I’ve been hearing a lot of exciting things about Amazon’s Kindle recently, and as the time comes to leave for the field – and therefore leave behind all my books – its been sounding increasingly attractive. The $350+ price tag for the latest version aside, however, on doing some research I don’t think I’ll be getting one just yet. Although it sounds like it ought to be an academic’s dream, there are some serious drawbacks that, unless resolved sharpish, mean this product really won’t ever be an option for people like me.

First off though, what do I mean by “people like me”. Well academics in the humanities and social sciences whose jobs depend on reading a hell of a lot of books every day. In an average week I probably read about the equivalent of five books in their entirety, plus or minus a few hundred pages, but this is usually spread out over about 10-20 books or journal editions, each of which I might read a few chapters of. And I’m a lazy and slow reader in comparison to my friends. Most of these are library books, but in the four years since I moved to the US I’ve also collected a personal library that takes up 4 huge floor to ceiling bookcases: the essentials I just had to have my own copy of. And again, I’m lagging behind most other academics here.

So I’d assume that I’d be an ideal market for a Kindle. There can’t be that many other professions that require quiet so much book ownership and reading?

I’ve always been a little disparaging about my dear colleagues attitudes towards books. It frequently verges on the fetishistic, and tends to go hand-in-hand with a Luddite fear of computers. It amazes people that I prefer to keep all my journal reading to pdfs rather than printouts, try to write all my notes electronically rather than in notebooks, and never brought coursework books unless, having finished the course, I was really sure I’d want to read it again. Hence why my four bookcases are rather pathetic looking in most anthropologists’ eyes. I love a nice paperback to curl up with, but don’t have that dreamy-eyed attachment to the nostalgia of the printed page. (And don’t get me started about personalised name stamps…) Bring on the e-revolution, as far as I’m concerned!

But I’ve been noting a sense of palpable excitement among anthropologists about the Kindle, even though its out of most of our price ranges, and goes against the fuddy-duddy waffling about the joy of dog-eared coffee-stained 1st editions. I put it down to the fieldwork: one of the many, many things that makes fieldwork so annoying is not having access to any of your books. A Kindle could change that. Not only let you have the right reference book when you need it, or the timely copy of the book on interviewing techniques you never realised you would need.

But also the novels. The things that stop you going absolutely crazy when you’re holed up in your little house on your own trying desperately to escape from the reality that there are several more months to go and you hate everyone you’re meant to be studying. Or something like that. For when you need escapism, pure and simple, but its two days drive away from the nearest internet connection.

So anyway. Thinking this might be the answer to all my mounting anxieties, I started asking about and checking it out, and so far there seem to be two major, insurmountable problems:

1) The page numbers don’t stick.
2) The range of books on offer is crap.

The first relates to citation practices. Apparently in a Kindle book you can zoom in and out to make the font larger, but this changes the pagination of the whole book. Total disaster! Unless you can place a citation exactly so that someone else can find the same thing on the same page you are referencing, then its useless. Academic citation practices are not going to change in any hurry. I mean we still have to include the town where a book is published in citations for goodness sake! (something that always conjures up images in my mind of quaint 19th century scholars having to personally travel to New York/London or Cam:Mass to find a copy of a book I cite) Kindle’s gonna have to sort that one out before it can become usable for academics.

The second, though, makes me wonder more about whether the makers of Kindle even realise the market they are ignoring. A quick browse through Amazon’s site today revealed that, as of today, there are only 2,207 anthropology books available (not counting archaeology). In comparison, there are 3,239 books on cooking, 4,190 sports books, and 6,064 erotic fiction books (incidentally, all topics I would have assumed are better just practised, rather than read about… but there you go).

When I actually checked out the kind of books listed under “cultural anthropology”, most of them were utter crap anyway. Lots of Jared Diamond. A bit of Latour. No Sahlins.

As a quick test, I looked up everything I had on my desk at the time. So this is a roughly accurate reflection of what I’ve been reading this week, and whether I’d be able to find it on Kindle:

Biocapital, by Sunder Rajan – No
Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbiology, by Helmrich – No
Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, by David Turnbull – No
Space in the Tropics, by Redfield – No
Opening Pandora’s Box, Gilbert and Mulkay – No
Nuclear Borderlands, Joe Masco – No
Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, Stern – No
Landscapes and Labscapes, by Kohler – No
Science and an African Logic, H Verran – No.
Ella Minnow Pea, by MacAdams – No.
The Dictator’s Shadow, by Heraldo Munoz – Yes.
The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Bryatt – Yes.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Marcus – No!

