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The virtue of practice

In Moral Philosophy there are four main strands:

• Utilitarianism: i.e. 'the greatest good for the greatest number'
• Egoism: i.e. 'I know what's best for me, and that's all that matters'
• Kantianism: i.e. 'there are certain things that are right, and that's that'
and
• Virtue ethics: i.e. 'learn to live the right life, and you will be good'

From what I have learnt of ethics, I find virtue ethics to be the most satisfying. It is inclusive, allowing one to pick and choose from the other three methods of determining morality, and it is practical - emphasising the difficulty of living morally, the ability to improve oneself and to learn from mistakes.

In the 'Western' tradition, Aristotle (a great man in most ways, though unfortunately also the root of much of EuroChristian sexist dogma) introduced this ethical method via his famous 'Golden Mean' (see e.g. MacKinnon 90). For example, you are walking down the street and you see a starving beggar: you would be miserly ('illiberal') not to spare a bit of the excess money you have, but stupid ('prodigal') to immediately sign over your bank account and house to him. What would be the virtuous thing to do would be to give him what you can spare.

In other words, adopt the 'Middle Path': which brings us to Buddhism and Confucianism. These religions/philosophies emphasise the ability of the individual to choose to act morally, and the need to learn to do so through actions.

From what I understand of Buddhism, it basically advises people to understand that suffering (a consequence of immoral action one might say) comes from desire, and one can avoid this by learning to reject the impulses that come from desire. This can be done through a slow process of meditation and practice (e.g. physically getting rid of all possessions to avoid getting attached to them).

Confucianism focuses less on the individual I would say, but again there is a strong emphasis on practice: with a famous passage stating (basically) that in order for a ruler to enable a virtuous kingdom, he (for women weren't involved here either...) has to start by practicing virtue himself (“The Great Learning” qtd. in Velasquez 161).

And a note on gender: Gilligan's famous approach argued that women tend to have a different way of making moral judgements. Key words are 'concrete', 'relational': i.e. placing moral dilemmas in their practical environment and judging from there (Rachels 163-4). Which, perhaps incidentally, ties in with the feminist insight of making the personal political.

In anthropology the importance of understanding human behaviour as 'practice', promoted by Bourdieu and others has come to dominate; and the fundamental method of anthropology - participant observation - seems to be gaining converts in all kinds of disciplines and areas (cultural studies, market research, ...). As a method, it promotes understanding through living - i.e. practice. A parallel necessary understanding is that researchers need to understand how they too affect the ongoing practices of what they are seeking to understand: known as being 'reflexive'.

So, to conclude this somewhat rambling post: morality is developed through practice, and honest reflection upon one's own position. Practice, as a method and as a theoretical standpoint, is emerging as a paradigm in many disciplines. Reflexivity is also central to ethnographic practice.

Therefore, I suppose, one can argue that social science methodologies have mostly shed the idealistic modern/scientific notion that neutrality and objectivity are attainable, and instead moving to an ethical stance that has its roots in virtue ethics.

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Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. UK: Polity Press, 1993.
MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics. Theory and Contemporary Issues. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2001.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy. A Text with Readings. 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 2005.

Blogging and constitutive practices

I use the term 'constitutive practice' quite often, but I'm not sure where I got it from - it sounds very Bourdieu-like though.

Basically, what I mean by it is that some things we do have a tendency to promote regular practices that in turn shape the 'habitus' (i.e. the dynamic collection of habitual practices that become normalised and taken-for-granted): it is very relevant to the study of the interaction of technology and culture.

A classic example could be the handphone and the appointment. Think of meeting up with someone twenty years ago: you arrange a time a couple of days before, and then you turn up. If you're late, you can't call them or anything and so you make a real effort no to be late. Fast forward to 2009 - you make an appointment, and if you're late what do you do? Text the person and tell them you'll be late. So, one can argue, the availability of the handphone means that people are more likely to be late to meet up, or cancel rendez-vous more easily.

Well, I don' t know if that's precisely the case, but it's possible. It's not the phone itself that is encouraging anyone to be late, but the practice of using it in a particular way.

The reason I mention this is because there's one particular practice relating to blogging that I think may have particular effects. One of the key requirements for a successful blogger is to do regular postings, I discussed once before how part-time bloggers have to find ways of managing their time, but ever since I have tried to make a point of blogging every day, there's something else I've noticed.

