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Nose to the grind

Well you may think being a blog anthropologist is all parties and hot chicks, but unfortunately not :-(

The anthropological method is inductive, you’re meant to draw conclusions from data, rather than testing hypotheses and theories. So, a major task of any anthropologist is gathering empirical data – as much as possible: classically, this means participating and observing social life amongst the people you are interested in finding out more about, then going home and writing down all you can remember. You also do more formal interviews and perhaps surveys too.

An interesting thing about blog anthropology is that a lot of the social interactions happening are there on the net for all to see – i.e. in the blogs, the comments, the chat boxes. So I have spent the whole day archiving all the posts I can find about the Nuffnang Pajama Party; I found 64 posts done after the party, and 58 pre-event posts. It took nine full hours. After that I’ll need to analyse them, uncover patterns, etc…

A few points immediately:
• There were about 300 bloggers at the event. Most of them would have had to do a pre-event post to get a ticket. There were prizes too: the three lucky winners were Davidlian, valerie, and “Johnathan from Penang who won an Apple Macbook for having the most number of actual Chipster packs in one photo.” (robbchew).
I can’t find the post of the last guy, which highlights the first problem – I only have 58 out of approximately 250 pre-event posts (assuming some brought friends, etc.). Where are the rest?
• The number of post- and pre-event posts are suspiciously similar. The way I got them was through ‘snowballing’: going to one blog, clicking on the links left by commenters, checking their blogs, finding commenters there, etc.
So basically I’m going to get groups of bloggers who comment in each other’s blogs, and will miss out on isolates and groups that have no members in common.
The solution would be to ask Nuffnang kindly for the list of blog posts they had to have for organisational purposes. But that information isn’t necessarily theirs to give out…
• Which takes us to a third issue, relating to research ethics. There’s a lot of debate about the ethics of using material on blogs or other internet venues for research: the basic question is – do you need permission to use material in someone’s blog for research? Is the blog in a public space and therefore open for anyone to use – like I can use material from a newspaper or take pictures of public performers? A more accurate analogy perhaps is a person standing in a public square telling everyone what they think of the world, or something.

Do any bloggers out there have an opinion? How would you feel if you found out I’ve been saving all your blog posts for the last three months, and I’ve tracked all your online conversations that I’ve been able to follow? What would you want or not want me to do with that information?

Some thoughts on anthropology and history

Durkheim originally argued that a true sociology/history would come about as a result of the blending of history and social science (Rules of the Sociological Method [?]).

Collingwood provides a suggestion that anthropology, which is concerned with the analysis of ‘other’ cultures, also has similarities with historical analysis in that historians have to understand that fundamentally different presuppositions are brought to bear in different historical and/or cultural situations (Collingwood 1972)

Inden provides an example this blending of historical and anthropological analysis (Inden 1990).

Bakhtin also uses an exploration of historical analysis to challenge the monological nature of many theories cf.(Morson & Emerson 1990).

The impossibility of predicting the future also relates to an understanding of historicity. Bakhtin rejects the approach that claims that all is relative because this fixes the result of historical analyses in advance and argues that “…history requires unfinalizability.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44). One solution frequently proposed, the diachronic approach, is frequently deficient in that it is often “…nothing but a series of synchronic slices, with no intelligible historical links.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44), or is a synchronic view that unfolds over time. “Unfinalizability and prosaics are missing from such models, which make change the result of causes outside human agency, uniform in nature, and, at least in principle, knowable in advance.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44)

This leads us to question how one would be able to give a proper historical account – remembering that an anthropological analysis is by definition also a historical work, in that it is describing a past that has occurred. One answer is the format of the novel, according to Bakhtin, that is able to give " and 'thick' accounts..." (Morson & Emerson 1990: 27). This terminology, used by Morson & Emerson recalls Clifford Geertz's espousal of the 'thick description' (Geertz 1973), and also suggests a rejection of a cause-and-effect rationale.

