Beata Jungselius takes the Page 99 test

My page 99 is found within the chapter ”Summary of findings and contribution of thesis”
of my thesis ”Using social media” in which I explore social media use (especially social
photography) in a permanently online, permanently connected world (Vorderer et al.,
2017). The aim of my thesis is to describe what constitutes social media use in a world of
smartphones with cameras, why and how social media use is meaningful as a category of
activity, and to contribute with new insights on how social media skills and perceptions
change as practices and platforms develop. Conveniently, the very first sentence leads us
right into one of my main findings:

”activities ranging from active involvement with producing content as well as managing relationships and time, to more passive ways of planning and monitoring social media activities.”

This sentence concerns different levels of engagement in social media use and the need to acknowledge a broader variety of activities when aiming to conceptualize social media use.   People engage in social media use with different levels of engagement. When using social media, people negotiate between multiple kinds of use and activities. Social media users both passively consume content in social media, but they engage in
production and management of their content as well. Apart from editing pictures, writing tweets and posting stories, they plan their activities, they monitor the activities of others and they orient towards social media, even when not actively involved with their phones.

This kind of negotiating and interplay between the many elements and socially regulated practices sheds light on the complexity of social media use. Page 99 in my thesis mainly refers to one of the papers included in my thesis, ”Same same but different. Changes in social media practices over time” (2019). In this paper, my colleague and I present examples of social media use on different levels of engagement and describe how
numerous aspects, such as lifestyle, disposable time and technical capabilities shape social media use. By comparing data from interviews conducted with the same informants in 2012 as in 2017, we were able to show how social media use has changed over time.

Users are involved in a number of practices when using social media. However, the levels of involvement vary and therefor, there is no consensus on what constitutes social media use. Because of this, I argue that it is problematic to measure social media use in terms of time spent online, simply because it is difficult, both for users as well as researchers, to describe what social media use is. However, as pointed out in the final sentence of the page, I am neither arguing for equating using social media with simply being online:

”Although arguing for a widening of the definition of social media use, we suggest that care be taken not to widen the definition too much, as in equating social media use with “being online.”  Social media use still relies upon specific practices, and we argue that both those practices that are more active and those that are more passive, need more attention within the social media studies field.”

Rather, based on my findings, I suggest that social media use is: ”to engage in social practices such as planning, monitoring, producing, consuming, sharing and interacting around content. It is to make use of affordances to produce, share and interact in social media, to engage in a community of practice, to be familiar with idioms of practice, and to act according to the social rules that regulate those practices. Social media consists of users, shaping the platform vernacular and the idioms of practice within their communities of practice. These evolve over time; they are not static. Social media use is shaped both by design and technical capabilities as well as by the social practices
that users engage in. Habits, aesthetic preferences and social concerns are as involved in shaping the use of a social technology as technical capabilities are.” (Jungselius, 2019)

Jungselius, B. (2019). Using social media. Doctoral dissertation. Department of Applied IT.
University of Gothenburg. Thesis defended October 25th, 2019. Opponent: Professor
Richard Seyler Ling.

Jungselius, B., Weilenmann, A. (2019). Same Same But Different. Changes in Social Media
Practices Over Time. Proceedings of 10th International Conference on Social Media and
Society (SMSociety ’19) Toronto, Canada: ACM Press.

Vorderer, P., Krömer, N., & Schneider, F. M. (2016). Permanently online, permanently
connected: Explorations into university students’ use of social media and mobile smart
devices. Computers in Human Behavior, 63(October), 694–703.

Rahul Advani on page 99 of his dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation is the first time in the dissertation that I provide an ethnographic example of how marginalized educated young men native to Pune assert their masculinity. My dissertation is an anthropological study of lower-middle class, college-going men in Pune, India, and the means by which they use Facebook to construct and rehearse their aspirational selves.

Though the passage does not mention Facebook in detail, the example that appears here of how young men comport themselves and display a masculine aggression in the city points to the continuities between their lives on and off-screen. Specifically, it alerts the reader to the kinds of techniques these men develop on Facebook to craft their masculine selves in order to accumulate and display social capital.

The passage appears towards the end of the dissertation’s first substantive ethnographic chapter, titled ‘Checking-in’ at another city, in which I examine how young men creatively subvert Facebook’s ‘check-in’ feature. Rather than using the feature as a recommendation service or pretending to ‘check-in’ at the city’s new spaces of urban leisure, they instead make visible the cartography of their lives. In doing so, they insist that the city they know on an intimate level is not erased from the Pune that appears on Facebook’s list of popular ‘check-in’ locations, one that is populated by trendy coffee shops, exclusive nightclubs and gleaming shopping malls:

I contend that the lines young men map on Facebook represent their desire to experience the city as a site of both pleasure and danger, as a place to be rebellious and be recognised, and ultimately belong, but on their own terms. On one occasion, as we were driving through the city, Rakesh revved up the engine of his Royal Enfield to produce a loud sound:

“Do you hear that? That is the sound of attraction! Everyone watches us. Even though making this sound is now banned in Pune, we do not care. We do not follow the rules.”