So all I could get would be one of my novels, and the one biography I had on my desk. At the moment, then, its a bit of a let down. Ok so some of these are pretty obscure, but even the Marcus wasn’t available, and I don’t think any anthropologist can really contest that this is not a classic.

What I did find, though, is that for those that are available the price is bizarrely high. Lets say I was going to buy Latour’s Reassembling the Social. The paperback (new) price is $24, but the Kindle price is $18.56. How does that make *any* sense? Once the book is made, there’s barely any production cost at all. No paper, no printing, no shipping.

There has been a lot of discussion in academia about the demise of the academic press, the rising costs of producing the monographs that are a loss-maker for publishers, but that serve as the lifeblood of the humanities and social sciences. The print run of the average academic monograph is in the low hundreds, so the prices go up beyond the average grad student price range… . Less books are brought and production costs go up in a vicious circle.

Electronic books seem like the obvious solution out of the problem. The same few hundred hard copies would be sold to libraries and book fetishists. But the digital copy could be sent out at a fraction of the cost. It has the potential to totally revitalise the academic book market.

Yet we could take it even further. Over on the WAC mailing list in the last few weeks there has been a raging row about moving the contract to publish WAC’s journals and books over to Springer from Left Coast Publishers. The row started over whether working with Springer, a large corporation, undermined WAC’s ethical principles. (For more background on what WAC is and what it stands for: see here.) But it soon turned into a debate about the gulf in opportunity to access all academic publications between academics in richer and poorer countries. As temporarily employed adjunct faculty in the US complained they couldn’t afford WAC’s $40 books, professors from African nations pointed out they needed to take second jobs to get together the $20 membership fee.

WAC, like many anthropology organisations, tries to solve the disparity by having two tiers of membership fees, depending on where in the world you are coming from. This extends to journals as well, with two (sometimes more) tiers of pricing. With digital books, if the production costs are cut to a minimum, could we do the same thing?

Well. Only when Kindle and other e-book makers realise that we exist as a market. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for it – but I’m not holding my breath.

Ok folks. So I’m back. After nearly a year of hiatus, I’ve decided to deal with my “issues” and relaunch the Wrong Side of The World.

Perhaps to start off I should give an apology for disappearing. I’ll be honest about it: I was having a nine month sulk. I think I got a little dispirited with the idea of blogs, a little over enamoured with the quick fix potential of facebook, a little over-anxious about being labelled an “anthropology blog”… in all, it was complicated. And rather petty at the same time.

I spent the last nine months concentrating on some other projects: doing some creative writing, taking up painting again, that kind of thing. But I realised I missed writing here and so have decided to give it another go. First, though, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about some of the things that made me start writing this blog in the first place, the direction I hope to take it in the future, and some more general musings about academic and internet writing. Partly as an explanation for the sulk, but partly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts on what I want this blog to be in the future.

When I first started the Wrong Side of the World back in 2003, I was just about to start grad school, and very sad about leaving behind a wonderful community of friends in Cambridge. I wanted some way to keep in conversation with them, some way to keep a connection other than sending awful group emails. I envisaged the blog as a way of carrying on the kind of informal, friendly debates about life, love and politics that I knew I was going to miss.

Grad school can be, particularly at my university, an isolating experience that slowly tears your sense of humour and self confidence into a thousand tiny little pieces. Particularly here in the US, I find, people are wary of what they write or say in public, cautious about what they feel prepared or able to defend. In writing the blog I wanted a space in which I could speak more freely, throw some ideas around and talk shit without necessarily having to worry so much about whether I could back it up with the requisite collection of citations.

As the name of the blog suggests, I also needed a space to deal with some of the total cultural confusion that I encountered in moving to a new country. Talking about the bizarre situations I found myself in was perhaps also a way of dealing with the loneliness that comes when you’ve just moved somewhere new and don’t have any deep friendships yet.

But, of course, the internet is not really a cozy night in the pub, and conversations take on a life of their own when they are overheard by the whole world. My biggest worry was always about whether I was writing something too personal, or something that wasn’t respectful of a friend’s privacy. (Or, lets be honest, that I would tell a stupid story about someone and they would then find it and be pissed off…) What caused my extended time-off (aka “sulk”), however, was more to do with me re-evaluating my relationship to the idea of a blog tself.

