Friday, May 2, 2008

Too Much Anthro: Blog and Site Reviews and Links

This week, I’ve decided to spend a bit of time on my linkroll. All of the sites I speak of will have corresponding links in the linkroll section of my sidebar. As I was cruising the anthroblogs for pages with particularly interesting content, I found that many blogs have been chatting as of late about Ben Stein’s new movie about intelligent design, Expelled. What they’ve been discussing more particularly is that there was a screening of Expelled at BIOLA that was attended by Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, from which PZ was thrown out. As such, quite a few of the links this week will be about this frightening occasion. One link is the “Expelled” movie website so you can enjoy intelligent design with Ben Stein in all its glory. Aesthetically, it’s rather pretty with high quality graphics and some amount of time having been spent on the composition of the site and placement of the elements themselves. Sadly, though, it’s about intelligent design! Which, in this case, means that content is considerably lacking. The website Expelled Exposed is the next on the list, and it is, in essence a rebuttal to Ben Stein’s film. This site is not really about appearance, though it is ok to look at and very easy to navigate. It is all about content and extremely rich in this regard. It has some great links to recent news articles concerning intelligent design, creationism and the claims made in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. While we’re on the issue of creationism, let us not forget that the editor of Scientific American magazine, John Rennie wrote an article called 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense which is a must for anybody who needs to brush up on creationism and science. Oh, and for those of you who are a little rusty when it comes to the family tree check out this link.

The official website of Richard Dawkins, world famous evolutionary biologist is up next. In contrast to the Expelled site, this one is content rich, maintains a forum and various social networking boards and applications for those who wish to participate and has an easily manageable interface. The blog of PZ Myers, beloved biologist and vehement critic of creationism has also been added. The content is engaging, humorous and, well, very distinct. Another blog of note, is Afarensis, my favorite anthroblog. The writer is witty, fun and knowledgeable. He posts on a variety of areas within the discipline of anthropology, is informative and well spoken about issues. Also, he holds active dialogues with his readers, which tends to enrich the website, make it more accessible and, in a way, make me feel as though I’m part of a community though I’ve never contributed. Hm…Monkey News is a pretty cool site which also follows news stories, though it never puts up opinion pieces. Odds are that if a story was published in English language newspapers, this website has reprinted it with a link back to the source. It’s pretty amazing for all things primate related. One problem is that there are so many advertisements that it makes finding the archived material and suggested links a little difficult. On the subject of primates, Bonobo Handshake has some amazing photos of orphaned bonobo babies, children and youth but not very much by way of recent written content. And the last link for the week is Panda’s Thumb, a pretty sweet site with tons of contributors speaking on various issues concerning science and evolution that is easy to navigate and a good place to check out if you want to hear varying perspectives from lots of different individuals.

Homo floresiensis: The Impact of Information Sharing

In 2003, an international team of paleoanthropologists & archaeologists discovered seemingly human "hobbit" sized subfossil remains on Flores island in Indonesia. The team that made the discovery claims that the remains of these individuals represent a heretofore unseen species of hominid and has been named Homo floresiensis. Ever since the Hobbit of Flores first graced the headlines in 2003, it has continued to make frequent appearances in news media and journals because its status as a new species is oft contested. This debate over its status as a species continues to be an on-going one because there is limited access to the remains. To date, only members of the original research team and selct outside experts have had access to the bones. All information pertaining to the find has been released by the aforementioned individuals in their published papers and journal articles. This lack of information sharing is a detriment to the scientific community. As the case of the H. floresiensis demonstrates, it continues to produce papers based on idle speculation and recycled information, reinterpreted(often incorrectly).

