JoAnne Yates on her book, Engineering Rules

Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 (Hagley ...

https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/engineering-rules

Interview by Michael Prentice

Michael Prentice: Engineering Rules is your third book following Control through Communication and Structuring the Information Age. The first two focused on genres and technologies as part of the overlooked mechanisms in the history of organizations and industries. What drew you to writing now about standards?

 JoAnne Yates: You are right to point out that a common thread in my work has been overlooked mechanisms and infrastructures. I tend to look at a level that other people don’t focus on – that seems too mundane. In Control through Communication, I was looking at communication and genres as an infrastructure for the modern firm. In Structuring the Information Age, I was looking at mechanisms for change in insurance processes related to adopting a new technology infrastructure—in particular, moving from tabulators to computers. Initially, insurance companies wanted computers to act like faster tabulators. Changes in processes to take advantage of the new technology came only slowly and incrementally. In Engineering Rules, the whole private standards system is an infrastructure that our society depends on tremendously. Everything that we do is governed by standards in some way or another. So the whole standardization community and the extensive network of standards organizations loom large in our ability to get things done, but we don’t know anything about them, typically. These people, their organizations, and the standards they set are a hidden infrastructure that most people don’t think about at all. Similarly, most people don’t think about communication systems (including memos and filing systems) and most people assume that when computers were introduced, they started a total revolution, rather than a gradual migration.

Michael Prentice: In the book, you emphasize the importance of voluntary standards. Why was it so important to tell that aspect of the story? Continue reading

Sabina Perrino on her book, Narrating Migration

Narrating Migration : Intimacies of Exclusion in Northern Italy book cover

https://www.routledge.com/Narrating-Migration-Intimacies-of-Exclusion-in-Northern-Italy-1st-Edition/Perrino/p/book/9781138584679

Interview by Daniela Narvaez

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you reflect on your own experiences as a way of discovering intimacies of exclusion. You start by sharing with your audience that you conducted many interviews in several hospitals as part of a project regarding Senegalese ethnomedicine in West Africa. From this experience you had the opportunity to interview participants who, like yourself, spoke standardized Italian and Venetan. Can you please share more with us about your decision to turn your attention to Italians and their narratives? What led you to start thinking about narrations and their relationship to racialized ideologies?

Sabina Perrino: First of all, I would like to thank you for these lovely questions. In the early 2000s, I was studying the fate of Senegalese ethnomedical practices both in Senegal and in Northern Italy. I was interested in examining how Senegalese ethnomedical practices were adapting to or changing in transnational contexts such as Italy. Ultimately, my goal was to compare them with the ones that Senegalese migrants had available back in Senegal, before migrating to Italy. However, when I started to collect data in northern Italian hospitals and elsewhere, I immediately realized that there was another important ideological layer that needed to be studied: how northern Italian doctors, nurses and ordinary people were reacting to the arrival not only of Senegalese migrants to Italy, but of migrants and refugees’ arrival more generally. Besides sharing stories of migrants’ behavior in hospitals and of the use of their medicine together with Western biomedical cures, northern Italian participants started to share stories about their own anxieties around the changes that the Italian society had undergone since the 1970s when new migratory flows started to enter Italy. Many of my collaborators shared stories about their resistance to these new waves of migrants, often made racialized remarks, and, overall, enacted strong ethnonationalist stances. After my dissertation was completed, I then realized that it was the appropriate time to turn my attention to Italians and to listen to their stories to study these ideological shifts in Italian society. It was the early 2000s when I started to collect these stories, a moment in which, coincidentally, right-wing political parties, such as the Lega Nord (Northern League), were just at the beginning of their path of success across the country.

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you have shown that through various initiatives, such as using Venetan in public signage, the creation of grammars, dictionaries, folktale- and proverb-themed books, among other efforts, Venetan has been recently linguistically revitalized. However, you also illustrate that this revitalization is not an isolated effort but has been transformed into a political emblem of regional group membership. You explain that “language revitalization initiatives in Veneto have gone hand in hand with the enactment of exclusionary stances concerning migrant groups and other people who are believed not to be fluent in the local language”. What are the challenges and consequences of regional language revitalization in these situations where language is being promoted among their speakers on the one hand, but on the other is being used as a political tool that creates intimacies of exclusion? How do you see your book speaking to the current political moment worldwide in which, as you point out, exclusionary stances and negative stereotypes about migrants circulate at a fast pace? Continue reading

Karen Strassler on her new book, Demanding Images

Demanding Images

https://www.dukeupress.edu/demanding-images

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: Your book is about the image-event, and I am wondering if you could explain what an image-event is, and how you decided which moments in Indonesia to focus on as ethnographic examples of image-events.  You are quite imaginative in how you choose objects of study, and I was hoping you could discuss the process by which you decide what to explore under the rubric of the image-event.

Karen Strassler: An image-event is a political process set in motion when an image (or set of images) becomes a focal point of affective response and discursive engagement across diverse publics. Foregrounding the centrality of visuality in contemporary public spheres, in Demanding Images I trace a series of image-events in which particular images become the material ground of struggles over competing visions of the nation in a turbulent time of political transition. I argue that in Indonesia, and elsewhere, today all politics has become image politics.

