Museum Anthropology Review in Transition(s)

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Jason Jackson’s account of the rise and revision of Museum Anthropology Review may very well be as “inside baseball” as anything academic can get, but it is a detailed chronology of the events, and the reasons, that he helped establish an open access journal that continues to thrive today. I recommend it to my students for its very clear articulation of the inner workings of scholarship: there are costs; there is labor.

Anthropology of the Contemporary Moment

[Rick Salutin argues][], in a column in the The Toronto Star, that:

> The strength of anthropology at the moment, I’d say, comes when it turns its eye to our own society as just another tribe or collection of humans trying to make symbolic sense of their experience — rather than looking back on other collectivities as if we alone have reached some satisfying, inevitable progress toward which those primitive versions are striving. It’s less about making sense of the past than casting an anthropological gaze on the present. This seems to unbewitch the level of “achievement” we’ve reached. We start looking like just another weird bunch of human creatures trying to make sense of their odd predicament, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes when he finally gets it.

I’d agree with him, obviously, as someone working within the sphere of American ethnology, but I am also reminded of something an apprentice anthropologist once observed while we all waited in a classroom for our seminar with Dick Bauman to begin: “Have you ever noticed that the people we send to study other cultures don’t fit very well into our culture in the first place?” It was a brilliant bit of insight, if not entirely true because there were a fair number of rather normal people in the room and in the two programs, cultural anthropology and folklore studies. (The assertion of normalcy will have to be qualified by the fact that the two fields are both highly synthetic and neither offers firm job prospects in the same way that, say, linguistics or paleontology or communications do, so they do tend to attract people with perhaps a little less intellectual and economic focus. Whether that’s good or bad is a debate external to the current topic.)

The same can probably be said who go on to be artists (painters and poets all): they are individuals who at some point in their lives felt or perceived or imagined there was no ready place, desirable place, for them in what we call “the norm” and sought an alternative. How you negotiate that alienation is itself wildly variable. Some people feel the need to rebel really hard; others are just looking for a comfortable place to have a relationship with the perceived center of things. (I’m probably more on the latter end of the continuum, though no doubt my parents would assure you that I passed through some stage of firebrandry.)

It’s a kind of common metaphor to refer to artists as “antennae” of a society, picking up on undercurrents and missed opportunities that larger, more assured forces cannot detect. I would argue that a good chunk of the social sciences and the humanities operate in much the same fashion — which would explain why all three are under such constant attack by conservative organizations. Salutin’s point is, I think, that what anthropologists are doing well is peopling the abstractions that economists discuss and by peopling them, they actually get at the living, breathing dynamic behind all forces in our social world(s).

Tip of the hat to [Jason Jackson](https://twitter.com/jasonjackson2) for the link on Twitter.

[Rick Salutin argues]: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/07/26/the_hour_of_anthropology_may_have_struck_salutin.html

Marketing Ethnography

Marketing ethnography, not selling it, but doing it in order to sell things, is profiled in _The Atlantic_’s [“Anthropology, Inc.”][1] The adaptation of ethnographic methods, “a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients,” to market research seems pretty straightforward:

> The vodka giant Absolut had contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report back on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.” This [party] was the latest in a series of home parties that Lieskovsky and her colleagues had joined in order to write an extended ethnographic survey of drinking practices, attempting to figure out the rules and rituals—spoken and unspoken—that govern Americans’ drinking lives, and by extension their vodka-buying habits.

The journalist somewhat tips his hand in his use of *infiltrate* — and later passages describe his “horror” at the intimacy that ethnographic methods can inculcate, but its otherwise an interesting read. For a time during my management development days, and occasionally since then, I toyed with the idea of trying to build a business around doing ethnographic research within organizations. For a time, I was going to do some of that kind of research on an open source project, and I may yet, but the problem with any kind of contracted research, different, I think, from sponsored research, is that ultimately you confront two possibilities:

1. You may not be able to do much with the work of your labor
apart from hand it over to your employer, which reveals, I
guess how tied I am to the idea that my production should
always remain within my control — as well as my fortune
that I remain in a position to do so (though the University
of Louisiana System seems hellbent on reversing that fortune)
2. You will, in all probability, have much control over the
outcomes of your research. For me, ethnography is a kind
of socratic literature: good people trying to do their
best given their circumstances. If there is a failing,
then it is a larger systemic failing. Few organizations
or few managers ever really want to take responsibility
for failure.

Those two things have always kept me from pursuing any kind of applied ethnography in the private sector, but, I confess, as the state and my university continue to try to squeeze faculty at every turn — through salaries, through removal of resources (travel budgets, library budgets, increasing inane travel restrictions) — I find myself both revisiting the basic idea and re-considering the concerns above.

Here is the fact of the matter: if we stay here, we will shortly not be able to afford to send out daughter to the private school she loves so much. We are not, in sending her to a private school, able to afford to save for retirement, or for her college fund, the way we should. (Which is to admit, not much at all.) This means two things:

1. find another job where the pay and benefits make it possible
to do those things, or
2. take on additional jobs.

Applied anthropology looks better and better in this light, and so like the quants who took over the stock market starting in the seventies when there were more physicists with advanced degrees than there were jobs, I wonder if we won’t see some similar transformations as we see more humanists and human scientists with advanced degrees than there are jobs.

[1]: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/anthropology-inc/309218/

Of Sociobiological Debates

I occasionally read sociobiological or evolutionary psychological scholarship. I find it regularly thought-provoking, and also regularly a little too quick to draw grand conclusions from samples, but I had no idea that there was [so much contention around the fields][1]. Horgan’s recent piece for _Scientific American_ captures some of the contention, but the contention actually plays out in the comments. Fascinating! I read Chagnon long ago, while in graduate school. Reading that Pinker’s work, and others’, owes a debt to Chagnon put a couple of pieces of my own intellectual history together for me.

[1]: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/02/18/the-weird-irony-at-the-heart-of-the-napoleon-chagnon-affair/

Cognitive Anthropology

There are a number of useful sites out there that attempt to narrate the history of cognitive anthropology and/or delineate its various dimensions. From what I can tell so far, maybe the field has never been quite big enough for the kind of abstraction that narration or delineation usually require. It seems like, in my reading, a remarkable collection of individuals who were loosely allied by principle but not so much by methodology. (Strikingly similar to folklore studies in that regard, I think.)

* The Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama has a collection of pages maintained by students on the various subfields of anthropology. [Cognitive Anthropology is included](http://anthropology.ua.edu/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Cognitive%20Anthropology).