George Marcus: "Journals? Who cares?"

When George Marcus, one of the most influential anthropologists, was in Oslo recently, I asked him what he thinks about Open access. His answer surprised me. “Journals? Who cares?", he replied. There is in his opinion little original thinking in journals, there are no longer exciting debates. “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older", he said. “I don’t care.” He explained that “journals are meant to establish people", to advance careers.

George Marcus offered similar pessimistic views in an interview in the journal Cultural Anthropology (subscription needed) in spring. Among other things, he said, that there are “no new ideas in anthropology".

Maximilian Forte at Open Anthropology does not agree with Marcus and summarizes parts of the interview in his post George Marcus: “No New Ideas” (2.0) & the After-Life of Anthropology (1.1)

I mentioned Forte’s critique. Marcus replied “Of course Forte does not agree. Younger anthropologists are interested in progress and new ideas.”

Additionally, Marcus explained me his vision of the anthropologist as collaborator. Anthropologists should not study other people, but work together with them, and treat them as co-researcher. Nowadays, our informants may be interested in the same questions as the anthropologst, and they might even have studied anthropology as well. Marcus wrote an experimental book about the nobility in Portugal called Ocasião: The Marquis and the Anthropologist, A Collaboration.

George Marcus talkes about these issues in another interview in the Open Access journal After Culture, see Elise McCarthy, Valerie A. Olson: After Writing Culture: an interview with George Marcus.

See also the website of the Center of Ethnography that he has established and the website of the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory where there are lots of papers, among others Marcus’ Notes on the Contemporary Imperative to Collaborate, the Traditional Aesthetics of Fieldwork That Will Not Be Denied, and the Need for Pedagogical Experiment in the Transformation of Anthropology’s Signature Method

George Marcus is best known for the books Writing Culture (edited together with James Clifford) and “Anthropology as a cultural critique” (written together with Michael Fischer)

For those of you who can read Norwegian, there’s an article by me on George Marcus here.

UPDATE: Peter Suber (Open access news) comments:

Did this transcript miss something or did George Marcus miss something? Even if we concede for the sake of argument that there are no new ideas in the field of anthropology, and that journals are more about advancing careers than advancing research, Marcus’ answer was not responsive. Apparently he thinks OA is all about journals, which it isn’t. It’s all about access, which may be through journals or repositories or many other vehicles (like wikis, ebooks, multimedia webcasts, P2P networks, RSS feeds…). It’s as if someone had asked, “What do you think about freedom of speech?” and he answered, “Public speaking? Who cares? It’s all grandstanding and vanity.”

Good point! I have to admit that Marcus was very busy and did not have much time for this interview - and I had lots of questions! We talked just a few minutes on Open Access while we we took the subway from the city up to the university campus at Blindern. He said he admires Chris Kelty’s work on open source and open access, but he does not seem to be up to date in regard to blogging, web2.0 etc (few anthropologists actually are, and most anthropologists have never heard of the Open Access movement)

ANOTHER UPDATE Dorothea Salo does not agree with Peter Suber. Yes, its about journals, she writes.

What is it we’re asking faculty to self-archive? Theses and dissertations, yes; (…) If we weren’t talking about the journal literature, why would repository-rats get so much flak (…) when we take in other things?

So follow Dr. Marcus’s train of thought here: if the journal literature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, why would he waste time fighting for open access to it? There’s a lot to fight for in the world!

Interesting comment by Chris Kelty on journals:

I think George is right that journals are not where the action is—- and this is related to why I and others are so passionate about open access. Journals are increasingly getting slower, more clogged with submissions, finding it difficult to get reviewers, cash strapped and so on. And at the same time, getting published in a “good” journal (i.e. one with “prestige”) is getting more and more important for people who want permanent jobs in the academy.

the result is that the interesting debates and discussions have moved elsewhere… in some fields (though not anthropology, I fear) they have moved online and into the blogosphere. In others (anthropology I fear) they have retreated into departments and enclaves of other sorts, or have produced and increased sense of alienation from things.


Comment from: Maximilian Forte [Visitor]  
Maximilian Forte

I am relieved to know that he took my comments in the right spirit. I had to rewrite large parts of that post since its earlier versions appeared to basically replace critique with slagging, a mistake since I agreed with large parts of his interview, most of it in fact. For example, I agree with his views on collaboration 100%. I frankly cannot do otherwise ever again – I find that my previous “fieldwork” experience was almost embarrassing: going unannounced and uninvited, to insert myself into people’s lives and lay them out for the world and for my career. I look back and wonder how I actually had the nerve to do it. On the other hand, I doubt I would have learned of the many limitations and questionable features of “traditional fieldwork” if I had not had this experience myself.

