Thursday, July 2, 2009

Underpants Gnome and Anthropology

Phase 1: Go to field (and collect underpants)
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Become an Anthropologist!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Important National News

Thank goodness!

And Happy Canada Day!


Social stratification: MySpace or Facebook?
Of course, Japan uses neither. They got mixi. Which people use their cellphones to access, most of the time.

On a side note, I really agreed with this:
Even as I'm diving into this data, I find myself struggling to get my words around these issues because it is patently clear that Americans - self included - do not have a language for talking about issues of race and class and stratification. Academically, we primarily rely on British language but this doesn't work so well in the States.
Because (for different reasons) it can be hard to apply this language onto Canada or Japan also. I'm thinking that what she is saying is that a word like "class" has much different meaning in some societies and others. In the UK, and talking with other people there, it seems like rigid class dividers are much more clearly enunciated. Like they are clearly formed, with strong lines, and people know in which category they fit. This does not really reflect my experience in Canada or Japan, nor the US (I think maybe the US a bit more than Canada and Japan though). Hence in Japan there is an ideology of everyone is middle-class, which is then balanced(?) in sociological literature by (usually) just demographic-type statistics (on white-collar/blue-collar, urban/rural, big company/small company, etc.). So the problem with the language is that you either have an idea that everyone is the same--ie middle class society--or you try to force complex social stratification into clearly categorized systems of hierarchy (the "British language"). Like there may be differences in income and other "class factors" in the same way in Canada, but subjectively I don't think its seen the same way---as in both a plumber and a doctor will tell you they are "middle class" (or be unable to answer such a weird question). From what I understand (since this is a bit foreign to me) in many societies this is not so, and the meaning of class is that people such as plumbers are working class and know it, and so on (rather than just being assigned that way by social scientists in analysis). Further, like this article talks about in the US, and Canada as well, this is also inseperable from ethnicity/race/(multi)culture.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Default

"Black" robots in the new Transformers

What struck me watching the film was also in how ideas of race are communicated. I mean obviously they aren't "black" in a physical way, any more than any other robot (except through indirect references such as gold-capped rapper teeth). Instead this is communicated primarily through voice and language style. The line about not being able to read was really a bit cringe worthy... though I think at most it might have been more "unconscious" racism than actually asserting that African-Americans cannot read.

But it also makes me think, what about the other robots? Does this imply that other non-ethnically marked robots are defaulted to "white"? Like Optimus Prime? Is he "white"? Ask that question without the context and I believe the thinking would be that it (or he... up next) is un-raced. But in the context of the other racialized robots it seems more clear that rather there is just an assumption of whiteness. Afterall, what would mark as particularly white? Or for that matter, I suppose the default is also that they are men. If you had a female robot, that would stand out (long robot hair, breasts, etc.) in a way that "default" male robots do not. To complete the Holy Trinity, class I guess must be inserted somewhere in there (for example--that skids and mudflap can be critiqued for their "blackness" while this also is implicitly bound up with certain class ideas about race). Hard to really say what a default class is and how that is communicated within embodiment?

Anyway, further reminds me of something else at the lab. Here there is an android robot which is an extremely good copy of one of the main researchers. This robot is being taken for a conference in Europe. At one point one of the researchers told me he was thinking of using it to see whether Europeans would think of it just as a robot, or as a Japanese robot (because it looks like a Japanese man). I seem to also recall a discussion about whether having such a robot speak German would seem "unnatural" to listeners. Interesting, as I guess Engilsh also again becomes the default here... It wouldn't be unnatural for a Japanese robot (or a Japanese) to be speaking English, certainly. Nor, of course, is it impossible that some actual Japanese people speak German.

I'm not quite sure how to approach the issue of "default" methodologically though. Like how do you ask a Japanese person if their default "race" for a robot is Japanese (like I might guess it is)? I suppose it is possible that it could be white/"foreigner" as well, in particular because a lot of manga (comic book) characters are drawn as white and there is a certain structural logic in that robot are outsiders, foreigners are outsiders (gaijin, which means foreigner, is literally "outside person"). Keeping in mind that asking such a question directly isn't likely to lead to as interesting answers (like asking people whether Optimus Prime is white), how can you figure this out? And whether it matters?

Edit: brilliant

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No Machine Can Do My Job As Resentfully As I Can

A machine can break down mechanically, but can it break down emotionally, mentally, and spiritually?

I can, and I have. Every day, a little piece of me dies. Could a machine say the same?

I've worked at this unventilated shit-prison 12 hours a day for nearly 25 years. I have developed no skills other than that of silently counting down the minutes of each workday while cursing my misfortune.

No matter what else they take from me, my utter and total hatred of this nightmarish fish-stick factory will always be mine. After all, isn't that what makes us truly human?

Monday, June 15, 2009


Clifford Geertz, for those not in the know, is an anthropologist famous for writing about "interpretation". One of his best known examples is the difference between a wink and a blink. According to him (actually, according to someone else he borrowed this example from... Gilbert Ryle I think), these two things have completely different meanings but the same behaviour. A blink is a just a physiological response, whether voluntary or not. A wink indiciates something, say irony or seduction. Or it can be an ironic wink based on the meaning of an ordinary wink... and so on. From this, he argues that anthropologists job is to do the "thick description" which allows us to interpret the meaning behind the wink or the blink. Simple observations won't due. You need to understand the "web of symbols". Thats my cliff note version from what I recall by memory.

Anyway, so a couple months ago I came across this article in the New York Times. Basically it is talking about New York/Wall Street types who have lost their jobs with the economic recession but still, everyday, get up in their best work clothes and go out, sort of "pretending" that they are still working. The article then jumps off into psychology and how this can be a good thing, "an effective social strategy [for coping]".
“I have a new client, a laid-off lawyer, who’s commuting in every day — to his Starbucks,” said Robert C. Chope, a professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and president of the employment division of the American Counseling Association. “He gets dressed up, meets with colleagues, networks; he calls it his Western White House. I have encouraged him to keep his routine.”
It then goes on to discuss lots of psychological research on "pride." At the time, what really struck me is how radically different I thought this would be interpreted if you had the same behavior/"data" in Japan, while also being something I could easily envision happening here. I figured if you had a story about Japanese white collar workers, who had lost their job, waking up everyday and putting on their suit, but not to do anything in particular, it would be not cast at all in terms of universalist psychology of pride but of the specific and unique culture of Japan, with particular attention to a "culture of work". On the other hand, it was somewhat amusing because its a good example of how similar the US and Japan really are in some ways, as I kind of also thought this seems like the sort of phenomena that would happen much more there than, I don't know, Canada or Italy. The discrepancy I can't help but feel is partly about how these are interpreted through certain kinds of (orientalist) prisms. To clarify the part about orientalist, that means it is based on the fact that the West (especially the US) is powerful and sort of dictates what is "universal" and thereby relegating everyone else to "particular"--like Japan. This universal/particular dichotomy is sort of ubiquitous, and Japanese help it along by themselves. So much, so, I figured, that identical behaviours would be split along these lines and interpreted radically differently. Its not so simple as "webs of meaning" when those meanings also come from somewhere (like colonialism in a broad sense, though Japan was never officially colonized, as well as nationalist projects of state-building spread through the education system and mass media).

