Cognitive Update

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently a participant in a study to test the effectiveness of “cognitive trainings” in improving “intelligence” whatever that means.  I thought it might be nice to give a little update to let you all know what it’s like and how I’m doing.  First, a bit about the research.  I went in a few weeks ago and did some baseline cognitive tests for about three hours.  A few days later, I went in and did some of the same tests in an MRI machine and got a lovely picture of my brain.  Following that, I began doing the cognitive exercises every day.  I’m supposed to do 35 session – one a day – and each session consists of 4 games that last about 6 minutes each.  Here’s a quick description of the games:

  1. Floop – For this game, a set of letters will flash on the screen such as “AAUAA” and at the same time a voice says a letter.  If the letter in the middle of the set shown matches the letter that is said, then you click “Yes” if not then you click “No.”  As you get better, the time you have to respond is reduced and the letters on the screen get spaced out further.
  2. Memnosyne – For this game there is a 4×4 grid that appears on the screen. When you click “Start” a sequence of tiles is lit up one at a time.  Once the full sequence has been shown, you are supposed to click on the tiles that lit in the order that they were shown.  The difficulty here is increased by increasing the speed of the sequence shown and increasing the number of tiles that get highlighted.
  3. NBack – This is probably the hardest of all of the trainings, and also the most difficult to explain.  At the beginning of the game a number is shown, for example “N=2.”  The number increases as you get better at the game and the time you have to respond decreases.  Following the number, the screen begins to show a sequence of letters.  As the letters are shown, you’re supposed to click “Yes” if the letter is the same as the one shown N letters back, and click “No” if not.  For example, if N=2 and the sequence goes A-B-C-B-A, then I would click “Yes” on the second B (because it’s the same as the letter that came two before it) and “No” on all the rest.  So you have to remember the string of letters, and the harder it gets the more you have to remember of the string.
  4. ShapeBuilder – This is actually a lot like Memnosyne, only there are more factors to remember.  The screen shows a 4×4 grid with 4 sets of colored shapes around it – green, red, blue, and yellow.  When you click “Start” a sequence of shapes is flashed in the grid.  Once the full sequence has been shown, you have to place the appropriate colored shape in the proper tile on the grid in the sequence they were shown.  As it gets harder, the number of shapes shown and the speed they are shown increases.

Those are the four games, now here’s how I’ve been doing.  The Floop and NBack games are impossible for me to do, but it’s mainly a technical problem.  I’m supposed to be able to use the arrow keys on the keyboard to indicate “Yes” and “No” but for some reason it doesn’t work for me – I’ve tried my wireless keyboard and the keyboard on the laptop itself.  As a result, I have to use the mouse to click the “Yes” and “No” buttons on the screen.  This worked fine initially, but as the amount of time I have to respond decreases, it becomes virtually impossible to move the mouse to the appropriate button in time to mark my answer.  As a result, I get them all wrong, and it’s very frustrating.  I mentioned it to the researchers, and they are allowing me to do only the Memnosyne and ShapeBuilder exercises, but I have to do 2 sets of each every day in order to make up for the lack of the other two exercises.  It’s a bit frustrating, because I get tired of doing 2 exercises for 12 minutes each, whereas doing 4 for 6 minutes isn’t so tedious.  I’ve been doing it, though.  So the second problem – and this is a persistent part of my character – is that I find it difficult to do the exercises every day like I’m supposed to.  First, I missed a few days while working out the issues with the Floop and NBack exercises.  After that, I’ve missed days here and there because I forget, or don’t have time to do them.  I have this problem with classes where I have daily homework assignments to turn in – these are always the classes that I got B’s in rather than A’s.  I’m much better at thinking long-term and getting a single large assignment (like a paper) done and in on time than I am at doing small tasks every day – I guess I’m just not consistent with my work.  Anyway, I’m a little behind where I should be, and that means I have to do extra every day in order to make up.