Underlying the term “image-event” is the premise that all images are events in the sense that they unfold in time and across space. Against the habit of thinking of images as fixed appearances at a remove from the flow of events, tuning into the eventfulness of images is a way to think about historical contingency and the dynamic, emergent quality of images as they move, mutate, and proliferate. Rather than conceptualizing an event as a clearly bounded temporal unit, I am interested in how images resonate and reverberate, in their ripple effects. This approach recognizes the volatility of images, their tendency to spawn new iterations, their unruly mutability.

Public images are elusive objects for the ethnographer. Traditional anthropological methods teach us to try to determine the “meaning” of an image through a deep engagement with its “context.” This “thick description” of the image usually entails tying images to specific actors and institutions that produce or consume them. But public images don’t play by these rules. They circulate in viral forms without authors and unanchored to particular sites and institutions. In a Bakhtinian sense, they are always alien and overpopulated with the intentions of others, they never belong to anyone except in the most provisional and temporary of ways. By following the image-event, we can see how images are taken up, how they are reworked, how they elicit speech and action, and how they coalesce a set of anxieties, aspirations, tensions, and dreams that otherwise remain inchoate. We can watch how they happen and track their effects.

My process for selecting image-events to analyze was really no different, I think, from what anthropologists typically do as we select from among the many occurrences that we encounter during research, homing in on those that provide analytic purchase, those that promise an opening to a set of questions or problems, relations or dynamics, that we’ve identified as important. Image-events don’t only reveal what’s already there but—like any event we observe ethnographically—allow us to see the process by which tensions, imaginings, and alignments, take form in real time. My choices of which image-events to focus on were of course shaped by my own (necessarily partial) sense of what was happening in Indonesia in the first decade and a half after the end of an authoritarian regime. Inevitably—and again, as with all ethnography—there’s an element of happenstance. For example, I happened to be in Yogyakarta during the months around the extra judicial killings I describe in chapter 5, and watching that image-event allowed me to think about the street as a medium. I chose image-events that, it seemed to me, crystallized and helped bring into view certain key tensions constituting the post-authoritarian public sphere, both shaping and unsettling democratic imaginaries in Indonesia.

Ilana Gershon: How have Indonesians’ relationships to photographs, and images in general, changed since your first round of research on photographs in Indonesia in 1998-1999?   What has been the effect of having such widespread access to technology that lets people not only to take photographs but also alter them? Continue reading

Christina Dunbar-Hester on her book, Hacking Diversity

https://pup-assets.imgix.net/onix/images/9780691182070.jpg

Interview by Héctor Beltrán

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691182070/hacking-diversity

Héctor Beltrán: In your ethnographic work with voluntaristic open technology communities across hacker and maker spaces, you’re careful not to characterize “hacking” as a single set of practices or cultural ethos. You also make clear that the “diversity work” enacted within these spaces borrows from a range of motivations and strategies.

 How did you arrive at “borders of care” as a way to develop the conceptual work related to analyzing these overlapping, contingent collectives without necessarily essentializing them or reproducing stereotypes about them?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: In a way, this was one of the bigger challenges of the book. I did ask myself whether I was sampling “representative” groups and practices, though I also knew that my story would always be partial and particular. The research process was organically following leads, paying attention to what was happening in cities I happened to be in over the course of several years, traveling to other sites for conferences and meetups, and listening to what folks in sites told me about present-day activities and histories of activism around these issues in their communities. I also of course wound up in a lot of events and settings that don’t appear in the book—sometimes because they were too dissimilar to the phenomena that I center in the book, and other times because you can’t include everything. But this triangulation and iteration is of course informing the analysis. I found Anselm Straus’s “social worlds” analytic useful for thinking about social meaning in distributed, large-scale encounters. It is more important to be conceptually careful about the things I can group together than to try to “sample” everything, which is of course impossible with a distributed phenomenon anyway.

Fundamentally, though, there is a shared impulse here, seeking individual and collective emancipation through engagement with technology. I conceive of the geek impulse to critique and remake their social world as a form of hacking. I write of “borders of care” to illuminate how communities are constituted by their priorities, their care and energies around “diversity” topics. But of course borders suggest limits, and there is a tension here: if the border were drawn elsewhere, these communities would look significantly different (perhaps more like a social movement), and the social world that is the topic of this book might cease to exist or shade into something else entirely.

Héctor Beltrán: By tracing these dynamic communities, you highlight how strategies, politics, and subjectivities move from one domain to another. In particular, open-technology diversity advocates are always close to the profit-oriented pursuit of techno-entrepreneurial development and growth. In this case, market logics and racialized capitalism become the basis for emphasizing diversity.

At the same time, you identify scale as a challenge for voluntaristic spaces. Perhaps a community can develop democratic ideals and corresponding codes of conduct that work in their intimate, carefully cultivated spaces, but scaling these practices to redress overarching structural inequity or promote restorative justice is another story.

Coincidentally, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have established methods for scaling their projects; they combine iterative software methodologies with business acumen to launch their ideas onto the global stage. Are there any practices or strategies that open-technology cultures can appropriate/reconfigure from these techno-entrepreneurs in order to scale their resistant politics, without resorting to product-driven solutions or for-profit ventures?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Well, I’m not sure how well I can speak to the practices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but it occurs to me that one of the main strategies they employ is naming and bounding problems discursively such that their versions of reality are accepted by users and by policymakers. For example, one that has clearly been very successful for them is calling companies like Uber, Facebook, and AirBnB “tech” companies rather than transportation, media, and hospitality companies, respectively. This has massive implications for regulation in particular, as they use these strategies to evade scrutiny and accountability. But these framings also have implications for how we think collectively about our society and the modes of intervention that are possible and desirable. One of the things activists can do is to zoom back out when they are naming problems: rather than centering “tech”, articulate social aims people wish to fulfill. This is important for a few reasons. It considers social good (and harm) in its own right, decoupled from “tech” as the be-all, end-all goal, or yardstick for “progress”.

