Monday, March 24, 2014

The Two Cultures of Anthropology

When we speak of anthropology, most often we are referring to the cultural sub-field or the socio-cultural sub-field, of the discipline. The question of whether anthropology is a method or science really only arises in the cultural sub-field. Here is where the dualism between mind and body, individual and society, history vs science, subjective vs objective, are played out on both the theoretical level and the practical level. This is the zone C P Snow labelled the Two Cultures.

We, as cultural anthropologist, use a method we call ethnography as our basic research method and ethnology as our analytical approach. The former is conducted, we claim, by a combination of participant-observer field research where we look for and document the emic and the etic domains of our "subjects." We practice a form of natural history. Our focus is the qualitative data, meaning we seek to describe a society and its culture rather than measure it.

Our analytical method, ethnology, is based on a set of three principles -- holism, relativism, and comparative analysis. We apply these principles when we study the similarities and differences in the ethnographies that comprise the our corpus of ethnographic data. In this regard, "culture" is the guiding concept, or filter for our analysis. Here we seek to arrive at some understanding and consensus of "cultural/social" universals and processes at work in human existence. It is here where we attempt to link our ethnographies with our discoveries from the physical, linguistic and archaeological sub-fields to obtain an overall picture of what it means to be human and what it has taken to become human. This is the goal of the academic research branch of anthropology.

The applied branch, on the other hand, seeks to apply the principles and understanding of the human and institutional processes articulated by the academic branch to the solution of practical problems confronted by individuals and society in the real world of every day life.

In this regard, the academic research branch is free to move between the two cultures of science and humanities, while "applied" branch, whether it is recognize or not, is morally, ethically and possibly legally bound to an application of techniques and principles which can withstand at least the minimal standards of good science, i.e. validity and reliability. The practitioner must balance "generally accepted 'anthropological" standards" with the academic "state of the art."

The divide between Theory and Practice within the discipline has been a costly one for both the development of the discipline and for the thousands of students trained in anthropology who have not been able to find a professional acceptance as professional equals within the broad definition of anthropology as a discipline.

 [In the interest of full disclosure, I am a four field anthropologist (and two branch "academic research" and "applied")].

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Auto-ethnography, a validation process for ethnographic research

Auto-ethnography is the second tier in validating the scientific (objective) observations of the field ethnographer. Auto-ethnography is those observations and recordings that the field ethnographer makes that describe what they did as both observer and more importantly, as a participant in the community being studied.

In socio-cultural anthropology, the data is behavior, human behavior recorded by and through the observations and participation of a human being of the socio-cultural system or subsystem of a community of human actors. The questions that haunts cultural anthropologists are, "How objective is the reporting?" "Can the anthropologist truly divorce him/herself from ones own cultural and gender biases?" "How do we deal with subjectivity?" Unlike the other three field of Anthropology, there are no real external standards for judging the validity and reliability of the data reported.

In archaeology, one has the physical evidence of the artifacts collected, and the maps drawn of the site according to well established mapping techniques and standards including the physical measurements of the relationship between features and feature and artifacts. Because archaeology is a destructive activity, it is crucial that the research and future generations can reconstruct the site from the records long after they have been destroyed in the initial process of recovery.

In biological and physical anthropology there are protocols, standardized physical instruments and biological test. These standard instruments and procedures produce a data set that can be replicated if desired when applied to the same or similar subjects at another time by the same or different trained researcher. This insures the validity of the first study and demonstrates the reliability of the record and procedures used.

In linguistics data collection is fairly simple using audio equipment to record the phonetics, and morphemes as well as spoken sentences which once captured can be analyzed by standard procedures. Where and when recording devices were not available, a standardized phonetic alphabet was used to record sounds, words, and word elements. Anyone trained to read and write the alphabet could reconstruct the language as recorded and if necessary test the meanings reported in a translation against what any native speaker of the language in question would interpret the translation.

Cultural anthropology historically has been carried out by lone wolves who went off to an "unknown" or "little" known "primitive" community and came back to write an ethnography in which they described the "culture" of the studied group. This description was to be in objective terms based on the data collected by the researcher in field notes and photographs etc. All of these would be the product of the field worker. Yet there was no calibration the principle instrument, the field worker him/herself, to any "real" standard other than the claims of the researcher him/herself. There was no way to replicate the research at one point in time by a restudy at a different point in time.