Anyway this is just an inkling I had. Then today I was reading this article in New York Review of Books (gated unfortunately) by Ian Buruma. Partly it is a review of a new movie Tokyo Sonata. According to him, the movie is about a middle-ranking Japanese salaryman who gets laid off work, who "like so many of his real-life counterparts...prefers to spend his days on a park bench rather than tell his family about his lost job". This is not an uncommon occurrence, Buruma says:
[A] common sight these days in public parks, as well as libraries, are men in dark business suits quietly reading the papers, for hours on end. These are the middle-ranking corporate men who cannot face the humiliation of letting family and neighbors know that their companies have no more use for them. So they pretend to go to work, even after being laid off. Economic misery and rising unemployment are hitting older people especially hard.
Buruma's bone to pick is really the "Japanese system" as such, with all the main tropes that this includes: so-called lifetime employment, powerful bureaucrats, a stagnant democracy, US patronage. He traces this to post-war recovery but specifically the Yoshida deal:
The middle class was offered a deal: material wealth in exchange for political acquiescence, a virtual one-party state with no more protests, and the dutiful army of salarymen would be taken care of. Labor unions had been pretty much tamed, sometimes with the strong-arm help of gangsters. And Japanese pacifism was guaranteed by a constitution, written by Americans in 1946, which banned the use of armed force...
This system, put in place in 1955, when the LDP [Japan's main political party and in almost constant control for the last 50 years] was formed, and cemented in 1960, suited the Japanese political and business elite who could now concentrate on industrial expansion. It suited most Japanese, who wanted nothing more to do with war...And it suited the US, which wanted Japan to be a reliable bastion against communism. So CIA money stocked coffers of the LDP for several decades, to make sure all signs of leftisim were kept at bay.
Buruma basically links these macropolitics together with the laid off salaryman and his park reading together quite tightly:
There is in this behavior a link, I believe, with the unemployed salarymen reading their papers all day on park benches. It is a deliberate rejection of reality, a flight into make-believe. And this, in turn, is echoed by the behavior of the Japanese government itself. One of the most commonly cited reasosn for the depth and length of the economic slump that started in the 1990s was the refusal of the government to acknowledge the diastrous state of Japanese banks, as though problems would go away if everyone pretended things were all right.
So there it is. The Japanese salaryman, a stagnant relic of the bubble years, is just like the Japanese government. Of course, China is also in here somewhere, as the rising superpower in Asia who will soon (perhaps inevitably) eclipse Japan. Rather puzzlingly, Buruma then seems to focus a lot on Japan's pacifist constitution, almost hinting that a re-militarized right would be just the thing for Japan. This is somehow mixed in with the call for a more vibrant, dynamic democracy. The latter sounds nice like apple pie, but its hard to see how that relates much at all to economics when you compare Japan to China and the US.

This article is not really so much cultural troping as I imagined such a thing would be. In fact its quite right in a number of ways about Japanese history and politics, at least it seems to me. On the other hand, still I think it does do a number of things. First off, as it relates to America, and despite this article acknowledging the recent failure of the "America model," it seems to miss a few things. Like a militarized right? How did that work out in the US the last 8 years? Or perhaps the last 30? And while Japan has some trouble with banking, perhaps, this doesn't seem to be so serious as banks in one other country in particular. The current Japanese slump he correctly points out is based a lot on Japan's heavy reliance on exports. But that just means Japan is slumping because the US is slumping. Further, since he is then comparing Japan to China, China is also an exporter and is also slumping (recent factory closures and resultant protest action in Guangdong). Not being an economist, and with China such a closed place, I can't say for sure, but I really can't think China can still be the same darling-child now that everyone has been pegging it as for the last few years. In fact, its comical that he could blame the "Yoshida deal"---trading middle class political activity for economic prosperity---when if there is one single place on earth where, as a tacit agreement between the state and the citizenry, political freedom is exchanged for a rapidly expanding economy, it seems that place would be China.

That's the economics and politics. But also, even though it is quite light, it does seem like some cultural imagery is slipped in there. None of it is explicit in the vulgar way such things often are: "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down", so-called collectivism, "saving face". But these are all referenced implicitly---salaryman and politicians don't try to be exceptional or challenged things, laid off workers can't tell their family and friends because of humiliation. But overall the main troping is that Japanese live in a fantasy world, one of manga and anime, of melodrama, of ignoring economic problems. It reminds me of when sometimes people say that Japanese are immature/child-like because they like cute things or whatever. This seems to completely miss the point that a Japanese might think a Westerner is child-like because they can't properly control their emotional outbursts, or any number of other things. And the infantilizing also I think has a lot to do with exoticism mixed with fear.

So it does reinforce stereotypes of Japanese. Meanwhile, the New Yorkers each have their therapist telling them that pride is a good, healthy thing.

One last thing:these interpretations have a hint of truth. In fact, work is quite important in Japan, in the sense of work as making you a certain kind of valuable person. That is that working itself is a value, relatively speaking to an American, rather than the results as such (in a grossly generalized way). The motive for hanging out in the park may be more about other people's opinions of you as a person for a Tokyoite while more about personal feelings of failure and fufillment for the New Yorker. Or another way of putting it---maybe the Tokyoite is worried about not having a job as such, the New Yorker is worried about not having an income as such. Slightly different things. So how do you mix Clifford Geertz with Edward Said (and other post-colonial theorists)?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The ethnographer's mask

Swine flu has now landed in Osaka. This has resulted in a fair amount of panic. Yesterday, the homestay family went to visit grandparents and I was originally planning to go into Osaka, but my plans got cancelled. So I was sitting at home, watching downloaded TV shows on my laptop when I got a cellphone email: "Please put the mask in Osaka. Watch a news program". I think I let out an audible sigh, lucky I was by myself. Apparently they are selling or sold out of masks now. Of course I was told to wear mine on the train this morning. About 25-30% of the people, I'd say, were wearing them. My language teacher told me the other day that when Japanese people went to Canada and came back (I heard Canada is where a couple of the people up in Tokyo got swine flu) they were being asked (on TV?) why didn't you wear the mask??? I told her that Japanese people wearing masks in Canada may reinforce unflattering stereotypes of the Japanese. On the other hand, a friend I bumped into today on the bus, when I asked her about wearing a mask, she laughed and said no, and don't I think it's a little bit crazy? Yeah, a bit. 7000-8000 people have been infected in the world, and what? 70 people have died? And aren't all those people in the Americas, and most of them because they were old or ill otherwise? kawai [scary]?... I'm more scared of second-hand smoke in the bars.

Anyway, so I can't help, again, to feel a bit of, well, contempt for the hysteric. But then I was reminded of something someone said to me about a year ago. He was a PhD student in philosophy, but supervised by an anthropologist. Anyway, he told me, after we had been discussing something which I no longer remember, that I need to work on my "ethnography face" because I have a tendency to give away, in my expression, that I think what people are telling me is sort of idiotic. Like it's in my eyes, mouth, this look of "what you are saying is complete bullshit". He said, really, this is not good for an ethnographer and that his supervisor, for example, has the correct anthropologist's expression mastered. He can just sit there, with a straight and agreeable face, nodding along, while people tell him the most absurd things. At the time this struck me that perhaps he has a bit of a point. He's right, I think, that if you look at people like they are stupid, they're not going to want to talk to you!

So I feel a bit guilty thinking that everyone wearing these masks are acting paranoid. And really trying to bite my tongue. Like I guess its ethnocentric or something. For me, discussions in anthropology about ethnocentricity tend to be more multiculturalist platitude than actual thinking. But is there any thing to do other than just keep telling yourself, a bit stupidly, "when in Rome..."?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Different Masks; The example of swine flu

At Julie's spurning, I'll try to write a post. A timely topic would seem to be the swine flu. Perhaps I'm just not taking things seriously enough, but I can't help but feel that this is a kind of irrational global panic. Almost makes me buy into the conspiracy theorists screaming "They want you to live in fear so you don't know the TRUTH!". Almost. Okay not really. But still I've received, on both my University email account and on my company email account, notes that basically tell me I should try to be careful not to catch swine flu. Where's the emails telling me to be careful when I cross the street? This is not to say we shouldn't have disease control by medical professionals, quarantines of infected patients, whatever. Its more the spread of panic throughout the general populace that seems disconcerting. For example, why such the buzz in Japan when there have been no reported infections of swine flu in the entire country (last time I saw). Yesterday, getting ready for work, my homestay parents came to me with a mask to wear on the train. They had already pushed me to wear the mask on the train before, and in this instance I (relunctantly) decided to concede to their request. It wouldn't be very nice for me to contract the virus and spread it to them, after refusing their simple request to wear a mask for a few minutes on the train.

On the masks: I can't remember if I've blogged about it before, but in Japan it is very common practice for people to be wearing these masks out in public. They are exactly what you imagine a surgical mask is: a white thing that wraps around your ears and covers up your mouth, nose, and much of the bottom half of your face in a way that reminds me vaguely of a Ninja. Usually they are used when people have a cold and don't want it spread to others, when they travel on the train and don't want to catch anything themselves, or when suffering from seasonal allergies (which are quite bad in Japan). This seems quite logical to the (Japanese) people I've asked. They were, in fact, quite surprised that people in other countries don't do this. One interesting thought was that in Japan, when you get sick, you are still expected to go to work. Therefore the mask helps to stop the spread of the disease among coworkers. This contrasts with Canada, where usually the boss prefers you to just stay home, get better quickly, and avoid spreading illness throughout their entire work force.

Anyway, partly what I find quite interesting about the face masks is not just the use of them, but the explanations that these invariably trigger from Western people (whether anthropologists or otherwise). I've read a bit on the internet, some blogs, talked to some Americans or Europeans I know here about it. As you might imagine if you have some familiarity with stereotypes of Japan, a quick explanation is that Japan is a "collectivist" or "communal" culture. The logic is simple. In Japan, you must be always thoughtful of other people. So you wear the face mask (which I really found uncomfortable--makes it stuffy and hard to breath). This is a sign of respect towards others. Of course, the tone is that in Japan it is obsessively so. That is "obsessively thoughtful" or "obsessive respect".

At first glance that seems a plausible explanation I suppose, though its not one I've gotten exactly from Japanese people. They tend to focus on the actual "natural" or "scientific" reason for wearing it. You've got allergies. The mask stops the pollen. So why wouldn't you wear a mask? It just makes sense. The same with illnesses. There's no reason to spread your sickness to other people if you can help it. That just makes sense. The train is filled with people coughing all over you. Its packed full of people, since Japanese trains are very busy. Its the same thing as when you fly and you always get sick from that recycled air. Again, it just makes sense to wear the mask. I must admit, it kind of does. If thats the case, why don't we wear the masks in Canada or England?

I don't think too many Westerners would say because we are callous people and/or we are too stupid to protect our own bodies. My bit of experience would be that people will debate the actual practical benefits of these masks. Maybe they don't help. Maybe you catch the flu or cold because you touch things on the train and don't wash your hands. It has nothing to do with breathing in germs, so the face masks are superfluous. But washing your hands and "gargling" are also ("obsessively") stressed in Japan, definitely in my homestay family anyway. A quick response would be to return to a cultural explanation of that: Japan is a society that stresses cleanliness (not exactly wrong). That's why people wash their hands. Add back in the old cultural explanation: people wear the masks in order to fit into a group. That's a Japanese thing to do! Again, maybe not exactly wrong. Face masks are Japanese culture.

But this to me really represents an interesting question about social and cultural "explanations" of behavior. Because, like I said, people wear the masks because they think it protects them. Surprisingly often when I ask why a Japanese person why they do something a certain way, they will say "culture" (another interesting issue). But facemasks are not one of those times.. So I was really curious whether there have been actual studies on the effectiveness of masks. I saw a few, but nothing really conclusive. It would probably be hard to really map the epidemiology of such common and undocumented illneses as colds and flus on an entire society anyway(I would imagine, not being an epidemiologist I couldn't say). But, as a thought experiment, it seems perfectly reasonable that you could find the masks really do help. On the other hand, you could find the masks are useless. Both are completely plausible.

What do these two possibilities do for the kinds of explanations we would probably find, though? In the first case, the impetus would therefore be: how do we combat the "cultural" resistance of, say, Westerners, where people refuse to wear masks, for whatever superfluous reasons as aesthetics, comfort, machoism, etc. How can we clear their minds so they are like the logical, naturalistic, scientific Japanes?. But if its the second, you get a situation where the Westerners are being common sensical and the Japanese are burdening themselves with social and cultural fluff. "Obsessive" again.

It's kind an inflection of the Universal, with a capital U. Sombody needs to be on the side of Reason. But who can it be, when everyone seems to have their reasons? I think it presents a big problem for instance in the way anthropology is done (and how it comes up with explanations for various kinds of behavior). One anthropological way of looking at is just to go relativist and say well we all just do it our way because that is what our culture "tells" us to do. But that, to me, seems to underestimate basically everyone's intelligence. On the other hand, I think this issue with universalism also presents different kinds of problems for the strategies and assumptions that I think development agencies use when they are working on something like health policy in Africa. Maybe I am being unfair, but it seems like they tend to assume simply that they have the "universal" medical knowledge and they need to lift the fog of custom. But, like I pointed out before, it is neither simply that nor its straightforward negation that is quite right.

Anyway, I still don't like having to wear a face mask on the train.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Olivia Harris

Professor Olivia Harris

We are very sorry to announce that Olivia Harris died in her sleep at University College Hospital on the morning of 9th April. She had been suffering from cancer.

Olivia's funeral will be held at 2:30pm on on Tuesday 28 April at Southwark Cathedral. Everyone is welcome to attend.

The department will be closed from 1.00pm on the afternoon of Tuesday 28th April and all teaching will be cancelled.

Sad news from LSE Anthro

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


In Kyoto, a Call Not to Trample the Geisha

Interesting, when I was in Kyoto I was too shy to ask take photos of geisha/maiko I saw, though I did notice other foreigners (wish there was a more nuanced term but whatever) had no qualms just taking out their big DSLR, snapping a photo on some taken aback or shy group of maiko without asking, and continuing along.

In the article, what really strikes me are the quotes:

  • “They have lived through the ages and remain to this day,” said Ponkka. “They are unlike anything else you see in Japan. Most of Japanese culture today is just a mixture of things from overseas.”
  • “You don’t know who they are and what they do, and so much of them is hidden,” said Anna Kalshoven, a visitor from Amsterdam. “They are like the exact opposite of what we are and what we know” in the West.
What the hell? Okay, I guess they picked the most sensationalist quotes they could find and a fine understanding of the critique of cultural essentialism and orientalism shouldn't be expected. But still... What the hell?

Anyway, this was interesting:
  • Yuji Nakanishi, professor of tourism at Rikkyo University in Saitama near Tokyo, said that the friction over tourist behavior arises from a perception gap. “Japanese tend to associate tourism with historical landmarks, but foreigners are interested in people’s lives and their lifestyles,” he said. “Places like the fish market were never really considered a tourist site until quite recently, so both sides are really confused.”
Now I can see this when you are talking about tourism IN JAPAN. Japanese people, as tourists in Japan, go to temples or shrines or so on. But I'm not sure this is true when they go to other countries (in fact it flatly contradicts the stereotype of camera-trigger-happy Japanese people taking pictures of dogs and Subway fastfood joints, problematic as that image may be). Even in Japan, its not unknown for someone to subtly try to take a picture of me. And, while I do have my occassional bouts of egomania, I don't consider myself to be an historical landmark. Plus, I also thought it interesting how they are saying the foreigners treat Gion/Kyoto as a theme park, which made me really think I need to get around to reading this book which is on the creation of "foreign-themed" parks inside Japan.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Japanese 'villages' and their exotic occupants delighted and mystified visitors to the Great Exhibitions and Worlds' Fairs . At the beginning of the 21st Century, Japanese tourists have reversed the gaze and now may visit a range of European 'countries', as well as several other cultural worlds, without ever leaving the shores of Japan. This book suggests that these and other exciting Asian theme parks pose a challenge to Western notions of leisure, education, and entertainment.

Is this a case of reverse orientalism? Or is it simply a commercial follow-up on the success of Tokyo Disneyland? Is it an appropriation by one rich nation of a whole world of cultural delights from the countries that have influenced its twentieth-century success? Can the parks be seen as political statements about the heritage on which Japan now draws so freely? Or are they new forms of ethnographic museum?

Examining Japanese parks in the context of a variety of historical examples of cultural display in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, as well as other Asian examples, the author calls into question the too easy adoption of postmodern theory as an ethnocentrically Western phenomenon and clearly shows that Japan has given theme parks an entirely new mode of interpretation.

Well, off to Bangkok tomorrow. Let the tourism begin!

The Singularity

Amazing these both appear on the same day:

Computer Program Self-Discovers the Laws of Physics

First Robot Scientist Makes Gene Discovery

Let's see them do anthropology...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on dread and method

Constantly my fieldwork consists of the feeling that I am not getting anywhere, that I must be working either too slowly or perhaps not even doing it right, and therefore I am wasting time, a a big problem since my time is regimented and circumscribed by a wide range of bureaucratic structuring structures. And so: recurring panic. This could be just me (perhaps I actually am doing "it" wrong). But from what I can tell from a few conversations with other people in my class, this feeling is not unusual. And when I've emailed my supervisors, they tend to tell me that it sounds like everything is going well, give me some advice to make sure I am taking good notes, and then encourage me to continue steadfastly on.

All is not lost. In the middle level sense, I somehow am getting "something". Over a period of a week, usually there is something interesting that I've written down. If I look over a couple of months, I've got a notebook or two of "solid" stuff. At least its solid in that its there, on the page.

Rather, my dread is at the low level---a day will go by in which I can not say anything interesting seemed to happen---and high level---am I going anywhere towards my research questions, rather than just recording an ever increasing number of interesting anecdotes, partial quotations, mundane descriptions, and quasi-exotic Japan trivia?

Maybe this is fieldwork's "transformative experience". Maybe dread is what anthropology is about--Heart of Darkness. Personally, I think its more the institutionalization of guilt in grad school (see PhD Comics) combined with the feeling of useless incompetence that you get from being a (linguistic/social/cultural/disciplinary) "outsider" (perhaps the latter is nothing but a subset of the former).

Some of this may be communicated in ethnographies or at least in discussions with anthropologist teachers. Granted I think it tends to be presented in a more positive sense, but perhaps this is more to do with pressure to seem legitimate and successful. Like my emails to my supervisors... things are never going badly, exactly, I have concerns, issues that I'm working to resolve. But of course, they will be resolved. The project must go on.

What I've seen discussed less often (as it happens, usually in studies like mine among science and technology types) is the response that your "informants" have to your "methodology". To be blunt, mine have a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and, sometimes, alarm. A person will be telling me about their research, over a coffee or lunch, how they're devising such and such an experiment to see whether people treat/think of robots and humans as the same or different in various circumstances. What's almost ritualized is that at some point, they will be sort of asking about my research, and wham, it hits them! Oh yeah, you are doing your research right now! Lunch time is your primary research time! Ha Ha Ha. This is the amusement. Constantly, people laugh when they remember I am doing research on them*. I guess it is pretty weird. Like I was at an after-work party last week. I went with one french guy from my lab and we met this other European. Exchanged greetings, origin. So what are you researching? I explain. Anthropology. Hrmm, here? Oh, you study people? Hrmm, okay. And then I ask him about his research, what exactly is industrial design? What exactly does that consist of? And my french colleague laughs and says:

Him: Hah, he is doing research on you now!
Me: Damn it, now you ruined it! (laughing)
Him: Oh, sorry, sorry. Ha ha ha.
The other guy: Yikes! That's scary! Now I don't know if you are actually interested, or what... (laughing as well, while giving me a "You Dodgy!" look)

As I said, mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and alarm. But when I read ethnographies, they tend to portray everything as very serious. You are asking the informants your serious research questions. They are giving you serious answers about their deep felt beliefs, customs, emotions, passions, fears. It's dangerous, its political, people are being oppressed. For me, such conversations rarely occur "organically" and to try to force it that way I find rarely productive (I'm not sure if I've ever tried that hard), as this situation puts stress on people and cannot in fact be sustained, except in those brief moments (it is possible that this is especially so in Japan, comparative ethnographers, chime in!). A lot of social interaction is just friendly and light-hearted joking. I can't remember ever seeing this fact really addressed in ethnography, even though it is fundamental to the nature of ethnography as a method. Its the main reason, I find, why you often cannot follow up with your full barrage of questions. Of course anthropologists will explain "because its often not appropriate or possible", which is true to an extent, but not because they will get angry or feel affronted or because people are busy in the middle of serious work, which is what this wording seems to imply. The reason is often because you are having a basically normal conversation, and such a switch will only get them to respond "Ha Ha, anthropology! Your research!" or simply ignore the questions while rolling their eyes. Or smirk, snicker, and say "I don't know". Not, "I don't know" after some contemplation. "I don't know" as in oh god, please stop with this silliness! Even if there is contemplation, there is always laughter too. Hah sorry, I don't know why! Ha Ha Ha!

I said before that the reactions of informants has been discussed in science and technology. The above reactions I find happen with everyone, but the reaction I specifically get from scientists, broadly speaking, is an amazement that just talking to people, looking around, and writing it all down in a little notebook could be considered research at all (they also find the idea of a notebook hilariously anachronistic---haven't I ever heard of PDAs and laptops?). This appears in many an ethnography of scientists. Like the anthropologists before me, I usually take a defensive, counter-position to this talk. To be honest, the 'scientists' are often quite smug in their obvious objective superiority, so I can't help it. So I talk about context, building more general points from everyday practices, linking descriptions together, etc; the kind of stuff that Geertz writes about so well (that is he writes well, the arguments are nothing amazing).

One, well-thought, retort was "Well, I just don't get it. How can you be doing research without hypotheses?" Well, a standard humanities response (which is widely championed by many anthropologists) is to challenge the idea of a hypothesis. That is, when confronted with those who march under the banner of "science", look for the high ground and set to defend the territory held under "no science!". I'm uncomfortable doing that. The short reason is that such debates tend to be basically ideological (in the distoring/mystifying reality sense). In fact, a few days later this person was explaining his plans to generate an experiment with a colleague of his, and they were trying to decide on what set up of this experiment should be. I asked "Oh, well what you are trying to test, so what's your hypothesis?" He answered uhhhh, we both grinned, he spun around for a minute, and after thanked me for clarifying his thinking. In fact, he just felt they should do an experiment. It's easy to get mixed up between the motivation behind the research and its ultimate implementation in terms of method. For "hard scientists" this, to me, tends to result in a cult of counting. For anthropologists, there is a similar cult of ethnography.

This sort of returns to the beginning, because I think this is part of the reason that it is really hard to say whether the ethnography (I mean fieldwork, not the finished book) is going anywhere. But I guess you gotta just hope. Projects I've seen in science last a few months, and then they move onto something new. They're incredulous that a single project could be my entire PhD, and that it could last 4 or 5 years. Me too, at that.

* Some recent thinking would challenge, in fact take outright moral indigination, that anthropology is doing research "on people", that you "study them". But I find I prefer to express it to people, at least partially, in this way because I feel it gives a better disclaimer, a better way to say "Okay, please make sure you understand, when you talk to me, I'm going to write it down later". Even if you don't, I think it's good for people to keep this in mind, ethically.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

I've had a really bad stomach flu for the last week, and so mostly just be lying around in the futon watching movies and various TV series on the laptop. I finished the last episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which ended last Friday. It's a great show, and much better than the name suggests--not just a geeky science fiction show (though its a bit of that). There was actually a UN panel to discuss the show a week or so ago. Thematically and metaphorically, it continually comments on current affairs. Anyway, check it out! I can't really hope to give a proper summary of the show, but the quick run-down is that it deals with robots (cylons) who get built as slaves but then rebel against humanity (well worn, but it is what it is). They sort of take off, but at the beginning of the series they come back, nuke all the humans, except for a small group who run off into space looking for a new home, in particular a mythological planet "Earth". One of the main themes is that some of these cylons happen to look exactly like humans--hence it played off ideas of both terrorism and paranoia (sleeper cells), as well as directly relevant ideas (to me) of machines ("toasters") vs humans. Anyway, it is long and complex, watch the series. If you plan to, I'm giving away the ending here, so if you don't want the final few minutes of your marathon spoiled, stop reading now!

