No question about it, a community as interesting as OAC can consume enormous amounts of time. Pulling back may be the only way to get anything else done. It is, however, immensely frustrating to have discussions reach a point where digging a bit deeper might lead to new discoveries and, just when it's getting exciting, to have the conversation dry up.

This phenomenon is not, of course, specific to OAC. It appears to be endemic on the Net. Why should that be?

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Thanks for raising this. We are nearing 1000 members...I guess it is timely.

Do you only want to concentrate on "digging deeper" by putting the "attending to the conversation" aside or would you like to look at them together? I think I am responding assuming it is both.

We anthropologists perhaps undermine the difference between the verbal and the written. The way majority of us give papers in the conferences is quite a testimony to that. In debates such as the ones in Current anthropology (one article, several commentators and response again) everybody knows that that is a written debate and one gets time to think. Time is also an integral part of this realm. It seems the distinction between “langue” and “parole” cannot be thought about without consideration given to “time”.

People have different pace of thinking, weighing their responses or deciding the position they may take. The type of liminality such a communication enables or inhibit may be desirable to some and not to others. Yet even those who would like to experience that condition, may not be able perform that well in that liminality. Some do despite, some do not.

An extension of this: Much more conversational exchanges (not much theoretical issues perhaps) some of the conversations on administrative/political issues here showed some aspects of this very well. Before one could decide what one's position were the other person decided for them (on the basis of the key words, moral arguments etc. which may associate one with particular feature) and “bum” one is given a position/or labeled before one had time to think about it. Or perhaps one did not mean that (let’s say this someone have the intellectual/political humility to accept biases etc. and if they realized what the implication of their utterance they would do something about it but it was not really what they meant. )

Power (relationship): In one way or other some voices establish themselves as the most elaborate and eloquent voices and many people do not take the risk of checking if those elaborate voices are good at communicating with "junior, less elaborate, non-native language speaker” etc. voices .Or those eloquent voices do communicate and pretty explicitly show patronizing trends. Yet at times with the unfortunate interpretations ( i.e. they respect and take the “junior” person seriously and exactly because of that do not offer many cautionary footnotes or rather than keeping quite) their expression of disagreement can be taken to be the illustration of "domination". (I am not saying this is always the case but these are in the repertoire of dynamics. Also people occupy various positions in different context I do not imply that this is all fixed with the same persons always occupying same positions)

Some illustrative points:
I have written couple of responses to you and Salzman but did not post them realizing that I would not be able to follow them up later. And in one case when I commented, a sentence in the response agitated me (but it was a side point, I still did not feel like getting back without conveying that but I could not invest time on it and risk potential misunderstanding etc. I could live without making that point).

Finally I will just mention couple of things without much comment. In theory group, Salzman started one discussion each in the following days: June 5, 7, 14, 17 and two discussions on June 8. They were all interesting.

I was trying to keep up and in the mean while I could not help noting the "demographics": men of a wider age range (20 - 65?). Women: mainly young (20-40?), perhaps not having kids under their care if they are above 30.

Do these show anything?
I'm currently writing a paper based on recent anthropological research on the rewards of spending time and effort on digital activities, so this is a topic of great interest to me. I would say that the problem boils down to the essential and high-status practices that prevail in any field of endeavour at a given point in time. In academia, participating in a site such as OAC is not an essential practice. Publishing in reputable journals is, so most people will prioritise this and other essential practices that will keep them in the field, in the game. Giving keynotes is not an essential practice, but it is high-status, so again people invited to give a keynote will prioritise it over other forms of discourse.
John, I see your point. Yet, while I was responding I accepted that as an obvious general trend. When you are mentioning such a maximization are you assuming that we arrange our priorities towards high status practice all across the board? (This is a real question.) Two days ago I was just thinking about these since I was talking to myself :"no, leave it, I better send mail to one of my grad students who is going to present a paper in Leeds and help her with her discussion". (You can of course think in terms of "investment in social / symbolic capital etc. ) Such an activity usually has no visibility.