As an undergraduate, in the early 1960, I was told that it would be best, if one planned a career in cultural anthropology, that one  have themselves psycho-analyzed before going into the field in order to understand what biases they bring to the field situation. Whether this was ever a widely held belief or practice I can not attest to, however, the idea of some form of "calibration" of the field worker as the recording device struck me as sound at the time. Later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I experienced what I suspected that process might be when we underwent extensive psychological evaluation before being finally selected to serve overseas.

So how do field ethnographers validate their work and how do they evaluate each others' work?

One of the first ethnographies I read as an undergraduate was Allen Holmberg's Nomads of the Long Bow. Its format was very typical of the time with sections on the social structure and kinship system, the economic system, political and religious systems, the annual group and individual life cycles. As far as I could tell, and I guessed the University of Chicago and my professors at Brown, this was a model ethnography. Yet there was something I found disturbing in the study. It was my first exposure to what has come to be called "auto-ethnography." Let me quote from Holmberg

“…in a society like the Siriono, where the food supply is both scarce and insecure, a person’s status necessarily depends on his ability as a provider of food than on any other single factor. This was clearly brought home to me [Allan Holmberg] time and time again while I was at Tibaera [located along the Rio Blanco in eastern Bolivia]
“One case deserves special mention. Enia (Knee) was the brother-in-law of Chief Eantandu.  He had  had some contact with the outside, but because of maltreatment had run away from his patrón and returned to native life. He was an intelligent man with an unusual ability (for a Siriono) to adjust to White civilization. He was a hard worker and reliable, and he knew considerable Spanish.  His one weakness was that he could not hunt as well as his countrymen. Time after time I saw him leave with his bow and arrows, and time after time I watched him return empty handed, while his fellow tribesman left after him on the same trail and return with game.He was generally referred to as "not knowing how to hunt." He was openly insulted at drinking feasts for his inability to hunt.He had lost one wife to a better man. His status was low; his anxiety about hunting, high. He had, however, made some kind of readjustment to native life by planting more crops and collecting more forest products than the others and trading some of his vegetables for meat. But still he was not satisfied. Noting this condition, I set out to raise his status. First he accompanied me with his bow and arrows on hunting trips. He carried in game which I shot [Holmberg had a shotgun to hunt for his own food], part of which was given to him and which we told others was shot by him. His status began to improve. Shortly thereafter, I taught him to use a shotgun, and he brought in game of his own. Needless to say, when I left Tibaera he was enjoying the highest status, had acquired several new sex partners, and was insulting others, instead of being insulted by them." (Holmberg, Allen 1960 p.60)
Here is a case of autoethnography where the researcher in the role of participant describes how he intervened into the lives of the people he was stdying and was able to test a hypothesis developed in the field about the relationship between male hunting skill and his social status or rank. He also reports on an intervention to teach one of his subjects how to use a shot gun in place of the traditional bow and arrows to hunt meat.

When I read this, back as an undergraduate I was struck by what I saw as the unanswered ethical question -- what happened when Holmberg left? Did he take the shot gun with him? How and where did Enia acquire shells for the gun, if Holmberg left it with him? These questions would not even have come up, had Holmberg not self reported his own role in the lives of this particular Siriono Indian and indirectly in the power struck of the band.

At the time I did not see this as an example of auto-ethnography. The term had not yet been invented. But situation Holmberg describes, did raise certain ethical questions in my mind about just how involved should or could a field researcher become with his subjects in the participant observer role?

It does, looking back on it today, provide an insight into Holmberg, as an activist field ethnographer who later chose to lead the legendary Vicos project..

Source: Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. Allan Holmberg (Reprinted for the Second-Year Course in the Social Sciences) Syllabus Division, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. March 1960

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Boasian Ethic of American Anthropology

The 11 Rules of an Boasian Anthropological ethic form a American anthropological tradition and ethic.
These rules are:
1. a combination of humanistic and scientific values;
2. a focus on the concept of culture;
3. an emphasis on non-literate, small scale sociocultural systems as the subject of study;
4. a holistic perspective in the study of sociocultural phenomena;
5. a reliance on the comparative method of analysis;
6. a tradition of employment in a research setting associated with a museum or university;
7. an orientation toward historical particularism, i.e. understanding the role and function of sociocultural phenomena in context;
8. a tradition of participant-observation in a personal field work experience;
9. the ideal of the scientific role as a standard for judging professional status;
10. an objective and relativistic moral and ethical position;
11. a four field approach in the basic training of recruits to the profession and in the organization of the profession. (Bainton 1979: 127 - 128)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Anthropology a method or a science?