For Virat, his identity as a Punekar was articulated in relation to his knowledge of the urban terrain, for he knew exactly which chai tapri would be open at a particular time as well as the exact route to get there. This was a skill he described as lacking amongst other youth whose migration to the city had caused living in Pune to “become very expensive” in recent years:

“Most people who go to reputable colleges like BMCC, Symbiosis, Fergusson…are from outside Maharashtra. They are usually from places like Delhi, Bangalore. They have only been in Pune for two or three years. They do not know the roads like we do. We have been here all our lives.”

The processes of movement across the city through which young men assert their visibility and invite danger are tied not only to discourses of belonging but also masculinity. As mentioned earlier, this kind of propulsion of the body across the city was almost exclusively performed by men. According to Whitehead (2002), dominant notions of embodied masculinity emphasise “the ability to exercise control over space” (189).

The ways in which lower-middle class young men move through the city and the routes of their journeys – though not made explicitly visible on their Facebook pages – I suggest, are not disentangled from the map of Pune they inscribe onto the platform through their ‘check-in’ locations. Whilst ‘checking-in’ and moving from one place to another, they simultaneously draw out a specific way of being young characterized by pleasure and carefreeness; this stands in opposition to the lifestyles, new forms of consumption and academic ambition that upper-middle class and elite youth can afford.

My two interlocuters who feature in this passage, like many of the men who form the protagonists of my dissertation, are undergraduates enrolled in government colleges with dreams of obtaining IT jobs but limited means of achieving their aspirations. Their assertion for visibility takes a number of forms, including the selfies they post in which they make themselves singular, their strategies for acquiring Facebook Friends and ‘Likes’ through which they lay claim to large social networks, and as I discuss here, the city they make legible online.

Furthermore, this passage gives a sense of how the desire for recognition and respect among my interlocuters are tied to the physical environments they inhabit. Instead of seeking to escape reality or reach global networks through Facebook, I argue that they use the platform to enhance their local authority and make sense of their class positions in the city. This points to how their practices on Facebook are not formed in a vacuum. Rather, they are constituted by an interplay between the digital and the physical, with the intention that young mens’ performances of status-raising on Facebook ultimately leak back into their place-bound lives.

Cited References:

Whitehead, Stephen M. 2002. Men and Masculinities: Key Themes and New Directions. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Rahul Advani. 2019. Online and ‘real’ lives: The anthropology of Facebook and friendship among middle class young men in an Indian city.  King’s College London, Phd.

Joshua Bluteau on his dissertation

My temptation is to hedge my bets and confidently claim that I have two page ninety-nines. This is true in the sense that there is a literal ninety-ninth page, and a different page that is paginated as 99 – the former being a colour plate and the latter the first page of chapter 3, entitled:

“Other Elizabethans: the digital trope of the individual”

This disparity serves to highlight the juxtaposed nature of appearance and actuality, and how such concepts may not be a clean cut as they initially appeal; a theme that runs through the thesis.

This thesis spans the offline world of high-end bespoke tailors, shops and fashion shows in London, and the online world of Instagram, the images these tailors post online and a network of followers that surrounds them. The colour plate in question is a press photograph from a Joshua Kane fashion show I attended in 2016 as part of my fieldwork.

Page 99

At this event the boundary between online and offline was at its thinnest, and a wave of glowing smartphones rose and fell in the hands of onlookers seeking to capture the latest designs – images of which would appear online moments later.

There is an intentional mirroring, or perhaps reframing of Foucault’s (1990, 4) ‘other Victorians’ in the title of Chapter 3, as I develop a concept for how to conceptualise a group of men who shop at the kind of tailors who are known for outlandish and flamboyant design. My other Elizabethans are men who do not fit into established normative notions of how men in the UK dress – they are individuals.

“I will use the definition postulated by Dumont (1986) where the individual is an autonomous actor beyond the restrictions of society, though crucially my informants are at odds with Rapport’s (1993) notion that despite how we present ourselves, we are always inescapably ourselves. There is an important echoing of Dumont’s work in the way that my informants conceive of their own individuality as not “innate but learned”, or perhaps a better term would be ‘crafted’ (Morris, 1991, 263). In addition to this native category of the individual, I will also use an analytical category in line with the work of Berger (1970), who suggests that individuals are moulded by the society in which they live, becoming “collective constructs…reflecting social position” (Berger, 1970, 375 in Rapport & Overing, 2000, 193). This in addition to the work of Goffman (1980, 245), who conceptualises the individual as a performance, and one which can be altered for differing situations will form the basis of my analysis of my informants as individuals who are able to present different individual selves in the digital and terrestrial worlds; selves which are able to adapt to changing digital and terrestrial landscapes in which they exist.”

Fundamentally, this PhD asks two simple questions: why do certain men spend so much on particular clothing; and what is the nature of the digital world in which many of them display these clothes? In the same way that there are two page ninety nines, there are multiple selves that exist simultaneously online and offline, crafted through performance and dress. It is this contention that this thesis engages with, partially through a reflexive engagement of researcher as digital participant. Chapter 3 is preceded with a quote from The Three Musketeers where impetuous young D’Artagan knocks over Porthos and displays part of a garment he was trying to keep hidden.