You of course did not write down all of your analysis but indicated what it "boiled down" I realize that. I would like to think in a more differentiated way in terms of already existing distribution of attribution of significance. What this is about in the last instance, does not make me think more than what I know.

Mike Wesch's visibility for example may tell us that it is also the type of online activity we might think about and distinguish. He surely did not seek fame but after him would you say there may be increase in such internet based activities since these activities may bring "fame". But there is no guarantee right? There is no guarantee that ones paper will be accepted either.

What is the size of the population who devote their time otherwise consistently to high value practice? Are there such findings? I would be interested to read (I have been to your page earlier but it is a while I will look again). What do we do instead in that particular time if we do not engage with online dialogue? What is regarded as "essential'? Do you mean lecturing, marking papers etc. reading etc. or essential in the sense that essential to "score high"? What do the younger people's blogging or more active engagement say about their "invested" time? Is it possible to generalize about this across generations?

Many questions "I guess you have better things to than responding to these"!!;-) If a big name anthropologist wrote these, would there be a difference between your motivation to respond or not? If so and let's say you responded to him (I do not mean you in particular, you or somebody else, it is just an example), would you interpret this as an activity similar to publishing in high reputation journal (meaning: choosing to engage in what brings more status)?

I spent more time now because I tried not to sound being interested in challenging you but to show genuine interest and effort to communicate. If I could talk I would have more tools to ensure that. Since I do not want to engage in head tossing dialogue I have to be more attentive and it takes more time. And it makes me think twice before I engage in any conversation. I think Deborah Tannen's work in various places and in two books on Women's talk and Men's talk is very relevant here.

John Postill said:

I'm currently writing a paper based on recent anthropological research on the rewards of spending time and effort on digital activities, so this is a topic of great interest to me. I would say that the problem boils down to the essential and high-status practices that prevail in any field of endeavour at a given point in time. In academia, participating in a site such as OAC is not an essential practice.
By the way, Salzman's comment on "What kind of knowledge ought we to hope for from this?" is quite a nice counter illustration. He suspended his book work for some time but went back to it and he says he is now itching and tempted to get back to conversation here!
First, a warm thank-you to Hülya, John P and Owen for getting into this. I hope that John and Owen won't be offended if I offer a bit of special thanks to Hülya, whose reply to John P is, IMHO, a superb example of digging deeper. John offers a plausible generalization. Hülya replies by querying how broadly it applies and offering some, yes, why not? let's call them ethnographic, examples that complicate the evidence and suggest the need for refinement.

In a similar spirit, let me offer some impressions. They are based on a long involvement in email lists, etc., related to anthropology but are far from being grounded in systematic research. Nothing would please me more than to have them disconfirmed.

1. The number of participants associated with top-ranked departments is vanishingly small. Extending John P's argument, one suspects that for people associated with these departments both social and cultural capital are concentrated where they are, so the pay-off for online engagement is low. I recall a friend who teaches in a top department who, when I said to him it would really be nice to see him online, replied, "If I want to talk anthropology, I walk down the hall."

2. Going a step further, I speculate that most of the people active here are feeling marginal.

As Clifford Geertz once pointed out, academia is an example of a profession in which the typical pattern of social mobility is down and out instead of onward and upward. Many people do advanced degrees at top-tier places then find themselves working at second or third-tier places far from the pinnacle to which graduate school took them. Others may have pursued successful academic careers but find themselves doing work that has fallen out of fashion. Still others, myself included, may have left academia (in my case I failed to get tenure) but retained an affection for our academic interests. Be that as it may, my impression is that Web-based anthropology is flourishing primarily outside established academic hierarchies.