In a recent discussion about the central focus of anthropology, what distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines, an argument was made that we do have a central theoretical focus. In fact, the argument goes, that theory is based on the fact that we are holistic and yet culturally relative. We are, in this formulation, the combination and contradiction of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures - Science vs Humanities. This approach, which goes back at least to Boas, is proposed to be the anthropological method.

 I agree that we have a central methodology. It is a methodology that in many ways also reflects our underlying philosophy of science and the nature of things -- that is, the objective (etic) observation of the world and the subjective (emic) nature of the observing instrument -- the anthropologist. We incorporate a "quantum" perspective which recognizes the fact that the observer IS part of the system being observed and thereby influences the observation -- i.e. creates a degree of uncertainty.

But a methodology is not a theory or explanation. It is only a process which without direction and purpose is like the mouse running on the wheel in its cage. Good exercise going nowhere. Theory is by its very nature "inductive" speculations based on deductive analysis of the observations made of nature. Induction is the "If, then" statement where the "if" statement is based on a known set of data, and the "then" statement is a generalization of that data into an unknown future event or situation. Deduction is tautological. It too is a set of "If, then" statements. However, these statement are known facts and relationships from which a new or previously unknown fact is "deduced" If A = C, and B = C, then A = B.

As "natural history" anthropology is a deductive science. But as an predictive science and an applied science, an inductive science. That is, in the former case we report what we see and then analysis it to see more detail in the facts we already have. In the latter case, we detect patterns from past observations and hypothesize or predict future outcomes based on the correlations found between variables from past observations, e.g. what the population of X will be in ten years based on the population rate for the past 30 years..

Inductive models or theories point out problems for study and to validate observed patterns or to disprove the pattern. Anthropology today, especially ethnography, does not seem to have an inductive focus -- a set of principles or correlations that drive the research or analysis. Instead we seem to be happy pursuing our own idiosyncratic emic agendas -- "description and deductions" based on a sample of one at one moment in time and space.

My personal bias in this regard is the broad generalized question of the human condition and what we can infer about it based on a 150 or more years of anthropological research. Some might say anthropology is the study of "culture" (e.g. Leslie White, Tylor, Kroeber) which is phenomenon oriented, while others might say anthropology is the study of mankind ( or pc "humankind") which is species (biologically) oriented.

In this regard, the concept "meme" or "trait" or any other term that one chooses that distinguishes the physical "gene" concept from the ideational "superorganic" concept presents us with an interesting and promising why to inductively test propositions that relate directly structure and dynamics of "culture" on one hand, and on the other to the "tipping" point between Hominid to Homo (Human like animal to the self aware Human animal).

Finally, those who question the validity of Memetics argue that it "is not a theory by any reasonable definition thereof. More a model, and a rather questionable one to anyone who has studied semiotic"

First, anthropology is not semiotics, although semiotics has much to contribute to anthropology. Second, "meme" is a theoretical concept, the same way the Higgs Particle is/was a theoretical concept, it is not a fact. As a theoretical concept it calls for an inductive approach.

The "meme" provides a basis for directing research by focusing on creating hypotheses to prove or disprove its existence. And if "meme" is not the right concept, the question still exists, how did man or culture become what it is and what it means to be human? Unless, of course, you accept the orthodoxy of the breath of life and the apple in the Garden of Eden.But then we have ceded a scientific approach to the study of culture and humanity to a religious orthodoxy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Autoethnography or Going After Culture

It would seem to me that "autoethnography" is creating a corpus of data for historians and future psycho-anthropologist of ethnography to study in order to gain an understanding of the personality and culture of late 20th century and the millennial anthropologist and their discipline. 

As the anthropological discipline broadens its academic base beyond the United States and the west, and as the traditional cultural isolate (a heuristic device) we studied has all but disappeared, the rationale for traditional anthropology no longer feels valid. If we can't study "Them," may be we can "study" US studying Them studying US. Maybe we will have to go "after culture" rather than capture it.

Could it be that several generations of anthro graduate students and junior faculty who have had to face such questions as " Where can I go to do my dissertation research? "Who will fund it?" and "How do I justify my research to the Promotion and Tenure Committee?" have turned to autobiographical narrative as an answer. That is, "Is autoethnography really a scientific or historic methodology that grows out of the anthropological tradition (culture); or is it a reaction to a larger set of forces taking place in the academic and fu
nding environments (locally and globally) in which a generation of anthropologists seek to build their careers?