“If Porthos had been on Instagram, this unfortunate incident need not have occurred. Dumas’ Musketeer could have displayed his partially embellished shoulder belt using artfully angled photographs which showed off the glittering gold front whilst keeping the buff behind invisible. As it was, his cloak attempted to craft his appearance through concealment but was undone by the unfortunate collision and subsequent entanglement with D’Artagnan. Whilst it is possible to affect such a manipulation of appearances, attempts to craft one’s self misleadingly in the terrestrial world are easily exposed; in the digital world however, such exposure is much harder to engender. This, Sartre (1993) would tell us, is the essence of acting in ‘bad faith’, attempting to deceive others around you as to your station in life.”

The nature of the digital landscape is complex, ever changing and ripe for crafting deceit, but it is a fieldsite like any other full of  ‘digital tribes’ lacking anthropological investigation.

Reference List

Berger, P. 1970. Identity as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge. In The Sociology of Knowledge (eds.) J. Curtis., & J. Petras, 373-384. London: Duckworth.

Dumont, L. 1986. Essays on Individualism. Chicago: University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990 [1978]. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (trans. R. Hurley). London: Penguin.

Goffman, E. 1980 [1956]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Pelican.

Morris, B. 1991. Western Conceptions of the Individual. New York: Berg.

Rapport, N. 1993. Diverse World-Views in an English Village. Edinburgh: University Press.

Rapport, N., & Overing, J. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.

Sartre, J.P. 1993 [1988]. Essays in Existentialism (ed.) W. Baskin. New York: Citadel.


Joshua Bluteau completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2018, and has ongoing research interests in digital anthropology, dress and adornment, the anthropology of fashion, menswear, gender and performance. He is currently a Lecturer at the University of Manchester, and can be reached at or followed on Instagram @anthrodandy

Teri Silvio on her new book, Puppets, Gods, and Brands

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What first led you to start thinking about animation?

Teri Silvio:  Well, I started off by studying drama, and I wrote my dissertation on Taiwanese Opera.  Taiwanese Opera is a genre in which women play all of the leading roles, both male and female, and the vast majority of fans are also women.  I chose it because I was interested in how cross-gender performance works in contexts where it’s a long-standing historical tradition, rather than consciously feminist experimentation.  I was writing up my project proposal around the time Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter were published, and basically, I was curious whether drag could still be considered “subversive” when it was what your mother and grandmother watched.  (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is yes and no — Taiwanese women who grew up watching this genre tended to already think of gender primarily as a kind of habitus, but they didn’t think that had anything to do with why men had more power in Taiwanese society.)  Anyway, when I started working at a research institute in Taiwan, I had to come up with a new project.  At temple festivals I had noticed that there were often two stages, one showing the opera, and another showing puppetry, which was a genre that was performed and watched primarily by older men.  Also, I had seen some of the Pili puppetry series on television, and was amazed by it.  It looked like someone had decided to remake Tsui Hark’s swordsman fantasy films using puppets — there were all kinds of wild special effects, and theme songs, along with the romanticization of brotherhood you get in the swordsman genre, I just loved it at first sight.  So I decided to do a project on puppetry and its relationship to masculinity.  I was curious why drama and puppetry were so gendered in Taiwan.  I found out pretty quickly that after puppetry was adapted to television, and then to digital video, women had started to become fans.  In fact, the most active fans of the Pili series were women.  One of the activities that women fans of Pili enjoyed was cosplay, and I started going to cons and interviewing the (mostly) women I found who were cosplaying puppet characters.  I started asking them the questions I’d asked opera actresses and fans — Do you identify with the character you’re dressed as?  How do you get into character?   And I would get these puzzled looks, or long descriptions of buying bolts of cloth and sewing costumes, but nothing about embodiment or psychological identification.  When I asked people how they felt in costume, they’d say things like, “It’s like the character is with me,” but never “I feel like I am the character.” So that’s when I started to realize that there was an important, if elusive, difference between puppet characters and characters embodied by actors, and I started to think about puppetry as something more than just a variation on theatrical performance, that puppetry did something other than construct identities.  And from there I started thinking about animation in the broader sense, what it means to bring objects to life.

Ilana Gershon: In your book, animation functions in the way that media or language functions for some analysts.  Not every group understands what media or language does in the same way – Japanese approaches to cell phones are different than American approaches because of their media ideologies.  What is a Taiwanese take on animation?

Teri Silvio:  Different cultures have what I call different modes of animation — ideas about what kind of objects can be animated, what aspects of personhood can be projected into them, and how that can be done.  These ideas are grounded in specific cosmologies, ideas about the nature of humanity and the nature of the non-human world, how they came into being, and the differences between them.  Almost all anthropological studies of puppetry discuss its ritual functions.  But I think the book that was most helpful for me was Scott Cutler Shershow’s book, Puppets and “Popular” Culture.  Shershow looks at the theological grounding of puppetry in Western culture from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Jim Henson’s Muppets.  He looks not just at puppetry practices, but at how puppetry has been used as a trope, and finds that despite changes in the moral values of puppetry in Western discourse, it is almost always seen as a version of “playing God,” as a re-enactment of Genesis.    In contrast, many scholars working on Japanese manga and anime, especially those writing about the works of Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, have noted how Japanese animation reflects Shinto animist ideas about all kinds of objects having spirits or souls.