Blogging every day is not easy! :-O In fact I missed out on Saturday and Sunday because I had things to do, although I started this one yesterday. When you have to blog every day, finding something to blog about can be difficult, as well as finding the time to do it. So, one solution is to do shorter posts, and to blog on relatively simple matters.

One solution is using photos: put up three photos that tell a short story (meal at a restaurant, meeting with friends, attend an event) and link them together with short captions and narrative.

Another solution is something like what I'm doing here: writing quickly on a random topic, not worrying too much about the details or quality of the post. I'll be thinking something like: "As long it's not completely crap, it'll do. In any case, I'll have another chance to write a better post another day - some will be good, some not so good."

Another solution is to use content from another source - a newspaper article or another blog, for example. If it's done well, this can work, but too often some blogs just become a series of reproduced material. In fact there are some services that will send you stuff to blog on every day, something I'll talk about another time.

So, I can conclude something like this: as a technology, blogging lends itself to being done by an individual (as opposed to a newspaper, for example); the content also tends to be more time-sensitive - i.e. whatever you post goes online quickly, and after a day or two it's already old. So, regular short posts make practical sense. These regular short posts are the constitutive practice - the habits they induce are: a more informal tone, a less rigid quality control, the use of photos, and subject matters that are not too complicated or, at least, fit the readers expectations.

The last point may need a little more explanation: what I mean is that if the blog post has a relatively simple content, the reader can grasp it quickly and enjoy it. Rather like an advertisement, the message of which needs to be grasped in a few seconds. But this is not to say that all blogs just have brainless content - the specialist blogs cater to a niche audience that knows the subject well (e.g. photography) and can go straight into the topic; the SoPo blog addresses known issues and gives one slant to it; the emo blog moans about life; the personal blog discusses friends and parties; and so on.

20 random things

Well, inspired by Shaolintiger, and prompted by UiHua, I will do this meme. Fortunately the one I was sent was 20 and not 25 like ShaolinTiger ;-)

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 20 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 20 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

1. I have never been tagged before, and I really don’t like the idea of memes. It freaks me out a bit. I will not be forwarding this to 20 people because I assume they think like me. And I’m probably wrong.
2. I sometimes wonder if I have a slight touch of Asperger’s syndrome: routines are important to me and if my routine gets messed up, I get very anxious and unsettled.
3. I smoked my first cigarette when I was 10. That was not a good idea.
4. One girl in school told me she didn’t want to go out with me because I was shorter than her. And I wondered whether it was because I had taken up smoking so early.
5. I hitchhiked quite a lot when I was younger. My longest hitchhiking trip was four days from Brussels to Belgrade.
6. I slept in a Sherman tank once (with a friend) – it stood on the main square of Bastogne and we had nowhere else to sleep. And we were pretty drunk.
7. I like to eat toast with Marmite every morning.
8. I want to be a vegetarian.
9. I declined to do my First Communion (Catholic rite) when I was eight, because I thought it was hypocritical to do it just for the presents when I didn’t believe in God.
10. I once prayed to the Virgin Mary when I was 25. I prayed for patience, hope and strength.
11. I think memes like this are way too long.
12. I want to be able to go to space one day.
13. I want to write a book.
14. I love my wife.
15. I really admire my wife too.
16. I think one day most people will have an avatar/blog/personal space online which will be one of their principle ways of interacting with other people.
17. I think people will eventually start living in and on the sea.
18. 1984 (by George Orwell) is one of my favourite novels.
19. I believe that anarchy means responsibility, and if everyone were truly responsible for themselves and their actions, the world would be a much better place.
20. I don’t like chicken feet.

OK! There you go, twenty random facts :-)

Honestly, I won't forward this on to anyone - I just feel like it's a bit of an imposition to people. But if you like, do it anyway - it's kind of an interesting experience. Call it the 'auto-meme' ;-)

Malaysian phone etiquette

Part of the task of the anthropologist is to ‘unpick’ the culture they are studying in order to lay bare the cultural and social mechanisms that underlie the daily functioning of the people within that culture. This is kind of like taking apart a clock and showing how all the different parts come together in a unique way to make the clock tick. Of course, a culture is nothing like a clock really – you can’t easily say where it begins and ends, and with a clock taking out one piece is enough to make it stop functioning completely, whereas cultures are endlessly malleable and dynamic. Take out one piece (a monarch, for example), and there will be adaptations, derivations and replacements that immediately come to play.

