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!


Steph said...

hmm not knowing much about anthropology myself, I'd have the same questions as your supervisor. It wasn't clear to me that you would be observing the roboticists in the lab until this post. Now i'm really curious! So, here come the flood of questions...

what do you try to observe?
Are you looking for specific actions/interactions, or is the goal to observe as much as possible?
And given that life experiences can shape your observations, how would you accomplish this in an unbiased manner?
And... I assume the people you're observing know they're being observed. If so, knowing they're being watched would have some effect on their actions and consequently on what you observe. (recall Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?) how do you account for that as an anthropologist, or does it matter?

Michael said...

Hey Steph. Those questions deserve in depth responses, and some don't really have good answers. But, just a quick reply...

First, well, before starting fieldwork, the aim in our proposal was to be specific about the actions/interactions we planned to look at. But then, conversely, at the early stage, the goal (or, perhaps, what I should say is what we are encouraged to do by our supervisors, or at least what mine have encouraged me to do) is to observe as much as possible (and record it in detailed descriptions). This is then supposed to narrow over time, as certain themes crystallize.

Life experiences shape your observations and therefore this biases your viewpoint. How this is handled within anthropology is usually first through reflexivity as a general principle (one which cannot eliminate bias but I guess "guard" against it or at least make it apparent by addressing it explicitly in your work) and second is the general critique of the concept of an "unbiased manner." It depends on the person though, some anthropologists might use methods such as surveys, or even experiments.

The effect of the observer on the observed, if you like, is also an issue within anthropology that is handled in a couple of different ways. One is theoretically, which would be questioning the prospect of an impartial or "god's viewpoint" as either a possibility or even something that exists. That is proponents of this position argue that previous ethnography, which pretended to such claims as unbiased objectivity and wrote themselves out of their accounts, are misleading. This is I guess what you would call the post-modern position. The other, more pragmatic, answer is that over time people just get used to having you around. After you've been hanging around, even living with people, for a year, it is a bit hard to "fake it" I suppose. You still have an effect on their actions I suppose, but really any kind of research on actual living people (at least any ethical research) has some effect on them.

But your questions are good, and these are not satisfactory answers, more indicative answers, because those points are all contested and debated!

SITNA said...

Hey, I remembered that when I was in uni studying anthro in Mexico, many people suggested carrying out an study of anthropologists themselves as the National school of Anthropology is such a world of its kind! I believe some even attempted to carry out such thing but as far as i know it never happened. AS you say, there is a power issue within academia that would definitely reject it, more so if you are just a PhD student. It is true that a study like that would be very interesting as anthropologists them/ourselves are quite a social phenomenon!

Moisés said...
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Moisés said...
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Moisés said...

Wouldn't it be the case that we kind of do that on a meta-reflexive basis? I mean, to the extent that we have to be in dialogue with anthro literature and other anthropologists we observe and participate in what other anthropologists are doing? More explicitly, all the debates about what is anthropology, ethnography, culture, etc... could be said to be the result of anthro of anthro, no?

Michael said...

Okay, Moises is making an interesting point that I want to respond to. But I am concerned that it would quickly be lost on the non-expert when it could usefully address and contextualize some of the questions from my supervisor or from Steph. For those familiar with these things, feel free to skim until the end :) For others, I'll try to use a few analogies from other disciplines to make it clear, though they are only roughly equivalent.

My supervisor's, Sitna's, and my understanding of "an anthropologist studying other anthropologists" rests on a particular, commonsense understanding of what an anthropologist does. In particular, we are essentially equating anthropology with fieldwork. That is "an anthropologist studying X" is an anthropologist who goes to some place where X is, hangs out, listens around, writes it down, and tries to learn the minutiae of everyday life. The point of such an exercise is to learn about the social process of everyday life, in a way like how a linguist studies language (my made-up analogy). While people "know" their language subconsciously, a linguist focuses on it in order to make it an explicit description that is open to analysis. Likewise, the anthropologist.

But this understanding of anthropology is not necessarily what you see when you read the "great" thinkers spell out what the discipline is all about. Such explanations can be wide-ranging. It could be vague: Anthropology is a way of being in the world. It could be humanistic: Anthropology is about learning about others in order to better understand ourselves. It could be scientific: Anthropology is about tracing the causal relationships within social life in order to develop generalizable explanationatory models. Lots of other possibilities could and have been proclaimed.