What I found in Taiwan was that practices of investing things with agency tended to focus on a specific type of object, the ang-a, which is an anthropomorphic figurine, usually small.  Puppets are the paradigmatic form of ang-a, but statues of gods which are made for worship are also called “just ang-a” before they are ritually animated.  Chinese folk religion is very human-centric, and investing material objects with human qualities has to start with the object being given physical human qualities — faces and bodies.  Animated animal characters in Taiwan, whether they are deities or logo characters, are almost always anthropomorphized.

Another important aspect of the religious grounding of animation in Taiwan comes from the way that religious icons have genealogies.  New icons of a particular deity usually contain incense ash from the burner of an older icon, so there is a kind of contagious magic at work, with substance being passed down from “original” to “divided” icons.  The proliferation of icons is seen as evidence of that god’s efficacy, and also as how that god comes to have more presence and power in people’s lives.  One of my arguments is that, while people do not think that puppet or manga characters are ontologically similar to gods, they do see the relationship between popular culture characters and their many tie-in products as being similar to the relationship between gods and their icons, and there’s a lot of overlap between the vocabulary and practices of Chinese folk religion and those of Taiwanese puppetry and manga/anime fandoms.

Ilana Gershon: With Hong Kong protests happening in the background, along with such a complex legacy of various colonialisms in East Asia, I was wondering if you could speak to how easily some forms and aesthetics seem to travel in this region, despite or maybe because of the regional politics.

Teri Silvio:  The markets in cultural products throughout East Asia are heavily influenced by two major producers, Japan and the United States, and domestic content producers are constantly struggling to break through their hegemony (the PRC is a special case here, where import of foreign cultural products are strictly limited by the state, but even there American and Japanese influence is felt).  This has more directly to do with American control over distribution networks that was set up after World War II, and a concerted push by Japan to establish similar distribution networks throughout Asia starting in the late 1980s (which has been documented in detail by Koichi Iwabuchi and others).  The degree to which different countries’ products dominate local markets varies, not only by country, but also by generation and by industry (for instance, in Taiwan, American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and local bands are all competitive in the popular music market, but over 90% of the comic books on sale in Taiwan are translations of Japanese manga). So what popular culture is available, and what is mainstream, is largely determined by government policy and corporate strategy. The historical experience of colonialism is more a factor in terms of how cultural products are received in different countries.  So for instance, Japanese cultural products are less controversial in Taiwan than in Korea or China, where there are frequent boycotts of Japanese products, and this has to do not only with the differences in how the Japanese administered different territories under their control in the early twentieth century, but also in how the colonial era took on different meanings in light of what came after.

In this context, Iwabuchi and others have argued that one reason Japan has succeeded in exporting so much of their popular culture throughout East Asia is the way that they create the sense of “cultural proximity,” the idea that contemporary Japan represents a kind of modernity different from that represented by Hollywood and other American products, a modernity that is less alien and more easily imagined as achievable.  But the idea of cultural proximity can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is too explicit, since it can recall imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” ideology.

In the book, I am more interested in what globalization looks like if we focus on animation genres, rather than performed, or live action ones.  On the one hand, I look at how the Pili International Multimedia Company has tried to market their video puppetry overseas, trying out different models, with their most successful attempt at globalization happening when they cooperate with a Japanese animation creator.  I argue that Pili crosses borders best when it presents a vision of what globalization might look like if it were motivated by traditional Chinese structures and concerns, and that the use of “traditional” genres and media creates a different kind of trans-East Asian cultural proximity from that created by idol dramas.  So I note that, while the Pili company’s attempts to be “the Disney of Taiwan” largely failed, the fandom spread quite rapidly, through shared practices that might be thought of as “folk culture,” such as the collective re-creation of a wide variety of versions of the characters in different media, and the proliferation of ang-a.  While the cultural proximity of idol dramas tries to make an end run around historical trauma by focusing on shared modernity, Taiwanese video puppetry makes an end run around the traumas of colonial and post-colonial modernity by focusing on aesthetics, practices, and ideologies that unite the pre-modern past and the post-modern present.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that men and women have different relationships to various forms of animation.  In what ways and how is this shaped by overarching labor issues?

