Ever since Europeans first came to Australia, public views of Aborigines have veered between two extremes. Aborigines have been promoted either as disgusting savages or as admired paragons, uncivilised riff-raff or as noble bearers of their culture - bad or good, but never ordinary.
As we now enter a new phase of Aboriginal affairs, Indigenous Australians once again enter the public mind as radically different types of people. On the one hand, we are bombarded with material about dysfunctional communities plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, rampant violence, uncontrolled children and chronic sickness. On the other hand, we routinely hear about “the oldest living culture in the world”, Aboriginal people caring, sharing and looking after country, and the profound qualities of Aboriginal art.
In these circumstances, it’s hard to know what “the oldest living culture in the world” might be. Indeed, it’s hard to know what people are talking about at all when they refer to “culture”.
We’ve heard a lot of arguments about the “true” nature of Aboriginal culture in recent weeks. Some say Aboriginal culture fosters violence against women and children. Others gainsay this and suggest that violence is cultural breakdown stemming from neglect and marginalisation by mainstream Australian culture. There are many more axes to grind in relation to employment, health and education, but always with a view to promoting a good or bad image of Aboriginal people, not to mention a good or bad image of the “mainstream culture” which provides Aboriginal services.
This blame game doesn’t give us “the truth” about Aboriginal or any other culture. It simply reduces the extremely complicated relationship between Aboriginal communities and all the arms of the state (governments, bureaucracies, the police, land councils, schools, health centres, etc.) with which they engage. Recourse to “culture” always seems to deliver imagined parodies of real life, transforming it into something inordinately valuable or completely worthless.
British cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked that “culture” is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. (...) In fact, it’s an empty word: you can fill it with pretty much anything you like. That’s why it functions so well in slogans.
In the meantime, there are many people both inside and outside Aboriginal communities who recognise that there are big problems in Aboriginal affairs. It’d be good if they could all be allowed to get on with the job of finding appropriate solutions to those problems without “culture” getting in the way.
(post in progress) Threatening deadlines prevented me from updating this blog as often as I should/ would like to and I haven't checked the news for a while. Here are at least some of recent blog posts:
Email scams constitute the third largest industry in Nigeria, after oil and drugs. These email-scammers succeed because they play on stereotypical understandings of Africa, anthropologist Elina Hartikainen concludes in paper, that she presented at a conference few weeks ago.
Most of us have received emails from African chiefs and businessmen, or relatives of them, with pleas for assistance in retrieving large sums of money that for some reason is inaccessible for them. As compensation we are promised a sizeable percentage of it. In 2001 alone, “Nigerian scammers” have earned around 500 million dollar from victims all over the world.
The spam filters at Hartikainens university are not that good, so she received lots of these scam-emails and started collecting them. There is no thing on earth that cannot be of interest for an anthropologist! When she finally read through one of the emails, she was totally fascinated by the ways in which it played on stereotypical understandings of Africa.
The power of these e-mails to engage their recipients in further interaction is centrally founded on the senders’ artful calibration of both the content and form of the e-mails to Western stereotypes of Africa and African cultural practices. It is by representing themselves as embedded in webs of corruption, oil wealth, religious piety and traditional inheritance customs that the senders of the requests for assistance construct themselves as imaginable characters to their Western audience.
She provides this example. “Mrs.Princess Mawa” writes to her, telling about the death of her father, a wealthy businessman:
Following his death, his family members insisted that I am not entitled to his property (Assets and money) since I am a woman and my offspring is all girl as I do not have a male child for my late husband claiming that it is what our tradition entails. Well, because of this barbaric traditional law here in COTE D’IVOIRE which doesn’t permit a woman to inherit her Husbands property incase of death if she has no male child, the relatives of my late Husband are expected by tradition to take over the management of his business and other properties including myself who automatically becomes a wife to one of his immediate brothers.