In the classical anthropologist situation, the anthropologist arrives as a stranger in a new place, and starts to observe how things happen. Although she has the disadvantage of not knowing what to do, how to speak the language, and so on – this is also an advantage, because everything that people around her take for granted stands out to her and she may be able to spot patterns and connections that those who are embedded in the system cannot.

As my supervisor has pointed out, I have both the advantage and disadvantage of having been here in Malaysia for a while now, and being involved with blogging for a while too. The advantage is that I know more, the disadvantage is that I may take things for granted now that would stand out to a newcomer; I'm going to try to remedy this by doing a series of posts on my blog that reflect upon how Malaysia felt to me when I first got here, and how blogging first seemed to me.

So, I’m going to start a series of posts in which I try to recall how both Malaysia and blogs seemed to me at first – they will be in new subcategories of the ‘Anthropology’ category: I’ll call the Malaysia ones ‘Malaysianisms’, and the blog one I’ll call… hmm… ‘Blogisms’ I guess.

So, here goes for my first trip down memory lane – Malaysian telephone etiquette.

When I was brought up, I was taught that you always have to introduce yourself on the phone. This is obviously not the case for many in Malaysia – when I first arrived I was staying with my in-laws (to be) and because I was not working, often was by myself in the house. This was when I was introduced to Malaysian telephone etiquette – or what seemed to be the lack of, to me.


The phone would ring and I pick it up –
‘Hello? Julian speaking.’
‘Mrs Wong ah?’
‘No, this is Julian. Mrs Wong is not in for the moment.’
‘Where is she ah?’
‘I don’t know, she had to go out.’
‘What’s her handphone?’
[I’m already a bit flustered at the lack of introduction, and the rapid fire questions. The request for the number is the last straw to me – why should I give someone’s number to a complete stranger?]
‘If you would like to leave your name and number and a message, I’ll ask her to call you.’
‘Say Ah Chong called.’
‘Mr Ah Chong… and does she have your number?’
‘Ya ya, got got. OK’ -He hangs up-
…‘OK’

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to – I’m more likely to take this approach when speaking to my in-laws, friends or trades people such as my mechanic or plumber, but less likely when I’m speaking to colleagues or people I need to deal with for work. I also learnt to use the call ID function more – so when ‘Joe’ calls, I’ll answer the phone with ‘Hello Joe, wassup?’ or something, in a way doing the introduction part myself rather than waiting for the caller to do it.

I've found that very often my 'western style' is too formal and there are too many words - sometimes people will have trouble understanding me because - I suppose - I use a lot of words that serve no apparent purpose :-)

OK, that’s it for the first of the Malaysianisms posts – any comments?

Chat boxes and comments

In the last year, I’ve noticed that more and more bloggers put chat boxes on their blogs. For me, it’s a bit inconvenient because I may miss some of the ‘conversation’ that occurs around the post – i.e. if there are only comments, all responses to the post are visible under the post. This is one of the great things about blogs (from a research point of view) because I get to see everything that readers thought important enough to say in response to the post; well, almost everything, because bloggers may also respond by doing their own post – but often you can ‘hear’ about that in the comments too.

But anyway, I can’t expect bloggers to act in the way I want just to make my research easier, so I have been asking around a bit as to why people have chatboxes. Some bloggers have told me that they are more likely to use the chat box for casual ‘hellos’, or to say something that is not relevant to the post. Others have said that basically it’s just easier to use the chatbox as opposed to the comments (less windows to open, etc.)

Today, I saw something new – Annaling responded to comments in her chatbox in a new post (original post here, and the chatbox comments recorded on the 9/9/08).

These were the chatbox comments

And this was the post in response


I’ve also seen a chatbox used as a means of advertisement, by Race Against Time


As far as advertisements go, using a chatbox has to be less advantageous – because the time it is visible is pretty uncontrollable… but one can imagine having a system whereby it comes up after every ten chats or something. It could benefit from the transitory environment by appearing more spontaneous, and therefore more ‘real’.

I haven’t put one on my site yet, mainly because I want to keep a track of any comments easily, but it may also be because I’m not really an IM type of person – I’ve never really got into using IM much, as I prefer being able to choose when to answer emails/comments rather than having to respond to messages that arrive at any time.

Anyway - what do you think? Chatbox or not? Why ah?
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