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This year's annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is in San Francisco from Nov. 19th to Nov. 23rd. Looking through the preliminary program (PDF), there are a ton of interesting sessions. As usual, it's bound to be an absolute clusterf*ck, and each time slot has about 30 sessions in different rooms. Oh well. Anyway, I pulled out just a few of the interesting sessions:

Wed. 11/19

12 – 130
Chair(s): P Kerim Friedman Organizer(s):
P Kerim Friedman, Michael L Wesch
Participant(s): P Kerim Friedman, Todd S
Harple, Kimberly A Christen, Eric C Kansa,
Casey K O’Donnell, Michael L Wesch
Discussant(s): Christopher M Kelty

Chair(s): Chia Yuan Hung Participant(s):
Chia Yuan Hung, S A Mousalimas, Sundy L
Watanabe, Wesley R Shumar, JoAnne Kleifgen,
Katalin J Kabat

6 – 730pm
Chair(s): Eleana J Kim Organizer(s): Elise
Marie Prebin, Nan Youngnan Kim–Paik
Participant(s): Elise Marie Prebin, Nan
Youngnan Kim–Paik, Fabienne Duteil–Ogata
Discussant(s): Ellen Schattschneider, Michael

Thurs 11/20

1015 – 12
Chair(s): Barbara Herr Harthorn Organizer(s):
Barbara Herr Harthorn, Laury Oaks
Participant(s): Barbara Herr Harthorn, Theresa
A Satterfield, Muriel Vernon, Kathi R Kitner,
Lucia L S Siu, Laury Oaks Discussant(s): Jo

145 – 545
Chair(s)/Organizer(s): Arthur D Murphy
Participant(s): Thomas Pluckhahn, Carly L
Hertz, Arthur D Murphy, Linda J Jencson, Chris
McCarty, Christine B Avenarius

Friday 11/21

145 – 330
Chair(s): Joshua P Feola Participant(s): Joshua
P Feola, Shelia Pozorski, Ruben G Mendoza,
Louis W Fortin, Jeb J Card, Amy J Hirshman

Invited Session: BRICKS, BLOGS AND
Chair(s): Lisa Bintrim Participant(s): Lisa
Bintrim, Amelia M Moore, Maria T Brodine

Presidential Invited Session: THE
(Sponsored by SUNTA)
Chair(s)/Organizer(s): Sally Engle Merry,
Setha M Low Participant(s): Sally Engle
Merry, Signe L Howell, Maria Teresa Sierra,
Michael Herzfeld, Kamari M Clarke, Ida
S Susser, Alan Smart, Kamran A Ali, John
L Jackson Discussant(s): Barbara Rose
Johnston, Merrill C Singer, Sally Engle Merry,
Setha M Low

Saturday 11/22

1015 – 12
Invited Poster Session: PERSPECTIVES ON
Chair(s): Philip E Coyle Participant(s): Patricia
J Hammer, Katherine S Nutter, Sarah D Cote,
Philip E Coyle, Marcela Uribe

145 – 330
Chair(s): Daniel Hruschka Organizer(s):
Brandon A Kohrt Participant(s): Joanna P de
Berry, Kent S Glenzer, Lisa M Rende Taylor,
Brandon A Kohrt, David M Citrin Discussant(s):
Lynn M Sibley

330 – 530
Chair(s): Lauren G Leve Organizer(s): Ilana
Gershon Participant(s): Jeffrey D Himpele,
Joshua Malitsky, Ilana Gershon, Laura E
Kunreuther, Daniel B Noveck, Amanda
Weidman Discussant(s): Susan Gal

Chair(s)/Organizer(s)/Introduction: Jonathan
S Marion Participant(s): Sara E Perry, Kate
Hennessy, Anne Zeller

Sunday 11/23

1015 – 1245
Chair(s): Elizabeth Keating Organizer(s):
Elizabeth Keating, Chiho Sunakawa Inoue
Participant(s): Chiho Sunakawa Inoue,
Leighton C Peterson, Qing Zhang, Josh
Iorio, John Handy Bosma, Elizabeth Keating
Discussant(s): Lucy Suchman

Update: In my quick skim through the program, I missed the session put together by my former Digital Youth colleagues. Apologies! I'm sure I've missed other interesting sessions too, so post them in the comments:

Friday 11/21, 4 – 530
Chair(s)/Organizer(s): Patricia G Lange
Participant(s): C J Pascoe, Christo Sims,
Patricia G Lange, Dilan Mahendran, Dan
Perkel, Rebecca Herr

Joe Hall reminded me of an interesting article from the New Yorker back in Dec.:

KNOWING THE ENEMY (The New Yorker, 12.18.2006)

The story is about an Australian Army Captain and anthropologist named David Kilcullen who has studied counterinsurgency and is now trying to help the US government make better decisions in the war on terror.