This description of Princess Mawa’s situation in terms of traditional, barbaric kin and inheritance customs plays a dual role in enticing the recipient of the request into responding to it. On the one hand it serves to reinforce stereotypical understandings of African tradition that circulate in the popular media. (...) On the other hand, Princess Mawa’s condemnation of her own society’s “barbaric traditions” and particularly her claim to invest her share of her money in her daughter’s education (...) create the possibility for the recipient of the letter to claim that in the final run their decision to cooperate in the scheme is not motivated by financial profits alone, but it is also morally justified.
One can expect that no one takes these mails seriously. But those who do, respond on the basis of impressions of the senders’ intellectual inferiority, Hartikainen supposes. Many of the victims, she writes, consider themselves to be scamming the scammers only to realize that it was not they who were playing the scammer for the fool, but the opposite.
The paper is not yet available online. But she has an interesting blog called becoming an anthropologist - about me and my life somewhere between bahia, chicago and helsinki where she will publish the paper when she has "cleaned up the paper", since it is "still in more of a presentation format".
Thomas Hylland Eriksen didn't make it to the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology (delayed plane), but his paper is now available online. It's called "The cartoon controversy and the possibility of cosmopolitanism". Cosmopolitanism, he explains, is like respecting the ban on smoking in the public:
Let us suppose that secularised Danes were to take the religiosity of Muslims seriously and treat it with respect, much as they treat their old parents with respect. In that case, they would easily know how to maneuvre in order not to offend them. Not even trying to maneuvre indicates a strong inclination not to live in the same society even if one lives next door to each other. The kind of cosmopolitan attitude leading to restraint can be compared to the underlying reasoning behind the ban on smoking in public, which is these days being implemented in many parts of the world (...).
The point is, however, that supposing I smoke and you do not, and we are in a room together, I might just tell you that if I smoke and you don’t, we both enjoy our liberal freedom. This is the problem of the cartoon controversy and the simplistic liberal responses to the offended reactions among Muslims. Muhammad cartoons to them are like tobacco smoke to an asthmatic.
What's the point of anthropology conferences? (general summary of the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology)
In 1974, fascinated, I pressed my nose to the window at UMIST and watched huge tapes turning on large metal boxes that filled the ground floor of the building – yes – it was that big! Operators and programmers were hurrying around wearing white lab coats, anti-static caps and shoe covers. My awed guide informed me in hushed tones of the need for a dust-free, climate controlled environment. It was a computer (I believe it was the MU5).
Twenty four years later I had one of my own, albeit slightly smaller, sitting on a table in the corner of my living room at home. What’s more it was connected to the Internet. I was still fascinated, I could go anywhere in the world and speak to anyone in the world. I had to know more: who was out there; what were they doing; why were they doing it and how. So I turned up in the Anthropology Department at the University of Hull in September 1998 and announced that I was going to do an ethnography of the Internet. Little wonder then that they didn’t quite know what to do with me!
Academic works on the subject were pretty thin on the ground, and the approach was mainly that the Internet would revolutionise social relationships. Turkle (1995 Life On The Screen) and Stone (1991 Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?) both wrote extensively about how the perceived anonymity provided by Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) would allow people to explore alternative aspects of their identity and of themselves like never before. Even Benedikt (1991 Cyberspace: First Steps) and Rheingold's (1991 Virtual Reality) early assessments of the revolutionary nature of the Internet led them to believe that it would bring about immense transformations in social life. However, the text that influenced my own work the most was Markham’s 1998 book Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space.
At the time I wrote for the RCCS:
The focus of Annette Markham's book, Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space, is the "lived experience of what it means to go and be online" (18). It constitutes a useful resource for students who like Markham find the writing of online ethnography "more slippery than I ever imagined" (19). Whilst acknowledging the fragmentation of a field that is experienced 'more by individuals that by collectives,' she succeeds in constructing an account that combines scholarly text and narratives into a reflexive ethnography that is eminently readable, both as a scholar and as an Internet user. Although the format of the book is laid out in chapters, Markham adopts the strategy of weaving Interludes into her narrative. These Interludes not only allow the reader to engage with her thoughts as she confronts the interplay of our fundamental, constructing relationships in both the real and the Virtual worlds. Interjected into the narrative are smaller parcels of text that represent her lived experience of her research enabling the reader to understand what she was thinking and feeling at the time. Both strategies act as signposts on the journey to discover how users make sense of their experiences in computer-mediated contexts. Along the way she asks new questions about the issues of self, identity, and embodiment that illustrate how her understanding of these concepts shifts and develops along the journey. Indeed, the notions of shifting contexts, shifting reality, and changing perspectives are dominant themes as the project progresses.