3. Also, turning now to Owen's suggestion, I have over the years occasionally read people saying that they are unwilling to expose unfinished work on the Web. It is not only embarrassing to have one's work criticized. Exposed for all the world to see, it might have unfortunate effects on prospects for academic employment. Some worry that if their idea is a good one, but a diamond still in the rough, someone else might steal it and scoop the original author. How widespread are these fears?

4. I wonder, too, about the anthropological (or, more broadly, social science/humanities) habitus of scholars working alone. Having stumbled into the world of advertising in Japan, I am used now to working in teams in which individuals with different skills are brought together to share information, to brainstorm, and to engage in what is frequently heated debate, which is, however, always tempered by the fact that there are common goals, common deadlines to meet, and, if an ad or campaign is successful, the team gets the credit. There are, of course, individual stars; but the way they achieve stardom is to be part of the team on a series of successful projects. What sorts of arrangements would make it possible for anthropologists to behave more like ad people, in this particular respect?
Hülya Demirdirek said:
I could not help noting the "demographics": men of a wider age range (20 - 65?). Women: mainly young (20-40?), perhaps not having kids under their care if they are above 30.

Do these show anything?

They likely show that when the older men were in graduate school, the majority of students doing advanced degrees in anthropology were men. That situation has changed. When the current crop of silverbacks die off, the imbalance will be rectified. In the meantime, the coincidence of seniority and male gender will be a source of irritation to new generations of young turks, many if not most of whom will be women. It will for a while yet be easy to frame conflict between young and old in gendered terms. That framing may be accurate. It may also be a distraction.
Do these show anything? John McCreery said:br />
They likely show that when the older men were in graduate school, the majority of students doing advanced degrees in anthropology were men. That situation has changed.[...]


I see, does it mean that it is more about numbers and proportion? It would be interesting to see the gender distributed proportion of conference presentations. I would guess that there would be more representation of older women in those settings. What do you think? This imbalance is not a source of irritation, for me at least. It is more of awareness of the non-gender neutral nature of such activities. I do appreciate though that you say "That framing may be accurate. It may also be a distraction". It would be very nice to see men doing gender aware analysis but critical of the particular frameworks.

One more thing in relation to what you refer wrote in the previous post about "team work": Once I asked a very prominent archeologist a question in a playful, half serious manner"Why do you think archeologists are nicer people than cultural anthropologists (I am a social anthropologist trained in Norway): She said "you have to be a team player there. You depend on each other". My own formulation was "archeologists do something together, it is like sitting and weaving basket in Amazonian rain forest, having a collective task is the saver". After that there were all self loathing jokes among us cultural people "yes we do distant fieldworks, we are supposed to be socially intelligent but nobody knows what an "#xyz" we might have been". I think there is point in that. Your experience support that I think. But in business (forgive my limited insight) a deadline is a more definitive deadline than in academia I feel (grant applications are the most rigid ones). The speed and conditions of work flow perhaps puts different pressures in business. In terms of student and educational affairs we are also supposed to think of the task before ourselves but ...

It is pretty late for me now. Thanks for paying attention and appreciating my contribution to the conversation. You have been so productive in engaging so many people into good discussions. I find your "marginal position comment" very important. Could there be a distinction between feeling marginalized and being marginal? I will think about it tomorrow. Stanley Brandes, I think in his "Student guide to anthropological theory" talks about "no name anthropologists". The book is in my office otherwise I would have looked at it to paraphrase properly. I think he has a good point about no name anthropologists being essential to anthropology etc. I guess this apply to many other things. Provincial small team hockey players are essential to NHL too.
It would be interesting to see the gender distributed proportion of conference presentations. I would guess that there would be more representation of older women in those settings.