As for how I’m doing on the tests, like I said, I’m only doing the Memnosyne and the ShapeBuilder exercises.  I find Memnosyne surprisingly easy.  I get stuck sometimes at a certain level, but with a little practice (and something seems to shift in the way I approach the problem) I can eventually get past it.  For example, for a long time I had a hard time remembering 6 tiles at any speed, but I could do 5 almost without paying attention – I just seemed to know where they were when it came time to mark them.  In the last few days, however, I’ve successfully passed 6 to the point where I can almost do it without thinking, and last night I made it to 8, though I don’t do very well at that level yet.  ShapeBuilder is much harder, and my performance is much more erratic with it.  I have made it to 5 shapes, and done okay there, but lately I’ve been going back and forth between 3 and 4 shapes at varying speeds.  Sometimes I do well, and other times it’s just impossible.  I have learned that the shape is the hardest thing for me to remember.  I tend to do very well remembering the placement, and the color I can remember with a little effort, but the shape somehow gets lost in everything else.  In order to deal with this, I’ve taken to saying just the shape either aloud or silently to myself as they appear.  This helps me to remember the sequence of shapes and then I can let other parts of my brain remember the placement and colors automatically.  It works okay, but I’m still missing something and it’s not consistent.

I don’t know how the end will play out.  I don’t know if I’ll get some kind of indicator that shows whether my “intelligence” has increased, or anything like that.  If I do, I’ll let you know, but I doubt it.  I’m hoping to see the results of the study overall, though, and to see if my time spent on this was worthwhile.

Aliens and the Construction of Nature

Today I’m reading the chapter from Helmreich’s Alien Ocean on aquatic invasive species (AIS) in Hawaii.  In the chapter, he discusses the politically charged climate in which the issue of invasive species has become entangled in Hawaii.  At stake is the definition of “native” versus “alien” in a place where to be “native” carries a strong political association.  Depending on who you talk to, things like taro or pigs could be either “native” or “alien” since they were brought to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers thousands of years ago.  These distinctions reproduce Western conceptions of nature (i.e. native) and culture (i.e. alien), which has tremendous impact on both the invasive species and the Native Hawaiian discourses.

What’s most interesting to me – and Helmreich does a good job of illustrating this, but it could easily get lost in the emphasis on discourse – is that this issue of invasive species points to the fact that not only are our conceptions of “nature” and “culture” constructed, the very things themselves – natures and cultures – are constructed as well.  If you look historically at Hawaii, then it’s clear that all of the species on that island were “introduced” at some point.  It’s true, the rates of introduction differ between periods of pre-human settlement, “native” human settlement, and Western colonization, but this doesn’t change the fact that the “nature” of Hawaii is just as constructed as any of the cultures that have inhabited it (this is true not just of Hawaii, but of any place – Hawaii just happens to be a very good example).  Plants and animals, with or without human assistance, have made their way to the islands, they have worked to establish themselves there, they have adapted to the local conditions (or not in cases where they have failed to establish themselves), and other species have worked to adapt to them (or not, in cases where established species have been displaced or destroyed by newcomers).  The result is a complex set of relations that is always changing and being renewed through the agency of all of the beings who compose the island ecology.

The question this raises is, does this place us in a position of moral relativism with regard to invasive species?  Does it paralyze us to do anything about potential problems?  Or does it reduce the issue to one of human values – where “native” is identified with desirable species, and “alien” with undesirable species?  I think not on all three counts.  What it means is that, instead of assigning categories like “native” and “alien” arbitrarily, we need to take stock of the existing set of relations in a given place (its ecology – including both human and non-human agencies), try to understand the processes that created those relations (the history of the ecology – that is, the work that was done by both humans and non-humans to compose it), and then work with all of the actors in the ecology to recompose the relations differently (to make them “better,” recognizing that “better” is a negotiable condition, and that both humans and non-humans must be involved in that negotiation, and also that “better” is a moving target, not a stable condition towards which we can aim.  In fact, I would suggest that it is the continual process (struggle forever!) of attempting to compose “better” relations that’s most important).  In my opinion, this puts us in a much stronger position than one which is always caught up in trying to define “native” versus “alien.”  It allows us to work collaboratively to craft an ecology that works for everyone rather than arbitrarily eradicating certain species simply because we don’t like them.