Also, activists can redefine what engaging with technology is. It can be slow, deliberative, resistant to scaling up, ambivalent about “progress” narratives. It doesn’t have to be something that is happening in sprints, or chasing venture capital or intellectual property claims. If slowed down, we can deliberately foreground sociality and power rather than gadgets. From there, it’s a relatively short distance to define social problems in familiar terms for social intervention: militarism, and racial, gender, and economic inequ(al)ity are some of the social issues that advocates for diversity in tech care about and are wrestling with. Personally (and as a scholarly analyst) I think it would be useful to foreground those concepts and articulate them out loud, to bound care differently than it is when phrased as “diversity in tech”. One effect of this may be to have some forms of social intervention by techies break away from being corporate-workplace-friendly, but I think we are at a point where it may be useful to draw some new lines. (Some feminist techies reacted with dismay to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism, for example.)

Héctor Beltrán: You describe a meeting organized by feminist hackers who explicitly attempted to connect open technology culture to decolonial social movements. They’re left wondering why it turned out to be a mostly white gathering. In fact, many of the spaces marked as radical, genderqueer, and/or feminist many times turn out to be permeated by unmarked whiteness.  

On the flip side, around the same time when you were conducting research, my colleagues and I organized a series of events as part of our “Latinxs and Tech Initiativeat U.C. Berkeley, where we were also left wondering, where are all of the white activists? This is truly unfortunate, as we were similarly interrogating the “diversity in tech” discourse, such as the limitations of “technology” as an orientating framework and the drawbacks of focusing solely on increased representation. We even came to similar tensions, negotiations, and conclusions (published in our policy brief) that you identified with your research participants. Needless to say, it might be a lot more productive and enriching for all involved if these different initiatives joined forces.

What can we do to avoid activist fatigue and to get communities to cultivate     meaningful relationships across difference?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: I love this question, and I think it cuts to the heart of what is at stake with this kind of activism. I would love your thoughts on it too. I hope it is not an either/or for regroupment in enclaves versus coalition building, but rather a both/and. It is pretty clear that our present moment demands trust and solidarity across difference. And yet I understand that this is a moment where some people feel that additional burdens of trust (and vulnerability) are too much to take on.

Something you touch on in your report and I return to in the book is that markers of social difference are dynamic—shifting both situationally and across time. This might be more readily apparent to people steeped in anthropological traditions than a lot of people running tech meetups. Of course I do not mean to paper over difference—and real material matters are at stake, experienced differentially. But it can be useful to recall that some of the categories of difference that divide us are doing so in service of a system that harms us (if not all equally), so naming, understanding, and pushing back on that can be to collective benefit. I like where you land with “productive tensions” between cultural scripts; many things can be true or partially true, even when they almost contradict each other—it’s very important to strive to not be reductionist or essentialist.

I quote in the book an activist who says that she thinks hacking communities should be unafraid of tension (which, she specifies, is different from fear). Ultimately I have a lot of sympathy for the challenges that  people in elective/affinity groups who operate on volunteered time face in confronting what is ultimately a segregated, stratified society. It is not easy. The word “ally” gets thrown around a lot, but how do people join forces in practice?

Héctor Beltrán: I like that you identified the shock of vibrantly colored hair as a common geek identifier. Several of your research participants commented that this was a strategy for others to comment on their appearance in a respectful way without resorting to “harass-y” comments. The hair also serves as a way for members in this community to self-identify.

 The irony is that any self-identifying community marker can also serve as a way to inadvertently exclude. Perhaps if I don’t have a shock of vibrantly colored I hair I might feel like I am not the right type of “geek” to participate in this space. Can you tell us more about the dynamics of self-othering and being othered that you witnessed across your research spaces?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Does one have to do the things that are normed within the subculture? Is this (ironically) another form of gatekeeping? It could be. I felt this tension with my interlocutors sometimes. I had one person I was interviewing ask me about which comics I read, which I think was a friendly effort to “place” me. The answer is none. I don’t know that she actually thought less of me, but I think she was somewhat mystified and even perhaps sad for me.

I also witnessed moments where geeks themselves drew attention to how nerd humor, for example, is potentially elitist, so they’re not fully unaware of these phenomena. Even so, it can be hard to see how the norms that are utterly naturalized for an individual or a group are markers of belonging that can feel exclusionary to people who aren’t acculturated in that way. I quote another interviewee who vividly described how she felt that as a self-identified bicultural Latina, she had to modulate both her cultures of origin and the femininity they emphasized to enter hacking spaces that were more “Anglo or German.” She was laughing about some of this when she relayed it to me, calling the other hackers “goth” and even “emo”! And yet these norms do real work, even to the point of presenting potential barriers or forms of subcultural policing.

