April 27, 2005
Anthropologists at Microsoft
Blogger David Weinberger reports on the work of two anthropologists he met at a recent Social Computing Symposium at Microsoft: Here's what they talked about.
Thanks for the link, Shimon!
April 26, 2005
Religious Ethics in the Public Sphere
Religion in civic life is like a cell phone in the hand of a driver (in my new category of "strange analogies").
(This probably doesn't even belong here since it's so non-anthropological, but I've been mulling it over for a while, and I'm an anthropologist qua muller or muller qua anthropologist or one of those, so...)
I'm thinking mainly of those strands of ethical norms within the "religions of the book" that derive directly from otherworldly sources. These norms often -- even usually -- deal with how one should behave toward one's fellow beings, but using them in the public sphere is like driving around talking on a cell phone: the big problem, as we now know, is not the manual dexterity thing or even the concentration thing, but the focus thing. We are only halfway in the car, on the street, bearing down on the pedestrian, when we're yacking on the phone. Anyone who thinks that everything they need to know to get along with others comes from divine will or divine law is simply not engaging in ethical interaction.
Some of my best friends are religious studies types :-) and I know that Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the "religions of the book," i.e., the ones that tell you what to do or else!) have both doctrinal and popular modes in which this is not so. But my reaction to, say, a Protestant fundamentalist or a an orthodox Catholic who wants to say that gays shouldn't get marriage or life begins at ejaculation or extremist candidates for judicial posts shouldn't be filibustered because God doesn't like it, should hang up and drive, as Click and Clack say! Their religious sensibilities form who they are and are, of course, welcome in the public sphere as such. But civic life, i.e., true "civility," thinking again of Bill Frist and today's news, demands that they put forth a side of themselves a little less back-channeled when they participate in what's left of our American democracy.
(Uh oh, too dark on the bottom. The oven's too hot and it's time to go to bed.)
April 25, 2005
AAA election "campaigning"
So, ten days have passed since my email to the AAA candidates. After a promising start, it turns out that not many returned my message. Of the sixteen candidates up for these eight top positions, I have heard from five plus one private email not for publication here. In no category have I heard from both candidates, and there are three categories with either no comment or "no comment" from both candidates.
This is disappointing. Does it mean that folks don't have opinions on the issue? That they didn't feel the need to respond to a random email from someone they didn't know who said he was going to put their answers on his blog, which they also didn't know about? Is two weeks too short a time to forumulate an answer or respond to emails? Maybe they really don't want the job anyway? Hmm.
A larger question is whether members really want politics in the organization, whether I do, in fact. I'm pretty sure I do. Not being much of a historian of the organization, I don't know how often there have ever been periods with politics. I do know that the organization has had to deal with weighty and controversial topics over the years and that politics have emerged around those. But ever electoral politics? Who to ask, who to ask...? I'll find a gray-head sage around the halls somewhere. Or maybe call Fred Gleach. Any insights out there?
I appreciate the effort taken by those who have written me, publicly or privately. At the moment, I have not yet sent in my ballot and I don't think I will vote for anyone who hasn't responded. I may be doing the Brazilian protest thing and voting "em branco" -- abstaining -- in a lot of categories. Maybe I'll write in the ghost of Boas. Dunno. AAA: can't live with it, can't put it out of its misery.
Note (added 5/1/05): Setha Low has sent me comments, meaning that both candidates for President-Elect have now responded. See her response below:
La Sociologie Est un Sport Martial
This film, apparently a model for the (less interesting) Derrida film made a year or so later, is a loosely edited collection of videotaped interviews with Pierre Bourdieu -- radio, print, etc. -- together with footage at the office (including a voyeuristic mentoring scene where he and Loïc Wacquant map out the latter's future publishing schedule) and miscellaneous public appearances. Although it falls far short of any sort of summary of Bourdieu's sociology, it does show him introducing some of his famous concepts (cultural capital, social reproduction, symbolic violence, etc.). What the film really explores, more through identification and emotion than anything else, is what it might mean to be a public intellectual and, especially, what it might feel like. This is all bracketed between a public intellectual's wet dream of an on-the-street interaction with an admirer who hardly lets him speak she's gushing so much and a challenging, community-based meeting in a poor, immigrant, and apparently violence-ridden neighborhood of Paris where organic intellectuals resist the effects of his august presence without understanding the relevance of his scholarship for their predicaments. I have decided to show this film to my Harvard Sophomore Tutorial in an optional meeting at the end of semester to try to bring out latent ideas about activism and academia and, at the same time, to stress the importance of theoretical reflection and scientific research in this process.