Teri Silvio: I look at this mainly in the chapter on cosplay, which is primarily an activity for women fans of puppetry, manga, and anime.  I ask why cosplay is so appealing to young women, and not to men.  I work from the basic premise that cosplay is one of many forms of play that function as a sort of safe, enjoyable place to practice skills and forms of sociality that are necessary in the less safe and enjoyable spaces, especially at work.  Cosplay is, at the surface level, a kind of performance.  And most cosplayers are working in the pink collar sector (as secretaries, kindergarten teachers, salespeople, and so on).   In the 1980s, Arlie Hochschild worked with flight attendants, and found that they think of their work in pretty classic Goffmanian terms – they saw their main work skills as performances of self, impression management, controlling the moods of passengers by controlling their own mood and embodiment.  So one could see cosplay as a play form of the emotional labor that these women have to do in their jobs.  But cosplay only started in the 1990s, and to find out why it became popular when it did, we need to look more closely at what has changed in pink collar labor.  The Italian Autonomists are probably the theorists who have tried to outline what’s going on with post-industrial labor most thoroughly.  While their idea of “immaterial labor” can be useful, and they do note gendered divisions of labor within that category (basically, men do programming, women do caretaking), the way they think about digital technology tends to help us understand what’s changing in men’s work, but cover up what’s happening in pink collar work.  One of the big differences between the women cosplayers I interviewed and their mothers is how much of the work of emotional labor they do online, as opposed to in person.  Taiwan has one of the world’s highest cellphone ownership and internet penetration rates, and young people here spend huge amounts of time on social networking platforms, online chat groups, cellphone messaging, and so on. Emotional work that their mothers did through embodiment, they have to do via online avatars or personae created through text and image, that is, through animation.  But at the same time, of course, there are still lots of situations where they do have to do embodied performances of gender.  So I think that one of the reasons why cosplay has replaced other forms of embodied play at this point in time is because it lets women play with how to negotiate performance and animation – how to communicate through the body without having to enter into a role, how to use their bodies as puppets instead of as outward manifestations of some inner essence.

Ilana Gershon: You suggest that animation can be the basis for a new form of political activism.  How would this work?

Teri Silvio: If only I knew – I’d go out and do it!  You should probably ask John Bell, because he’s been doing amazing political puppetry and thinking about how to use puppets for activism for so long.  But I do see a lot of potential for getting out of the traps of identity politics if we start thinking of identity as something that’s created through animation, through the collective projection of aspects of our selves outward, rather than as the interiorization of roles. It might help us let go of the idea that our identities are something we possess, and other people’s identities are something we have no stake in or responsibility for. Since I finished the book, I have seen some intriguing examples of people using what I would call animation practices in political activism.  I was on a fabulous  conference panel recently (thanks to Laurel Kendall for organizing it), and one of the papers was by Moumita Sen, who talked about a group of leftist activists in West Bengal who have been trying to create Adivasi (indigenous) solidarity by remaking a demon into a god.  They made statues of this new god with dark skin and muscular bodies, combining traditional Hindu iconography with the iconography of the working-class hero.    And I’ve seen the image of a cute cartoon pig in lots of graffiti from the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests.  At first I thought it was McDull, the protagonist of a series of anime who is a little boy pig being raised by his overworked mother in the city, and who is affectionately seen as a symbol of Hong Kong identity.  But it isn’t; apparently it’s a sort of emoji character from a messaging service that the young protesters are using.  Which is in some ways more interesting, because emoji characters are more open than anime characters (although the categories overlap, as some anime characters have their own emoji series), they primarily represent states of mind, what they say about identity is there, but secondary.  Anyway, I’m really hoping I can do some more work on the use of emoji characters soon, because I’m really intrigued by how they circulate and can give people a sense of a collective mood, or set of moods, emerging from the chaos of online discourse.


Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson on her dissertation

My dissertation, titled “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”, explores the links between globalization, media/pop culture, and language through a study of Argentine fans of massive English language media and pop cultural franchises. I look at how Argentine fans of franchises like Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Supernatural orient to English as a semiotic resource made available through these texts—and how engagement with globally-circulating media fandoms offers a venue for working out local ideas of class status and Argentina’s position within global cultural flows (Appadurai 1996).

Page 99 (which is the PDF page 99 and the “real” page 99—I purposefully arranged my pagination in this way to avoid potential mis-matches like that) bridges two data excerpts that I use to give ethnographic detail about how orientations to subtitling vs. dubbing relate to Argentine notions of socioeconomic status. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll include the data that appears on page 98; for length’s sake I’ll leave out Excerpt 17, which essentially makes the same point as Excerpt 16).

Excerpt 15. “Las voces originales”

1 me gusta el sonido original (.) las voces originales (.) I like the original sound (.) the original voices (.)
2 el tratamiento de sonidos (.) como te dije yo había the way the sounds are (.) like I said before I’ve
3 estudiado antes (.) sé que se pierde algo pasando al studied [English] before (.) I know you lose things
4 castellano y no (.) prefiero ir no sé ir a otro cine pero translating to Spanish and no (.) I’d rather I
5 (.) ver los subtítulos (.) sí dunno go to another theatre but (.) to see the
6   subtitles (.) yeah


This comment frames a preference for subtitled English-language media as a result of advanced instruction in English (lines 2-3). And indeed, as I have mentioned before, most of my participants have exceptional proficiency in English, largely due to self- teaching efforts rather than a particularly strong English-language education program in Argentina’s public schools. Pointing also to discourses of “maturity” that were mentioned earlier, these statements frame preference for subtitles as a stance held by people who “know better”.

Of course, what these comments elide are the fact that access to high-quality English language education in Argentina is class-stratified. As discussed throughout this section, English language classrooms in public schools leave much to be desired, so unless one’s family has enough disposable income to pay for attendance at an instituto, there are limited resources for developing the kind of linguistic proficiency that is presumed necessary to “prefer” subtitling to dubbing. Still, commentary that explicitly invokes the role of class in preferences for linguistic mode of media consumption did come up. See, for instance, these two comments from online surveys in Excerpts 16 and 17.