An example of this navel gazing approach is to be found in a very interesting and thought provoking paper by Stefan Helmreich, original published in 2001 in Cultural Anthropology, entitled After Culture: Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, A science of Simulation.

Helmreich reports on a study he conducted in what he refers to as the anthropology of science which is the study of science as a cultural institution. He conducted his research at the Santa Fe Institute for the Sciences of Complexity among a group of  scientists drawn from a variety of disciplines ranging from mathematics, systems theory, biology, computer science among others. All of whom are interested in the question of vitality, i.e. life, and whether one can model evolutionary systems. Such models would enable the biologists to not only test theories about life as we know it but also build a larger frame of reference to include life as it could be. That is, artificial life would be a tool for the development of a theoretical biology.

Helmreich describes a real and intellectual connection between these scientists and American anthropology. He points to the fact that many of them were trained as undergraduates during the 1970s and were influenced by the anthropology of the period. In particular, he points to Christopher Langton who studied anthropology at the University of Arizona in the late 1970s where he became interested in the ",,. parallels between biological and cultural inheritance and evolution" (2001: 615). Langton later went on to do graduate work in computer science at the University of Michigan. 

Langton plays a significant role is Helmreich's study and understanding of the "culture" of these scientist. He serves, it seems, in Helmreich's discussion as the key informant and as an interpreter  between the "natural" scientists and the social scientist who is personified through Helmreich's own personal narrative of his involvement with these scientists. This is evident in the author's definition of what he means by "after culture."

After culture is defined in two ways as the goal being sought by these artificial life researcher. 

First, they had come to see themselves as cultural objects -- with vision mediates by an ideational, informatic framework, the specificity of which tacitly depended on a relative sense of culture, even as it was driven by by a universal cybernetic logic.
Second, they had come to theorize "culture" as a human adaptation with a "life of its own," and were thus "after culture" in the sense of pursuing it as an object for their own study and explanation ...  (Helmreich: 2001, p.620)

Heimreich goes on to observe that ...

playing anthropologist among these scientists required being "after culture" myself, drawing on the store of my discipline's ethnographic knowledge to query assertions about the universal "nature" of kinship and reproduction, for example, but also forcing myself beyond the limits of the culture concept to locate my subjects' activity in the power-saturated world of practice, discourse, and history - to read 'against culture",   ,.. ( Helmreich: 2001, p. 620)

This study, with its auto-ethnographic content, shines a light on two very different and yet interrelated issue facing anthropology. First is the subject -- artificial life. If it is a viable method for the study of "life" processes through an artificial biology, could not also become a tool for the study of social and cultural process through an artificial sociology and anthropology. Just think of SIM City, for example. Anthropology has always faced the conflict between its objective outside observer role and the participant in the local society being studied role. It is the source of much ethical discussion and debate. Would the artificial life model free us of this ethical dilemma? In one of his notes, Helmreich observes there are anthropologists who are trained in cultural ecology who find promise in the use of artificial life techniques for modeling social dynamics.

Second, the question of the anthropologist as the one "after culture" in the research context. Helmreich is fairly candid about his own role in the discussions and in citing his activist participant role with his subjects. Whether this auto-biographical insight represents a break with or an admission about the traditional role of the field investigator as participant, is a question for others to decide, But, when Helmreich describes a visit to the Institute he made after his study was published, he remarks that

I found many previously skeptical researchers suddenly sympathetic to my analysis of the cultural valences of Artificial Life. But where some felt that an anthropological account enriched their understanding of science as practice, others used my story to support their sense that Artificial Life had been contaminated by "culture" in a way their own fields - computational mechanics, for example - had not."  (Helmreich: 2001, p. 621)

It seems that the contamination reported here may or may not have come from the presence of the anthropologists as the participant observer. Of course, we can't prove that that is the case, or that this doubt about the purity of their "culture" would have not occurred if left alone to "discover" an artificial culture. What autoethnography can tell us is about our selves. In this case, where the subjects share so many things in common with the researcher we witness a situation of contamination despite the close similarities of share beliefs. This makes even more real the criticism leveled against western anthropologists by the "natives" of non-western cultures. But, by the same token, what does this have to say about potential affects of non-western anthropologists on a universal anthropology on one hand and upon their own native cultures on the other?

There may career opportunities here after all.