December 2008


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Micro-local mapping. Pre-construction. Currently wrapped. Search: top of the fridge.

I’m once again in that stage of a project where the client is working through the process of ‘getting it’. Explaining ethnography isn’t easy, especially when, in the first few meetings, you’re introduced as the archaeologist. That’s cool, because I started my anthro career with every intention of becoming an archaeologist. After falling asleep on my first dig in the dirt of a 15th Century Iroquoian village  and then realizing my future might be more about cataloging fragments of wood than Aztec gold, I changed routes. It’s also cool because, after a week of being referred to as Idea Couture’s archaeologist, I came to the realization that my next hire for a secondary fieldwork specialist would indeed be one. More on that when it happens. But back to explaining ethnography.

I usually start by telling clients that ethnography is the art and science of telling stories about other people’s stories. How people tell their stories, what they tell about, how I choose what parts of that telling to narrate and so on all fit into the final story that, hopefully, is insightful enough and compelling enough to spark some ideas. Good stories should do that, something I learned by osmosis as my dad clattered away on his Underwood in the dining room during the years he was a freelance writer from home and I was a kid recovering at home from the flu or some other school-less malady.

As an undergrad and grad student, the specter of journalism always haunted my anthropology papers. On more than one occasion, comments in red from a professor admonished me for being journalistic. Part of that tendency, I think, was the rush to tell the story, to cut through the lit review, the theory and the politics of academic writing in order to get to the (and my) ideas. So it’s sort of ironic that when clients and co-workers ask about ethnography, I’ve taken to turning them on to Generation Kill.

The HBO show based on the book by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright and adapted for TV by David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire fame follows the Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as they invade Iraq in 2003. What makes Generation Kill such a compelling and effective story is how it captures the boundaries between journalism and ethnography. Unlike The Wire, where the viewer rolls into B’More through the eyes of so many squad cars, police stations, schools and re-ups, Generation Kill unfolds primarily through the participant-observational lens of Wright. Like an anthropologist, he tasks himself with listening more than talking, understanding rather than judging. As a result, the audience ‘gets’ the social hierarchies, kinships, language, rituals, processes, tasks, duties, fears, funs and more of what is was/is to be a soldier in that time and place. That the story is ultimately so co-constructed between Simon, Burns, Wright and the soldiers he rolled with, makes it that much more ethnographic.

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When it comes to social research, some of us have a way with words and an eye for ethnography. Thanks to Rob Spence, a Canadian filmmaker, that eye could go bionic in no time. As Wired and others have noted this week, Spence is planning to incorporate a video camera into his prosthetic eye. I’ve been eyeing (no pun intended) this little camera that hangs around your neck like a Flava Flav necklace to do more discrete ethnographic observations. That’s starting to look like last year’s hot idea.

Such additions to being-human are not widely available nor are they currently part of the consumer landscape; however, Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has impanted artificial retinas in two patients to receive electrical impulses from an Argus II camera attached to a pair of sunglasses that sends moving, rudimentary images of motion and light/dark through the optic nerve to the brain.

We’re entering a whole new era of surveillance. Foucault would shit his pants. I’m calling Oscar Goldman!

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If you’ve been through the academic treadmill or are still running it, you know the phrase Publish or Perish: to get tenure in a university requires that you stay on top of your game and keep in the mix of ideas by getting your work printed in an academic journal. Problem is, as the folks at Read Write Web point out, most of those journals and the ideas and work published in them remain the sole property of the academic community. That could be changing with RNA Biology (hot reading, yo!) asking every author submitting an article for a section of the journal about RNA molecules to also submit a summary page of the work to Wikipedia. Like other Wiki pages, editing can occur. But step one, like the academic process, will require a peer review of the material.

It’s about time. As a former academic working in the pro field with less than the amount of time I’d like to revisit my university library to keep up with the latest journal articles, I rail against the fact that when I Google a subject or specific article many of the sources I’d like to read require a subscription to the academic journal in question. Ridiculous, especially when you consider the cost of the print versions of these journals, the reality that most of them exist only to populate library shelves and the fact that none of the authors get a dime for the words that keep a few scholarly editors flush with beer money. So the fact that one journal has decided to forge onwards into the present of open-source culture rather than remain self-sequestered in the cobwebby, institutional past is good news.

As Frederic Lardinois of RWW points out when he writes that “The relationship between academia and the Wikipedia has always been an uneasy one, and it will be interesting to see how the academic community is going to react to this experiment,” it could be good viewing, too.

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The Internet is eroding the print market, but until I can scratch & sniff my iMac, magazines still have an old school advantage. Simple, clean and  incredibly effective, this scented cinnamon bun ad should get trophies for the agency behind it. And every CPG struggling with how to convince customers that their food is tasty and/or healthy should be biting this concept in the year ahead.