Bright Ideas and Popular Anthropology

Recently there have been a couple of posts – on Savage Minds and Neuroanthropology – discussing how anthropologists can appeal to a more general audience by changing their writng style.  On Neuroanthropology, Daniel and Greg discuss their distaste for Thomas Freidman’s approach to writing as well as the lessons that anthropologists can learn from him – to identify a formula that resonates and use it to convey anthropological ideas.  On Savage Minds, Kerim talks about the distinction between ideas as sunflowers – discrete objects that can be picked, shared, and placed in a vase (i.e. most of the ideas presented in TEDtalks) – and ideas as bougainvillea – twisted and entangled, not easily separated from the roots, and not easily put on display in a vase (i.e. most of the ideas presented in academic journals).  To me it’s nothing new to suggest that, by writing better – that is, less academically – anthropologists could appeal to a wider audience.  Obviously writing to an appealing formula or disentangling ideas from their academic contexts would make a lot of anthropology much easier to digest, but the question I have is why is it important?

This all seems like more bemoaning the state of the field to me – something I think we need to get past.  Like it or not, there are only ever going to be a handful of anthropologists who can successfully write popular books.  David Graeber seems to be the most salient example of recent years.  This is because writing to a popular audience is a finely honed skill, which most of us don’t have the time, energy, or even need to work on.  We write academically because that’s how we learned to write to one another, and there are reasons for academic style writing frustrating as it might be.  The same is true for science – there can only be so many Neil Degrasse Tysons, Carl Sagans, or Stephen Jay Goulds – the rest will continue to write in highly specialized languages because that’s how they learned to write, that’s how they have to write in order to succeed at their work, and because those languages afford them the nuance that gets lost in TEDtalk speak.  The same is true – will always be true – for anthropology.

Furthermore, those books that catch  popular attention tend to latch onto trends in popular intellectual thought.  Graeber has latched onto critiques of big banks, and global financial institutions at a time when a lot of people suddenly went into debt, when Europe and other parts of the world are plagued by a debt crisis, and the global economy is generally slugging along.  Mead latched onto a renewed interest in sexuality and a taste for exoticism that was characteristic of the early 20th century intelligentsia.  Let’s face it, most anthropology doesn’t connect to the major trends going on at any particular time.  My own area of environmental anthropology, for example, may have gained traction in the 1990s or early 2000s, but as the global financial crisis took hold, people became more concerned about their paychecks than they are about the rainforest.  Even in the Occupy movement, environmental issues have been secondary to issues of debt.  That means that, although I suspect that I could write a decent popular book, it wouldn’t necessarily gain much traction outside of a select audience (unless I wrote about food – that seems to be the one area that environmental issues can really catch hold right now).

The point is that all of this is okay; I don’t need a popular audience to validate the work that I do, and neither do most anthropologists.  The fact that most anthropologists are not writing popular books is, in my opinion, not a fact to bemoan.  Rather, my primary concern is in making sure that the research that I do is relevant to the people who are affected by it, which can be done through writing, collaborative or participatory methods, activism, or any number of approaches.  This is a distinction in the discussion over the relevance of anthropology that is rarely made – the distinction between relevance to a vaguely defined popular audience, and relevance to a specific audience affected by the work a specific anthropologist is doing.  While I think it’s fine to pursue the former, and I certainly won’t begrudge those who are successful in that arena, I think for most anthropologists focusing on the latter is enough and my sense is that most do try with varying degrees of success.  In the end, I think we need to ask ourselves why we want to appeal to an audience – popular or otherwise.  Is it because we think the ideas we have or the work we’ve done will make a difference to that audience, or is it merely out of vanity – to make ourselves feel important and influential?  Appealing to a popular audience is not something we ought to pursue for it’s own sake, but a means to making a difference in the lives of the people with whom we connect.  If an anthropologist can write a book that makes a difference to a popular audience, then by all means they should (Graeber’s book on Debt is probably one of those books), but let’s not waste time bemoaning the lack of popular anthropology books merely for the sake of having popular anthropology books.

