Anthropology and the challenges of sharing knowledge online: Interview with Owen Wiltshire

What’s the point of science when the public lacks access to it and researchers hide in their ivory towers? The internet provides new ways for researchers and the public to exchange knowledge. How do antropologists make use of blogging, Facebook, YouTube and new modes of publishing, for example Open Access journals?

Sharing Knowledge: How the Internet is Fueling Change in Anthropology is the title of Owen Wiltshire’s master’s thesis in anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal.

“Plans to study anthropological online communities and Open Access movement”, I wrote three years ago, when I first heard about his project. A few weeks ago, he’s defended his thesis. So, here’s a short email interview with him.

Owen Wiltshire. Photo: private

– How was the thesis defense? What kind of reactions did you get?

– It was much more dramatic than I expected. One reader took offense to what I had written in Chapter 2 about the history of anthropology. She felt the entire chapter should be removed.

The history of anthropology section was meant to reveal that anthropologists have reasons for increased collaboration with non-anthropologists, reasons to engage with public audiences, reasons to give people outside academia a place to respond to what anthropologists write.

Unfortunately, the way I did this led some people to think I was attacking them and their profession.

– Why did you choose to study your own discipline online instead of studying mobile phone use in Papua New Guinea or immigrants in Toronto?

– I saw open access publishing and new online publishing options as being important new developments that might contribute to “decolonizing” the creation and dissemination of anthropological work.

– So how is internet fueling change in Anthropology? Can you give us 3 examples?

– The desire for changes in anthropology that I discuss had been occurring well before the Internet became popular. But the Internet, of course, is a revolutionary technology that allows anthropologists to target all sorts of different audiences in new ways.

The main points of change I addressed were:

1. Open Access (OA) publishing is helping researchers disseminate work that might normally remain geographically bound due to the costs to access it.

As Max Forte pointed out, most OA journals in anthropology come from what would be the periphery of anthropological publishing. This is interesting when we see that that academic publishing, at least in terms of the American Anthropological Association, continues to be very geographically centered, even ethnocentric to a degree.

Open Access journals are a way for international scholars to make their work accessible to researchers abroad. OA might help scholars in places like Brazil have their work recognized in North America. Of course language divides remain.

2. Blogging and other ways of creating publicly accessible, archived, discussions are an awesome way to develop ideas throughout and after the research process!

It really opens the door for anyone to participate, to react, and to help guide research through feedback (however nasty it might be). It helps make writing research reports a more iterative process, where researchers can bounce ideas off each other and other audiences, prior to publishing.

For anthropologists who have been criticized for misrepresenting communities (as I have with anthropology!) it makes sense to work in as much discussion like this as possible. I tried to show how this could occur by incorporating blog responses into the thesis. Where I may have been wrong about anthropology as a whole (you can make that decision yourself), I think my biases are balanced out to a degree by the included responses.

3. Welcome the uncensored, unreviewed voice of the anthropology students.

I think we can be a pain in the ass, but I can’t imagine going through the program without reading so many other blogs by people going through the same thing in different institutions.

– Anthropologist have been described as “the last primitive tribe on earth”: They hide in their ivory towers and look with suspicion upon new technologies like the internet. Does your research challenge this assumption?

– I made this argument in my thesis, and its true to a degree, but I take it more as a argumentative point. Anthropologists and other academics are making use of the internet and just about every new tool that comes their way.

The point I make in my thesis is that the ivory tower remains even when we use these tools in public.

I used the distinction which had been developed in discussion with a number of anthros, including some people at Savage Minds, and Max Forte, and Erkan Saka, of there being “anthropology in public” and “public anthropology”.

Even if you write about anthropology in public, it doesn’t mean you are addressing interests outside the ivory tower. That is where public anthropology comes in, where anthropologists address issues outside the ivory tower. When they do this however, it is a challenge to identify what makes the work academic. Michael Wesch’s youtube videos are a great example of this that I discussed very briefly in the thesis.

– Why are some anthropologists interested in sharing and open access, while others are not?