I wouldn't be surprised if this were true. If the number of presentation slots is expanding more slowly than the number of those who wish to give papers and people with established reputations have a better chance of getting a slot than newcomers, the selection process will favor the older over the younger. There is also the availability of funding for attending meetings to consider. Older women, especially those with tenure, might be more able to attend, especially with schools cutting back on grants for meeting attendance. The clearest symptom of continuing gender bias would be a higher proportion of men than women in the younger age cohorts. Without data, this is, of course, only speculation.
On rereading my previous post, I realise I was only responding very briefly and partially - on the basis of anectodal rather than systematic evidence - to John McCreery's original question about why conversations on OAC (and elsewhere on academic sites) appear to be so hard to sustain. Sorry about that, and thank you all for your reactions to my post. Hülya Demirdirek asks some important questions:

What is regarded as "essential'? Do you mean lecturing, marking papers etc. reading etc. or essential in the sense that essential to "score high"? What do the younger people's blogging or more active engagement say about their "invested" time? Is it possible to generalize about this across generations?

I suppose here there will be significant variations across disciplines and countries, but in the fields of UK anthropology and media studies that I'm familiar with if you want to do well as a scholar you need a solid research output (preferably journal articles) so that you can score high in the government's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), soon to be replaced by a similar scheme. In addition, departments really like people with a track record in attracting substantial research funds and candidates who have a reputation for being easy to get along with. If on top of all that you are working in a cutting-edge field with great growth potential and you're good at job interviews, that won't do you any harm either.

Having said that, I don't mean to sound pessimistic about getting involved online. In fact, I am very optimistic in the long run. Owen Wiltshire who posted earlier is an example of how you can put your research work in progress online and get useful feedback - plus you get to know other students and scholars in doing so. I try to do the same in my research blog. There are a growing number of us in anthropology who are using blogs and other sites to write research notes, draft papers, think aloud and engage in scholarly and civil society conversations. I am confident that this is having a beneficial effect both on our careers and on the field as a whole. Even five years ago there was far less in the way of online anthropological conversations than there is today.

In the specific case of the OAC and how to foster more exchanges, I would suggest the following:

(a) that those who've created groups assume responsibility for getting discussions under way and sustaining them in cooperation with a hardcore of enthusiasts; it's no good starting a group in the hope that others will carry the conversational burden or that conversation will emerge spontaneously; if you started it, you lead it (at least until you can find a capable successor)

(b) that group leaders relocate their groups HERE, to the main forum, where they will attain much greater visibility and a larger pool of potential contributors than in their currently hidden locations; in other words, that current groups morph into forum threads; at present I think we're dissipating our collective energies into a myriad small groups; after all, the predominant form of sociality in this kind of online environment in not group sociality but rather thread sociality (Postill 2006).

Amen

Postill, J. 2006 Dramas, fields, and threads: exploring sociality in a Malaysian cyberdistrict. Paper to the workshop ‘Complementing Community: Expanding the Conceptual Repertoire of Sociation’ Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Annual Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, May 9-15 2006.
John Postill said:
(b) that group leaders relocate their groups HERE, to the main forum, where they will attain much greater visibility and a larger pool of potential contributors than in their currently hidden locations; in other words, that current groups morph into forum threads; at present I think we're dissipating our collective energies into a myriad small groups; after all, the predominant form of sociality in this kind of online environment in not group sociality but rather thread sociality (Postill 2006).


This strikes me as an excellent suggestion. As things stand now, starting with group formation replicates the discipline's ongoing fragmentation. Starting discussions in the main forum, then shifting to groups to dig deeper into issues of particular interest to only some of us could be a better process.


Postill, J. 2006 Dramas, fields, and threads: exploring sociality in a Malaysian cyberdistrict. Paper to the workshop ‘Complementing Community: Expanding the Conceptual Repertoire of Sociation’ Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Annual Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, May 9-15 2006.

Is this paper available on line?
John, thanks so much. In a brief initial scan, your observation that community and network have been taken as opposites that frame debate caught my eye. Are you, I wonder, aware of the work of Canadian Sociologist Barry Wellman? He has some interesting thoughts about "community lost," "community found," and "community liberated" in relation to the development of network analysis. You might find it useful to check out some of the papers at

http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/index.html

Cheers,

John M

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