Héctor Beltrán: Part of extending the genealogy of hacking is giving recognition to voices and groups who have been historically silenced and marginalized. You make the point, however, that more than just failing to be recognized, the creative and expressive technological tinkering of these groups is often criminalized.

Drawing from the work of Rayvon Fouché and Ben Chappell, you point to the horse hay rake and the lowrider car as examples of “hacks” by members of racialized populations that had to be defended in the face of mainstream ingenuity; these inventions were rarely portrayed as hacking in a positive, agentic sense. I like the lowrider example because Chappell also claims that the hydraulic suspension was not only for show but was a pragmatic modification that allowed cars to ride lower than the California legal limit, but then to be lifted in an encounter with a police officer. It shows how recognition, visibility, and “hacking” are closely interconnected.

What might coding be able to offer marginalized communities along the lines of recognition and visibility?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: This is key. A lot of what we hear is a push to “diversify” tech, as if that in itself will promote social transformation, though the “how” (and to some degree even the “why”) is usually inchoate. I don’t think the critiques I am making about the ambiguity of diversity work in general are especially pathbreaking (I’m leaning hard on a lot of excellent work by, for example, Sara Ahmed, Herman Gray, and others). But how this gets hitched to tech is worthy of consideration in its own right. And here I think it is worth really breaking down the dynamics into their discrete parts.

If “tech” is assumed to be the seat of progress, an incredibly ubiquitous and frankly banal cultural script we encounter every day, that is already importing ideas about who the bearers of said progress are (and aren’t). An uninterrogated “progress” laid on top of the priorities of the U.S. can mean new forms of encoding old traditions of racist policing, for example. But also technology being vested with this power is contingent; there was a time when the term itself meant something like “mechanic techniques and artifacts” and wasn’t vested with progressive power. Social progress wasn’t automatically enfolded into it. My belief is that we could once again decouple these concepts, and we would be richer for it.

At the very least, as long as technology occupies a central role in how we imagine power and progress, we need to do the work to understand how power structures have shaped technological development, counting some groups of people as automatic agents of that power and viewing others with suspicion or hostility. There needs to be sustained attention to power structures and not just a hope that “add X and stir” will fundamentally change technoscientific practices and institutions. In addition, a flip side to recognition and visibility is leaving space for, as you note by way of Chappell, strategically blending in or going unnoticed—and retaining the power to choose when pop up as “visible” versus when to stay more submerged or camouflaged. In a way, this perhaps returns us to the preceding question: to what degree is an “outsider” element necessary for hacking, and for whom does that aggregate or multiply advantages?

David Zeitlyn on his book, Mambila Divination

Mambila Divination Framing Questions, Constructing Answers book cover

Interview by Stephan Feuchtwang

https://www.crcpress.com/Mambila-Divination-Framing-Questions-Constructing-Answers/Zeitlyn/p/book/9780367199500

Stephan Feuchtwang: Is divination a ritual, despite its being improvisatory and dialogic?

David Zeitlyn: I have two problems with this question: the word ‘divination’ and the word ‘ritual’! We know now that there is enormous variation across time and space about what counts as divination or oracle (but for the sake of clarity I will give a rough and ready working definition below). What counts as ritual is also variable and unclear, especially at the margins. So I am hesitant about making big statements about divination, although I am prepared to generalise about the literature on divination (which of course is not the same thing). My conclusion about this is that anthropologists have spent too long talking to diviners, not enough time talking to the clients. In part, this is because of the lure of experts. Diviners often are local intellectuals, curious and articulate so we the anthropologists have gravitated to people like us: those who are both able and willing to answer our odd questions. Clients often have far more pressing things at stake (such as serious illness), and it is easier for them to tell us to go and bother the diviners rather than them. And as clients often travel to consult it is hard to follow up so we may not know what they eventually do with the advice they have been given.

My rough and ready definition: I am using the term divination in a very general sense for any arcane or occult means by which people gain arcane knowledge (Aune 2005, Zuesse 2005). Arcane knowledge itself is knowledge that is not available from everyday, practical activity and is more or less esoteric or occult in character, often about the future. (In other words, this is not a study of how some people find water sources (water divination or dowsing)).

Stephan Feuchtwang: More than other dialogical processes, such as conversation, is divination bound by a set of symbols?

David Zeitlyn: Here I think you and I are in agreement: there is more going on than ‘just conversation’. If I were trying to advise you about a course of action then I set out my opinion and try and explain why I have come to that conclusion. In many forms of divination, especially when there are texts of procedures to be followed then as well as engaging with these procedures, I have to be attuned not only to Stefan’s input but the contribution (actual or potential) of other people, critically other diviners who may say that my opinion is worthless because I have not followed the procedure correctly. The possibility means I have to be careful to do ‘things right’ guarding me against criticism from my peer group of fellow diviners. As Pascal Boyer is arguing in a paper in Current Anthropology (2020) this also connects to a way in which the results are seen to be trustworthy – because the procedures have been followed correctly the results are seen as not being just ‘something I say’ (just my opinion) but something I am reporting, the source of the opinion, the illocutionary author is not the diviners but as it were the mechanism (technique), and if performed properly then it is credible because it is not biased and partial as humans all too often are.

I discuss all of this in Chapter Three.

Stephan Feuchtwang: Why is a client-centred analysis only about the problems clients bring to diviners and not also about those symbols?