Excerpt 16. “Una disposición estatal”


1 Hace un par de años las producciones originalmente A few years ago productions originally in English
2 en inglés solían subtitularse, ahora suelen consumirse tended to be subtitled, now they tend more to be
3 más dobladas en la televisión por cable o abierta, consumed dubbed on cable or public broadcast tv,
4 dado a una disposición estatal que buscaba el because of a government program to develop the
5 desarrollo de la industria del doblaje y favorecer dubbing industry and favor Spanish-language
6 contenido en español. Por lo general, los doblajes son content. In general, the dubs are good and faithful
7 buenos y fieles al material original, prefiero las to the original material, I prefer the subtitled
8 versiones subtituladas dado que considero que a versions because I think that sometimes certain
 9 veces ciertos significados originales pueden perderse meanings can get lost in translation. Subtitles tend
10 en la traducción. La subtitulación suele preferirse en to be preferred in higher socio-economic classes
11 estratos socio-económicos más altos (los que llegado (even among those who can understand without
12 al caso incluso pueden entender sin la necesidad de subtitles, depending on their competency in
13 requerir subtítulos, dependiendo de su competencia English), in contrast to dubbing.
14 con el inglés) al contrario del doblaje.  

Because the chapter this page appears in is focused on tracing the major ideological frameworks through which Argentineans think about the role of “English” in their country, it doesn’t capture how this plays out in the way Argentine fans of these media franchises construct their identities as fans (that’s Chapter 4), or how fans will creatively reinterpret/recontextualize/remix globally-circulating media texts in a way that feels iconically “Argentine” (that’s Chapter 5). But by and large I do feel that this section nicely represents some of the major themes of my dissertation.

One such theme is the balancing of binaristic tensions—educated vs. uneducated, monolingual vs. bilingual, local vs. global—and how these get worked out through the perception and use of language. Another key theme of my dissertation highlighted here is how media and pop culture are used to make sense of people’s everyday life experiences. The speakers in Excerpts 15 and 16 have constructed cultural narratives that legitimize or justify certain modes of media consumption as indicative of particular class or educational backgrounds—and in the case of Excerpt 16, how such narratives are perpetuated by the state! At least in a superficial way, page 99 shows a glimmer of how English-language pop culture is made (linguistically) relevant to Argentineans’ every day lives.

 Valentinsson, Mary-Caitlyn. 2019. “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”. University of Arizona, Ph.D. Dissertation.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.


Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson, Ph.D is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. Her work focuses on the social circulation of language, pop culture, fandom, and social media. Find her work at or on Twitter @DrMCV.




David Flood takes the page 99 test

My dissertation examines everyday interactions between two groups of white people in the US who to all appearances should get along but don’t, despite their sustained efforts towards solidarity and a shared musical practice. They are divided by class. One group consists of rural working-class musicians who play in an informal amateur musical circuit in western North Carolina. The other group consists of transplanted musicians from coastal cities—mostly leftist activists—who have relocated to the area to pursue what they call ‘traditional music’ (more or less, the music that the working-class white people play: bluegrass, old-time, classic country). I show that their constant disagreements and misunderstandings emerge from classed differences at the rather profound level of ethics of sociality: what they think it means to be a good relational subject, or person.

I describe in and through musical sociality the ways that divergent and even antagonistic white racial identities (or ‘whitenesses’) were co-constituted with class difference, and came to powerfully shape people’s understanding of themselves and others in everyday life and politics. This differentiation is vital to understand in order to contextualize and respond to populism and ethnonationalism. In fact, for the rural working-class white people I describe, the primary cultural ‘other’ against whom they agonistically defined their own sense of good personhood was in fact urban middle-class white people. For the middle-class white people in question, working-class lifeworlds were a space where they projected many of the desires and anxieties of life in late capitalism.

This dynamic, needless to say, has historical antecedents. As such, page 99 of my dissertation is smack in the middle of a very long history chapter that ranges from Herder and the German counter-enlightenment to the particular ways that the long history of European folklore arrived in Appalachia proper. The page concludes with a quote from Cecil Sharp, a British folklorist and revivalist who exemplified a kind of fin-de-siècle leftism, combining his anti-modernist sentiments—derived in part from the British Fabian Socialism of the day—with a racial-cultural essentialism familiar in the lineage of Herderian thought.

Sharp writes about white Appalachian settlers of northern European descent, from whom he spent several years of World War I collecting putatively British folk songs:

“That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.  The reason, I take it, why these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, without which, of course, no cultural development is possible, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage.  Their language, wisdom, manners, and the many graces of life that are theirs, are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down… It must be remembered, also, that in their daily lives they are immune from that continuous grinding, mental pressure, due to the attempt to ‘make a living,’ from which nearly all of us in the modern world suffer.  In this respect, at any rate, they have the advantage over those who habitually spend the greater part of every day in preparing to live, in acquiring the technique of life, rather than in its enjoyment” (Sharp, 1917: 24).

