of a country’s hunger for a responsible government, transparency and accountability.

The circulation of images and in particular, an iconic image of a hungry body for a social and environmental movement is indeed a focal point on this very large political stage.

References:

Kerrigan, Dylan, ‘Political jiu-jitsu?’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 09.12.’12

Hosein, Gabrielle, ‘A hunger strike in a hungry nation’, The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper, 28.11.’12

Something we take for granted in the digital age

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things - “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

References

boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.

Small (random) thoughts on Big Data

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 12 December 2012

Photo: hisperati (Creative Commons)

A casual search for the definition/description of Big Data can throw up results that define/describe this phenomenon in various ways. Though most agree on size (as the term itself implies), there are other dimensions applied to this term, that seem to be on the increase based on the nature of the industry that defines this. Definitions range from using 3V models to 4V models; single dataset to multiple datasets; single database with multiple datasets to multiple databases with multiple datasets; size of each dataset from gigabytes to exabytes (very relative); nature of each of this dataset; complexity not only in terms of types of data sources but also with respect to the relationships that these data points share; speed (or velocity) at which the data is produced, so on and so forth. Other than the dimensions of size and complexity, it looks like the definition of Big Data is as big as the data itself.

From a universal perspective, most of these definitions that speak about the size of the dataset proclaim that humanity creates 2.5 exabytes of data every day. However, one has to remember that this is only tracked data defined based on the technological storage capacity. So, what happens to the untracked data? So are these exabytes of data our data generation, or production that can be tracked by technology? Though, this will definitely grow in size as technology advances with data storage capacity, can technology reach out to every nook and corner of this world? It seems like a major portion of Big Data description is limited to the digital space alone.  Though, the definition of Big Data seems to grow in a non-linear fashion, the growth of Big Data itself seems to be linear based on its dependency on digital and or technological growth.

Data can be processed and does have the potential to turn into information, and information can be broken into data – so processing of this information is, in a way, producing more data, which is again processed to produce more information which is data again – in a way becoming a vicious cycle of production, storage and processing.

It will definitely be interesting to see what comes out of Big Data research; it might produce big definitions, bigger philosophies and biggest profits too.

Why do eight comparative ethnographies?

By Daniel Miller, on 8 December 2012

Photo: Ed Schipul (Creative Commons)

I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simulteneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitment of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the indiviudal who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in give other place are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusion. It is possible there is another fator: a common sense of modernity say that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of disussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simulteneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea…