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!