My initial reasons for blogging were to look for a safe space to share ideas, a space away from the rigours of academic speech/writing. But blogs are not that really that space. There are some pretty terrible stereotypes of academia that many people (inside and outside) share. The image of a bunch of egotistical arseholes constantly getting into cat-fights over obscure remnants of triviality, waving their dicks about, ready to crush any sign of weakness. I don’t believe in this stereotype. Or at least, I think that such images are a very tiny portion of the bigger picture. Yes, we all have to learn how to play the game to get ahead – its not some utopian community of lofty, idealist thinkers striving for truth and knowledge. But in that respect its just like every other profession or community. And so yes, there are styles of speech one has to adhere to in academia, and these can be limiting if one has no other outlet to speak in. Such was the situation I found myself in when I started the blog: wanting another venue to talk more freely in. The problem is that the blogosphere is also not a utopian space of free expression and shared ideas either. Instead, it can resemble nothing more than the worst of the dick waving cat-fight stereotype of academia, without the minimum requirement of some intelligence or knowledge.

Not always of course. But it happens. (particularly when one dares talk about politics.) And when it does, it sours my lovely naive idea about nice open spaces to talk about ideas without worrying that someone will flame you.

Anyway, the last few years blogging and my time off thinking about blogging have taught me two things.

Firstly, that I have a very thin skin. In fact, this was something that one of my informants told me rather forcefully a few months ago, when I was trying my best to convince him that my thesis wasn’t going to be at all controversial. I am a classic middle-child I guess, desperate at all costs to avoid conflict*. I’ve got to deal with that head on.

Secondly, that its really not possible to keep my academic and my personal life separate any more. My mind has been colonised by anthropology as much as my life style has. In the same way that my day-to-day schedule is dictated by the open-ended nature of research and my ability to have a relationship is undermined by the propensity to spend several months a year doing fieldwork, I now can’t read a magazine, or go to a store, or meet someone at a party without anthropologizing the encounter. Its insidious. So the idea that I would somehow write about my life or my thoughts and have it not be anthropological is wishful thinking.

Which is why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of being an “anthropology blog”. Not because I have something against them: I am an avid reader of several, particularly the excellent group blog Savage Minds. But instead because I wanted that separation, that safe space. I’ve realised, however, that its not going to happen.

So… I’m going to embrace it. Here, you will hopefully see over the next few months, the new and improved Wrong Side of the World. It might not work. Then again it might.

I have a few aims.

I’m going to avoid as much as possible talking about my informants, or explicit aspects of my fieldwork. My reason for this is mostly to protect those relationships and the ethic obligations to privacy that are embedded in fieldwork. Besides, I’m going to be doing so much field note writing already I probably won’t want to be writing additional things about it.

I want to keep this as a space I can write informally in. My biggest challenge in my professional development has been learning how to reign in my over-colloquial writing style in my academic writing. Learning how to cut out the cute phrases, sarcastic asides, over-enthusiastic effervescence and unsubstantiated rants. Gradually I’m getting there, and think my academic writing is improving as a result. But I miss them sometimes. Expect the usual chaotic, incoherent ramblings here instead, plus some.

I probably won’t be able to stop myself from me!me!me! posts, so you’ll have to bear with me on that. Though as Jim put it, when I talked this over with him a little over the Christmas vacation, the personal is still political so there’s no reason to exclude it all. Besides, if I stopped telling long-winded stories about my own stupidity, that would be half my conversation gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about whether its possible to make cultural anthropology accessible and/or relevant to wider audiences. So there may be some experiments in that. Other people have done it better before me, and are doing it better now, but we’ll see what happens. Its a challenge.

I’m about to move to yet another side of the world, Chile, so I’ll be writing a lot about that. However, for the first time I’ve decided to let my parents know about my blog, which will probably add a whole other level to the self-censorship ;)

So. Here goes! Thanks for reading, feel free to hang around leaving comments, and lets see what happens!

I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by anthropologist friends who work in Chile that I should avoid mentioning the fact that I’m at the University of Chicago when I’m doing field work there. So its with some interest that I’ve been catching up on the latest saga in my home turf. After the last year of protests, meetings and mud slinging over the under funding of graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we were all rather dismayed to discover that although the good ol’ powers that be can’t afford to give us health care, they can afford to build a whopping great big new centre for the economists. Because those guys are in such a precarious position they need a little extra cash.