David Kohn (Kohn n.d.) (pp. 7-8):
“…do anthropology and history study the same object, and do they study it in the same way? The answer to both questions is yes. In the introduction to The Idea of History, Collingwood asserts that history studies ‘actions of human beings that have been done in the past.’ (p. 9) Anthropology falls within this definition…”

Collingwood criticises what he calls a ‘scissors and paste’ approach to history where the historian merely collates information about the past as represented in texts and/or other artefacts, and then presents the final collection as a unified and definitive narrative. Instead the historian should adopt a ‘scientific’ approach that, according to Collingwood, means that s/he should make a systematic attempt to answer particular questions, to acquire particular knowledge.


I wrote that a long time ago; what interested me was the convergence between anthropology and history. Recognising that historical accounts are always contingent accounts based on the present interpretations means that - as in anthropology - we have to find a way to develop accounts that are in themselves diachronic and multivocal. In a way, a blog would be perfect for that: each page is placed chronologically, but all are simultaneously accessible; different people can contribute via the comments; multimedia can be used...

Works Cited.

Collingwood, R.G. An essay on metaphysics. Chicago: University Press of America, Inc., 1972
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Inden, R. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
Kohn D. Collingwood and Clifford. Unpublished: (in Anthropology department library, SOAS), ND.
Morson G.S. & C. Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin. Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.


"In general, what passes for reflexivity in most social sciences is the sheer irrelevancy of questions raised by the analyst about some actors' serious concerns." (Latour 33)


The above from: Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

I have just started reading it today, and so far (touch wood), I am finding it refreshingly lucid and useful. Something that is not always a feature of social theory :-)

Update 20/1

Well, I finished the book and am find myself to be somewhat inspired by it; the explanations are mostly clear, and the basic message is simple: don’t invent agencies and overarching ‘frames’ for whatever subjects you are studying – listen to them and follow them where they take you.

Laying the whole mass of actors and connections on a ‘flat’ social world is a useful way of visualising ‘social’ relations: no actor/actant is ‘above’ another, and all potentially influence each other. More importantly perhaps, all that connect are ‘part’ of each other, they have contributed to building the ‘site’ as it is. Thus we are all sites, and understanding how sites are ‘stabilised’ is an important way of effectively describing the situation.

Actor-Network Theory is an essentially descriptive process, and to counter accusations of ‘mere’ description he argues that if something is properly described, in all its minute detail, then no extra explanation (i.e. frame, context, meaning, …) should be required. And he has a point there, though a difficulty is to decide when to stop tracing the connections between different actors, or actants.

In spite of what I said above about lucidity and all that, the last two chapters before the conclusion (“Second Move: Redistributing the Local”, and “Third Move: Connecting Sites”) get pretty convoluted. He comes across sometimes as somewhat structuralist/determinist: he mentions “structuring templates” that circulate, and uses that analogy of ‘plug-ins’ to explain how we cannot do anything (e.g. rationally choosing something in a supermarket) without having these ‘plug-ins’ ‘downloaded’ from other sites. For me this ignores our basic sociality, and ability to negotiate with the world based on some basic instincts (i.e. survival, social, and reproductive). In a way, it’s like he’s being an ‘atomised structuralist’, or ‘powerless structuralist’ – he’s mapping out the social world in a ‘flat’ manner, arguing that all element affect others etc., but just saying there’s no central motor force to it all, which ain’t a bad point.

In the second-to-last chapter, he asks what will be between the lines that connect the sites in the network, and starts to speculate about ‘plasma’ and “vast outside” – all very strange… My feeling is that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘between’ the connections – for the connections are what make our world, mediators affect it, things change, traces are left and actions initiated; but as he said, if it leaves no trace it is not there. I would also say, perhaps tautologically though, that what is visible is visible because it’s part of ‘society’; though he’s arguing that with his method we can discover more, etc.

His conclusion (for anyone looking for a shortcut to reading the whole book ;-)) isn’t actually a summary of the book, but an argument for the political validity of ANT. He argues that ANT is political; proper data collection needs to let subjects have all their agency, and include all relevant entities; secondly, it is political because it has as a task to make the ‘composition’ of the data in a manner accessible to all, and in a manner that loops between the elements and the composer (so to speak).