Category: "Us and Them"
It all started when anthropologist Andreas Lloyd (University of Copenhagen) was browsing on the Internet looking for a new laptop computer and ended up installing the free Windows alternative Linux. Two years later, he finished his master thesis “A system that works for me” - an anthropological analysis of computer hackers’ shared use and development of the Ubuntu Linux system.
The thesis is a study of the Internet Gift Economy. Linux is developped by computer geeks saround the world, collaborating over the Internet, building a computer operating system in their spare time, which can be downloaded, installed, used and modified completely for free. It is among the biggest and most complex engineering projects ever conceived and built:
Based on more than 2 years of daily use of the Ubuntu Linux system and 6 months of online and in-person fieldwork among the developers working to develop and maintain it, this thesis examines the individual and collaborative day-to-day practices of these developers as they relate to the computer operating system that is the result of their labour.
A group of Spanish computer scientists measured the size of a Linux system similar to Ubuntu, and found that it contained around 230 million lines of source code. When they translated this into the effort spent on writing this code using a standard software industry cost estimate model, they found that it would correspond to almost 60.000 man-years of work (Amor-Iglesias et. al. 2005). By comparison, it took an estimated 3.500 man-years to build the Empire State Building in New York, and 10.000 man-years to build the Panama Canal. This immense effort makes modern operating systems such as Ubuntu among the biggest and most complex engineering projects ever conceived and built.
So the anthropologist was curious to learn more about how the hackers collaborate to build such an intricate system, and to learn why they were doing all of this work just to give it away for free.
How do you do fieldwork among hackers around the world? He explains:
I joined the Ubuntu on-line community on the same terms as the Ubuntu hackers, contributing to and using the same system, sharing their experiences with the system, and meeting them in-person on the same terms as they do at the conferences at which they gather, experiencing the same social and technical means and limitations through which they develop the system.
In order to do participant observation in this on-line space, I began contributing to the system by writing the system help and documentation, rather than the system itself due to my lack of technical understanding. In this way, I could take part in shaping Ubuntu alongside other community members while slowly developing a feel for the everyday exchanges and work in the community.
His thesis is by the way neither dedicated to any girl friend nor his parents:
In the true digital spirit of this work, I dedicate this thesis to Rosinante, the laptop on which I first experienced the Ubuntu system, and which was my faithful companion during my fieldwork and the writing of this thesis, only to bow out a week before tsafe for so long.
(Links updated 11.1.17)
Another article about military anthropologists: The Christian Science Monitor writes about anthropologist “Tracy” who helps the US Army in their war against Afghanistan. Tracy “can give only her first name” to the journalist:
Evidence of how far the US Army’s counterinsurgency strategy has evolved can be found in the work of a uniformed anthropologist toting a gun in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Part of a Human Terrain Team (HHT) – the first ever deployed – she speaks to hundreds of Afghan men and women to learn how they think and what they need.
Finding ways to challenge that fear – and learn what makes Afghans choose to support the government or its enemies – is the job of the HTT. The key ingredient is a “senior cultural analyst,” in this case, Tracy, the anthropologist in uniform.
She has interviewed hundreds of Afghan women and men, sometimes for hours on end, hearing how most are “so tired of war.” In nine months, Tracy has gained deep knowledge, she says, aimed at helping “fill the vacuum that the Taliban and other nefarious actors want to fill.”
Tracy tells Afghans that she wants to “enhance the military’s understanding of the culture so we don’t make mistakes like in Iraq.” But the bar is high, and this village with the medical clinic shows signs of militant influence, such as being “coached.”
Still, Tracy says that she sees real progress, “one Afghan at a time.” And the US military’s views are evolving accordingly, away from firepower to a smarter counterinsurgency.
“It may be one less trigger that has to be pulled here,” Tracy says of the result. “It’s how we gain ground, not tangible ground, but cognitive ground. Small things can have a big impact.
What holds humanity together? What are the hidden or unacknowledged features of mainstream society? These are the issues that 21st century anthropology should address, Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes in his paper The perilous identity politics of anthropology, Keynote lecture at the conference “21st century Anthropology” at the University of Oxford 28–29 June 2007.
“Obsessed with everything that divides humanity for a hundred years, anthropology could now be ready to return to the commonalities, that which holds humanity together", the Norwegian anthropologist suggests.
And rather than studying down, we have to begin to study sideways and up. “The crowded field of minority studies", he writes, “in no way matched by an equal interest in majority studies":
A possible solution might consist in making a real effort to study the basic institutions of society – any society – essentially through ethnographic methods, in the same way as we should – again – begin to address the central intellectual questions of today, in the domains of development, democracy, rights, human nature and the environmental crisis. This is being done already, but in too modest a way to make an impact proper. (…) Anthropological studies of everyday life in a modern society, municipal politics, diplomacies, government corporations, schools, hospitals and even military academies exist, but most of them focus too much on culture and too little on the features of the social organisation, in its formal as well as informal aspects.