Doing the Work

One of the most important things I’ve taken from my philosophical engagements – notably Levi Bryant, Gregory Bateson, and Bruno Latour – is that change (even existence) takes work. I’ve talked a lot about work before. This is because it is, for me, a foundational concept. In order to understand something, we have to follow the work that it took to produce it. Furthermore, in order to change things – to make a difference – we have to do the work that is required to make the change. I think this is an increasing problem with scientific thought – particularly in the environmental sciences.

I’ve worked with a number of scientists now on a variety of projects, and the thing they really like to talk about – particularly when social scientists are involved – is “behavior change.”  It’s become a buzz-phrase that’s thrown around casually at meetings and conferences as if it were the most natural thing for scientists to think about.  I don’t know the exact history of this phrase and how it came to be so popular.  However, I believe that it’s a reaction against two things 1) the ideal of dispassionate science, and 2) politically correct notions of non-intervention and relativism.  Scientists are not content to do research, provide information for policy makers, and educate the public.  That’s great, and I’m all for a more engaged science.  However, what’s resulted is this “behavior change” attitude that suggests that scientists know what’s best for everyone, and that we all should just listen to the.  When we don’t listen, then they turn to social scientists to tell them how to get people to listen as if we have some magic answer that will propagate their message (and behavior change) through the system.  Certain social sciences are more than willing to sell that – even though they don’t really have it.  It’s a kind of snake-oil social science where, if you just craft the right slogan, use the right social media, conduct surveys and focus groups to inform the whole thing, then everything will work out just fine.  These media campaigns tend to fall flat.  Why?  Because they have to compete with things that people enjoy like cats with pieces of bread on their heads (I’ll spare you the images) – those things people are happy to do the work to propagate.  It takes millions of people doing little bits of work (liking, sharing, replicating, spoofing, etc.) to make those “memes” successful (to make them “go viral”), but it seems like magic and it makes people interested in using social media to effect social change drool.  Often those social media campaigns created by scientists and others don’t catch the kind of work that’s needed to make them truly “viral” or even to get the message out beyond a restricted group of people (who likely are already aware of the issues).  Furthermore, it’s not clear that such social media campaigns lead to substantial change in behavior even when they do “work.”

When the social media campaign falls flat, the scientists turn to the ultimate form of systemic behavior change – the law.  In fact, the law itself takes a lot of work to create, maintain, and propagate – think of all of the congresspersons, their staff, bureaucracies like the EPA, state agencies, federal enforcement officials, state and local law enforcement, courts, clerks, fines, prisons, and so on that are required to make the law work, it’s just that this work is institutionalized and prepackaged.  Even so, the law may still fail to create the desired change.

So what’s wrong with “behavior change” mentality?  Aside from being a sort of paternalistic (or even outright imperialistic at times) attitude, it ignores the work that needs to be done to make a difference, and the potential (even probability) for failure.  Furthermore, it’s a position of relative invulnerability for the scientists.  It suggests that, as Stengers points out “scientists know, the rest of us believe.”  Therefore, scientists place themselves in a position of firm ground that requires little change on their part – the real change must come from the public.  I believe that the insights of science are invaluable – it provides us with an abundance of information that could help create a much better world.  However, scientists (including social scientists) need to understand that they are only one group among myriad others and that societies are complex – there are no single solutions and all change takes a great deal of work.  In place of the idea of “behavior change” I would suggest the idea of “negotiation.”  At first glance it sounds like a weaker position – like crass pragmatism or giving in to public whim – but I think it’s actually a much stronger position to start from.  For one, it doesn’t carry the paternalistic overtones of “behavior change” and so it’s less likely to generate knee-jerk reactions against being told what to do (nobody likes being told what to do!).  Second, there’s no reason in a negotiation why a person or group can’t take a firm stance as long as it’s recognized that others may reject that stance completely and simply ignore you – this means you’d have to be open to modifying your stance, adapting it to the contingencies of the negotiation process.  Third, it recognizes the work that needs to be done to convince others.  This work might use things like social media, legislation, surveys, workshops, education, slogans, etc., but none of these becomes the single solution, and all of them may fail.  Finally, it not only conveys a sense of the work that needs to be done, it also conveys a sense of “working with” others as opposed to imposing upon.  The goal should be to create the possibility for change with the people who will be affected by it rather than telling people they must change and getting frustrated when they don’t.