April 23, 2005
The Dictatorship of Relativism
The speech that apparently put Cardinal Ratzinger over the top in the final rounds of papal politics does not bode well for the future (pdf version here).
Here is the now-famous quote in a Washington post article:
"We are moving," he declared, toward "a dictatorship of relativism . . . that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
The modern world, Ratzinger insisted, has jumped "from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, up to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and on and on."
I find this statement ludicrous on several levels: one, it's just a weird, unlikely turn of phrase; two, his world-historical examples of relativism are wrong; and three, it's hypocritical.
Like one of my other favorite tendentious and politically charged invention of recent years -- "illegal file sharing" -- it's nearly oxymoronic. How can relativism of any kind ground a dictatorship? His account of oscillation between authoritarian extremes is not relativism, but just that: alternation -- perhaps dialectical, perhaps not -- between non-relativisms. ("Syncretism" doesn't really belong in the list, but I can see why he would think it's like relativism.)
I know there are many adjectival forms of relativism (moral or ethical relativism, epistemological relativism, etc.), but our basic, consensual anthropological definition of "cultural relativism" is good enough to use here, I think, because it captures the core of the concept and is close enough to the thinking that drives conservatives everywhere crazy. The basic logic, however, is fundamentally an empirical one: people learn their values and modes of apprehending the world from their social context (language, religious & ethical systems, families, habits, etc.); values and modes of apprehension differ around the world. Point. Like, evolution, relativism, defined like this, is a fact and not a theory. The opposite is ethnocentrism, with which Pope Benedict has just aggressively aligned the Catholic Church. Now, how people act, armed with knowledge of the fact that values and worldviews differ, is another story, but some form of civic tolerance is one possible logical outcome.
This brings me to my third point, which is that the survival of the Catholic Church in many parts of the world and the current high esteem that seems to have been part of Pope John Paul's legacy owe a lot to relativism and forms of tolerance it engenders.
Relativistic thinking does pose a danger for the Catholic Church's market share (some form of relativism is what started me on the very slippery slope from adolescent Catholic piety to atheism), but it's not the world-historical threat he seems to suggest. Indeed, if it weren't for the "cafeteria Catholics" in the US and Europe, presumably major targets of the pontiff's comments, the Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging parishioners even faster than it already is in those countries.
In protest -- against the misuse of language, the poor understanding of the concept, and the dangerously absolutist implications of the Pope's mission -- I have re-subtitled my blog. If there's to be a "dictatorship of relativism," then sign me up.
Matthew Yglesias had an interesting entry on this topic on his blog, and links to several others who have commented on Ratzinger and Relativism.
April 21, 2005
What to read?
I had an email yesterday from a student from Singapore who has been accepted to Harvard as a freshman. He will be deferring admission a year and wants to spend the intervening time preparing himself. He came across my syllabus for the Sophomore Tutorial in Social Anthropology, a fairly intense theory course that newly declared concentrators take. He tried to download the online readings, which were password protected for the obvious legal reasons, and was thinking of buying the book (the McGee and Warms reader in anthropological theory) but was worried that the reading list would change by the time he arrives in the course three years from now! After stifling my amused reaction and the observation that he'll fit in well with the over-achieving and ever-anxious Harvard undergrads, I told him that he should read some "fun" ethnographies, some history, and novels and that last thing in the world he should think about doing is wading through Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss and Bourdieu as a pre-freshman. The very thought of it! And, as our undergraduate administrator pointed out, what we want is well-rounded people anyway, not narrow anthro-geeks. I told him I'd send some recommendations, especially if there's some part of the world he's particularly interested in.
This got me thinking, what are the books we would recommend to a general audience (since this is certainly what he would be, his desire to get a jump on his classmates notwithstanding), books that would be fun and engaging and also represent what we think is of value in our field? I'll ponder this and maybe start a wiki topic or two on AnthroWiki.
April 15, 2005
World Music on the Net
Jon Pareles has an article in today's New York Times on the growth of minor-label and Internet-only distribution of world music now that major labels are losing interest. He reviews albums from around the world and has links to several sites, some of them "Fair Trade" music download sites:
This last one, an outgrowth of the Smithsonian's music collections, should be especially interesting to anthropologists.