In the final episode, at the very end, they arrive at Earth--rather "our" Earth, as they had already found the "real" Earth to find out that it became a nuclear wasteland centuries ago. They decide to setup shop at this new planet, calling it "Earth", even though it isn't "Earth" (which was nuked) because really "Earth is a dream" rather than a place. So they arrive here and find... "tribal" people, primitives (without language), as they say. But what they decide to do is give up all their technology and start a new, live a kind of neoprimitivist life (Part of the idea of the series is that there are cycles, particularly cycles of violence between the humans and the cyclons). The character who is pushing for this basically argues that people's minds, their technology, has outstripped their hearts (or souls, I forget the word he uses). Part of the idea of the series is that there are cycles, particularly cycles of violence between the humans and the cylons (the robots). All of these things have me feeling a bit uncomfortable--the easy association (whether positive or negative) between technology and morality, or technology and social structure. In fact, since the show is often commenting on current affairs, their social structure, social relations, cultural patterns, etc. are very contemporary America/Anglo/Western, it seems to me rather odd. The way "primitive" is used to me seems rather simplistic compared to how other themes are generally handed in the show. But I guess this is because it is being used as a vehicle.

Anyway, it jumps 150,000 years in the future, now in Times Square, and we find out that the people who landed were our ancestors (mixed with the locals, presumably). Some characters (perhaps ethereal, religion and spirituality are strong throughout the show) comment on the present circumstance, one on the decadence and consumerism of society and the other offering hope that the "cycle" doesn't have to repeat itself and any "complex system" is unpredictable and comes up with new possibilities. We then see a montage of current day Japanese robots (!!!) such as those from Toyota, Honda, etc. doing their little dances, and we are left wondering whether these things are the the precursors of a new generation of Cylons. Geee, that robot playing the trumpet looks cute, but will its great-great-great-great grand-daughter lead a robo-rebellion and nuke us all to death? Given the theme of war, though, I'm not sure why we didn't see some of the more real present day threats, ie. military robots.

While I'm not really doing justice to everything in this episode and certainly not the series, mainly it made me reflect on some issues I'd been considering recently and that this highlighted for me. In particular, the issue of teleology/history/evolution in technology and how this is theorized. On the one hand, both a popular folk theory, and a theory sometimes considered in evolutionist anthropology, is that technology has a strong relation to social structure and that it is in a sense teleological or at least directional. We can see this in the study of archaeology, for example, which is what the 150,000 years in the past idea was riffing on. Simple tools develop into more complex tools, and these complex tools sustain more complex forms of society and social life. This idea really does imply a sense of primitive versus civilized. For this reason, it is not popular among most social or cultural anthropologists nowadays.

The straight retort is that primitive is derogatory, that technological simplicity does not necessarily translate into social simplicity (L-S on the australian aboriginees, etc). This has a nice relativist logic, and also seems like decent policy since attempts at "modernization" have been quite brutal on indigenous peoples. Plus it isn't that clear that the above model is not just eurocentric and perhaps even racist. This theory (or perhaps "outlook") does see society as constantly changing. It is just isn't going anywhere in particular, and didn't come from anywhere. It just sort of wanders around in a tangled mess of accidents.

Further, I would say there is also a reverse-progressive model which is a kind of traditionalism or conservativism (in the literal meaning not the "right-wing" meaning). I guess this is what influences all that neoprimitivism, gaia stuff. Technology is evil, immoral, destructive. We should be like (or we should return to be) the "noble savages" before tradition and morality were swept aside by this destructive force. I think this is in the backdrop of a lot of anthropologists worldviews, but is not a dominant explicit theory.

To me it seems like the first and the last are most represented here in this episode (perhaps in the wider "public" as well). In the show, they decide to abandon technology because of its immorality, but they also end up with technology again because it is the inevitable march of progress. The middle doesn't make much of an impression at all really, which is interesting, as I see it, because it is the most influential view for (mainstream social/cultural) anthropology---indeed, perhaps because it doesn't make any determinist claims at all. This makes it attractive, I think, for theorizing any moment (which is what a year or two of fieldwork really would be) while making it somewhat difficult to theorize history (which is why I think it tends to be replaced by a progressive model in long-scale studies) or prescriptive morality.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the anthropological view lately because I'm just not even sure that it can be a real theory of technology and society---it implies, to me, that technology is not cumulative. If this is so, then some real explanation needs to be given for what exactly technology is, and how it works as a practice (some, like Ingold, seem to me to usually answer these kinds of questions with vagueness and changing the subject). Could you find an anthropologist that would tell you, as it seems to be implied in this theory, that technology is not better than technology 50 years ago? Probably not, but maybe, you could say, well that doesn't mean that society is better than it was 50 years ago. But then that would imply that technology is outside of society, something that seems quite problematic. Of course this all hinges on the word "better", which needs clarification. At the moment, I don't think it is clear, as far as I know. This seems to be getting close to what I imagine "anthropology and development" must be about, so perhaps whoever is familiar with that literature can give me some pointers.

Anyway, the other thing that struck me during that episode is how science fiction also provides opportunities to consider things in a different way. Because there is also a strain of cyclical thinking in the series, and the finale. Given a fictional narrative, it can posit a circle of technological and sociological change. I'm not sure how exactly, but my gut tells me that could be useful ;) I do see it as useful for thinking about ethics though, since to me discussions of ethics and robots have so much to do with science fiction thinking. In fact, imagining the future is the basis for it. While I may sometimes be skeptical when I read these science fiction accounts, on the other hand I think certain kinds of politics are essentially about imagination. Maybe this is especially true in science and technology. Or maybe not.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Anthropology and Journalism

Here's an interesting counterpunch article I came across today. Basically, it argues that anthropologists should be more like journalists. Or perhaps collaborate with journalists. Or something. Well, it's a bit vague exactly what anthropologists should do. But it better have journalism in mind! I'm sympathetic to that. Though I found the first few sentences a bit amusing:

Where is anthropology's Ida Tarbell? Its I.F. Stone? Its Lincoln Steffens? All were outstanding journalists, chroniclers of the culture, resources and power of their times.

And where is anthropology's Juan Cole? Its Stanley Aronowitz? Its Noam Chomsky? A historian, sociologist and linguist respectively. All are academicians. All are well known public writers.
Perhaps I am revealing my contemptible ignorance, but I have no idea who any of those people are except Noam Chomsky. Well, it is great to have wikipedia for these things at least. But I reckon this literary trick tragically fails when you don't know of the people he lists.

Anyway, the essence of this argument I am favourable towards (public intellectuals, get your voice out, and so on). A few details made me wince a bit, but then again I think that is more the "counterpunch rhetorical style" than this article in particular (a rant about counterpunch, for another time?). But that's not the important point anyway.

In our cohort a few of the people have actually written journalism articles. So my shout out, you know who you are, keep up the good work! They are much better than me. As it happens, the two that I am thinking of also have a background in media, so probably that explains it a bit. Because I really have no idea how to go about actually writing journalism? Like institutionally, what do I actually do? And feel a bit like I wouldn't have that much to add anyway.

On the other hand, it does remind me of a few things. The first is that I was told by my supervisor, when we were going over one proposal or essay or so forth, that I had to make sure I get in there the serious core anthropologist work. The theory if you will. Otherwise, my project could end up being "just journalistic." This was clearly implied to be derogatory because it means that your work is a bit superficial, not deep-thinking academic work. I'm not necessarily disparaging the comment, I think it was valid in the way it was intended--as pragmatic advice on how to make sure my proposal is passed, as institutional advice that it seems worthwhile to connect the project to mainstream anthropology concerns since I am, after all, attempting to study for a degree in anthropology. But when McKenna says that anthropologists tend to look down on journalism, that rings quite true. Even the other day I think when I posted a news link about Japan and blood type, I felt a bit embarassed, like, I can't really use a journalistic account can I? Except, like, ironically? References in my proposal to journalists or mainstream media were also looked down upon, with suggestions that they should be removed as anything not-academic is at essence unreliable and superficial. On the other hand, I think this uneasiness exists because quite clearly anthropology and journalism overlap, like the article says. In fact, one person here told me "ah your main interest is in the humans... you're like a journalist!" Yeah, like them, but lets keep it between us two, okay?

The other thing it really reminded me of is blogging. Of course nobody reads my blog, I think, so I don't pretend that I am doing journalism. But on the other hand, I think this attitude towards journalism has also been transplanted onto blogs. Obviously there are many anthropology blogs, and this would give you the impression that there is uninform gung-ho-ness. But that is clearly sample bias; of course those who are blogging are enthusiastic about blogging! My "real life" experience is a bit different.