David Zeitlyn: I think it doesn’t have to be but in my case I am both trying to redress the imbalance and reflect Mambila practice. Mambila diviners (those doing spider/ crab divination commonly known as ŋgam du) will talk happily and extensively about the symbols on the leaf cards that are used. These are similar in design to those used by neighbours such as the Yamba and other groups to the south  (examples have been documented from many groups over the years). However in actual practice those meaning seem not to be referred to. This is a puzzle which I think relates to the diffusion of this specific form of divination over the long term: (And I note ŋgam reconstructs as a proto-bantu term for doctor/ specialist). But granted my emphasis on what clients, and in my case Mambila clients do in and with divination if they don’t use the available symbols then I don’t think it right to insist (or impose) on a symbolic reading In the book there is a Mambila myth which explains why you cannot (strictly why you can no longer) talk to spiders. But as I point out the myth takes for granted that the spiders know things without ever explaining the source of their knowledge. I would be delighted were a Mambila scholar to do more work on their sets of symbols (I am not sure is there is a singular system: that seems to me to be one of the things that such a scholar can discuss) but that is not what I have done in the book, which ends up being more of a sociology of the issues that people (mainly Mambila) use the divination to help resolve and something about how they talk about these things. The talking about these things has two parts: in the process of doing divination, that is the process of divinatory consultation, there is a set of issues of how you frame the question being asked, and how you respond to the answers given as you frame new questions. In this part of the book I consider parallels with Harold Garfinkel and see how ostensibly contradictory answers are taken as being prompts either to change or widen the question frame. Towards the end of the book I report  some life history interviews that I have done quite recently. These were looking at the role divination has played during ‘life crisis’ moments in peoples’ lives. The responses were interesting: even diviners seem to have been quite reluctant to divine. And more people than I expected said things like ‘tried it, didn’t like the answers, never again’. So there seems to be variation in Mambila society about things like divination that has to temper how I generalise about them. Now that seems a good concluding point for an anthropologist: generalise with caution!

 

Kimberly Chong on her new book, Best Practice

Best Practice

Interview by Johannes Lenhard

https://www.dukeupress.edu/best-practice

Johannes Lenhard: Your book is continuing a so far relatively short line of monographs in anthropology started by perhaps Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits, 2006), Bill Maurer (Mutual Life, 2005) and Karen Ho (Liquidated, 2009) tackling the wide sector of finance. What is your specific focus and intervention in the anthropology of finance with your study of management consultants in China? 

 Kimberly Chong: Although there is an established anthropological literature on high finance, by which I mean the work and expertise of finance professionals such as investment bankers, traders, and fund managers, rather less has been said about how financial value, financial logics and financial ideologies get transposed into non-financial spheres. In Best Practice I look to provide a corrective of sorts, by examining the work of financialization practiced by management consultants in China.

My research can be divided into two parts. Firstly, my book provides a close range analysis of how labour and work has been transformed under the aegis of financialization. I am interested in the forms of evaluation that management consultants instantiate in their clients, as part of their endeavour to create ‘high performance organizations,’ and which link notions of performance to financial value. Moreover, I explore how this linkage is circumscribed by practices of organizing and managing, and how it leads to the devaluation of certain kinds of labour. As well as being poorly paid, such labour is rendered precarious and vulnerable to outsourcing. Secondly, my book examines the specific instantiation of financializing a hitherto non-financial entity. The global management consultancy in which I carried out fieldwork was parachuted into Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to prepare them for initial public offering on international stock exchanges. It has been hired to install IT systems which are designed to operationalize ‘value-based management’, that is management with the overarching objective of creating shareholder value. Yet, as I demonstrate in the book, the way in which the consultants, most of whom are actually Chinese nationals, understand their work is not in terms of evangelising the gospel of shareholder value, but rather as a dream of state capitalism. They see their work as making SOEs, and by extension China, into a paradise – a place of modernity and development, on a par with advanced Western nations. This does not necessarily represent a weakening of, or disruption to, processes of financialization, rather I show that local structures of meaning can be appropriated to enact financialization.

Johannes Lenhard:-  You position your book squarely at the intersection of the anthropological study of ethics and the economy (closely related to Max Cam); what I would want to know more about is how you think about economic ethics (as opposed to ordinary ethics or the ethic of the ethical turn for instance)? What does ethics mean in the realm of the economy? 

Kimberly Chong: I carried out fieldwork during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2007/8 financial crisis. During that time I was disturbed by narratives, from the media and within academia, which suggested that the financial crisis was somehow causally linked to a kind of moral deviance. People were too greedy! We need more women in finance! The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they fail to recognise that the very system in which financiers are operating legitimate and circumscribe certain forms of action. As Janet Roitman has argued robustly, perhaps the financial crisis was not a crisis at all but rather the financial system working as it was intended. If that is so, then changing the people would not be the solution. Also, it would be very difficult for management consultants to do their jobs if they really thought they were perpetually creating harm, waste, or fraud. This became even clearer to me when, in another research project, I studied the decision-making of fund managers. For both management consultants and fund managers, it is important to have a belief that their actions are the right thing to do, or at the very least, have positive efficacy of sorts. I’m not saying that what they do is always right but having the belief that it is right or commendable in some way, is very important if management consultants are to stay management consultants. The way in which they claim moral righteousness or ethical legitimacy for their actions, may, of course, vary between different actors.