April 14, 2005
AAA Candidates Respond
I just sat down with the annual AAA ballot and read through the blurbs for candidates for all those positions. These blurbs read like every other remote board I have to vote for all the time (alumni trustee, REI board, TIAA-CREF, and blah blah blah). Then I thought about all the issues various AAA Executive Boards and Presidents have had to make decisions on and how much impact these decisions had on me, on colleagues, on various groups of people around the world. Now, I find organizational politics as tedious as anybody, but it does seem shocking that these elections occur in such rhetorical isolation from current issues, at least in my circles, anyway. (The long cycle between a vote and the time a President-Elect actually becomes President sure doesn't help!) I never hear corridor talk about whom to vote for and so forth, so if there's real politics going on around these candidates, I have no idea where. There are no debates or questionaires or any such tools for assessing candidates. Unless we know these people personally, what do members do, look at a publication list and decide who would be a good board member on that basis? Make sweeping generalizations about how certain academic interests would translate into elements of governance? It's a real mystery to me.
So, I fired off an email to all the candidates for President-Elect, Executive Board, and Nominations Committee. Within minutes, responses starting popping into my inbox. I told them I would post the responses on my blog unless they asked me not to. I posed questions about the El Dorado/Yanomami issue, partly because I have strong opinions on the matter myself and partly because I thought that, as the most controversial issue to hit us in recent years, it would give a good glimpse into leadership qualities. Here are the questions. Their responses will be added to the extended entry section as they come in.
- How would you characterize the way the Executive Boards and Presidents have handled the evolving challenge of the Yanomami/"El Dorado" issues?
- What would you have done differently, if anything?
- What principles will guide your decisions on similar issues in the future?
Click "continue reading," here, to see the answers:
Dear John Norvell,
I appreciate your desire to get more information about those running for AAA office. In terms of process, my feeling is that the AAA should emphasize transparency in its operations. That is much easier to say than to do, of course, but one of my primary goals of running for office is to increase the active participation of membership in the operation of our Association. Many issues like the Annual Meeting and the Yanomami will have sharply differing solutions proposed from the membership, but decisions must be made in ways that respect and arbitrate openly the differences.
The Executive Board, President, and staff ideally should always work to from the broadest possible consensus. Like most members of the AAA, I hold my views strongly and I want others to do the same. As an organization we should work as hard as possible to find the middle ground. The best solution usually comes from compromise among well meaning people of whom the Association is made.
Hope this is helpful. Best, Tim Earle
April 29, 2005
Dear John Norvell,
I want to thank you for providing an opportunity to share my thoughts on the
challenges of the Yanomami/El Dorado issue, and my principles with regard to
ethical and procedural decisions in the future. Your query prompted a review
of the two volumes of the El Dorado Task Force Papers and related Code of
Ethics papers posted on the AAA web site, as well as visiting other relevant
In order to answer your questions, I must first point out my belief that the
current conflict about how to address a journalistic attack on our
discipline and resolve the damage both of the attack and the actual events,
is in part a consequence of the lack of consensus on the meaning and purpose
of the Code of Ethics passed in 1998. Reading over the history of the
Committee on Ethics (Hill 1980) and the Final Report of the Commission to
Review the AAA Statement on Ethics submitted to the AAA Executive Board in
1995, it is clear that we are still struggling with our desire to maintain
an individual researcher's autonomy with regard to one's field and research
practices versus a disciplinary concern with ethical standards and
appropriate behavior. Based on the findings of the Commission to Review the
AAA Statement of Ethics, our current Code of Ethics was written " to foster
discussion and education" and developed as a tool for "maintaining an
ethical framework for all anthropological work." It specifically states that
the AAA does not adjudicate claims of unethical behavior. This decision was
made along the lines outlined by Wendy Trevathan in this blog, that is, that
the Committee on Ethics does not have the expertise and time, much less the
legal know-how, to adjudicate claims or accusations of unethical behavior.
And Code of Ethics itself was not much help when President Louise Lamphere
faced the barrage of claims and counter-claims of the Yanomami/El Dorado
incident. Nor did she have any guidelines as to how to proceed in the face
of public demands for an accounting of the veracity of the claims and the
threat to the discipline, fieldwork practices, and anthropologists currently
in the Amazon region. Therefore, although one can find fault with the
details of the procedure (a Task Force could have been put in place earlier
or had a different composition) I think that her response to create an
advisory Task Force of specialists to evaluate the nature of the accusations
and explore possible remedies was necessary since the Committee on Ethics
could not take on the task. I also find it difficult to second guess
colleagues who were trying to do their best in a controversial and
emotionally fraught situation. And, of course, I agree that the process
needs to be more transparent. Transparency was part of the issue with the
annual meeting decision-making last year-we clearly need better channels of
communication between individual members, sections, and the leadership, as
well as an on-line system for quickly evaluating complex situations and
But that brings me to what I would do differently. I think that to improve
on the handling of ethical accusations and attacks both on the discipline
and on individuals within it, we need to address the ambivalence written
into our Code of Ethics. How can we clarify the complex events and
situations that face us if we can not adjudicate-or at least have a
procedure for evaluating-ethical conflicts and problematic cases? I
understand that it would be difficult to develop a procedure to do so. Other
disciplines and professions are pressured to enforce their codes of ethics
by the external constraints attendant upon their licensing privileges. We do
not have licensing, but we apply anthropology and should be accountable for
our behavior in the field and at home. I do not think in a global world that
we can continue to take the stance that ethics is only for educational
purposes and to provide a set of guidelines. If we continue, we could lose
the respect and trust of the people we work with as well as our credibility
as researchers who want to participate in public policy decisions that
affect the communities in which we work and live.