Anthropology should confidently locate its focus of enquiry to the centre of society, using ethnographic methods not so much to create wonderment and surprise, but to reveal hidden or unacknowledged features of mainstream society. In this way we would be able to generate knowledge which is not only truthful, but also relevant and – dare I say it – useful. (…) Just as our predecessors took on the central institutions in their small-scale societies, we should now do the same thing in large-scale societies.
Nearly at the same time, Keith Harth published his paper Toward a new human universal. Rethinking anthropology for the twenty-first century, a lecture he is going to hold at the Center for 21st century studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the September 7th.
Keith Hart argues in a similar way. In his opinion, “the task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, even a world state, is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that":
The solution to anthropology’s problems cannot be found in increased specialization, in the discovery of new areas of social life to colonize with the aid of old professional paradigms or in a return to literary scholarship disguised as a new dialogical form. It requires new patterns of social engagement extending beyond the universities to the widest reaches of world society.
This in turn requires us first, to acknowledge how people everywhere are pushing back the boundaries of the old society and second, to be open to universality, most versions of which have been driven underground by national capitalism and would be buried forever if the present corporate privatization of intellectual life is allowed to succeed.
So, given the precariousness of contemporary anthropology as an academic institution, the issue of its future needs to be couched in broader terms than those defined by the profession itself. (…) Rather I have sought inspiration in Kant’s philosophy and in the critique of unequal society that originates with Rousseau. ‘Anthropology’ would then mean whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone.
I’ve finished reading Talal Asad’s new book On Suicide Bombing. It belongs to the category of books I like most: It challenges common assumptions, makes us think (not so important if you agree with him all the time or not). By showing that the world is more complex, that you can look at the phenomenon from many angles, Asad does his job as anthropologist well.
In case of suicide bombing, one of his points is that suicide bombers might not be so something that special: Is there really a big difference between soldiers at war and suicide bombers? What actually is terrorism? What kind violence is labelled as “legitimate” and why? What role do common ideas about “civilized” and “uncivilized” people play in this discourse?
As Asad writes:
My argument is directed against thinking of terrorism simply as an illegal and immoral form of violence and advocates an examination of what the discourse of terror - and the perpetration of terror - does in the world of power.
Instead of a review (which I’m going to write in Norwegian), here some selected quotes.
I’ll start with the Epilogue
Western states (including Israel) have now massacred thousands of civilians and imprisioned large numbers without trial; they have abducted, tortured, and assasinated people they claim are militants and laid waste to entire countries. (…) In the long perspective of human history, massacres are not new. But there is something special about the fact that the West, having set up international law, then finds reasons why it cannot be followed in particular circumstances. I find this more disturbing than the sordid violence of individual terrorists.
It seems to me that there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by its insurgents. In the case of powerful states, the cruelty is not random but part of an attempt to discipline unruly populations. Today, cruelty is an indispensable technique for maintaining a particular kind of international order, an order in which the lives of some peoples are less valuable than the lives of others and therefore their deaths less disturbing.
The perception that human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples is not only quite common in liberal democratic countries; it is necessary to a hierarchial global order. (…) All this is familiar stuff, and yet our media and our political potboilers remain obsessed with the ruthlessness of jihadists and the dangers of an unreformed Islam.
The majority-minority discourse in Canada doesn’t seem to differ from the discourse here in Norway “Anglo culture is dominant and taken for granted; minority cultures are automatically ‘different’", Yasmin Jiwani writes in the Vancouver Sun. There, recent media attention focusing on the murders of women from the South Asian-Canadian community has invoked a now-familiar refrain – “it’s the culture.”
But as Jiwani - associate professor in the department of communication studies at Concordia University in Montreal - stresses:
The interpretation of culture favoured by proponents of this view tends to dilute the complexity of the issues and presents a static, monolithic view of culture. Cultures are dynamic, as any self-respecting anthropologist will tell you.
If we embrace the culturalist argument, we are adhering to a view that cultural groups are static relics isolated from the mainstream. More than this, we are positing that individuals within a particular cultural formation represent the entirety of that culture.
If this were indeed true, we would have to agree that someone like Willy Pickton, an alleged mass murderer, is representative of the dominant Anglo culture. Further, whatever crimes Pickton has been charged with, it follows that such crimes are endemic to and reflective of his whole culture. There are some who would agree with this viewpoint.
That aside, the Anglo culture is a dominant culture – its norms are often taken for granted and normalized, whereas minority cultures such as South Asian come under heavy scrutiny and their practices are often highlighted as markers of cultural difference, separating these groups from the mainstream.
For instance, each time a woman from an Anglo background is murdered, do we have reporters dwelling on her cultural background? We don’t, for example, get lengthy descriptions regaling the cultural facets of the burial, the wedding, or how they met despite or in spite of the fact that all of these practices and actions are undoubtedly culturally grounded.
These descriptions, if they are mentioned, are not culturalized but rather normalized as the dominant ways of doing things. Even which culture is categorized as a “culture” depends on who is doing the defining, the classifying and for what purpose.
The lesson in this is that if the cultural group you are critiquing is powerful, chances are your critique will be silenced. If however, the cultural group you are slamming or stereotyping is not so powerful, then there is little likelihood of the critique being challenged with the same force and with the same alliances from powerful political elites.