As I show in the rest of the work, this danger—the re-inscription of white racial virtue—remains a stubborn peril of a white middle-class leftism that is unreflexive about and uninterested in class difference. Whether it’s contemporary white middle-class leftists purifying their own whiteness by ascribing the evils of racism or white supremacy solely to working-class voters, or folkloric paeans to the virtuous agrarian whites of the heartland: class is the spectre that haunts white liberalism.


Flood, David. 2017. Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism. University of Virginia, PhD Dissertation.


Sharp, Cecil J. 1917. English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons.




Morgan Ames on The Charisma Machine



On Henry Jenkins’ blog, he interview Morgan Ames about the One Laptop Per Child project.   With Jenkins’ permission, I am re-posting the interview here (but see the original here:

Henry Jenkins: You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Morgan Ames: Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert’s, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was “the life’s work of Seymour Papert.”

And when you read through all of Papert’s public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called “constructionism,” as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren’t true for all children — and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  


Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn’t a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I’ve interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along.

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys’ supposedly “natural” interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years — there’s this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there’s transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.


From all of this, at every turn boys — and particularly white middle-class boys — are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It’s something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the “technically precocious boy,” it’s both of these pieces — the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a “social imaginary,” or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert’s other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about “girls and boys” and “many ways of knowing,” they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Henry Jenkins: Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America?

Morgan Ames: The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods — most of their peers couldn’t care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.

When I’ve said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, “well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!” And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too — he called them the “Proteus of machines,” with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay — as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru — just weren’t very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn’t find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music — pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they’d really want to learn to program.



Henry Jenkins: You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice?

Morgan Ames: The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt — in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children’s creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are — I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one — but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves — the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.

But you’re right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as “co-learners” even as they are charged with steering children’s learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on — more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance — but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa’s, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability.

I can’t fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it’s one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in — but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

Henry Jenkins: What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He’d tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers’ reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying.

Papert had a version of this analogy as well — but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn’t give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively — but even if OLPC’s XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that’s a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay’s population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don’t have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers — the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.


Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching — they were not “drunk or absent entirely,” as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn’t have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It’s no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

Henry Jenkins: The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame?

Morgan Ames: Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn’t really discuss media use — it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework — which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children’s interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning — was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO’s hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools.

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children’s interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children’s educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered “educational.” While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children’s cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies’ efforts to make money off of that.


Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project — and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.”

Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”


References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.

Vijayanka Nair takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is an ethnographic study of India’s Aadhaar (foundation) program, a colossal technocratic project that seeks to redefine how the Indian state (over)sees its population. Under the program, the central government has collected the iris scans, fingerprints and select demographic details of nearly every member of India’s billion-strong population, and has linked these indices to 12-digit numbers that serve as unique IDs. Biometric information stored in a centralized database allows for ‘foolproof’ and instantaneous bodily identity verification. Until 2009, India did not have a standardized state ID that could be furnished across the country as proof of personal identity. My dissertation weaves together fieldwork observations from several sites, including biometric enrollment centers, government offices, and the Supreme Court of India. It explores how the laying of a new technological foundation for a ‘digital’ India necessitated an excavation and reassembling of the moral foundations of the relationship between the postcolonial state and individual.

Page 99 of my dissertation is part of a chapter that chronicles early pilot projects aiming to link welfare distribution to online biometric identity authentication. The page recounts experiments being carried out in Jharkhand, a relatively new state in Eastern India. As these pilot projects were being launched, a senior official at the Unique Identification Authority of India jocundly wagered in informal conversation with me that “if it works in Jharkhand, it will work anywhere.” Six months later, the very same officer, patently unamused, declared the state to be “a basket case.” Local officials were unmoved by the zeal and subsequent disgruntlement of their technocratic bosses. They grumbled that impractical plans had being foisted upon them by higher-ups far from au fait with life in Jharkhand. At best, the state enjoyed unreliable internet and electricity access, to say nothing of the digital literacy Aadhaar called for.

While page 99 of my dissertation is squarely ethnographic, on reflection, I find that it is haunted by some of the fundamental questions that inform the longer text. What is the relation between stately plans and what ostensibly results from them? What can an anthropological witnessing of—and attention to—processes of implementation contribute to an understanding of the fourth-order object (to rephrase Philip Abrams) that is the digital state? As I continue to ponder these questions, the page 99 test teaches me that dissertations are books in simmering potentia, but happily, not quite the finished product.

Vijayanka Nair 2018. The State of the Individual: Biometrics, Politics and the Common Man in India. New York University, Phd. thesis.

Shalini Shanker on Beeline

BEELINE hi res cover

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: When did you first realize that there was such a rich research project in South Asian students’ success in U.S. spelling bees?