Many anthropologists are extremely wary of working for the gov't, largely because of folks like Margaret Mead who worked for the War Relocation Authority during WW II. Unfortunately, this debatably-dubious application of anthropology has gone a long way to sullying the reputation of applied anthropology in the academic community. In my opinion, applied anthropologists should absolutely be working for the gov't, especially in their capacity as cultural brokers and translators. Politicians are some of the most myopic people around – anthropologists can help.

This video from Michael Wesch, an Anthro. Professor at Kansas State, is less interesting to the tech. savvy crowd than it likely is to many anthropologists. Still, it's fairly well done, and in my mind fairly uncontroversial. (Which means there's sure to be some debate).

David Hakken, author of a series of fascinating but fairly impenetrable books like Cyborgs@Cyberspace? and The Knowledge Landscapes of Cyberspace dismisses the summary in a very 'ivory tower' sort of way:

I found it an interesting animation of much of the promotional drivel I hear from promoters of so-called social networking software, completely lacking in any critical perspective or sense that such claims about the world need to be evaluated against evidence. This is not an information ethnography in which I am interested.

Ken Erickson of Pacific Ethnography, on the other hand, understands what the video is actually about, responds with (I think) the appropriate amount of perspective despite his admitted lack of technical expertise:

I thought it was an introductory think-piece designed perhaps to inspire undergraduates to think more about the Internet. And on U-Tube. Why aren't other anthropologists or IT design researchers on U-Tube? (Maybe they are and I'm just not an adept.) Do we all have nothing worth saying that can be said in five minutes? I bet we do. I say, Bravo Dr. Wesch. And, I'll bet this could become an interesting thread. Maybe Dr. Wesch will join in.

And, of course, what would a 'critical' debate among anthropologists be without resorting to WMDs – that's Weber, Marx, and Durkheim.

The idea that the web "learns", that we are the web, etc. etc. restates the venerable Marxian argument about how human labor gets embedded in technology, and subsequent generations of that technology fully incorporate and make automatic what formerly could be done only through direct human action. It's the same phenomenon one sees in the evolution of tools used to make other tools — Volume 1 of Capital has a chapter called "Machinery and Modern Industry" which lays out the basic ideas (It also discusses the "intensification of the working day" — something most dot-com worker bees like myself would've been able to relate to, if we'd had any free time to read long books.) — Jerry Lombardi

The discussion goes on through AnthroDesign, but where does this leave us with our impressions of anthropologists? Confused, I think, since even in this short debate we span from scholars like Hakken who are clearly extremely knowledgeable about new technologies but also overly dismissive and haughty about thought-provoking commentary on them, to others who attempt to integrate ideas about Web 2.0 with classical social theory.

For my part, I thought the video was a nice (if technocentric) summary of how the confluence of certain trends have laid the groundwork for the social phenomenon we see today (which is sometimes referred to by the shorthand Web 2.0. Ok, I'm cool with that). My only real 'critique' stems from the pet-peeve of my adviser, Coye Cheshire. And that's this: let's not start with the assumption that Web x.0 changes anything. Let's assume – reasonably based on historical evidence – that seemingly paradigm-shattering technologies tend to influence organically, not seismically. What's going on right now is not so fundamentally different. Although it's all those little details that make it fascinating.

Couldn't resist sharing this wonderful link, which came to me via AnthroDesign and to them via Steve Portigal:

MSN Careers 20 Oddest Jobs

Check out #19. Are these the sorts of things that people think of when they think about ethnographers??

