A new development in anthropology online has taken form today, and that is the creation of the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Since roughly 22 May a discussion emerged on Twitter concerning the possibility of taking anthropological collaboration online to a new level. I first learned of this discussion from Lorenz Khazaleh at antropologi.info, even though I myself pretend to be in Twitter. The Twitter discussion went from #icaa to #oaa and finally to #oac. Keith Hart (The Memory Bank), moved this forward by setting up the network on NING, which was a suggestion I made, but without enough thought as to the limitations of the software for what we might want to do.
Allow me to copy from Lorenz what one can distill from the early discussions as the foundational premises for the OAC:
- A place to share ideas
- A place to find like-minded anthropologists
- A place to collaborate
- A place to hold virtual conferences
- A place to host podcasts
- A place to ask questions
- A place to learn about new tools for anthropology (online tools, field tools, etc.)
- A place to find resources (e.g. databases, good grad programs, upcoming colloquia, software, field opportunities)
- A place to publish
- The idea of an engaged anthropology for the 21st century in relation to the digital revolution
- Group blog with posts from both Keith and others
- Forum for discussion
- Online press to publish longer pieces
- The incorporation of Twitter, social bookmarking, wiki, etc
Again following Lorenz, I will quote from Fran, a social anthropologist whose blog discusses the idea for an Open Anthropology Cooperative in the following terms:
In my opinion, there is no reason for an invented divide that reduces web-based academic content to a second-rate substitute for formal (read: expensive, elaborate, bureaucratic) channels. Why not overlap “open” and “official” academia until they are one and the same?…How about an online/offline seminar series, bridging the gap with web-based multimedia, in-person meet-ups, etc? Crossing over from the lecture hall to the web, sharing teaching and learning materials, creating new bodies for peer revision and publication are all possible and positive outcomes. Breaking down the publishing barrier and enabling actual feedback with established anthropologists can only help to aid in the development of better research and analysis.
In the discussion on The Memory Bank, which traveled there from Twitter, and then from The Memory Bank to the current incarnation of the OAC, more ideas were put forth on the meaning of this new phenomenon. Paul Wren wrote, “I can see that we should view ‘open’ as having many faces — open access, open membership, open to new ideas, open to whatever the organization might do or become.” Keith Hart added, “open to everyone, as in ‘open source’.” I very much appreciate these ideas, and in some respects they resemble some the principles I espoused here.
The NING platform for the OAC will provide an early trial platform for doing most of what people wanted above, except the open journal and open conferencing systems. The idea was to start implementing some of the idea, putting them in practice, gaining a critical mass of participation and interest, before moving on to more ambitious ventures.
Update (10 June 2009):
Early enthusiasm sometimes gives way to early disappointment. Among the many problems with the OAC, aside from its generally not living up to a name that it borrowed (a remix it seems), is that rather than serve as a test to where “we” could go with collaborative and open access anthropology, it has become largely an online replication of traditional and familiar forms of introverted anthropological self-organization. It is not open anthropology as much as it is merely anthropology out in the open. Given the authoritarian and elitist tendencies that set in extremely quickly with the ownership and administration of the network, it is not likely that there will be anything substantively and qualitatively new to emerge from this premature and ill conceived, poorly executed experiment.
I suggested previously, based on an accumulation of statements that I gathered from those who founded and administer the network, that my principles of Open Anthropology — the only set in existence are those named as such, here on this blog — inspired some of the thinking behind the initiative. By some it turns out that this largely means none in practice, and that the principles have been emptied and used as a glossy cover for something quite ordinary and conventional. Now we are left with two sites, with strikingly similar titles, that have little in common, and much to set the two in opposition.
What matters most about Open Anthropology is challenging professionalization, institutionalization, and disciplinary self-defense and self-promotion. Yet, the OAC appears hell bent on reinforcing those very processes and phenomena. What also matters most about Open Anthropology is that it is a project of decolonization and anti-imperialism. Yet, the OAC administration, with its heavy policing and intervention designed to tamp down any “nasty” or “captious” disagreements with those who present some of the most antiquated imperial thinking to be found anywhere, prevents the emergence of a true Open Anthropology. Indeed, groups have even formed that are ideal for “strategic studies” and “counterinsurgency” types, with their analyses of “tribes” and “radical” versus “moderate” actors in the Middle East and Asia.
The policing of the site has been terribly condescending and inappropriate, bordering on misconduct. Discussions have been tampered with, edited after the fact, and comments deleted, so that a false impression is created of what was said, by whom, when and why. When I needed to substantiate something that I said, by referring to a comment I had made earlier in a discussion, I found it was gone. When challenging a senior colleague who was putting words in my mouth, I could not find my own words. To disable a colleague in that manner, without apology, is inexcusable and decidedly unethical.
The infernal quest for hierarchy is very much in evidence, with policy makers, steering committee, administrators, and an “inner circle,” that makes me wonder if George Orwell scripted this network as an online theatrical production of 1984. The OAC may go somewhere someday, but not like this.
The Open Anthropology Cooperative is largely a social networking site, with little to offer except perhaps a wider range of contacts among professionals. For now, this is the best possible face that I personally can put on the OAC. If drowning yourself in an anthropology conference that never ends, and being neck deep in old line anthropology is what you like, then the OAC is the place for you.
As Trinidadians like to say when exiting: “I gone!”