– Some see the discipline of anthropology as being an expert and professional society. They want to share their work with other anthropologists who have the same interests and concerns as themselves. Feedback from random Youtube users, or even people in other disciplines, isn’t very valuable to them. The feedback they can get through peer review in professional anthropology journals is exactly what they want, as is the recognition.

Also, I don’t think every researcher agrees that expensive academic journals fail to disseminate work. They only want to share their work with a select audience, and don’t see the point in making it available free online. In the end they disagree that free access would improve the impact of their work (it comes down to who they are trying to impact).

– What are in your view the main barriers to open access publishing?

– Some professors encourage students to look at select journals, and they don’t consider the Open Access journals that are out there. If researchers only use Jstor and Anthrosource to find material, they are missing out on a lot of what is being discussed – yet this is standard practice and considered to be acceptable.

Is it a researchers responsibility to make themselves aware of everything that’s being published out there? Or is that unreasonable? The increasing number of journals around the world make it quite difficult to do a complete literature review! If we can’t funnel it down to a select number of publications, it is impossible to ask researchers to keep up to date. But if OA journals are ignored, many researchers may never realize how beneficial it is to be able to openly link to, discuss, and talk about publications online.

– But you stress that OA Publishing does not necessarily lead to a more public anthropology?

– Yes, OA publishing is just about making anthropological research more accessible to its desired audience. It doesn’t mean anthropologists are writing with the intention that public audiences interact with it, or that it be relevant to public interests. Also, if you look at OA repositories, theres still no effort being made to host responses, so we can’t say that OA is an attempt to get more feedback.

– Do you think we need a more public anthropology? OA Publishing is not enough?

– I think it’s easy to adapt anthropology and research to public contexts, but at that point it ceases to be anthropology as we know it. I would have loved to come out of my masters degree program with more experience producing video, and documentary-like productions. Maybe I should have studied communications. Speaking of which, my roommate studies Communications, and we shared many of the same readings. Finally, as I develop in the thesis, theres nothing inherently good about public engagement – take a look at the Human Terrain Teams for example.

– You’ve done your fieldwork mainly online. An interesting experience?

– Yes. I think the blog experiment worked out rather well, showing that the blog can be used to solicit feedback throughout the research process and not just as a way of disseminating/publishing ideas.

– The most interesting thing you have learned?

– It is really easy to piss people off when you critique anthropology.

– What are the implications of your research?

– Feedback is important, and sharing ideas openly online is a great way to solicit that feedback!

– Final words to the readers in front of the screen?

– Job wanted.

>> download the thesis

>> visit his blog


Interview with Michael Wesch: How collaborative technologies change scholarship

antropologi.info survey: Six anthropologists on Anthropology and Internet

Open Source Anthropology : Are anthropologists serious about sharing knowledge?

Democratic Publishing = Web + Paper

Book and papers online: Working towards a global community of anthropologists

Paper by Erkan Saka: Blogging as a Research Tool for Ethnographic Fieldwork

Cicilie Fagerlid: “Blogging sharpens the attention”

Anthropology blogs more interesting than journals?

Anthropologists ignore Open Access Week - a report from Wellington

Interview: Meet Dai Cooper from The Anthropology Song on YouTube!

(updated) Danah Boyd on Open Access: “Boycott locked-down journals”

Marianne Gullestad and How to be a public intellectual

Open Access Anthropology in Africa - an introduction

More and more anthropologists, but they’re absent from public debates - “Engaging Anthropology” (1)

“Minimal willingness to post one’s own work online", survey by the American Anthropological Association reveals


Comment from: o.w. [Visitor]

Thanks for the coverage Lorenz!

2011-04-13 @ 21:18
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for the interview, Owen - and for your research!

2011-04-14 @ 01:55
Comment from: Jim [Visitor]

Great Interview! I love to hear insight on how the internet is changing this field. PJ Thomas has a theory on it too http://themoreproject-tlj.blogspot.com/p/qualitative-vs-quantitative-research.html

2011-05-01 @ 01:53
Comment from: Paul [Visitor]

Anthropology, like philosophy, is pushing the boundaries of its areas of interest and research. Understanding is paramount in order for the wider, non-academic community to share some of our enthusiasm, and to value the work being carried out.

2011-05-05 @ 11:14

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