There has been a lot of well-deserved discussion and praise around Paul Dourish's Implications for Design paper at this year's Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference. (Or so I've read, since I'm not actually there.) For the unfamiliar, CHI is a multi-disciplinary but computer science and design dominated conference. Many of the practitioners and researchers in that community have adopted various versions of ethnography in recent years, mostly bastardized, and almost always subsumed by a technology and design-centered focused.

Much of what Paul has to say mirrors debates that have been going on inside of anthropology over the last 25 years or so. (Writing Culture and after. For a nice, succinct synopsis of the last 75 or so years of anthropology see this.) More recently some of them have spilled out into the applied anthropology community, primarily I think because it is multi-disciplinary and hierarchically aligned much the way CHI is. I mention this not to degrade what Paul says – actually the opposite. One of the greatest challenges of applied anthropology is what we might call cultural brokerage – a translation between stakeholders inside of diverse groups. (Disclaimer: Wikipedia's discussion of applied anthropology is pretty good IMHO, up until it gives a set of 4 example problems that do a remarkably terrible job of capturing what applied anthro. is about today.)

Paul clearly believes in the potential of ethnography but is keenly aware of the prevalence of misuse and misunderstanding. Case in point – and my own personal pet peeve – the widespread misconception that ethnography is a qualitative method. (In fact, ethnography is a mixed-methods approach that entails a specific perspective and analytical frame.) The paper is well organized and written, and does a clear job of illustrating his main points: that ethnography is too often poorly or incorrectly applied in the CHI community in a way that both misrepresents what ethnography is about (e.g. theory AND practice) and drains it of much of its potential for informing ongoing understanding about the design and use of technology in everyday life.

I tried to make many of these same points in my paper Cultural Assessment for Sustainable Kiosks which I'm presenting at next month's International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, but I haven't been nearly as eloquent about it as Paul has. Still, I hear a lot of people asking healthy questions like "What's *is* ethnography really?" and thinking about how to apply it in the most meaningful way. I hope that signals a shift out of this transitional period where folks seem to know that ethnography is a powerful tool but have very little concept of how or when to use it, what to do with data once they've got it, or how to ground ethnography in theory.

I really appreciate what Paul is trying to do, and I think he's uniquely positioned to do it. He's someone who is extremely accomplished and respected as a member of the CHI and CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) communities, but clearly has a command of the disciplinary history of anthropology and the theoretical and analytical foundations of ethnography. That his paper has sparked so much interest and debate at CHI (including a nomination for the best paper award) is a testament to his quality as a thinker and writer.

Belatedly catching up on more of the SfAA meetings:

Wednesday afternoon I gave my talk about holistic cultural assessment in ICT for Development projects in an evaluation-focused session that my former advisor, Tony Whitehead, put together.

Aside from the fact that I thought my talk went pretty well, and Tamar was brilliant, there were a couple of other highlights of the session. First, Charity Goodman from the USGAO had some interesting things to say about 'anticipatory anthropology' and 'foresight work'. Now, these were new concepts to me, and it seems like a formalization of something that most good researchers do anyway, but I like the idea of applying a systematic, culture-centered approach to thinking ahead.

I couldn't find an easy definition of any of those terms. Anticipatory anthropology seems to be something that many folks put in their lists of interests, but skip out on defining. But I did find an interesting site on 'Ethnographic Futures Research' that probably overlaps quite a bit. This Wikipedia article on futures research is also an interesting (and slightly comical) read.

The second thing I wanted to mention about the session was the comments of Mary Odell Butler, who works at Battelle. Mary has had a long career in evaluation, and is one of those rare people who can speak broadly and concisely in a way that is easy to understand. I found her comments on all the papers to be wonderful and insightful. In particular I remember the wisdom of her suggestion that anthropologists ought to quit using the word 'culture' wherever possible, especially when working in multi-disciplinary and non-academic environments. It's not that it isn't a valuable concept, it's just that it creates a discussion that can be as much an argument about what culture means as an exploration of the particular phenomenon under discussion. And really, she said, there's no point in arguing about what culture means.

The larger and more interesting point she made is that talking about culture instead of more specific perceptions or processes, is a scapegoat. It relieves us of the burden of explaining specific ideas, habits, and histories. She gave an example that I remember well. Contrast these two statements:

Many African-American women have developed a culturally-based perception that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.