I also liked Marcus’ “Journals? Who cares?” comment, not because I refuse to ever read a journal article again (the truth is that I prefer to both read and write books), but for the exact same reasons that he outlines above.

I also suspect, as the earlier versions of my mini-essay betrayed, that I had misunderstood Marcus on a number of key issues, so again I am relieved that he does not sound like he has some deep personal grudge.

2008-10-26 @ 02:56
Comment from: Maximilian Forte [Visitor]  
Maximilian Forte

…sorry for the spam as usual, I forgot to add this qualifier:

I of course love to read blogs, and writing for blogs. In fact, I don’t think I ever really appreciated being in anthropology quite as much as when I started to pay more attention to blogs.

2008-10-26 @ 02:59
Comment from: [Member]

Yes, I also like what Marcus said about collaboration and your quote thought-provoking

I find that my previous “fieldwork” experience was almost embarrassing: going unannounced and uninvited, to insert myself into people’s lives and lay them out for the world and for my career.

2008-10-27 @ 02:11
Comment from: george e. marcus [Visitor]  
george e. marcus

I am sure I said something like (or exactly that) on the fly as I was talking to Lorenz on the way to a seminar in Oslo (which I was thinking about more than our talk at that moment). Mea culpa. I am certainly not the crabby old guy watching the scene passing by, as the sound bite would portray. Actually I had quite a good conversation with Lorenz in his enthusiasms for open source, etc.

Combined with the phrase ‘no new ideas’ from a 2006 interview published recently in Cultural Anthropology, it would seem that I think anthropology is at a dead end. Far from it. I do think that at the moment the most creative and novel thinking in anthropology is in its forms of knowing and engagement, its revisions and designing of research in the face of shifting forms of communication, new media, and the politics of doing ethnography. This is not a search for a new, improved method, but it is about meta-method as a form, and its challenges when anthropologists are developing constituencies for their work among other circles, communities, spheres of expertise, before or alongside the professional anthropological court of assessment and judgment.

This merging of anthropology, through its own curiosities, with new ideas out there, that resemble the anthropologist’s own creates a first order problem of reception for anthropology in establishing authoritatively its own stable knowledge forms (In this I suppose the journal form is a problem, but an interesting rather than an exhausted one to be dismissed–again mea culpa).

Ultimately, the form/content distinction that I am relying on becomes two sides of the same coin, but for heuristic purposes, I think it is valuable to place an emphasis on the special challenges of form rather than content at the moment.

Having experienced and been shaped by the ferment around theory and ideas of the later 70s through the early 90s, I still see that period as providing the basic intellectual resources for the present. So in that sense, there are no new ideas specific to anthropology, such as a new theory, view, concept of power, identity, culture etc. But the forms of data, and of the ’stuff of the world’ that anthropological research engages and the forms of reporting that it creates are a vibrant arena of disinctively new ideas for anthropology, in the shadow of well-established, but still motivating conceptual content.

My thinking on this has been developed in sustained conversations with others and is best reflected in the following:

- Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke 2008 (conversations with Paul Rabinow, James Faubion, and Tobias Rees),

- Navigators of the Contemporary:Why Ethnography Matters , Chicago 2008, by David Westbrook (a law professor who produced this after sustained discussions with myself and Doug Holmes),

- Fieldwork Is not What It Used to Be, edited with James Faubion, forthcoming from Cornell (consisting of papers looking back at training, based on the Rice experience),

- the ‘talking projects’ of the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine, which has operated recently between an interest in collaborative forms of inquiry today and design processes overlaid on the ethnographic form.

2008-10-28 @ 22:39
Comment from: Alexandre Enkerli [Visitor]  
Alexandre Enkerli

Sorry to be coming so late to the party. And I’ve merely skimmed this post and comments. But I must admit that this conversation pleases me as it addresses an issue I’ve had with coverage of academic issues for a while. I do care about Open Access. But the emphasis on existing journals (and, more pointedly, on publishers and subscription fees) has buried the issue of access under a pile of arguments about the current mode of academic publishing. Same thing with the tenure-track system, the “publish or perish” race, and the distinction between academia and applied work.
All this to say that this is a refreshing change.
By the by, I’m a young anthropologist. Not even tenure-track.

2008-11-07 @ 23:36
Comment from: [Member]

OpenAccess will probably make the search for “good” journals to be published in, even more pertinent. OA journals are just too many. When someone is applying for a position, maybe it will become standard practice to weed out OA journals from CV’s. OA represents quantity over quality.

The problem is that there is a separation between “real” journals and OpenAccess journals. If only “real” journals could see that OA is not an either/or option, OA could actually be an option together-with traditional print/sale.

2011-05-04 @ 15:26
Comment from: [Member]

yes, I agree. There might be too many OA journals, and I suppose, only few of them will survive in the long run.

2011-05-05 @ 03:13

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