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AAA opens up the kinds of inquiry in its Long Range Plans

I love being part of the anthropological community in that there are always very active debates and eruptions on the nature of the field. The current eruption surrounds the replacement of the term science with that of public understanding in the AAA's Long Term Plan. The debate brings up painful memories of the divorce at Stanford when I was a graduate student circa 1997-1999. The department split into the Anthropological Sciences and the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. They are back together again, but I here it is not a good marriage. But anyway, here is my response to the flurry of emails about the change on the Anthrodesign Yahoo Group listserv.

The Psychology Today "article" reminds me that sometimes blogging is not the equivalent of journalism. The blog post is misleading and grossly unfair. The NYTimes article provides a somewhat more measured view, but it still frames the change as a negative "deepening rift." By replacing the word "science" with the term "public understanding" in its long-range plan, the AAAs is expanding its mission such that it no longer mandates a single form of knowledge production (e.g. science) but rather a uniform intention in terms of the outcomes of research. This is not the same as "ditching" science. There is nothing in the statement that says scientific inquiry cannot take place. I still assume that scientific inquiry has something to contribute to public understanding and will continue to do so. What perhaps the shift is indicating, which is causing the consternation, is that scientific inquiry is no longer the only privileged mode of knowledge production in anthropology, in which the change reflects merely the reality of the world today. 

I am currently reading the book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhawia Smith (Zed Books: 1999). It should be required reading for anyone interested in this discussion. The relevant points from the book in relationship to the AAA's decision are how positivism, as part of scientific research, is interested in the "measurement of things" and the procedures of validity and reliability to guarantee their measurement (Smith 1999: 42). Epistomologically and ontologically, Smith argues that these processes, as embedded in research regardless of the specific discipline, inflicts violence on indigenous peoples because it set up "rules of classification, rules of framing (representation), and rules of practice (evaluation)" in which indigenous societies have been brought into the Western system of knowledge as inferior (Smith 1999: 43).

She notes that anthropology is the most hated of disciplines among indigenous peoples because of its theft of indigenous knowledge, artifacts, even bodies. This is in spite of the relationship indigenous communities may have with individual anthropologists. The AAA has made great efforts to engage indigenous peoples as active participants, not just subjects, of anthropological inquiry. The establishment of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists section in the AAA in 2007 has been a major step.

Again, in my view, this change is not about excluding scientific inquiry, as sometimes you need to measure things depending on the kinds of questions you are asking, but rather about leaving an opening in the kinds of inquiry that takes place in the field as long as it addresses the main goal to "...advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects." I belive this is a positive direction for the field.


Keeping Hope Alive

Reading the newspapers about the U.S. lately has left me tired and depressed. When Obama was elected, I remember writing to my young nieces and nephews that we will not betray their futures again by the politics of self-centredness and greed. Lately, I've felt on the verge of a dispair for the US and relief that I have somehow escaped it. But then I remembered the words of Cornel West about hope and his claim, "I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope." In a 1997 interview in The Progressive, West borrows his notion of hope from Vaclav Havel:

Cornel West: You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said "optimism" is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to "hope," which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I'm full of hope but in no way optimistic.

In his 2008 Hope on at Tightrope, he states that “When you’re optimistic, you can stand apart to see how things are going. But when you’re full of hope, you’re in the midst of the muck.” Things are so "shitty" because I am in the midst of the muck. This realization is enough to in the words of Jesse, "Keep Hope Alive." 


Academic Speak: Filling in the knowledge blanks

The other day someone hinted that I needed to get some media training because many of the things I say went over the person's head. Today, I was sharing a research question that I am interested in exploring with my partner to see if it could be simplfied. In our discussion, I had the petite epiphany that the "problem" with academic speak is not the use of "big words" but the fact that your knowledge claims have to be specific not general. What do I mean? Let me provide an example.

This is the original research question that I am thinking about exploring:

How can the alignment of high-speed ICT systems and the comparative cultural value systems of Australian Indigenous, white-settler farmer, and Horn-of-Africa migrant communities lead to culture-based innovations in technology platforms that support semi-formal knowledge sharing?

After getting a scratched head, I then eliminated all the adjectives and "big words" to get this more simplifed question:

How can technology be matched with values in order to lead to innovations that support their sharing?

Now in the context of a media interview, the host might ask, "Which technologies? Which kinds of values? What kinds of innovations?" But, I would be expected to answer with some witty anecdote, for example, about some indigenous community using moble phones to teach tracking skills to semi-rural youth. [NOTE: This is just an example and if nobody has done this work, then I claim the idea. Grin.] Then, the show would go to commercial and that would be the end of the story.

In the context of an academic performance, the other scholars would definitely ask, What technologies? What values and whose values? What do I mean when I say values? Which innovations? To benefit whom? What is being shared in context and content? They would expect me to provide definitions with sources on how I came to the ideas behind that simple question and what would I contribute through the question.

Now, because I am making knowledge claims, it is better for me to be clear about those claims the opening question, even if it makes things more convoluted: What technologies? High-speed ICTs. What values? Cultural values. Whose values? Those of Australian Indigenous, white farmer, and Horn of Africa migrant communities. What kinds of innovations? Culture-based ones. What are they sharing? Semi-formal knowledge. Why all the adjectives? Because I are required to make my knowledge claims very narrow to avoid looking ignorate and getting attacked. It may seem to be jargon but that is because the modifiers must flag certain domains of knowledge to which I am contributing.

So the "problem" of academic speak is one of how you fill in the blanks. In the media, it requires a story to fill in air time. In the academic context, it requires a specificity of definitions in order to narrow the bounderies of your knowledge claims against that of others. I think I am pretty adept at both.