“Muslim religious leaders are not only working with local authorities but are helping to decrease radicalisation", stresses anthropologist (and blogger) Gabriele Marranci. During an International Conference on Extremism in London, key authorities were criticized for not listening to Muslim Imams who reach out to offer help. They were criticized for paint the Muslim community as un-cooperative at the same time according The Voice.
“During my research, I found no evidence to suggest that the Muslim chaplains are behaving or preaching in a way that facilitates radicalisation. On the contrary, my findings suggest that they are extremely important in preventing dangerous forms of extremism. However, the distrust that they face, both internally and externally, is jeopardising their important function.”
Marranci researched on islam in prisions: How does being behind bars impact on Muslim identity and their experience of Islam? He interviews over 170 current and former Muslim prisoners in Scotland, Wales and England and lived with the families of former prisoners. His study Living Islam in prison: faith, ideology and fear showed that sometimes it is actions by the authorities-and not Imams- which can make a situation worse. Current efforts by the authorities to curb radicalism within UK prisons are having the opposite effect according to the anthropologist.
His study said, the Voice writes, Muslim prisoners are subjected to stricter security surveillance than other inmates. Marranci claimed that security policies within prisons - including restricting praying in a communal space or reading the Qur’an during work breaks - are exacerbating, rather than suppressing the radicalisation process.
In a recent entry in his blog he gives us more details about his studies and concludes:
The terrorist threat, as well as the general representation of an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ Armageddon battle, is polarising, in a very dangerous way, prison life. On one side are the Muslim prisoners, with a minority of radicals but a majority of ordinary Muslims pushed towards the aforementioned because of the discrimination they suffer. On the other side are the non-Muslim staff and prisoners whom understandably develop resentment towards the terrorists, but which too easily becomes resentment towards the ordinary Muslim prisoners.
These circumstances maximise the possibility of attacks against Muslim prisoners, and consequently provide a fertile soil for successful radicalisation of Muslim prisoners.
Yet I have the impression that the Prison Service and the Government see ‘extremism’ as merely the product of ‘indoctrination’. Yet, as my research suggests, ‘extremism’ within prison should be tackled by rejecting over focused Muslim-centric security policies in order to develop an encompassing strategy against intolerance. (…) I have highlighted many times to the Prison Service that extremism and radicalism are not just Muslim issues. Within the prisons there are visible increases in right-wing ideologies and a high level of unnoticed intolerance.
The ‘War on Terror’, he stresses, is disintegrating the British Values: “Today we are ready to deport people towards their torture and death thanks to shameful political agreements with tyrants who shun our democratic values.”
Marranci is currently transforming his research into a book provisionally titled “Faith, ideology and fear: Muslim identities within and beyond prisons”. It will be published by Continuum Books in summer 2008. You can download a speech about his researchheld at the House of Lords.
On Sunday, the book was reviewed in the New York Times:
Asad (…) takes aim less at the Bush administration than at the rest of us, and at what he sees as our unspoken complicity in “some kinds of cruelty as opposed to others.” He hopes, he writes, to “disturb the reader sufficiently” by showing the hypocrisy of rules that permit murderous conduct by states but deny it to nonstate actors. And he is angered by scholars, theorists and journalists who don’t speak Arabic and have never set foot in the Middle East, yet sound off about why suicide bombers do what they do. He is understandably aghast that the American public has expressed so little shock over the bloodshed inflicted in its name.
And by the end of the book, his rage has overtaken him. The Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East have left him so disgusted that he declares simply, “It seems to me that there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by insurgents.”
It is hard to answer Asad’s argument without drifting into the distinctions he attempts to demolish. For instance, he cites the political philosopher Michael Walzer’s definition of the “peculiar evil of terrorism,” which, according to Walzer, is “not only the killing of innocent people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the violation of private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces, the endless coerciveness of precaution.” Asad then asks why the United States’ war in Iraq and the Israeli cluster bombs in Lebanon do not earn the same condemnation as bombs wielded by terrorists. But if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he intends.
Nonetheless, Asad’s book is valuable because the legal distinctions he is challenging are especially vulnerable now.
The review is part of the article Our War on Terror.
As Savage Minds already has noted, Columbia University Press has published a mp3-interview with Talal Asad. For more information on the book and Talal Asad see my earlier entry Anthropological perspectives on suicide bombing
More information will follow. I’m currently reading this book.
Michelle Shildkret from the National Geographic Channel writes to me and informs about a new TV-program called taboo. This season of Taboo premieres Sunday, August 5th.
Taboo is an hour-long program that challenges the way we look at other cultures and ourselves, by exploring practices that are completely normal to their participants but seem brutal, disgusting or even immoral to many of us today.
For those of you who - in contrast to me - have a TV, it will be interesting to check what kind of perspectives they have chosen - if it’s mainly exoticism or if they manage to challenge stereotypes and give deeper insights into the many ways we live on our planet.
National Geographic Channel has just posted three video preview clips on Google Video. One of them (see below) explores a ritual that brings boys into manhood, by having their skin sliced thousands of times to create scars that resemble alligator skin
More information: I’ve posted Michelle Shildkret’s email in the forum