Shalini Shankar: What caught my attention initially was not that South Asian American spellers have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year since 2008, but rather, the ridiculous theories circulating in the media about why they were winning. Theories based on genetics were casually proffered, as were sloppy applications of the Asian American model minority stereotype. This was enough to make me take a closer look at the broad range factors I suspected were shaping this trend. The richness of the project was in what these extraordinary kids (not just the South Asian American ones) were doing. Their orthographic prowess was incredible, as was their stage presence in what had become a big budget media spectacle. I started to attend the National Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee (open only to kids of South Asian parentage) in 2013 and haven’t stopped. I was delighted to witness the naming of the “Octochamps,” though was quite relieved that my book was already published and I didn’t have to figure out what to say about it on the spot.

Ilana Gershon: When and how did the fact that the competitors you were studying were South Asian become important?

Shalini Shankar: Because I was interested offering an anthropological discussion about why this streak was happening, I ended up focusing primarily on South Asian American spellers. I welcomed the chance to follow and other spellers, and they also appear in the book. Having a somewhat heterogeneous sample helped confirm some of the hypotheses I had about this group: that their parents prioritize education and competitive educational enrichment or “brain sports” above their own leisure; that this community has built an infrastructure for competition that doesn’t yet exist in other communities; and that elite spellers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds work exceedingly hard to prepare. I wish I had a team of people to talk to many more kids, but I was certainly able to delve deeply into the South Asian American phenomenon through my focus.

Ilana Gershon: Studying how children prepared for spelling bees gave you some surprising insights into how children are preparing for a future of work these days.   What did you uncover about how these competitors think about time?  About what it means to be a person who has interests or passions?

Shalini Shankar: Several things surprised and, quite frankly, stunned me. Their awareness of time management and its importance in elite spelling preparation was finely honed. It came down to how many words you could study per minute, how many times you could cycle through the entire unabridged dictionary during Bee Season, and how you managed your two minute turn on stage. I watched them become experts, which is always a fascinating process to observe. Equally important is mind management,  in not getting psyched out by how confident other people seem; not getting flustered on stage in front of thousands of people, cameras, lights, and noise; and most importantly, learning to lose. It was so interesting to me to see a prominent folk ideology from my research in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, about failure being productive, resurface here. Knowing how likely they were to lose, they did a lot of mental work to not internalize being eliminated as failure. Rather, they saw it as a learning experience, a social experience, and one that strengthened their resolve to do better the next time. Here, concepts like “grit” and “growth mindset” proved helpful to me to connect what I was seeing to broader conversations about learning and success for kids.

Ilana Gershon: What are some of the political stakes for you in writing this book? 

Shalini Shankar: Firstly, I wanted to offer an antiracist narrative about this particular immigrant story, challenging some of the underlying assumptions of what people often chalk up to “genetic.” The mainstream media would routinely report South Asian American kids as having a “spelling gene.” Those of us who study language know that is complete nonsense! To challenge this prevalent notion, I triangulated which immigrants were winning (the children of immigrants of the 1990 Immigration Act with advanced STEM credentials, a far less heterogeneous group than first few waves of post-1965 immigrants); and the potential impact of these immigrants beyond their own communities, as Generation Z has more children of immigrants than any other post-war cohort. This allowed me to argue that this cohort of immigrants has advanced professional skills and an urgent emphasis on education that has led them to take the brain sport of competitive spelling quite seriously, and this is what has led to their success.

Secondly, I wanted to understand how childhood might be changing through the lens of this increasingly competitive activity. I was curious about how Generation Z, raised by Gen X parents, may approach competition and challenge differently than Millennials raised by Baby Boomers. The amount of time that kids used to spend studying and preparing had grown exponentially from even a decade prior. Accessing a searchable, online dictionary, staying connected with fellow word nerds on social media, and the promise of being featured on ESPN primetime were all factors that heightened the stakes of not only this contest, but what kids could do. What I observed is that age and lack of experience isn’t necessarily seen as an obstacle; kids today take on challenges that previous generations might have deferred until college or afterword. Several chapters in the book take up the question of professionalizing childhood, and why that is important for kids. If a 15-year old elite speller can become a spelling bee coach as a first year high school student by training spellers via Skype and charging whatever they want (which is the case with several spellers I followed), it complicates how we think of kids as economic actors, and how they might enter the economy differently than their struggling Millennial predecessors.

Ilana Gershon: This is a book written for a general public, and as a result, you had to make calculated choices about what you would include and how.  How do writing for academics about spelling bees differ from writing for non- academics–are there ideas you decided not to include because you were anticipating the most general audience possible?

Shalini Shankar: Unlike my previous two books Desi Land and Advertising Diversity, where I writing for readers in Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, I wasn’t sure who my readers would be here. I was very careful about choosing theoretical concepts that would resonate with non-specialists. This meant I didn’t get into the weeds about semiotic concepts that I’d otherwise have included. That said, I still offered a semiotic analysis where appropriate, just using different terminology and doing far more explanatory work. When I chose to publish this book with a trade press, I was completely unfamiliar with the process. It was a steep learning curve! There is no peer review process and you primarily work with your editor. It is really different to get feedback from a generalist rather than a specialist in your own field. I had a lot of back and forth with my editor about what kinds of claims I felt comfortable making. I think I definitely pushed past my previous limits with this book, but still stayed within the realm of plausibility. Most of all, I wanted to write a readable book that people could enjoy. I hope I’ve done that for at least some of the people who open it.