Many African-American women have learned through their experience and that of their friends and family that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.

Culture, in other words, is too often a gloss for actual perception and practice. Why not call a rose a rose? (I hope I've been fair to her intent with these remarks – and I hope I'll hear about it if I haven't!)

Today's Distinguished Lecture at Berkeley iSchool was cancelled because the speaker, John Perry Barlow, got stuck in LA. Big bummer. The title of his talk was to be 'Is Cyberspace still anti-sovereign?' and I have to admit that I was going to go mostly for a view of the personality. So I was sad the lecture didn't happen.

But people still came, since they didn't cancel until the last minute. And it was an interesting group. I think Barlow brings the 'anarchists' and the 'hackers' out of the woodword – they glomb on to his rhetoric about freedom and regulation on the Internet. As we were standing around in the hallway, eating on the food that was supposed to be for the lecture reception, a guy walked up to me, dressed in a certain stereotypical way with torn clothes, patches and symbols, safety pins, jeans, a hoodie, etc… He had been sitting on the floor to the side with a friend. He raised his arms in the air and said 'Who's a programmer here?' Surprised, and not ready for my ethnographic encounter, I said something non-comittal like 'Well, I guess we all are sort of.' I was standing with some folks much more saavy in that department than I. The guy paused for a minute and said in the same sort of way 'Who's a hacker?' We looked at each other – probably because no one had ever asked us that before. I think a few thoughts went through my mind right then:

  1. What's a hacker?
  2. I suppose I'm a hacker – I try in my own little way to 'break' technology to do what I need it to do. But that's getting less and less unusual.
  3. If I were really a hacker, would I admit it? Would I want to talk about it?

So I made some comment similar to the last. Not engaging, more surprised and confused than anything. He mentioned he runs a major 'Whacker' site – again, what's that? And that he thought he'd meet a lot of like-minded folks at the lecture. He was dissapointed it wasn't going on. Here's a definition of 'Whacker' I found on answers.com:

1. A person, similar to a hacker, who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities. Whereas a hacker tends to produce great hacks, a whacker only ends up whacking the system or program in question. Whackers are often quite egotistical and eager to claim wizard status, regardless of the views of their peers.

Then he started to rail on ICANN. He actually said 'Down with ICANN!' And I was surprised and unready again. Of all the evil tech. institutions in the world, I have found relatively little attention to ICANN. He also mentioned that he loves Tor.

So then we left. And he left. And as I walked away, I thought, 'Judd! You dumbass! You just missed a perfect opportunity to find out about another person's life, another POV!' I should have asked about 'Whacking,' and what he hates about ICANN, and why he likes TOR. I was curious what he does during the day, how he got into running a website, and why he likes John Perry Barlow. But I missed my chance. I hope, next time, I won't be so dumb. I'll be more prepared.

On Wed. morning I went to a great session titled Knowledge Flow in 'Real' and 'Virtual' Spaces.

Patricia Lange (San Jose State U.) led off talking about her analysis of 'tech talk' in online chats. She argued, in a nutshell, that debaters and 'flamers' often resort to morality as the basis for critiques in the great Linux/Windows debate. Her talk was an interesting mix of social-rhetorical analysis and ethnomethodology. Later on, Patricia and I talked a bit about whether the tense of statements in a chat room has any influence on the arguments, whether it's intentional, etc. What I mean is, in most chats you can either type something directly, in which case the text appears as : or you can give a command that makes a statement in the 3rd person, as in thinks the Linux/PC debate is pointless. These two different forms might say something about the speakers' strategy for conveying power or authority through online chats. Anyway, a point for further discussion.

Roxana Wales also gave a nice talk on her work at NASA with the Mars rover missions. She's just recently moved to Google, not to work on a product, but to study work practice and growing pains at Google itself. Very cool stuff, and I can't wait to hear more about it.

Elizabeth Churchill also gave a great paper in which she described her work with an interactive community bulletin board in a caf space. I really loved her discussion, partly because it was well framed, and partly because it meshes really well with recent thinking I have been doing on the power of soundscapes as a shared 'canvas' for communication, collaboration, and creativity. Although Elizabeth's story ended sadly (the touch-screen bulletin board broke and no one paid to fix it) I think it's way ahead of its time. One question, largely unresolved, is how people will respond to the presence of new and potentially foreign interaction artifacts in their space. Which technological frames will they use to understand them? Are the ads? Are they like physical bulletin boards? Like computers or laptops? Fascinating questions.