In terms of approach, I analyse how ethical coordinates for action are produced through systems which involve both people and things – documents, charts, IT interfaces – through which value is ascribed and produced. I show how economic value is always produced in concert with ethical values, the latter serving to legitimate the production of the former. As exemplified by the trope ‘best practice’, management consulting is the business of creating ethical injunctions through which their interventions are judged and valued, but then naturalized as value-free (in other words, ‘the best’).

Johannes Lenhard: Similar to Stein’s closely related monograph on consultants in Germany, you also have a strong focus on the idea of work. What kind of work is it that consultants are performing (also in relation to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’)? What’s the significance of that work particularly in the Chinese context and how do you see that work (and its impact) changing? 

Kimberly Chong: I start the book with a vignette which shows new consultants learning to face down the tricky question of what management consultants do. This is presented as almost unanswerable in part because of the rather particular nature of  management consulting which I argue is highly performative in character. By performative I mean, following the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Callon, that consultants are in the business of producing – performing – economic realities in which they can substantiate their claims to expertise, and thus the legitimacy of their interventions.

So what does that mean in practice? A lot of management consulting is about selling and instantiating systems of evaluation, or ‘performance management,’ which allow them to make claims about improving efficiency, and create imperatives to restructure, outsource or downsize. These systems generate a huge amount of work to run and maintain – there are people whose job it is to set up the system, others who monitor it, others who create policies to optimise performance within it. And for people whose performance is being measured, such systems significantly impact their experience of work which then becomes subordinated to the fulfilment of performance targets and legible measures of productivity.

Although Graeber doesn’t mention management consultants specifically, it is probably not unreasonable to say that they have fundamentally changed the nature of work, especially given the scale of their influence – there are few large organizations that haven’t hired a management consultancy at some point. Certainly, consultants have helped to produce jobs whose value is so tightly hewed to the production of certain kinds of representations – such as ‘best practice’, ‘high performance’ – that the content of these jobs becomes hollowed out of meaning.

In China the emphasis on performance marks a shift away from organizations run by principles of hierarchy and political or social connections. Many of my interlocutors told me they wanted to work in a global consultancy because they deemed it to be fairer, more meritocratic, and they explicitly linked these claims to performance management. In many ways they pose an interesting counterpart to the ‘bullshit jobs’ view; although many of them did question impact of their work on their clients, the meaning of their jobs came from the broader frames of value in which they were inscribed. As well as being more meritocratic, some Chinese consultants appreciated consulting as a way of honing their professionalism and expertise. Denigrated under socialism, expertise has been rehabilitated in the post-Mao era, and the fortifying of one’s professional capacities, even if this is done in a global company rather than domestic one, is seen as a means of contributing to the nation and China’s strength.

Johannes Lenhard:- I am also curious about documents in the consultants’ jobs. They use PowerPoint slides (both electronically and in print-outs) a lot.  How do people talk about expertise in relationship to these slides?  Were some people considered more skilled than others with PowerPoint, and how did people assess that skill? And given that these slides were so ubiquitous, how did these documents function to shape the work day and flow of information? 

Kimberly Chong: One cannot overstate the importance of PowerPoint! It was the main medium of written communication, not just with clients, but also within the consultancy. This meant that everyone developed their skill in using PowerPoint– support staff like HR, as well as consultants. Moreover, the legitimacy of one’s expertise was tightly linked to the use of PowerPoint, and this included my own expertise – in the book I mention how I had to present my own pitches for access and research collaboration through PowerPoint. So yes it was ubiquitous. At the same time, some PowerPoints are more important than others, an obvious example is the proposals for new business, which are very slick. Although within academia it’s fashionable to talk down PowerPoint, my time in consulting has meant I have seen what can be achieved with this technology. Or rather despite this technology. PowerPoint is not a graphic design software, which makes it very hard to make visually spectacular documents. It was not uncommon to have slide decks with over one hundred overlaid images – tiny arrows, shapes, lines – which would comprise intricate diagrams, flow charts, graphical representations. This is meticulous work and requires painstaking attention to detail.

One might wonder how useful it is to have highly educated employees spending so much time doing what is essentially intricate formatting work. However, these documents were crucial to performing and enacting economic realities. As I show in the book, PowerPoint diagrams such as ‘Change Tracking Map’ constitute a kind of epistemological intervention through which consultants substantiate certain claims about their expertise. Other PowerPoints play an important role in training consultants and socialising them into particular ideas of their own control and potency in conditions of uncertainty. For example, in training they are exposed to slides that contain charts and graphs which model the delicate matter of client relations in a pseudo-scientific manner.

Johannes Lenhard: Finishing with a methodological question, let’s talk about elites. You had issues with access which is nothing new when ‘studying up.’ Continuing an ongoing debate re-invigorated by among others Souleles, what were your specific issues with accessing your informants? What did you do about them and what were you still not able to do and study? 

Kimberly Chong: There were many challenges. I networked tirelessly for six months before I obtained access to a global management consultancy and my problems didn’t end once I had my entry pass. As all ethnographers of organizations know, access has to be continually negotiated and renegotiated during fieldwork, and at all levels of the hierarchy. Second, there was the challenge of studying an extremely large organization, which at the time, had over 4000 employees in its China arm. Third, how do you get people to talk to you in an environment where confidentiality is highly prized and where people come and go all the time (as consultants ‘roll on and off’ client projects)? I felt strongly that I needed ‘legitimacy’ – a position within the organization that allowed my interlocutors to make sense of me, and thus feel comfortable talking to me about their work.