If scientists and others interested in “behavior change” were to shift their attention to “negotiation,” and attend to the work that needs to be done, I think a lot more significant change would get accomplished.  But even “negotiation” is no silver bullet – it’s always prone to failure as is any social change method – but it puts us in a much better position to pick up, dust off, and start again with a new negotiation.  Finally, I realize that what I’m asking for is a kind of “behavior change” among scientists, and this is paradoxical.  I don’t expect anyone to be convinced by this short blog post, but in my work with scientists, I try my best to convey a sense of the work that needs to be done, and the complexity of the issue rather than sell myself as a social media magician who can transform the world with the flick of a wrist.  Little by little, I hope to convince them that negotiation is the right approach, the best approach, and the way to a better world.

More on Theory

I just read this article from John Law that basically confirms what I talked about in my prior post on theory in anthropology.  Essentially he argues that theory is tied up with practice.  He uses an example from his own work of salmon farms in Norway to explore what this means for Science and Technology Studies, Actor-Network Theory and its successors in particular, but I feel that the insights apply equally to anthropology and other empirical social sciences.  Here are some quotes:

“This paper [Callon’s 1986 paper on Scallops in Saint Brieuc Bay] is immensely popular and this is partly because Callon had the bare-faced effrontery to treat scallops and people symmetrically – that is to say, in the same terms. His argument was methodological. It was that if there are differences between people and scallops (and obviously there are) then these are an effect of the relations in which they are embedded – relations which work to enact their differences. The implication is that if we are to understand this process – how it is that entities such as fishermen or scallops take shape – we need so far as possible to explore how this happens without making prior assumptions about the character or form of what is being generated. Scallops, fishermen, and scientists – all are generated in the relations that develop between them.”

“Nevertheless, Callon’s ‘scallops’ piece is perhaps the first and clearest STS methodological and empirical statement of resistance to human exceptionalism. And, as is obvious, the move was thoroughly theoretical as well. It showed what happens if we attend to how it is that objects – or realities – are generated in relations, and to how those relations are done in practices. Crucially, it showed that it is possible to dissolve a-priori divisions between nature and culture and explore how these are put together – and separated – in practice.”

“Two points. First, it is wise to be a little careful when you go fishing for philosophical resources. These indeed have their own context, and sheer eclecticism is pretty risky. This is because it is difficult to know when you are getting yourself in to unless you exercise suitable caution. So that is one argument and it needs to be taken seriously. On the other hand it also pays to be somewhat disrespectful. Philosophy has a tendency to present itself as foundational – or as a ground-clearing exercise necessarily undertaken before particular disciplines can get to work. But this is not how it is in practice, at least most of the time. It turns out that anthropology, or indeed physics, prosper perfectly well in the absence of philosophical clarification. So it is in this spirit that I want to suggest that for our purposes philosophy is best thought of as a source of possible insights. Indeed, if we look at it in this way, then it is not very far removed from fieldwork materials. It becomes a set of specificities, a collection of possible resources, an aid to thinking, and a set of sensitising suggestions.”

“There are many stories to be told about what a salmon is, but if I am to talk about this from an STS point of view then I need to weave together the three kinds of answers that I have rehearsed above.

  •  First it is important to tell stories that undo the obviousness and the taken-for-granted of the solid; it is necessary to tell stories about the dispersed and heterogeneous networks of practices that generate the possibility of being a salmon. This is old ANT.
  • Second, (more old ANT) it then becomes important to talk about modes of assembling – about how the salmon puts itself back together again once it has been taken apart and distributed into practices.
  • But then, and third, it is necessary to address the issue of excess. STS in its ANT mode needs to say something about the moments when the beast slips out from the edges of our human practices; about the moments that hint at fishy heterotopias. It becomes important to note those moments and to try characterise them. And then, and as part of this, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that it, the salmon, goes to places where people cannot follow; to places that people do not know.”