Recently, the saga of the Hobbit continued through the publication of a paper by Australian scientists Peter Obendorf, John Oxnard & Ben Kefford in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B(Biological Sciences). The article's title succintly summarizes the contents of the paper: "Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?" It challenges the attribution of species status to the find in Flores. They state that these remains are those of Homo sapiens suffering from severe congential hypothyrodism which, they claim, explains the oddities in form that the bones exhibit. Their hypothesis is hinged on the size of the sella turcica(aka pituitary fossa, where the pituitary gland rests) which they state was enlarged, a symptom of hypothyroidism. The evidence they used to determine the size of the sella turcica comes from a 2D screen capture of a blurry 3D CT scan captured from a BBC Horizon show called "The Mystery of the human hobbit," similar to the graphic above.

This paper has produced quite the negative reaction in the anthropological community and has translated into a significant amount of press in newspapers, journals and blogs. Mainly, Obendorf et al. have been criticized for unsound methodolgy, statements not backed by tangible information and usage of incorrect data. Peter Brown, a member of the original research team has critiqued the paper for "being complete nonsense...without a glimmer of factual support." Regarding the sella turcica, specifically, Brown stated that the area is "very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Colin Groves, a biological anthropologist recounted to the press "...I warned him [Peter Obendorf] that he would be simply laughed to scorn if he produced what is mainly idle speculation."

Obendorf et al.'s paper is idle speculation. It is not science. Science is a system of acquiring knowledge based off of observation, deduction and measurable, replicable results. Seeing as how the measurement of the sella turcica was taken from a warped and blurry computer simulated image of the area as exhibited on a TV show, I would daresay that this is not a scientifically valid measurement and that they are wrong in their estimation of the size of the pituitary fossa(sella turcica). At the end of the day, their argument is mainly wishful thinking around what could be. Had Obendorf et al. actually been given access to an endocast or another accurate representation of that area, then their measurement of the sella turcica would be demonstrably more accurate. But, then again, that's the issue: lack of access.

Obendorf et al. have been unfairly criticized for writing this paper without ever having handled the remains. It is not that they did not want access to them, it is that they were not allowed access. If Obendorf et. al had been given access to the actual remains of casts of high resolution photos of it, then we likely would have avoided this entirle debacle. It seems ridiculous to condemn this paper for having been written without better access to quality data when information sharing is a problem within the broader community. This paper was a product of its environment. Yes, Obendorf et al. could have decided against bringing their voices into the room concerning this debate, bu they didn't. Why not publish a paper challenging the generally accepted theory based almost solely on bad data and wishful thinking when so few others have access to quality information? It's definitely a way of adding papers to your curriculum vitae. And, maybem just maybe, the people holding a monopoly on the evidence will tire of the challenges based on flimsy evidence and finally allow other people access to the find.

Earlier on, I mentioned a comment that Peter Brown made about the sella turcica. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say I failed to convey the spirit of the quote. Since guilt plagues me so, I'll provide you with it now. Peter Brown said that "I'm the only person on the planet to have seen what's left of the pituitary fossa. It is very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Yup, that's right. He's the only person in the world to have seen that area of the skull, so, of course, he would know. But we wouldn't. John Hawks, an American paleoanthropologist provides a rather astute critique of this comment. In his blog he states "It may be true, but that doesn't make it science. If nobody can see it, then nobody can replicate it. Which means we have no reason to believe it."

Human Terrain Teams: Mobilized Social Science

Human terrain teams (HTTs) have garnered intense criticism at home from American academic anthropologists. These critiques have been aimed at this program because it requires that one member of the five on these teams must have an MA or PhD in cultural anthropology. Those who oppose HTTs point to potential ethical issues in the short and long term. Sadly, the massive amounts of negative attention HTTs have received from academic anthropologists citing ethical issues has not resulted in the provision of any practical solutions to these problems. This is extremely disheartening and seems to reveal that there is a lack of motivation and commitment within the discipline when it comes to engagement in action with the potential to yield positive change. This deficiency in constructive criticism, coupled with the absence of productive activity gives one cause to wonder whether or not a shift in the discipline has occurred that has led to the return of the glorification of the armchair anthropologist.