Aside from being pissed off at the unfairness of it, though, there are some more fundamental objections to the new centre. There are other departments at the UoC that have great reputations, but all of us carry this collective milestone round our neck that threatens to disrupt and discredit us at any moment: the reputation of the Chicago School of Economics. That the new centre will be actively continuing the work, as well as baring the name, of Milton Friedman has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. Having seen the new president, Robert Zimmer, slip and slide his way through the “negotiations” with the graduate students, however, I suspect he will be equally dismissive and arrogant on this issue. Anyway, there is a lot of info about it here, and a petition doing the rounds which I am coping below.

Chances that this will all be sorted before I start my field work in Chile? Low.

Chances I will be pretending I’m a student at UIC? I’d say they’re pretty high.

For one or more of the following reasons, we, the undersigned, oppose establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI) in the form that has been proposed (To sign, please go to http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~amit/MFI/).

1. The scale of the University’s investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is not credible to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman’s name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist.[1] Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them.

2. In May 2007, the President appointed an ad hoc committee with the broad charge of creating “a major new institute at the University on economics and society.”[2] However, the committee, five of whose seven members teach in the economics department, proposed instead an institute whose stated goal is to provide vast resources to the economics department to improve its competitive position relative to its rivals in the field.[3] The committee’s report ignores approaches to the interdisciplinary theme of “economics and society” that originate in disciplines other than economics or that diverge from the particular approaches of the Chicago School. We welcome the President’s initial interdisciplinary vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.

3. We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one’s apparently are, given the MFI’s stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.[4] Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.

4. The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman’s views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman’s ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.

5. The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, “a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute.”[5] Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.

6. Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a “free market of ideas,” than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually — or morally — superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.

7. The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.[6] We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.

8. Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.[7] Given other aspects of the MFI’s mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.

Given the serious nature of these concerns, we welcome President Zimmer’s decision to convene the University Senate this fall as a venue for open debate on plans for the MFI. We intend to raise these issues in principled fashion and to propose substantial changes, as we passionately hope — for the University’s sake — that the MFI does not come into being as it is currently envisioned.

[1] Consider the following thought experiment. Would the Economics Department or the University imagine it could raise $200 million by founding a George Stigler Institute? George Stigler was a long-time colleague of Friedman’s in the Economics Department, was also an unambiguous supporter of pure laissez-faire economics and, like Friedman, was a truly distinguished scholar who won a Nobel Prize. But because he limited his publications to scholarly venues, rather than supplementing his scholarship with a free-market ideological crusade, his name would have considerably less value. The additional value of the Friedman name derives from his role as public champion of the free-market doctrines whose adoption in the United States and elsewhere has vastly increased the earnings of the very wealthy. Presumably, it is the latter who will be the prime contributors to (and investors in) the MFI.
[2] A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
[3] Ibid., see esp. pp. 3-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 2: “Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including… his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
[5] “Milton Friedman Society,” available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman’s dictum “There is no free lunch” may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
[6] The concern for “policy” appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation “to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation” (“A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 1, emphasis added).
[7] “A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 7.

the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

Farming in the desert: the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

I’ve been lost in a forest of work for the last few months. Its getting crazy as I get close to leaving to start my field work. I was having a conversation with someone a while ago about the loss of the sublime in academic life, the result of which is that the closest we get to art is picking profile pictures for facebook. In a similar thread, I’ve just read and reread this paragraph from Bourdieu on scientific fields, and come to the conclusion its the closest I’ve got to poetry in a long while. Here it is, in the style of “The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld”:

“The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason”

by P. Bourdieu.

The structure of the distribution of scientific capital
is the source of the transformations of the scientific field
through the intermediary of the strategies
for conservation or subversion
of the structure which the structure itself produces:

on the one hand,

the position which each individual agent
in the structure of the scientific field
at any given moment
is the resultant,
in institutions and dispositions,
of the sum of the previous strategies of that agent

and his competitors,

strategies which themselves depend
on the structure of the field
through the intermediary of the structural positions
from which
they originate;

and on the other hand,

transformations of the structure of the field
are the product of strategies
for conversation
or subversion
whose orientation and efficacy are derived
from the properties of the positions
occupied within the field
by those
produce them.

It has a nice flow to it I think. Oh well, back to the grind stone.