“[Theory] informs how we see whatever it is that we are looking it, and it is something, a set of propensities and sensibilities, that shapes what we look at and poses questions, issues, possibilities of whatever it is that we come into contact with.”

That last quote is what I was trying to say with my previous post, but may or may not have conveyed sufficiently.  It’s nice and concise – an excellent definition of theory, in my opinion.

The Purpose of Anthropology II

I’ve said before that, for me, the purpose of anthropology is to build a better world, but that’s not enough.  It’s so vague as to be tautology.  Of course anthropologists are working to make a better world, who isn’t?  We all have visions of a better world in our minds – for some, a more just and sustainable world, for others, a world that provides for their personal desires.  I don’t believe that there are people out there who simply want to watch the world burn (to paraphrase a line from Batman), but if there are, then I imagine they do so because, in some twisted way, they think the world would be better for it.  It’s really not enough, then, to say that anthropology is about building a better world, we have to ask “How?”  What is it that anthropology does differently?  What does anthropology have to offer?

The traditional role of anthropologists is to do research in order to produce knowledge.  Even the applied/academic axis revolves around the production of knowledge for different ends – knowledge for the sake of knowledge (academic) and knowledge for the sake of change (applied).  And to be sure, the knowledge that anthropologists produce is extremely valuable.  Anthropology has a wealth of knowledge about humans – their behavior, their biology, their social systems, etc. – and this knowledge cuts across cultures and across history.  This kind of knowledge is indispensable to the project of making a better world.  However, I would argue that, by limiting our focus to knowledge production whether of the academic or applied sort, we fail to grasp the full value of anthropology as a practice.

Instead, we have to be attentive to the full range of practices and products of anthropological research.  We have to ask ourselves, what is it that we do?  What effects do these actions have on the world?  And, how can we put those actions to work to make the better world?  Knowledge is one of the products of our research, and it has it’s own effects, but we also do a number of other things in the process of producing that knowledge.  We tend to call these methods – participant observation, interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc.  There has always been a certain amount of reflexivity in anthropology with regard to methods, but this has been directed primarily at producing a certain kind of knowledge.  However, methods have other effects as well.  For example, the practice of interviewing some one can create a connection between the interviewer and the interviewee – it could result in friendship, or it could create animosity.  Participant-observation could have the effect of making people more conscious of the way they carry out a ritual or practice – it could add new elements or change the practice in some way.  We have to be attentive to these consequences, not to attempt to eliminate them (the only way to do so would be to stop using them altogether) but to do our best to make sure that the effects are not harmful or destructive.  Furthermore, once we recognize that methods themselves make a difference, then we can begin to consider ways that we might use our methods strategically to create change.  But it extends beyong methods too.  There are many things we do besides methods, and producing knowledge – we build rapport, we seek funding, we collaborate with other disciplines, we attend events, we publicize, etc.  All of these things are practices that make a difference in the world, and contribute to its composition.

We’ve looked at what we do – considered the full range of practices that make up anthropological research, and we’ve thought about what effects those practices do have.  Now we need to consider the ways that we could use these practices to make a difference – to make a better world.  I think there are a lot of answers to this, and I don’t pretend to have the definitive one – I merely want to raise the discussion and propose some ideas.   In my opinion, though, one of the things that anthropology is good at, one of the things that it has always done, and one of the things that it can contribute to the making of a better world is what Samuel Delany refers to as “contact.”  According to Delany:

“Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash register.  It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop.  It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar.  It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semiofficials or service persons… As well, it can be two men watching each other masturbating together in adjacent urinals of a public john – an encouter that, later, may or may not become a conversation.”  