One major source of critique is the Network of Concerned Anthropologists(NCA), a self described "independent ad hoc network of anthropologists seeking to promote an ethical anthropology." On their website, they ask for anthropologists to sign a pledge of non-participation in counterinsurgency operations on the basis of ethical issues. Two of the founding members, David Price and Roberto Gonzalez have written letters concerning HTTs that have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. These letters strongly suggest that HTTs are part of a clandestine intelligence gathering program specifically geared towards identifying potential insurgents for later removal by an implied paramilitary branch, similar to the Phoenix Program that existed in Vietnam during the late 60s and 70s. They also indicated that data collected would be used not only to murder people but to further destabilize local communities and to manipulate people into doing the bidding of the US military. The American Anthropological Association(AAA) is also a major source of criticism, albeit not one plagued by fears of conspiracy and boogey monsters under the bed. This organization has instead engaged in scrutiny of the more plausible aspects of the situation and focused on ethical issues ranging from conflicts of interest, informed consent and potential coercion.

The criticisms put forth by the network of Concerned Anthropologists and its members, imaginative as they are, fail to really deal with the isue of improving the lives of Iraqi and Afghani locals and American nationals throughout the remainder of U.S. military operations in said countries. These criticisms focus much more on the less than stellar historical relationship between the Department of Defense and the discipline. These comments also serve only to relay the anxiety and fear experienced by some over the potential for anthropological expertise to be exploited to carry out military objectives harmful to former research participants and the field itself. These criticisms fail to deal with the actual issues raised by the existence of HTTs and the quality of life of individuals in countries with occupying forces of disparate/divergent cultures. In the case of the AAA, though they do provide salient criticisms, they do not address nor do they advance conceivable solutions to the deficiencies that exist in terms of the Human Terrain System(HTS) as an organization that conducts ethnographic research to improve military operations as well as quality of life.

Col. William Darley, the editor of the Military Review states "You have all kinds of people in the universities complaining that we've got into a situation we don't understand in Iraq and that we're buffoons for not making any efforts to understand the culture. On the other hand, when we do try to do it, critics say, 'You can't do that,' or 'What you are doing is somehow immoral.'" Both Col. Darley's remarks and the formation of HTTs indicate that the military is receptive to hearing new, alternative strategies regarding Iraq. As experts in the realm of culture, is it not one's duty to make a contribution where possible?

The fundamental question undergirding all of this is: how do we mobilize social scientists to carry out the task of instilling cultural sensitivity in military personnel to aid in the improvement of quality of life, mutual understanding and respect and the reduction of violence while maintaining a code of ethics? Our code of ethics exists to help and protect people. We merely need to find the best ways to do this in our particular context. This is an extremely difficult question that is compounded by the urgency with which cultural information is needed to create new tactical strategies for the reduction of loss in terms of civilian and combatant lives. The military, for one is at least making an attempt to answer it.

Capt. Matthew Tompkins, a HTT leader in Iraq proposes that the military ask scholars "'To what extent are you valuing your discipline over real lives that you could be making a difference in?'" Fearful of being associated with the U.S. Armed Forces and the Nation's global power politics, American anthropologists are rejecting the possibility of a future where the social sciences and the Department of Defense may reconcile to pursue their, at times, varying goals. In doing this, they are dooming these endeavors to the wretched fate of tea time chats and dissolution. A biting critique coupled with an absence of practical solutions is a form of most exquisite abortion, perfected. The social sciences would do well to learn the lesson that the US military appears to be learning right now: carrots, not sticks, will probably do the trick.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Enough Expelled: The Lowbrow Tactics of Intelligent Design Proponents

On March 20th, a screening of Ben Stein's new movie EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed was shown at a movie theatre in Minneapolis. The film is advertised on IMDb as an exploration of intelligent design by Ben Stein that was conducted to discover if it is "pseudoscience trying to undermine evolutionary biology or whether it is a legitimate science being suppressed by a scientific establishment that is hostile to any deviation from the status quo." Within it, they posit that intelligent design is a legitimate alternative to evolution for an explanation of the existence of life. They also claim that many scientists have been fired from their jobs or were otherwise denied employment because of their beliefs in a divergent explanation of life. Many individuals were interviewed by Ben Stein and edited versions of these interviews were exhibited in the film. People of note include Eugenie Scott, physical anthropologist and head of the National Center for Science Education, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, as well as Paul Zachary(PZ) Myers, prolific blogger and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris(UMM); all of whom are staunch evolutionists and critics of creationism.