The way I managed these multiple challenges was by collaborating with the consultancy. I become a member of its Human Capital Strategy Programme which was described to me as an initiative of ‘corporate culture’, hence certain employees felt that, as an anthropologist, I’d be well suited to joining. But this did not solve all my problems. Although I was able to obtain access to their ‘client sites’ which is where consultants actually spend most of their time, I was never allowed to speak to their clients and ask them what they thought about the interventions that were being prescribed to them. This was perhaps inevitable, given I was dependent on the management consultancy, and thus would not be allowed to do anything that could potentially compromise their relationship with clients. But having restricted or partial access is, to some extent, the same for all anthropological research. We can never have as much access as I we would like, and often one’s positionality has a big effect on what we can see and participate in. I don’t see this as a problem, as long we are clear about this in our writing.

Lastly, I want to mention something that isn’t often written about and that is the pace of fieldwork when your interlocutors are very busy people working under intense pressure. Because I could almost blend in with my interlocutors – I was a similar age, ethnicity, and educational background – I did. At one point I had worked four months with not one day off, like many management consultants do, and was still writing fieldnotes in the evening. In the end I paid the price with my own health – both in terms of physical and mental health. Looking back, I realise that in some ways the ethnographic method isn’t suited to this kind of fieldsite, and this is something that we should be cognisant of, and we should modify our methods accordingly. For me, I think taking regular breaks from the field, and not feeling like I should stay as long as possible, would have been helpful.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Falconi and Kathryn Graber’s edited Storytelling as Narrative Practice

Cover Storytelling as Narrative Practice

https://brill.com/view/title/38668

Interview by Dilara Inam

Dilara Inam: As you say you blur many taken-for-granted distinctions between spontaneous and rehearsed or quotidian and unconventional ways of telling a story. Also, there are crucial discussions on how to understand the concept of “everyday” as a category of analysis which became even more clear in Elizabeth Falconi’s chapter on Zapotec storytelling. How was your experience with working on storytelling as narrative practices holistically? With the increased interest in the concept of storytelling, how would people benefit from this book?

Kate Graber: Thanks for your question, which strikes at the heart of what we were trying to do in this book. This project emerged from a conversation that Lizzy [Falconi] and I had several years ago, in which we realized that although we were researching different genres of language—Buryat news stories and Zapotec folktales—our research participants were treating both as stories, somehow. The same analytical problems of storytelling animated these really different contexts, in Russia and Mexico: understanding what’s at stake in a particular society in demarcating what counts as “story” (and as a “good” story), identifying how tellers break through into performance, figuring out how they’re socialized into it, learning from the story audience’s uptake, and so on. Yet what I was researching—and what a lot of the other chapter authors in the volume describe—is usually analyzed in other terms: as media discourse, for instance, or as narratives of personal experience, in the case of other chapters. So we were interested in what ethnographically unites those different genres. What might a myth have in common with a family history, or a news story with the grand master-narrative of a nation-state? The rules and the forms of the narratives differ, but the social fact of having rules and forms does not. We realized that storytelling is a more expansive concept than disciplinary and topical divisions have allowed it to be. I think if more people are interested in storytelling right now, it’s because they have that same hunch.

Elizabeth Falconi: I would say that over the course of my research I was presented with and heard many different types of stories, some were presented more formally as “Zapotec folktales” while others emerged spontaneously in conversation. The similarities in stories that were presented to me as distinct in terms of genres, tellership and so on was very interesting to me, and which I discuss on pages 174-177 in my own chapter in the book. This perhaps answers your question about how to approach storytelling holistically. My attention to different storytelling episodes of the same teller (here Isidro) was another way to approach the analysis of this practice holistically. Storytelling is an ingrained practice in a wide variety of cultural contexts, and paying attention to this analytically I can help students and scholar develop an awareness of the role such practices play in socialization, relationship building, and the inter-generational transmission of knowledge, helping us to break down barriers between cultural groups associated with “oral versus written” traditions and so on.

Dilara Inam: Without the expected genres to talk about narrative practices, it becomes a very broad topic which discussed in a well-organized way in your book. We see 12 different case studies surrounding the discussions on narrative practices organized under three main parts which are Boundaries of Self, Negotiating Heritage and Constructing Discursive Authority. How did you end up deciding to structure the book? Continue reading

Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara Van Den Berg on Walter Ong’s Language as Hermeunetic

Language as Hermeneutic

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501714498/language-as-hermeneutic/

Maddy Adams: You are both professors of English, and this blog is an anthropology blog. Walter Ong’s work has traveled through so many disciplines and departments: communication, rhetoric, linguistic anthropology, English, religion, history, and media studies. Clearly, Ong’s ideas have had far-reaching influence and appeal. Why do you think his work is relevant for so many different disciplines?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong once identified his primary academic interest to be the evolution of consciousness out of unconsciousness within the context of 13.5 billion years of cosmic evolution, particularly as related to communications technology. Such a study obviously touches upon many disciplines, and while Ong resisted classification, he did reluctantly agree that his interdisciplinary work might be understood as cultural anthropology.

