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'