The screening of this film was advertised over the internet as open to the public. Those wishing to attend needed only fill out an online RSVP form indicating their name and the
number of any additional guests they would be bringing with them. PZ Myers reserved multiple tickets to the show. Upon arriving at the venue, PZ Myers was denied entry. An individual in security garb pulled him out of line and stated that one of the producers(it is held that it was Mark Mathis) had instructed the guard not to allow Myers to enter the premises. He was told that if he did not leave he would be arrested. Myers complied. The guests that accompanied Myers were allowed to enter the theatre and watch the film despite the fact that he had been thrown out. These guests included his wife, his daughter Skatje, her boyfriend Collin and Richard Dawkins. During the Q & A session after the film screening, Richard Dawkins states in his blog that he asked Mark Mathis "why ha had expelled PZ, given that the film was an attack on such expulsions, and given that the film's acknowledgments had thanked PZ for his role in the film." Mathis' response was that PZ had not been invited to the screening and was for this reason forced to leave.

Another point of contention is the claim that Eugeni
e Scott, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers have all made: they were interviewed under false pretenses. When they were contacted, they were asked to be interviewed for a film in production called "Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion." In August of 2007, Rampant Films, the production company, featured the following blurb declaring the nature of the project:Dr. Scott stated that the invitation she received was deceptive. She also said "I have certainly been taped by people and appeared in productions where people's views are different than mine, and that's fine. I just expect people to be honest with me, and they weren't." While reading a press release for a then forthcoming creationist movie called EXPELLED that was being promoted by the Discovery Insitute, PZ Myers discovered that his name was among the individuals the filmmakers "confronted." Upon doing some research, he learned that "Crossroads" had been renamed EXPELLED and that the premise was nothing like what they had previously indicated. Dr. Dawkins also stated that he had received an invitation to be interviewed for a movie called "Crossroads" that is substantially different in aim than EXPELLED. And not only were they deceived, the true spirit of the interviews they provided were violated and edited down to bits that supported the aims of the filmmakers. Co-Executive Producer Walt Ruloff posited that they did not "resort to manipulating [their] interviews for the purpose of achieving the 'shock effect.'" Richard Dawkins recently wrote a 3,512 word blog post that devoted 688 words to providing the context from which the segments of his interview with Ben Stein were taken. What was a 90 minute interview was reduced down to Ben Stein stating that Dr. Dawkins believed in intelligent design as well as aliens from outer space. No, Richard Dawkins does not believe in intelligent design as a probable theory on the origins of life. To clarify that his words were taken out of context he said that he was trying to posit the most probable explanation if intelligent design were to exist. He also asserted that"Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity --and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently -- comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings."

I expect that what readers I have, if any, are informed individuals knowledgeable of the various tenets of evolutionary theory, as well as Darwin's theories of natural and sexual selection in particular. Though I do classify myself as an informed individual, I will briefly review the idea of intelligent design since, flawed being that I am, I can only reserve space in my mind for those ideas that I find at least somewhat remotely possible. The Discovery Institute, a Washington based think tank and well known intelligent design advocate, asserts that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." This idea of intelligent design is part of creationist thought in that though they never specify the intelligent agent that created the cosmos, they do believe it to be the god of Abrahamic tradition and that science is wrong for stating that anything otherwise could be the case. By failing to cite any specific creator in the intelligent design theory, certain organizations have attempted to blur the divide between the church and state so as to have intelligent design taught on an equal footing as evolutionary theory in public high schools and other institutions.