The answer to your question, then, is that I would like to return to the AAA
membership and initiate a broad-ranging discussion about ethical behavior
and the role of a code of ethics in anthropological research and practice.
There are two possible approaches-each having positive and negative aspects.
We could continue as we are currently constituted, which would protect the
desire for individual anthropologists to determine autonomously their own
ethical standards and actions. But each time there is a controversy like the
one faced by President Lamphere, we would have to develop procedures de
novo, and there is likely to be the same complaints of a lack of due process
and criticisms of the procedure. On the other hand, if we agree that we want
a Code of Ethics that is enforceable, and put in place a process that would
evaluate ethical claims, then we would have a clear idea of how to proceed;
but it would require a great deal of work to establish a generally accepted
set of mechanisms for fair adjudication. I would work to facilitate reaching
a consensus that represents the considered opinion of the membership either
way, but my preference would be to have an empowered Committee on Ethics to
guide me so that I would be better able to defend the discipline in the
Executive Board, Biological Seat
I was on the AAA Ethics Committee in 1990-1993 when it was still serving as an adjudication body. I distinctly remember one "case" in which 5-6 boxes of materials were sent to each member to review, most of which seemed to consist of "he said-she said" types of information, newspaper articles, letters, and other accusations flying back and forth. Trying to render a fair and just decision in the face of this mountain of material was impossible and I think we decided not to accept it for review. At that time discussions began about the role of the Ethics Committee with a strong argument that, given the growth of the field and our own specializations, given that we are not attorneys, and given that there was no "due process" for the accusers and accused, the adjudication function of the committee was no longer appropriate. I don't recall the details of all that led up to the change in function of the Ethics Committee, but I felt that having it serve as advisory rather than investigatory was a positive outcome. With this history in mind, I was surprised to see the AAA get back in the business of adjudication in the Yanomami case, no matter the merits of the situation or the nature of the accusations. Certainly comment from some level of AAA seemed appropriate, but investigations seemed to no longer be part of AAA mandate at that time. Thus, I do believe the process was flawed and would vote in favor of the motion. But, I am also fully aware that this referendum and the votes are not really about acceptance or rejection of the report but about acceptance or rejection of the findings. No matter how much it is emphasized, most members who cast their votes on the referendum are thinking about it this way, and I have no doubt that people reading this here or on your blog will come away thinking "Wenda Trevathan thinks what happened with the Yanomami was acceptable."
I have no idea how I would have handled the El Dorado situation had I been on the board at the time, but I hope that I and other members of AAA have learned some valuable lessons from this. If I were a member of the executive board and were presented with a similar situation/set of accusations in the future I'm pretty sure that I would not seek investigation or adjudication, although I would endorse discussion, sessions at AAA meetings, AN columns, etc., as a way of educating our peers and students about ethical issues we all face. I am concerned, however, about the precedent that the ED Task Force sets for the organization. I'm predicting that the referendum will not pass (for the reasons cited above - i.e., that most will vote as a judgment rather than a procedural issue), and wonder if we have now moved back into the situation in which we bring judgment against members based on the PPR. Based on my experience on the
Ethics Committee many years ago, this is not a good direction for us to be going in.
In the unusual eventuality that the referendum does pass, I would then be concerned about the implementation process outlined in item 3. As the vote on the referendum will probably be taken as judgment, so the requirement to "announce to the national and international media and distribute copies of this resolution and explain the reasons for rescission as outlined in this resolution" would be interpreted as meaning the AAA found nothing wrong with what happened in the Yanomami case. No matter what, I would try to be fair to the people involved, the AAA guidelines, and to how we are represented in the media - I guess that's my "campaign statement," glib and meaningless as it may be.