Perhaps the best part of this session, which attracted a small but vocal and diverse group of people, was the discussion. We had a good 30 minutes of chatting about a variety of issues. This is why I love the SfAAs they bring together a generous and curious group of folks who just want to share ideas. I hope there continue to be more IT-related folks at the meetings. Brigitte Jordan has been a fixture for the last few years, and I have really enjoyed her contributions, beginning with a roundtable on corporate anthropology at the 2004 meetings in Dallas.

More later

So, Tamar and I just got back from this year's Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Vancouver. I meant to write some posts while we were there, but I realized that I'd much rather spend my time actually going to the conference and hanging out with old (and new) friends than blogging.

Before we ever got to the conference, my first time to Canada started with a bang owing to the Dufferin Hotel. Two stars my ass. And a word to the wise: if the hotel doesn't put any pictures of itself online, be worried. Very worried. Boy was I mad when I called Priceline. Smelly, dark, dirty, old, mostly broken, under construction, no deadbolt on the door. We lasted 20 minutes. Thankfully we got our money back, but because Vancouver was so full of anthropologists (or whatever) most of the hotels were full. So we ended up in the only slightly more upscale Boseman's Motor Lodge. But at least it was clean and safe. Actually, over the course of the week we learned to appreciate the old Boseman.

But, to the conference. In a nutshell: this year's SfAA was, as usual, a wonderful gathering of diverse people. The two best things about SfAA are that you can never guess which talks will turn out to be interesting and relevant, and the feeling of the meeting is so casual and collaborative. Even though many of the talks themselves can be tedious, usually owing not to the idea content but the presentation style, the discussions are always great.

And, of course, Vancouver is a beautiful city with lots of good food and drink. The weather was actually quite nice better than expected.

Anyway, I have a few more comments on specific sessions and stuff, and I'll make them in order just a few days delayed from real time.

Tomorrow I'm off to Vancouver to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA). This is a wonderful conference, and I highly recommend it. In the last few years the number of people who are doing work combining anthropology with design and various IT-related fields is growing – and fast. Add to that the fact that the meetings provide a genuinely diverse set of perspectives, and include a group of people that are (in my experience) knowledgeable, humble, friendly, and eager to collaborate. As compared to the AAA meetings, SfAAs tend to be more informal and to have a great deal more discussion and debate. Check out the program if you want to get a sense of it.

This year I'm giving both a talk and a poster. My talk, terribly titled 'Cultural Assessment of Kiosk Projects,' is on Wednesday from 3:30-5:20. Hopefully I can learn from some of the insightful comments on giving talks from Steve and Lorenz. It's on work I'm doing on integrating cultural assessment into the design and evaluation of projects in the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) space. This is getting to be a crowded field, and my own contribution is small, but I feel like I've got a good handle on the transitions that are happening from the perspective of applied anthropology.

And like many others, I have first hand experience with the fact that development researchers in many fields are starting realize that anthropology and ethnography are important, but they understand it as a set of methods only. While I have no pretensions about ethnography, as opposed to some who argue that 'real' ethnography can only be done by anthropologists, I do think many well-meaning researchers and practitioners in other fields actually do us a disservice by trying to use ethnographic-like methods. In trying to advance the case for ethnography to their colleagues, they often have no real 'ammunition' except that they know it ought to be done. This, in my opinion, is the same, and just as bad, as technologists who throw gadgets at development problems because they can, hoping that one will solve the problem.

My poster, during a session on Friday from 1:30-4, is based on work I did with Ben Gross regarding how people manage multiple email addresses, messaging accounts, and the like in the course of everyday life. We wonder: what are the factors that influence habits, perceptions, and decisions around complex, multi-faceted lives online? This is my first poster at the SfAA, and I'm kind of psyched for it. Poster sessions seem much more engaging than paper sessions, where the audience is always at a distance.

I hope to be online and blog some of the sessions as we go along. If you're also attending the SfAAs, drop me a line.

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