Wed 28 Sep 2005
Rex at Savage Minds has badly misrepresented my recent criticism of his focus on the products of anthropology rather than the product (see his post group research + digital collaboration != FLOSS) – or he debates in an aggressive style that I'm just not used to, at least not in the blog format. But I feel the need to clarify and rebut, and I choose to do it here both because the direction of the discussion at Savage Minds has gone far from the original post and because I expect this post might be interesting to far fewer people.
In recent comments Judd Antin argued that the heart of what it means to 'open source' is to engage in a collaborative 'process' of scholarly research, and that simply releasing a finished 'product' such as an article that can be freely circulated is secondary this more central meaning of 'open source.'
I argued that anthropology and ethnography are both a product and process, and that if we get stuck on the product (publications), we could miss many opportunities for open source-style processes. I also argued that looking at the processes of both FOSS and anthropology was necessary for examining the analogy. The assertions that products are secondary and process is more central are purely Rex's additions. My own contribution was to say (trying to draw an analogy between FOSS and anthropology) that if process is where FOSS is truly new, different, and potentially successful, perhaps anthropology ought to look at it too.
Judd's idea, as I understand it, is to use digital technology such as blogs and wikis to facilitate group research. As someone who contributes to wikipedia and has my own (somewhat languishing) research blog I obviously agree with this. But I don't understand why he thinks what he is doing is 'open source'.
I would never claim that our work on the Digital Youth project is purely 'open source,' but I would absolutely argue that it is 'open source-like.' Importantly, I'm not restricting myself to thinking about ethnography as the act of collecting data, but rather the entire process of collection and analysis. I agree with Ozma's point that an individual going out into the field is often disruptive enough, and that sending a whole team out might be worse. But our 'source' is not only ethnographic data collected in the field but the collective efforts of the team of researchers and informants who, through analysis, help piece together a jumbled pile of narratives, interviews, fieldnotes, audio and video recordings, etc. Oneman comments:
But if we accept that large-scale group work is not easy to pull off in the field, what about the “second-order” work? Drawing on the FOSS analogy, the average programmer him- or herself is likely to be something of a loner him- or herself. Code isn't generally written as a team effort (with exceptions, as in fieldwork). FOSS development becomes collaborative a degree removed from coding itself—when a project coordinator of some kind (whatever his or her title may be) correlates and disseminates the software product, or correlates and distributes feedback (e.g. bug reports).
Here here. I just wouldn't call the process of analysis 'second-order.'
In sum, group research + digital collaboration != open source.
Agreed! Did I say that? I think I said 'we're committed to open sourcing our process as much as possible in order to develop a community of 'developers' and 'consumers' around our work.' For me a large part of making our work open source-like is opening our analysis process (and thereby the data) up to a larger community of people. We also hope to use digital media to gather together an even larger group of interested people with whom we can discuss and share the many elements of the analytic process that don't involve only the data, such as literature, news, and other resources.
In fact one could criticize Judd by arguing that if he was truly committed to having an 'open' development process for his research, he would release all of his data and writing into the public domain so that it could be built upon by others… I wonder, for instance, if the human subjects review board who ok'd this project would have done so if they knew Ito and Lyman (the PI's of Judd's project for whom, btw, I have enormous respect) planned to release onto the Internet the names and social security numbers of the children they studied?… The point is just that although Judd claims to be hewing more closely than I to the model of open source as practiced by programmers, in fact his use of the term to mean “group research + digital collaboration” is in fact quite removed from a strict reading of what it means to be 'open source.'
Ugh. I don't consider open source to be an all or nothing proposition. There doesn't seem to be much consensus on what exactly 'open' is within the FOSS community – take for evidence the huge number of licenses that exist under the umbrella of FOSS. So we might say it's a little premature to lay down the law for 'open' in anthropology. And (thankfully) I never questioned Rex's adherence to open source, nor compared it to my own. It's not a competition (again, thankfully). It's odd also that Rex would choose to make a point about releasing names and SSNs for so many reasons, including that it's kind of a low blow, that it capitalizes on recent hysteria about data privacy and security, and that I mentioned in my original comment that we shared his concerns about our material not being 'ready for primetime.' When I said that I didn't mean, of course, just that we were nervous because our work might not be properly cited (or some similar academic faux paz). As Rex himself notes, ethnographic data and code are not the same, and we owe a lot more care to people than we do to code.
This example—that human subjects have human rights which perl code does not—indicates one of the many ways in which the idea of “debugging culture” as if it were code rests on a raft of problematic assumptions about similarities coding and anthropology which I don't have time to get into here.
Getting back to my original point, I thought we started talking about the analogy between FOSS and anthropology. Whether it is apt (or could be) is at the heart of the question. I'd love to hear Rex's thoughts on why the analogy between debugging code and doing ethnographic analysis doesn't work for him. For me it works well. I've found that the experience of opening my data up to a larger community of people has helped me to gain insights I might not otherwise have. 'Debugging culture' is not for me about the relationship between people and code, its about the relationship between the process of finding and fixing bugs in software and the process of finding patterns and drawing them together during ethnographic analysis.
Anyway, I hope there can continue to be a targeted discussion about the potential for porting some lessons from FOSS into anthropology:
What is the 'source' in open source anthropology?
What is an 'open source' product in anthropology? What is an 'open source' process?
Is there something about anthropology that makes it a challenge to implementing an open source-like model?