It is more than coincidence that two of the most seminal founders of “media ecology”—Ong and Marshal McLuhan—both earned Ph. D.s in Renaissance literature.  This gave them a broad sweep not only of eras and events in the material world but also of the “internal history” of Western culture. Ong proposed there were four stages of human communication: primary orality (in which writing is unknown), writing, print, and electronics; what we know, how we know, and how we structure society are influenced by the dominant communications media in a culture. Each communication stage promoted different psychodynamics and different orientations to space and time.  For instance, in his article in American Anthropologist he explained that post-Gutenberg cultures tended to spatialize noetic processes due to visually-based analogues for knowing (“world-as-view”), whereas oral cultures’ valorization of sound promoted a mentality in which words and ideas are happenings (“world-as-event”). Such a thesis invites further investigations in several disciplines.

Maddy Adams: You describe Ong’s notion of “secondary orality” as “the transmission of speech in electronic media; this…secondary version of orality depends on the underlying resources of literacy” (3). Could you talk a little more about this foundational concept? What might a student of linguistic anthropology have to gain from becoming familiar with this term? Continue reading

Patricia G. Lange on her new book, Thanks for Watching

Thanks for Watching

https://upcolorado.com/university-press-of-colorado/item/3737-thanks-for-watching

Interview by Jan English-Lueck

Jan English-Lueck:  You have been writing about YouTubers, on and off screen, for over a decade.  How is this book continuing themes you have been developing for a long time and what is a departure from your previous work?

Patricia G. Lange: My work has oriented around empathetically exploring nuances of mediated interaction to understand the allure of interacting in digital spaces. Throughout my career, criticism of mediated interaction has persistently been very harsh—from scholars and the public. Yet, mediation is part of the human experience. My current book similarly tries to understand why vlogging (video blogging) and sharing the self through media was so important to YouTubers interested in sociality. My past and current research challenges the notion that mediated interaction is simply parasitic to and less meaningful than in person interaction. The sociality YouTubers experienced was emotional and real—both online and off. Even going back to my dissertation, I have been concerned with problematic talk and issues of online access. Back then troublesome participants were called “flamers” and today YouTubers complain about “haters”—groups that exhibit differences but also similarly produce chilling effects to participation. I have explored how digital spaces facilitate or challenge democratized participation. This book continues this passion by analyzing experiences of YouTubers who originally saw the site as a place of tremendous possibility for offering a potentially democratized space for self-expression and interaction. Thanks for Watching traces the initial excitement and eventual ensuing complications that an interconnected group of people experienced. It explores difficulties such as haters, competition brought on by monetization, and changes in content. It also analyzes technical complications such as algorithmic rankings that privilege certain types of content over quiet, social videos. The book concludes by providing advice and recommendations when conducting ethnography in digital spaces. It also provides information about what might be changed to renew a corner of YouTube for sociality, or perhaps to more ambitiously create new video sharing sites that fundamentally support interaction.

In the past, my work has centrally revolved around issues of analyzing technical identities, and how “geeks” socialize to learn and project an aura of being an expert. Thanks for Watching departs from this research program. Identity work has been important for many online studies, but other interesting rubrics exist. Inspired by Lefebvre, my book uses the lens of “rhythm analysis” to explore how temporalities, rhythms, and interactions over time shape video-mediated sociality. For example, an arrhythmia is an irregular rhythm, one which often indicates a problem. YouTubers at times experienced arrhythmias between honoring their creative pace of production and satisfying the relentless demands of audiences and algorithms. At times creators could not keep up with such requests and took a break. Disruptions in posting video content might be observed by viewers who became concerned when video making output became irregular. It could feel as if a collective was in tune with a video maker and was watching out for them. Focusing attention on such patterns leads to significant analytical insight, especially in terms of seeing such deep and widespread connections as illustrative of our increasingly “posthuman” condition. I remain circumspect about usage of this term, which has the unfortunate connotation of asserting we are no longer human. Yet, we are far from being robots or files containing a downloaded consciousness. Nevertheless, I chose to explore this rubric given that some of its characteristics can quite clearly be observed on YouTube. Collectives of interconnected people, artifacts, commercial interests, and technical operations are deeply influencing how people express the “self” in both communal and troublesome ways.

Jan English-Lueck:  You observed an actual drum circle at a YouTube meet-up in Toronto.  You then observed it is an appropriate metaphor for video sharing.  Could you tell us more about how that metaphor illuminates participatory cultures?

Continue reading

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine on their new book

Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life by [Gal, Susan, Irvine, Judith T.]

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/signs-of-difference/E69813363E4CD9927C6C8E1BD2FC3011

Interview by Hannah McElgunn

Hannah McElgunn: Signs of Difference begins with analyses that draw from long term ethnographic engagement in two very different places: Bóly, a town in Southwest Hungary, and a rural, Wolof-speaking town in Senegal. How has working together, across such seemingly different fieldsites, influenced the approach to language and social life that you present in this book?

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart. The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

Hannah McElgunn: As you note, C.S. Peirce hoped that “a converging, objective portrait of the world” would result from different actors continually refining the conjectures of their peers (88). This is opposed to the project you take on in this book, part of which is to detail the “construction of perspectives that are partial, conventional, and positioned” (88).  Yet, despite the fact that Peirce’s larger project differs so strikingly from yours, his semiotic theory plays a foundational role in your “Ingredients” section. How have you come to understand Peirce as useful for the analysis of social life, despite your divergence?  Continue reading