Discussion of Barone and Hart's "The Open Anthropology Cooperative: Toward an Online Public Anthropology."

We've had some good discussions about the future of the OAC on various threads here and on the OAC Facebook page lately. Keith has suggested a couple times that it might be a good idea for more of us to read the article he and Francine Barone wrote about the formation of the OAC--and some of the possibilities and challenges with trying to build this online network. So here's a place where we can all download and discuss this article (and perhaps suggest other related works) and share some of our thoughts, responses, and ideas for moving forward.

Click here for the article.

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Beyond Ethnography


From Barone’s and Hart’s “The Open Anthropology Cooperative”: 

Our report has so far replicated the ethnographic model that dominates contemporary social anthropology. But that model was never intended to inform a movement to change the world.


For many the point of a public anthropology is to project one’s ideas onto a more general plane than the introverted professional circle with which we are familiar. Intellectuals generate ‘ideas’ and would like the public to be aware of them. But ideas are cheap. Everyone has ideas. The real challenge is to develop new social forms capable of expressing our ideas more effectively.


    Early in my participation on OAC I came across Francine’s and Keith’s early draft of this article.  I was very impressed.  Theirs is a bittersweet account.  On one hand, the articles tells the story of a group of idealists seeking to wrest anthropology out of ivory tower / corporate control and make it public.  On the other, it is a familiar, distressing lament of trying and not succeeding in bridging the world of words and the world of social action.  I share that concern. 

    For me the effort to understand the world around me and, finding it grossly wanting, to change it has taken the form of works in which I attempt to synthesize cultural analysis and cultural criticism.  Increasingly, I think it’s important to write with a hard edge and thereby, to mangle the metaphor, to make the pen into a sword.  I’m well aware that anthropologists have paired analysis and criticism in the past (Hymes, Marcus, Fischer come to mind – there’s even a “radical anthropology group” our there).  Mostly missing from these examples, though, is a bridge between quite rarified, cloistered writing and a thinking public that might be receptive to a project promoting major social change.  For me the model for such a synthesis is provided by the historical essays and journalism of Marx.  The Eighteenth Brumaire is a masterpiece of combining subtle analysis with a compelling call to action; every anthropology course on “ethnographic method” should include it as a core text. 

    Perhaps more to the point here, though, is Marx’s impressive accomplishment in communicating with very different audiences.  Set alongside EB and Capital are his newspaper articles for the New York Tribune during the 1850s.  One stands out in particular for me, given the current farce of the upcoming “democratic election” in the U. S., in which candidates receive hundreds of millions of dollars from anonymous donors through the Supreme Court-sanctioned “superpacs” (super political action committees).  Marx’s 1852 article,  “Corruption at Elections,” describes exactly the state of national government in the U. S. today: 

The bribery and intimidation practised by the Tories were, then, merely violent experiments for bringing back to life dying electoral bodies which have become incapable of production, and which can no longer create decisive electoral results and really national Parliaments. And the result? The old Parliament was dissolved, because at the end of its career it had dissolved into sections which brought each other to a complete stand-still. The new Parliament begins where the old one ended; it is paralytic from the hour of its birth.



    So, the big, outstanding question is: Can a public anthropology, assuming it can be created in the first place, accomplish anything in the public arena?  Here I’d suggest a broad, two-pronged approach, one engaging (in as out-front, in-your-face manner as possible) current social issues (migration, terrorism, climate change, rampant government corruption – just a few for-instances); the other an inner-directed confrontation with the little world of academics and academic publishing we find so oppressive.  I’ll just toss out one thought on each: 

Anthro agitprop:  Lately I’ve experimented on starting with cultural analysis, progressing to cultural criticism, then carrying on to propose scenarios engaging barriers to social change.  For example, in our OAC “Violence” forum I’ve posed the question why political violence in the U. S. is almost exclusively the province of the Right; what would it look like on the Left?  I even composed a little skit involving that war criminal, Don Rumsfeld.  More extensive efforts of this sort are found at the end of my (too long) essay, “By the Time We Got to . . .”  , at www.peripheralstudies.org

Subverting Peer Review.  John has called on us to do “guerilla marketing,”  Good idea.  Here I’d also propose a “guerilla anthropology.”  I think we’re all highly critical of traditional academic publishing, mostly kept behind paywalls.  That’s now begun to crumble here and there, in places like HAU and Cultural Anthropology.  They’ve gone so far as to allow “open access,” but have stopped short of introducing “open comment.”  But if one part of the academic publishing scandal is ameliorated, the other, peer review, remains unchecked.  I’d like to propose an “ethnography of peer review” project which would involve reproducing for all the world to see sets of peer reviews we and others have accumulated for our valiant efforts at publishing in academic journals.   I think it would be fascinating to review that corpus, including all its warts and blemishes.    

Abraham, I like the way you think. Just one question. You write,

A step would be to list all the resources a university offers that potential students of anthropology want that can be delivered online. The aim being to facilitate people (1) getting together or working with whatever organisation they have in place (2) and offering these resources for them to go about, in this case anthropology.

Please excuse the B-school language, but what about the other stakeholders? And what sort of resources can we offer? I'm assuming that funding and brick-and-mortar facilities are off the table. Am I wrong?

1. Huon has a good point about not conflating sheer numbers with success. He writes, "instead we should see the fact that a network like OAC has the potential for building a certain number of small, but workable relationships toward a new kind of institutional outcome as the important lesson." This is a powerful point. Rather than trying to just expand our numbers, I think this focus on building new kinds of relationships is an imaginative way of thinking about what we might do.