In other words, contact is the direct encounter between individuals or groups outside of one’s usual set of relationships.  Delany talks of “class” here and contact is differentiated from “networking” by being inter-class rather than intra-class (both, he argues, are valuable for different reasons, but networking is often mistaken for contact, and this is problematic he suggests).  I take the word “class” to indicate not a socio-economic standing (i.e. upper class, middle class, lower class), but a generic term for various social and cultural identities.

What does this have to do with anthropology?  I would argue that one of the things that anthropology – in all of it’s various practices – is able to produce (in addition to knowledge) is a kind of contact. In some cases, this contact can be direct.  For example, when I was in Nevada working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Shoshone tribes, far more important than the knowledge I produced while I was there (which was essentially a reiteration of what was already known) were the opportunities I created (inadvertently, I admit) for the people at the BLM and the Shoshone Tribe members to come together and talk.  The talk wasn’t always about the traditional-cultural properties (TCPs) that we were studying, but about a variety of topics such as horses, guns, children, and everyday life in rural Nevada.  When it did turn to the TCPs, the talk was far more casual than had ever been done before – due in part to the restrictions of “Government to Government” negotiation in which the individuals are no longer constituted as individuals but as figures representing a larger body of interests.  I don’t know what the tangible results of these contact events were, and, perhaps if I could have been there longer or set up more opportunities, then the difference might have been more substantial (or less, who knows?).  I did see in those instances, though, a certain possibility that had not existed before, and I brought it about by means of what was essentially participant-observation.  As another example, I see the work I’ve done recently bringing together biologists studying invasive species and bloodworm harvesters as a form of contact.

In other cases, the contact is not so direct – and I’m not sure that Delany would call it contact at all.  Instead, it’s a kind of mediated contact where a certain class of people comes into contact with another by means of anthropology texts.  This is where knowledge production can play a large role (though I realize this isn’t the only role knowledge can play).  The production of ethnographies has made it possible for Westerners to learn about and encounter other cultures around the world.  As a result, it has caused us to think critically about many of the practices we’ve held to be given or natural.  Today the opportunities for that kind of exotic contact are diminished, but there are still innumerable opportunities for creating inter-class contact in a variety of ways.  For example, the work many anthropologists have done to bring attention to the complex lives of marginalized peoples is a kind of mediated contact that causes us to consider the way our actions affect them.

Contact is only one of many possible ways that anthropologists can use their practices to build a better world.  However, by focusing on the production of knowledge as we tend to do, we diminish our ability to see these potential avenues for making a difference.  A large part of my goal as an anthropologist is to encourage us to look at the effects of all of our practices, and to make us attentive to the ways we might use those practices to better ends.

My Brain

I recently volunteered to take part in a study that is meant to see whether computer exercises can make a person more intelligent.  As part of the study, I went in today to get an fMRI while I did some cognitive tests.  It was like something out of science fiction complete with a strange, eerie soundtrack (from the buzz, humm, beep, and thump of the machine as it scanned me).  By the end of it I was struggling to stay awake, and when they pulled me out of the machine my neck was very stiff.  In any case, after I finished, they sent me this picture of my brain, so, in case any of you were wondering what it’s like inside my head, here’s your answer!

Note: I was able to select the view of my brain that I wanted to receive, but playing around with it, it all looked very much the same.  I picked one that seemed to show a lot of different things.  I have no idea what any of this is…

Theory in Anthropology

This past weekend, I finished writing and submitted an article for the 2012 Culture and Agriculture Netting Award.  The process of writing this article up resulted in a fair amount of self reflection with regard to my theoretical approach.  In fact, it went so far as to make me wonder about the purpose of theory in general.  For me, theory is about the process of doing research, writing it up, and other activities associated with that (i.e. activism, advocacy, employment, information sharing, etc.).  It is meant to make us rethink the way we do research, and interact with people, and the value of that research for others.  For example, with the publication of Writing Culture by Clifford and Marcus, we became more attentive to the way we write ethnographic texts and the consequences those texts had for the people they were intended to represent.  This was an important step in the development of anthropological research because it forced us to rethink many established practices in the field.  My own theoretical approach – whether you call it constructivist, cosmopolitical, ontological, compositionist, or whatever – is meant to extend this attentiveness to all aspects of our research practice.  We have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the kinds of knowledge we produce, and the way we represent others, but these activities don’t account for all of what we do – I want to extend this same thinking to our methods, as well as the relationships we build when we’re “in the field,” and the political, economic, cultural, psychological, and material effects of our work.  I suggest that all of these practices – relationship building, writing, theorizing, advocating, participant-observing, interviewing, etc. – are practices that shape reality by building relationships between different people, ideas, plants, animals, and objects.

