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.

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