2. Keith notes that the social forms of higher ed are not static, and asks how higher ed can be made more democratic. He also asks what people want from higher ed, and how they get it. This makes me ask how something like the OAC can be used to foment democratic interventions inside and outside our colleges and universities. For me, the OAC actually did play this sort of role. While I was in the middle of closed grad school seminars I found my way here--and it changed much of the dynamic of my education because I wasn't just stuck in the confines of a university program. Being able to jump into a network like this was, for me, invaluable.

3. Abraham asks what universities deliver/provide, and what students of anthropology want that can be delivered online. He also says that the online world DOES NOT replace what he and his colleagues wanted from the university, which is face to face contact/conversation. I definitely agree with him on this point. He also sees the web as a "radically different type of communication," not some separate virtual world. This makes me think that one of the most powerful potential roles of the OAC is to act as a facilitator/medium through which people form new relationships--perhaps relationships that are not possible or likely within the current confines of many academic hierarchies. I think we can expand upon this aspect of OAC's potential for anthropology.

4. Abraham then brings up a very concrete idea: using the OAC as a tool for learning about and sorting through the core ideas of anthropology. I like his suggestion to do more seminars that focus on themes and concepts with the express intent of producing an end product/resource/publication. Great idea. Many of the OAC seminars are quite good--but it might be interesting to take them a step further--maybe using the OAC press--and turn them into papers and other OA resources that members can easily access, digest, share, and discuss. I also think Avi's idea to go for some different TYPES of seminars is excellent. We can use the seminars for various purposes. I like this a lot.

5. Lee brings up a two-pronged approach that includes a focus on addressing current social/political issues beyond anthropology, and some of the internal issues within anthropology (he mentions peer review as a good starting point). Both of these, to me, again suggest a need to start thinking more about specific projects and publications/media productions. if we're going to use this network as a tool to organize current social issues, what are we hoping to produce as the end result? Essays? Op-ed pieces published under the OAC Press? Other interventions? And what about the second part of his idea--addressing issues within anthropology? With both of these we'd definitely have to think beyond the kinds of media that we tend to produce here--blogs, long discussion forums, etc--and how we can present/frame what we write in order to move it around so that it can actually address the goals we're laying out. I do think that HAU and CA and some other pubs can give us some ideas. But I also think we could potentially go quite far by simply using the OAC Press in a more creative--and brash--way.

6. Publishing comes up a lot in these discussions. I think it would be both fun and critically important to think about ways that we can use the OAC to poke some stick at the beast that is the current publishing regime. If we approach this the right way, I think people would listen. For a while I have thought that it could be interesting to use the OAC as a sort of publishing collective in addition to some other things. Especially if we could think creatively about the whole idea of "peer review" and other issues related to legitimacy and authority in publishing.

7. Here's a concrete suggestion from me: since I think about teaching a lot, how about using the OAC to create Open Access course syllabi--starting with an intro to general anthropology. The trick here would using (or creating) all OA material to help students get around the insane costs of textbooks. I have heard of one OA textbook that is currently being developed, so maybe I could get in touch with the folks who are doing that.

8. Overall, what I see are two big themes: a) access to information and ideas; and b) relationships. The problem with the current university system is that many of the core relationships (department hierarchies, publishing paradigms, campus politics, etc) are often detrimental to the flow of ideas and information. The OAC--which cuts across state and institutional boundaries (sort of like the mobile money that Bill Maurer talks about in his new book) might be a way to bypass some--if not all--of these barriers.

Ok, time to put the kiddo to bed. More soon.

Ditto Ryan. Epic summary. Can we use this starting block for organising team please!
I would add that the best scholarship, anthropology or otherwise, goes about identifying the wholes in past work that have been pasted over with time and assumption, and digs them and brings them into the fresh air. We could do this as a way of focussing seminars on themes, its also very interdisciplinary and can be participated in by people with different 'levels' of knowledge e.g. a basic example would be this https://vimeo.com/145285143 where an archaeological and socanth basically realise the assumptions about our 'hunter-gatherer' past are probably bollocks. The result is quite refreshing.
I'm on board.

Abraham Heinemann said:
Ditto Ryan. Epic summary. Can we use this starting block for organising team please!

It seems I helped explode the discussion to wide, so to bring back some focus:

I do not really agree with one of the main premises of this article, that it is mainly ethnographic. Yes it may well cover some aspects of 'ethnographic', but it is also missing a large component to fully make that a complete claim. The article itself points out the large demographics from different parts of the world but doesn't actually go about actually asking those members why they joined and so forth.

This article has done a great step-one + auto-ethnography, but step-two is to do a wide-angle direct questioning of its membership and step-three is to follow this up with a few focussed interviews with a small selection. 

Plus if the OAC wishes to be 'democratic' and 'practice new social forms' then I suggest it/you/we go about doing that.

Has the OAC ever used the technical capabilities of Ning and Facebook to submit a very simple and short questionnaire (informed by the article at hand) to talk to its 'click' membership?

If not sign me up.

What Abraham says, with one caveat. Before we get to questionnaires and follow-up interviews, we need to begin with ourselves. We are a small but diverse group, and a bit of brainstorming about why we are here and what we are attempting to do will identify differences that affect what we want to see in the questionnaire.

We have had strong, cogent statements from Abraham and Ryan. I would very much like to hear from Christine and Robin, too, before we get too deeply into concrete planning.

I agree and we should consider that always when a group is going to do something new happens this..to big seems everything, but is good, it is necesary step as well to be focus..to go in zig -zag, we should think in terms of time too, to draw a map with the comments , just to see the future with the changes ..that could help us to follow better ...the change it is not going to be just now..we scan see it maybe in trhee or two month..if the "overheating System" asks more...well, well, as we say in Spain...MAÑANA!!!  We are working seriously!!!


I think OAC was an attempt of a(anti)Globalist Project. Even today there is sufficient foundation to develop such sort of anthropological theory. Speaking scientifically aGlobalist project. Why not ?

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