Executive Board, Linguistic Seat
I was not very involved in that particular process, but my general view is
that acadamic organizations like the AAA should in the first instance
provide a space for debate and discussion, in ways that are constructive
and respectful. We aren't set up to evaluate. Having said that, there may
well be issues that we want to consider taking a stand on; this is usually
difficult, because consensus is hard to come by, but what that says to me
is that we should be thinking about mechanisms for discussion and conflict
resolution that allow us to either take a stand, with the acceptance, if
not the active agreement, of dissenting minorities; or gracefully face the
impossibility of doing so without silencing those who do wish to take one.
best, Monica Heller
Nominations Committee, Biological Seat
Well said! IMHO, enough said.
Nominations Committee, Undesignated Seat #2
Recently I received an e-mail from you regarding the current AAA elections---an email which you had sent to all the candidates for President-elect, Executive Board and Nominations Committee positions of the AAA. I would like to respond to your e-mail as a candidate for the Nominations Committee.
In particular you raised questions about the way in which the recent AAA Presidents and Executive Boards have dealt with, and continue to deal with, the many issues surrounding the Darkness in El Dorado controversy. I would like to respond based on my experience in leadership positions within several AAA sections and as a former member and Chair of the AAA Committee on Ethics in the post-El Dorado period.
The ethical issues the AAA confronts have not only increased in number but also become more complicated over (at least) the past decade. The AAA whether it is the President, Executive Board or a committee must often respond speedily to issues before there is time to deliberate carefully. I think that the AAA needs to consider new mechanisms of response that both meet the needs of timeliness and of deliberation. In addition final task force or committee reports often seem to deal with the issues raised by a controversy in particularistic ways related to the case before them while neglecting to address underlying, more generalized but more important longer range issues. Frequently the response is coached in legalistic terms---perhaps understandable in a cultural milieu that often solves problems and addresses issues in terms of the language and process of its legal system. As with any organization that operates largely on the time and energy of those who volunteer, the AAA sometimes confronts issues that it is not really structured to resolve in terms of available resources. And while the AAA must pay attention to the reportage about anthropology and anthropologists, ethical issues should be regarded as much more important in and of themselves rather than as brief (at least in the public eye), crisis driven media events.
From the perspective of the Committee on Ethics, I know that via the AAA web site, the AA Newsletter and responses to individual inquiries, the COE seeks to educate anthropologists concerning ethical issues. Yet some anthropologists seem unaware that the AAA has changed the mission of the COE so that the Committee cannot adjudicate claims of ethical wrongdoing. If the AAA again wishes to try to adjudicate accusations of ethical violations (i.e. the El Dorado Task Force), then it should consider a permanent organizational structure assigned to this task and not an ad hoc one. Given the past history of such efforts to adjudicate, however, I think that would be a difficult step.
I think the AAA needs to develop mechanisms to allow ready responses to crisis that are backed by solid policy. I think the AAA needs to continue to enhance its discussion of ethical issues with a broader participation by the AAA membership. I think the AAA needs an expanded resource base and more engagement from its members.
One final point, you wrote in your e-mail to the AAA candidates “…it is surprising and dissatisfying to me that our elections are carried out on the basis of brief biographical blurbs in the annual ballot pamphlet.” I would like to note that each candidate in addition to the biographical statement also writes a platform statement that gives AAA voters some notion at least of the ideas that would guide our actions where we to be elected to AAA office.
Kathleen R. Martín
Florida International U
Since this version of this blog is just beginning, and kind of with a bang (see my question for AAA candidates, I suppose I should introduce myself first. This is the very beginning of my blog at AnthroBogs.org. I am John Norvell, a Visiting Lecture on Anthropology at Harvard University and soon to be visiting Assistant Professor at Pitzer College, where my wife, Lêda Martins, has just begun a tenure-tack job. Although my dissertation and one major area of research is on urban life, racial and ethnic identity, and the ethnography of the middle classes in Brazil, my current research focuses on online communities and software developers. My professional web site is currently at www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~norvell/.
I am the founder/organizer/whatever of this site at present. What I hope to do with the site is to attract as many anthropological bloggers as possible here, aggregate their posts together with those of anthropologists/bloggers blogging elsewhere, and stimulate as much interaction as possible. This blog, Motes and Theories on Anthropology (so-named for the moment, anyway) will be my own blogged record of teaching, research, and career issues as an anthropologist. Please see the (hopefully) ever evolving home page of AnthroBlogs (www.anthroblogs.org) to see who is blogging so far and for info on how to sign up for one of your own. I also intend to blog about the AnthroBlogging experience at AnthroBlog Blog.
(Changed 6/1/05 to remove reference to Public Anthropology, our erstwhile sponsor.)