I loved the book (and still do) - it was one of a series of ethnographic alternatives - I almost ran around the department shouting 'look! see! A real ethnography! I am not the only one!' It is still the first text that I advise anyone to read, both inside and outside of academia.
Join me over the next few weeks as a guest blogger here as I chart the changes in perspectives that have informed both my own work and anthropology as a discipline, and discuss the challenges currently facing anthropologists in cyberspace. The Internet has not changed anything. Instead we use the Internet to change the ways we do things.
(via anthronaut) Cyberanthropologist Alexander Knorr has written a brilliant comment on "social sciences software licence madness". Provoked by an entry at ethno::log about a text analysis software for social scientists with an extremly restrictive licence, he wrote among others:
The minimum fee for using the software for academical purposes amounts to 192,- Euros. plonk* Usage duration is limited to a maximum of one year. :o Do I get this right?(...) The copyright holders of GABEK® aim at a certain academical group as potential customers. As GABEK® is to be used for "a thesis (e.g. master thesis etc)", and the project has to be "no larger in scope than a dissertation".
Well, till some years ago I was within that group, too, and I wrote a doctoral thesis. Interested in the results? Well, go and buy the book, 395 pages of glossy paper, containing a juicy story of anthropology, sex, drugs, magick, and rock'n'roll. For 19,- Euros, 13,- Euros if you are a student. If you have bought the book, it's your property, you can do with it whatever you want to. You can read it until you die, you can put it below your table-leg if that one happens to be exactly 2,1 cm too short, or you can make a bonfire of it. As you wish, it's your property then. No interest in spending nineteen Euros? Then, the fuck, download the whole piece of shit. The exact .pdf-file from which the printer made the book is online for free, CC-licenced. Welcome to the 21st century.
Information wants to be free, especially information and knowledge generated within academia. And academical knowledge that I am generating — if I ever really will, that is—for sure doesn't want to be the property of the maker of the tools I used to generate it. Adobe never asked me to send them one of my books for free, just because I used software they created to make a .pdf of my text.
Savage Minds has recently done an excellent job in hosting guest bloggers. During the following weeks and months, you might also read entries from guest bloggers here on antropologi.info. My main objective is to to broaden the anthropological community / blogosphere by recruiting anthropologists that have never blogged before, but you might also find texts by other bloggers on specific topics.
PS: While both anthropology.net and Savage Minds follow the American 4-field-approach, the focus here on antropologi.info is rather on the British tradition of social anthropology (or lesser known traditions).
First Guest Blogger: Denise Carter. Her first post: The Birth of a Cyberethnographer: The MU5 is to Blame
Back from the annual conference of the Norwegian Anthropological Association, I must say that I prefer Norwegian conferences to British ones - at least regarding the way papers are presented. While papers in Britian are read - in a formal (and mostly boring) way, papers in Norway are presented in an more oral way. The audience expectes you to make them smile or (even better) laugh - otherwise you aren't regarded as a good paper-giver. "I could have listened to him for several hours", many participants said after the presentation by Edvar Hviding about fishermen on the Solomon Islands (many brilliant pictures!). Many great presentations!
Maybe culture can explain something here? Norwegian society is quite egalitarian compared to other countries and academics are frequently present in mainstream media. You are expected to be "folkelig" - meaning "like normal people" and tear down the walls between academia and the people outside.
PS: By the way, Antropyton announced that she's going to share her thoughts about the conference with us (I'll be blogging in Norwegian only).