A couple years ago, during my MSc, I worked as a research assistant where I was doing a kind of literature review/brain-storming project on how to use social software in the teaching of anthropology. The problematic: there was the feeling that anthropology undergraduate students never get to have a real "fieldwork" experience and, yet, their teachers tend to see this fieldwork experience as the central core of the discipline. In particular, by reading simple monographs, undergraduates were getting the impression that fieldwork was much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. The book has 7 chapters into clear analytic categories, it sounds like everything went fine, the ethnographer went in there, learned the rituals or the gendered practices or whatever, and wrote it all up. So teachers felt the ambiguity was lost, as students tended to take the narrative at face value rather than realize it was constructed out of random notes about random things. What to do? One idea that I had, which I suggested to my supervisor, would be to have the PhD core write fieldwork blogs. The undergraduates could then read these blogs, make comments, and so on. This way the undergraduates would get in contact with the more "raw notes" of real experience, since the blog is a much more informal and direct representation. It has not gone through a few years of massaging to fit into a Marxian or Foucauldian or Strathernian framework (save the continuum fallacy dressed up in pomo mumble-jumble, just save it). As I conceived it, this would actually be useful for the PhD students as well, since they could air their ideas, get new opinions, and in general it would foster a research community approach to the Department. Openness, rather than the Malinowskian cult of the individual ethnographer, would be the name of the day. Perhaps my enthusiasm was partly political, in this sense.

Whether or not this idea is feasible, my main point here is the response to this suggestion. Basically, I was told, oh yes, blogs, yeah one PhD student had a blog before, when she was doing her research in India, but the department didn't like it, thought she should be focusing on her research, not spending her time blogging, and eventually she stopped (for this reason, I have tried not to inform the department of my blog). The feeling of hostility I took from this was also reinforced in our fieldwork notes seminar. When I asked about blogs, the instructor basically said that personally he thinks blogs are a bad idea because they take you out of the fieldwork environment. That is, when you are writing your blog, you are writing for an audience "outside." I forget whether the exact logic was spelled out, but basically the idea was that you should stay inside your field and that leaving your field is bad and you can't do real ethnography if you leave your field like that. My response, at least in my head, was that in my specific case it is actually quite likely that my field "consultants" are blogging (Japanese is the most highly blogged language in the world, as it is) and so it is actually getting "into" my field, real participant-observation, to blog! This is a bit of a flippant response I guess, but I still like it. I also don't think the outside/inside argument holds up that much, since it applies equally to handwritten notes (by humidity-proof pen, of course) in your (hard-backed moleskine) book as it does to blogs.

Such responses (from the department), though, are perfectly reasonable in an historic and institutional sense. Blogs didn't exist when any of our teachers were doing their fieldwork, and probably even the most tech-savvy don't really understand it. But it does make me wonder on exactly how anthropology could be, or maybe is, very different than it was even 10-15 years ago. This sounds like hyperbole, but then journalism is facing its own crisis lately. I'm done writing for now, but read about how professors could rescue newspapers and thoughts on investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cool Robot Pics

Not much to say really, just take a look.

Hasta la vista, baby...

I came across this Democracy Now interview the other day. It's with:
P.W. Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Served as coordinator of the Obama campaign’s defense policy task force. He is also the author of Corporate Warriors and Children at War.

For those who won't bother to follow the link, it is basically about the use of robots in war, primarily by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. I subscribe to some delicious RSS feeds on robotics/robots as well as feeds from Google News. So each day some of this kind of stuff pops up in my news reader (does reading these online feeds take me further into or further out of the field?). But I hadn't really read that much about war robotics and so on (just scanned the titles), as this is mostly an American thing and not the central aspect of my research.

It's come up a bit though. People have told me: go to the US and you can get a lot of DARPA money to build war robots. It is not like that in Japan though. As far as I can tell, and as far as I would imagine, there is minimal military robotics in Japan. I suppose this kind of thing would be against the pacifist constitution and post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki mentality. Indeed, most people (while a bit envious of all that funding money) seem to have narrowed eyes and tight faces when discussing US warbots. I've been told by one person that the word 'robotics' sounds like military robotics and so he prefers the term 'social robots'. An American working here told me that he looked for some robotics jobs in the US but it was all building kill machines which he thought was antithetical to the years he had spent in the peace corps. Then he came here and saw a robot hug someone, and decided that's what I want to do!

Anyway, so I learned a bunch about war robotics from this interview, very interesting, I can see why there is the constant chatter about ethics and "real life Terminator" in my RSS feeds.
Like this:
When US forces went into Iraq in 2003, they had zero robotic units on the ground. Now they have as many as 12,000.
And this vivid image:

P.W. SINGER: Yeah, when I use the term "robotics revolution,” I need to be clear here. You know, I’m not talking about a revolution where, you know, your Roomba vacuum cleaner is going to sneak up and ambush you. We’re talking about a revolution in the way wars are fought and who fights them. And this aspect of distance is one of the big ones. It changes the very meaning of going to war.

You know, my grandfather served in the Pacific fleet in World War II. When he went to war, he went to a place where danger took place, and the family didn’t know if he was ever coming back. And that’s very different than the experience of, for example, a Predator drone pilot that I met with who described that basically his experience of fighting in the Iraq war was getting in his Toyota Corolla, driving to work—he’s doing this in Nevada—driving into work, for twelve hours he puts missiles on targets, then gets back in the Toyota, commutes back home, and within twenty minutes he’s talking to his son at the dinner table.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “puts missiles on targets,” you mean bombs.

P.W. SINGER: Hellfire missiles. You know, he’s basically—he is engaging—

AMY GOODMAN: He attacks, I mean.

P.W. SINGER: He is engaging in combat. But he’s doing it from 7,000 miles away. And then, at the end of the day, he goes to a PTA meeting or takes his kid to soccer practice. And so, it’s a whole new experience of war, which is actually creating a new concept of a warrior.

Hrmm... Military Industrial Complex indeed... I really want to read his book. In fact, all three might be very interesting; he has written on mercenaries, child soldiers, and war robots. Interesting topics for anthropology. Can't you just see the list of research interests (all capitals of course): Personhood, Slavery, and Things; Capitalism and War; Modernity and 'Risk'

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Studying Up, Down, and Sideways

Last night I had a discussion (or a debate?) with a friend over what I perceive to be an overriding and problematic assumption in most anthropologists. My point of view could come across as annoying or insulting to some, and so actually my friend was quite gracious about it. But anyway, I want to develop a few more of these points (hopefully without annoying or insulting anyone, at least too much). I also must acknowledge that some of the points I want to make are implied in the stance Moises took in the comment thread a few posts ago, and while I may have argued against him, what he said has some real truth in it as well.

As my point of departure, I'm going to start out discussing a few things from a recent Savage Minds blog post (and, in particular, the comments it has provoked). The post is here. Basically, the post is about changes in the AAA (American Anthropological Association) code of ethics, revolving around the recent participation of anthropologists with the US military in Iraq, under the name of the "Human Terrain System" (HTS). A very small group of anthros has jumped on board, hoping to use "anthropological expertise" for some kind of humane occupation. I guess the idea is that anthropologists "know about culture" and a big problem the US had with Iraq is that they didn't understand the "local culture". For anybody not following, or aware, of this discussion, it has been front and centre of much ethics wrangling lately, especially in the United States. Most anthropologists don't think that anthropologists should be working for the military, intelligence agencies, or any other nefarious organizations, and they also aren't big on the Iraq war to begin with.

But in addition to these problems with the HTS, there is a also general concern about with-holding "research results". From the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (linked to in the savageminds post):
Among other things, the new amendments [to the AAA code of ethics] declare that clandestine fieldwork constitutes “a clear violation of research ethics” and that anthropologists “should not withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others.”

This point is reiterated in anthropological commensense, I would say, one exemplary is the comment on this post:
Ricardo Wadd says:

This clears things up.

Anthropologists seem to mostly have four basic choices.

1. The McFate Solution (do whatever we want without regard to ethics, all secrecy is fine, “THIS IS WAR!” etc.).

2. The Bad Organizations Solution (identify bad organizations that anthropologists should not work for, CIA, NSA, IBM, Human Terrain etc.).