This separation is, perhaps, something like in Computer Science. Computer science is "about" programming in roughly the way that anthropology is "about" fieldwork. In practice, everyone does it and so it is fundamental. But it could be argued that it is not the main core, instead it is the mechanistic implementation of some higher intellectual goal. A quick side note: they are also similar in that they both have a certain romantic attachment to their respective methods, this idea of the lone eccentric, mocked by "mainstream" society, but obsessed with details, who eventually creates an amazing text (programs are texts, afterall!).

So I think Moises is thinking more in this second way. In particular, he is thinking about anthropology as a kind of philosophical enterprise. When he says "meta-reflexive" I am not sure how well this will be understood, but it basically means being reflexive about our own reflexivity. This is recursive enough that it confuses me even trying to explain the difference between being reflexive and being meta-reflexive. Perhaps Moises can take a stab, if he likes ;) But the point, anyway, is that Moises is saying that anthropologists have debated and thought about how they write texts, how they appear in the text, why do we do things a certain way, what historical and social bias are built into the discipline, basically asking the questions Steph asked. This, he is saying, is a kind of anthro of anthros.

So my response is I don't think this is really doing an anthro of anthros, except in a weak roundabout way. And definitely not in the way that the question was intended. In particular, to me it takes the form of what is pejoratively referred to as "armchair anthropology", that is anthropology without its "been there" empirical basis. Which, is to me, just philosophy. In fact, it is a kind of philosophy of anthropology as a kind of philosophy of science. The anthropology of science and technology that I mentioned before basically challenged philosophy of science as having an idealized version of science, shown through ethnographies of actual practice. You could say the same about philosophy of anthropology. Which is what I think Sitna, my supervisor, and I were talking about. So, heed! bring on the anthropology of anthropology and destroy the philosopher (as) king! ;)

Moisés said...
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Moisés said...

Ok, Mike. I kind of see your point! I don't think I agree with you, though. To mention just one thing, I think the idea that you are presenting of "fieldwork" is kind of problematic in many ways. For example, that "fieldwork" is about going "to some place where X is" brings questions about reification of places; that the "been there" is what makes anthropology different just brings questions about how anthropologists use certain narratives to produce "an effect of reality"; you also don't mention that "fieldwork" is a disposition towards things rather than being somewhere, etc... But then we know we have our different philosophical assumptions! As I see it, your position is loaded with implicit philosophical assumptions! Even when you argue against philosophy... Mind meta-reflexivity. So, I guess the message for the non-experts is really that there are different anthropologies, and anthropologists. :-)

Michael said...

Heh, yes well the lesson is perhaps anthropologists are different. And also that they are supposed to be acquainted with various weird things (like French philosophy written by people who are half-insane!) ;) I'm afraid that I don't have the inclination to unravel this all for an impatient and pragmatic crowd of engineers... :)

So my quick responses:

Places cannot be reified. They are arguably nominalizations. This point can be used usefully when researching border areas, trafficking of objects/people, and that kind of thing. But I don't see the relevance in this instance (not too hard to go to your closest University, and look up Department of Anthropology on the conveniently colour-coded map).

The second point. I'm unclear at the intention of this point because it could be many radically different things depending on what is meant by effect (ie. a consequence or an illusion, an impression or a force). And I'd like to know what these mysterious "questions" are specifically.

The third point. In my view, fieldwork is not a state of being (in some place), nor is it a "disposition". Rather, I think it is best described as an activity.

A sub-point, on mind meta-reflexivity and philosophical assumptions. Anthropologists are interested in assumptions of people, as are certain kinds of philosophers, so there is a certain slippage and pull, especially when an anthropologist thinks about their own assumptions. But I think its telling this becomes meta-reflexivity of the mind, implying dualism. Fieldwork is different in that it is in a sense non/anti Cartesian.

Moisés said...

Mike... To understand what I mean by reification of places as a problem, see Bachelard: "The Poetics of Space", or Foucault: "Of other Spaces" and to some extent Gupta and Ferguson "Culture, Power, Place". As for what I meant by effect in the second point, see Barthes on "L’effet de réel". And last, whatever people make of fieldwork, I just think it would be wise not to leave the conditions of possibility of their own knowledge unexamined. That is it but I better shut up now! :-)