In this sense, a theory is not something that can be proven or validated, nor can it necessarily be used to predict, interpret, explain, or make generalizations.  Instead, what makes a theory “true” is its usefulness.  But then we can still ask, what makes a theory useful?  Some may say that a theory’s usefulness lies in our ability to use it to predict, interpret, explain, or make generalizations.  If it can’t, then it’s not a good theory or not a theory at all.  This would write off a good deal of what we call theory today, I think, and definitely my own, since, although certain kinds of testable predictive statements can be made from it, the theory itself is not predictive.  For me, all of those things are only part of what a theory can do, and thus only a fraction of what makes a theory useful.  At the most basic level, a theory is useful if it causes us to think about the things we study in a different way, and, in so doing, to resolve problems that might be posed by our research.  Certainly, predicting, interpreting, explaining, or making generalizations are ways of making us think differently about the world, but so can telling a story, or presenting a new and unique representation, or simply interacting with others.

In my article, for example, the goal – and I don’t think I explained this very well – was to depict the bloodworm industry differently from other socio-ecological approaches.  Specifically, I designed it to highlight the relationships between humans and non-humans at a very intimate level (although I didn’t have the data or the space to do so as well as I would have liked), the way those relationships are mixed (i.e. their heterogeneity), and the way the actions (practices) of all of the different people, plants, and animals contribute to the reproduction of these relationships over space and time.  Rather than talking about the gross level “bloodworm industry” and its relationship to or impact on “the environment” I tried to show how bloodworm harvesters interact with the worms, how the worm dealers combine the worms with the seaweed in order to ship them both over great distances, and how those organisms interact with other organisms when they reach those distant worlds.  I also wanted to show how we – the anthropologists as well as the biologists we were working with – interacted with all of these people, plants, and animals, and how those interactions changed both us and them.  My hope is not that readers will come away with some kind of model for predicting or explaining the bloodworm industry – one that could then be used to manipulate it to stop shipping invasive species all over the place.  Instead, I hope that readers will come away from the article with a respect for the people, plants, and animals who make up the industry (or what I called in my paper the ecology) as well as a different sense of what science (including anthropology) does, and that this will motivate them to engage with the people, plants, and animals, to build relationships with them, and to work with them to find a solution to this problem.  In all likelihood it will be completely ineffective, since it will likely only be read by a handful of judges who will award the prize to someone else and my article will be relegated to the dustbin.  Even in the best of circumstances (that I win the award and get the article published), it will probably make little difference since it will probably not be read by anyone involved in the bloodworm/invasive species problem.

To me, this is what theory does, it tells us how to engage with the world around us – in my case as a researcher.  In the process of writing this article, though, I’ve become acutely aware that this is not what a lot of (most?) people think of when they think of theory – at least not in anthropology.  For them, theory is much more circumscribed – it is, essentially, predictive theory as described above.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s a difference that makes communication sometimes difficult.  I’m not sure if I should reframe my concept of theory as something else (i.e. more of a general philosophy) and accept the more common(?) notion of theory, or if I should stick to my own conception of theory and advocate for it so that others can understand.  It sounds fairly simple, but it has actually provoked a bit of a soul-searching moment for me.  I don’t have an answer yet, but hopefully one will come soon.

NOTE: I’ve tried to write this without overusing jargon – it’s a conscious attempt to be clearer in my writing and to make it accessible to more people.  It’s very difficult, though, and I found myself putting jargon in parentheses because the usual words just don’t convey the full meaning that the jargon seems to me to capture.  If anyone has any advice on that, please let me know.