3. The Time Release Proprietary Solution (reports made for CIA & Ad Agencies are made available to public after the public have been “impacted” AKA damaged by these studies).

4. Open Anthropology (not keeping reports secret from those being reported on).

All of these make things convenient for some, but not others, but only Open Anthropology does anything to look out for those being subjected to anthropological study. Choice 4 is the only one that primarily looks out for the interests of people being studied, so it would seem to be the only one doing what research ethics are supposed to do.

Right-on! At first glance that seems completely unproblematic, in fact, self-evidently an ethical imperative. I, for example, intend to share my dissertation and any publications with anyone at the lab who cares to read them... so what's the problem here?

Well, really, this simple sentence "not keeping reports secret from those being reported on" requires some analysis. With the cavaet that this may sound needlessly pedantic, who exactly are "those being reported on" (what exactly constitutes a "report" is to me also unclear but not my main point here)? I'll use some of my fieldwork to work through this point, trying to identify "those" we are talking about.

A first stab at it would be my fieldwork is the laboratory. There is maybe 10-20 people who sit around the same area as me, I have conversations with on a semi-regular basis, eat lunch with, and so on. These are "those"!!! These are the people who I should make sure get my reports, if I publish a book for example, I can send them a copy. No problem, right?

But you should also include my host family, those would also be people likely being "reported on". I take down notes all the time about various conversations we have, daily domestic life, and so on. Already, though, to me this starts to represent a major problem... because there may be reports that I cannot give to my host family, in fact may not be allowed to be disseminated beyond the company of the laboratory for IP reasons. This does not necessarily mean it is easy to separate them out of the report--because of the way anthropology is done, there is no specific quantified data that belongs somewhere in particular, it is rather an accumulation of knowledge and experience. To me this is beginning to foreshadow the concrete reality that shatters the illusion suggested in the above definition for "Open Anthropology".

Because, really, the people I will be "reporting on" are not just my host family and my laboratory. As part of my research I also try to frequent Japanese newspapers. If I start using evidence in my "reports" about, say, the media representation of marijuana (it dumbfounded me that Uni students smoking pot is a top national news story in Japan). Does that mean my reports should also be sent to the Asahi Shimbun? And who at the Asahi Shimbun? But what about the university students that were in trouble? The university? The police who busted these kids?

What about when I am on the train and I start noting to myself the different way people use cellphones? There is no way I can track down those people. Or reading ads on the train, the advertising companies? Or the people I observed in one of my first posts about the robot in the mall?

There are webs of relations and associations which are far reaching. At least in my example, I would say that "those I study" are spread all across Japan, but also Asia, Europe, and really the entire world (robotics is an international field, let's just say my laboratory is not just Japanese people, and even the Japanese people are in scientific dialogue with other roboticists). As I said to my friend yesterday, potentially the people an anthropologist studies would be everyone on earth (at least conceptually). This makes sense, given the literal meaning of anthropology.

Okay, so maybe the idea is not that we go and make sure we put a hardcopy in each person's hands. Publish your work and its at least out there, anyone can go and get it, spread the knowledge. This is basically the ethic of academia, of which I am actually quite positive about. If it was possible for all knowledge to be spread to everyone, this just seems like great stuff of the Enlightenment, afterall. But in reality, this is not feasible nor desirable. I already gave one example, which is the IP concern with the laboratory, yet this is hardly the only one. Anthropologists routinely use strategies to hide specific information they gathered because this has to be done to protect people (I have not yet worked out how to write specific things about people on this blog in an ethical way, and so I have tried to veer towards abstract posts about ideas rather than nitty-gritty gossip). In fact, it is an ethical imperative to hide some data, from the mundane fact that to do otherwise would be muckracking and betraying trust to the sometimes quite serious problems (which are not my concern but are concerns for people I know) about the real threat of violence against some marginalized people if the bad men got hold of all their notes. Which is ironic, considering what this "Open Anthropology" is really meant to do. It is meant to protect marginalized people from these organizations, states, groups, and so forth that would exercise this real threat of violence.

Which brings me to my major point about what the hidden assumption is behind this ethic. The assumption is that anthropologists study poor and marginalized people (usually a roughly bounded group of poor and marginalized people). If you take that as your assumption, then the ethic makes perfect sense. Because how it is meant to be understood is that you are studying this group of Amazonian indigenous people, Bali villagers, or Papua New Guinea highlanders and they are constantly marginalized and threatened by agents of a big mean State, imperialism, colonialism, money-grubbing megacorps and so on. And to give information to these big powerful people and hide this fact from the poor Bali villagers is really a bad thing to do. Those Bali villagers are "your" people, they are who you "study". You gotta protect 'em.

But really those states, mega corps, imperialist agents etc. are also part of the study, in an obvious way once you look at a lot of current anthropology. And this point will hardly be controversial, anthropologists will tell me I am beating a dead horse. Laura Nader did after all tell us to Study Up like 40 years ago. But this logic ends up following the same points I was making of my own project above, and in case anyone thought that mine might be "special" in this way, I think that is quite wrong. Everyone is studying a mass network of people, not all of whom are poor and marginalized (nor are they necessarily mustache twirling, cigar smoking, super powered elites, the secondary default position, if a distant secondary at that). But anthropologists, I have to be emphatic, really do assume that the people they study, and the people who are legitimate groups to study in anthropology, are bounded groups of poor and marginalized people.

So I think then is that there is two contradicting viewpoints held at once. And I maintain they are both held very strongly, just one is implicit and the other is explicit. Because you can't understand and agree to that ethical stance of Open Anthropology without accepting that anthropologists study a bounded group of poor and marginalized people exclusively, and yet you can't really find an anthropologist now who would come out and say right to your face that anthropologists should only study bounded group of poor and marginalized peoples.

The reason I am making this point is not so much about this specific issue of ethics and open anthropology (of which, overall, I am favourable towards). I'm using it as a vehicle to examine this major assumption because it is radically fundamental in almost all discussions of theory, ethics, and methods. Its what I think underpins a number of different questions and comments I get about my project: you need to consider gender (aren't women marginalized here?), you need to consider class (aren't robots just for rich people?), you need to make sure your project is about serious issues not just frivolous stuff (where's the suffering?)---and on and on, various permutations exist. At the core, all of these are "wait a second, where are the poor marginalized people? You can't do a project without poor and marginalized people!" Now, there are a couple of qualifiers: first I don't want to overstate this, most anthropologists I've talked to are quite intrigued by my project and are not really hostile, second there are studies that are exceptions obviously as anthropologists projects are wideranging and idiosyncratic. My point, though, is this mindset is there, very real, and very problematic considering what anthropologists say they are or should be doing.

Edit: Also, I don't have a problem with people studying the poor or marginalized. Just a problem with the idea that this is (or should be) the entire of anthropology.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I am now ready to read Philip K. Dick

It's hard for me to really say what to write, partly because I've become concerned about what kinds of specifics would really be "okay" to just throw out there. So just random, disjointed musings...

After being involved (ie observing, watching, interacting, participating, talking) in a number of different experiments and demonstrations, for partial moments and catching small glimpses, what really strikes me as how certain orders are cascaded onto each other in a ways that would seem incompatible or, at least, at somewhat at odds. Like in many experiments and demonstrations (the specifics of which I am trying to be both vague and concrete about) what is presented to the naive lay person is an autonomous agent, something they interact with that thinks or responds. But, actually, what is happening is someone is in the back, behind a screen, in another room, in a little enclosed hut, monitoring over video and headphones, and choosing responses by the robot. Making it do this thing or that, like a puppet. Sometimes this is because it doesn't matter, some kind of psychology-esque test is what it's really about. In fact, the idea is to find that pattern in human behaviour, the determinate that will unlock sociality (never heard it phrased that way though!). What does a person do when the robot does this? And sometimes its because the image is what is important. Oh, how the this so easily leads to facile Jean Baudrillard references--meaning, can we really tell the difference between the virutal and the real? Well, its a robot. I've overheard people discussing what is the natural behaviour for the robot---and I silently approved when its pointed out that there is no natural behaviour towards a robot. They seem kind of virtual to me (but also real enough that I wouldn't want it to barrel right into me at full speed). Further, and again this is something that others realize, not my birds-eye-view privilege, is that the people interacting with the robot are playing it a bit virtual themselves. For example, they try to make sure they are competently performing the task that is expected of them, as if it was an examination. Of course, this is not the idea. But after trying something like it myself, I couldn't help it either. When I felt confused or felt like I screwed up, I feel a bit guilty and apologetic. Afterwards, I realize that it didn't even matter.

But, on the bright side, such complex cascading (kind of like the term!) has a certain "rich" ethnographic sound to it. Even though, I'm pretty sure my ethnography is not very rich at all since I spend a large amount of time hardly doing anything at all, in front of a computer... in the virtual/real world!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Blood Type

Something that will surprise some but not others is that Japan has a kind of horoscope industry around blood type (of course this is a tautology, but at least if I'm going circular, I'm going somewhere, right?). Actually, I've had a few discussions with my host family about it. Originally the question was posed to me by the child (there's one, he is 7, between a pseudonym and "the child", the latter will do for now) of the family. So I said I was type A, being somewhat familiar that this matters in Japan. I hope that's right, but I'm pretty sure I asked my mom some time ago and that's what she said (thanks mom!). The child's type is B, the same as his dad's, which I was told in this conversation means that they like to enjoy life and have fun. I, apparently, and I am not kidding, like to clean, even while I am talking on the phone. Yes, this may invalidate the entire industry for some who know me, but it's my blood type! It can't be helped! And the last blood type, homestay mom, is O, which means she likes to sleep, watch tv, and relax. And does not like to clean at all. They were actually surprised I knew my blood type, apparently I'm the first foreigner they've met who did know it (if I understood correctly).

Then the other day I came across this article which talks about blood type. Partly it is very interesting---I did not know about the link to Nazi's and fascism. Though maybe if I read more Jennifer Robertson, I would. Or maybe the link is actually just made up for this news article. Because really, I doubt such stringent adherence to verifiable evidence and scholarly detail are important for the intended audience and the effect. Which brings me to.

An anthropology-type rant, that if I read from another, I would probably think is just an example of that annoying tendency to be overly possessive when journalists or non-academics talk about "their" people. But anyway, I will continue. There is another part of this article that really gets me. It has the tone of a gee-whiz-look-at-what-those-odd-Japanese do--orientalism or whatever. Ok, that is a bit simplistic, seeing as how this article is seemingly written by a Japanese person (based on the name). But anyway the point is that why is there an AP article about blood type written in this way-- with a well placed "It doesn't stop there" for example-- that you wouldn't see about, say, astrology? I mean astrology is roughly the same thing. What's your sign? Hrmm, I wonder if astrology was insidiously spread by the Nazi's too. Even stuff like these something-briggs internet personality tests are almost as bad (though, I am pretty sure they were not invented by the Nazi's, though you never know I suppose). And chinese calendar (of which I am only familiar with because it is under the glass at the chinese restaurant and every time I go, I learn about what it means to be born in the year of the dog). In fact, thinking about how common these sort of categorizations are, maybe it has to do with cognitive essentialism (a comment which I have designed in order to appease and to provoke).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Studying those who study us

I've been at the lab for about a week now. It seems like a good thing that I know something about programming because otherwise I think everyone would be at a complete loss for what I am actually doing here. It's actually quite hard to explain yourself as an anthropologist in fieldwork. In fact, I think we should have had a fieldwork session on this very problem; that is a topic I might have found useful. Of course there is the issue of language, so for everyone it will be explained and translated differently (while also depending on how fluent you are!). At least in Japanese, anthropology translates directly as "human being study," which is the same though more readily understood than the English.

The one person who seems to have a good understanding of what I am doing, if not quite why, is the supervisor who I originally contacted. So my boss. Anyway my careful attempt at explanation must have been successful because he understands that I am here to observe the people, which actually, in practice, its pretty hard to explain to a live face two feet from your nose. Anyway, so at lunch on one of the first few days he was questioning me about various things, by which I mean what anthropology is and how it is done. Like he asked what constituents good anthropology exactly? Keep in mind I am trying to explain this through a language barrier. But further, in some ways I have found that in many ways roboticists interests are similar to an anthropologist, that is they are both interested in the study of human behaviour. While that may sound broad, it is also idiosyncratic. Not many people think so hard about how exactly people have conversations or what sort of social cues they use. Perhaps various kinds of psychologists also do this. But the difference is that anthropology has at best a lukewarm relationship to what might be grandly described as The Scientific Method. Meanwhile, my supervisor and those at the lab would want things recorded, counted, verified, tested. So I went with the rather undescriptive "deep descriptions" (has Geertz's soul snuck its way into my robotic body?? Pretty close to "thick description" isn't it?). The next question. Well, I thought anthropologists study everyday life, not professional life? Anthropologists, hold back your temptation to say I should have lectured him on transcending the binary. I tried to explain that while this is true, starting about 25 or 30 years ago, some anthropologists have looked at science, technology, and other "professional" life, in other places but also in Japan. And so he asked me, I see, so do anthropologists ever study anthropologists? Which got a laugh from everyone at the table. But its a good question, one that I have often thought would be very fascinating (Friday Seminar is ripe for some deep description and analysis, maybe using Bloch's stuff on ritual and power?). But I said, honestly, I think it would be difficult, practically, for any phd student to do. It just wouldn't be workable, I think, to be trying to do a good ethnography on the same people who are reading and then evaluating your stuff. To this he said I see. What that says about anthropology and our relationship to our informants (or consultants?) I don't know. Perhaps some very brave soul, with much more backbone than me, could try it. But then remember, this project wouldn't even be started before it was approved by that department in the first place. And it would be pretty difficult to attempt an Evans-Pritchcard on that one (though fascinating to read afterwards, safely, with my academic and professional life intact instead of scattered, sabotaged on the cold cement floor). By chance, does anyone know of any such studies? The only remotely close thing I can think of was Catherine Lutz's study on citation rates on men vs. women in anthropology, which is interesting but just a matter of counting things, hardly the stuff of a thick narrative ethnography speaking truth to power, departmental gossip and other arcane practices.

PS, Bonus points for anyone who gets the homage of my title (without googling it of course)! For the rest, google it!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Well, things are now happening (Yes, I start every post with "Well"!). So, a less contemplative post...

I've moved on from Tokyo to Nara, which is close by to my laboratory. It's in the region called Kansai, which consists of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and so on. They have a unique dialect (called a ben) so everyone, both Tokyo and Kansai people, say that I will learn to speak kansai-ben, much to their amusement. Anyway, at first I was looking to find an apartment, though I wasn't liking the options really. It's difficult for a foreigner to rent in Japan, because there are high initial costs (can be a few months rent of various deposit, "insurance", "key money" which is a gift to the landlord, etc.) and because the leases are normally two years at least. The alternative was a "weekly mansion" which don't require these things and cater to foreigners, and cost about 30% higher in rent. But through my friend in Tokyo, I had been meeting members of the "hippo family club", a language learning group that tries to learn at least 7 (or 17, or 19, it depends on who and when I ask) different languages. Anyway one of those members helped me find a home stay with her friend, who could take me temporarily. That person said I could stay about a week and also that she would help me find a home stay in Nara, which she did. So I got to home stay with the first family for two days, and then moved into my new one on Sunday. They're very nice, great chance to speak and learn Japanese. It's funny because the 7-year old boy at the first place was extremely outgoing towards me, always wanted to show me things or speak english or get me to play video games with him. The boy at the new place is very shy though, but I think he is already starting to get more comfortable. So now I'm living in a real Japanese house with real Japanese people eating real Japanese food! And today is my first day at the laboratory, which has gone alright. It's very casual, hoodies and jeans kind of place. They've found me something to work on, which I think will do nicely since it will involve talking to lots of people in order to get their input. And a chance to crack open my rusted, un-used programming skills that I thought would never again see the light of day. But its January, so its new again for everything old!

Oh, and Japanese houses and apartments are freezing. Someone in Japan should discover wall insulation and they should start using it. Mottainai!