This is truly a shame to be wasting time and resources on things such as these. Intelligent design, no matter how much it claims to be secular, is not a valid or secular scientific theory. According to the National Academy of Sciences a scientific theory is "a well substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." The idea of intelligent design arises from a literal interpretation of Abrahamic religious texts. In these traditions, the "leap of faith" is an oft talked about phenomena. Science presents the facts as to how the process by which life and organized complexity came into being as based off of our current understanding of observable data and logical inferences made thereof. The theory of evolution does not invalidate this idea that some sort of god like figure exists. It simply is a human attempt to understand our existence and the existence of the world around us. One would imagine that religious individuals would be able to take a leap of faith regarding the existence of their god(s) and accept scientific fact as one of the miraculous ways in which the presence of their god(s) have manifested themselves. I have no qualms with people who follow organized religion believing this. I do have a problem with religious people who are so insecure in their beliefs concerning god that they feel they must force it on others to have it validated.

At the end of the day, intelligent design is a teleological explanation of the possible origins of the universe that is fundamentally reductionist in nature. It is also an exclusionary idea that attempts to force certain religious beliefs upon individuals not necessarily of those groups. that being said, it should not be allowed in secular schools and would preferably be removed from the public discourse concerning secular, government funded educations institutions. Teach it in Sunday school. Teach it at your local mosque, church or temple. Teach it in any private space you like. But don't waste precious time by arguing about whether or not a religious belief system should be taught as science in a science class room. Acknowledge that this is a religious idea and deal with it in the appropriate spaces because thus far, the argument that it is a scientific theory, hypotheses, et cetera does not fly as actual science. And also, to briefly bring it back to Richard Dawkins' interview comments about intelligent alien life forms potentially seeding Earth, I must say the idea of intelligent design is extremely egocentric. What's so special about us?

Personally, I believe that intelligent design should be taught in science classes, though I do specify that it be taught only in cultural anthropology courses at the college level. Within a cultural anthropology course, intelligent design and its place in science can and should be discussed. Particularly, it should be taught as a phenomenon arising out of a specific historical & sociocultural context( the remnants of late 1990's puritanical America during a backlash to progressive social action). It should be a case study concerning the resurgence of particular ideas and belief systems and how they can operate as a mechanism to reaffirm identity and create community within a postindustrial, urbanized context plagued by ennui and social distress. For the sake of clarity, my proposal that intelligent design be taught in science classrooms does mean that I believe intelligent design is a valid not scientific theory concerning the origin of complex life. Evolution cannot be disputed at this point in time, if ever it can be. I feel that anthropologists should exploit the reality of intelligent design to educate in the classroom. Doing so, I believe would actually promote anthropology as a holistic discipline that seeks to successfully understand and explain culture and human beings. But, then again, remember, I'm merely a foolish student and the Academy is all about caste systems [laughs].

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Those Pesky Hobbitses! The Ongoing Row about Homo floresiensis in Anthropology and Australia

"Hobbit" is the name being used in common parlance to discuss the seemingly human, albeit miniaturized remains found in Liang Bua cave on Flores island in Indonesia. They were discovered in 2003 by an international team of scientists led by archaeologist Michael Morwood and accompanied by paleoanthropologist Peter Brown, both of University of New England, Armidale, Australia. The team that discovered these remains claim that they constitute a new, heretofore unseen species of hominid that they call Homo floresiensis. The initial findings include the remains of two individuals, tagged as Liang Bua(LB) 1 & 2. Since the initial discovery, components of seven individuals have been found, but LB1 remains the most complete subfossil skeleton to date. LB1 is fully bipedal, has Homo sapiens like teeth, a receding chin, stood at about 1 meter(~3 feet), possesses a femur and pelvis similar to that of Australopithecus afarensis and is thought to have been an adult female(estimated age of 30). The brain of LB1 is about 400 cubic centimeters. Studies conducted by Dean Falk of Florida State University have found that though LB1 is comparable in brain size to A. afarensis(around 385 cubic centimeters, on average), the characteristics of the brain as found on the endocast more closely resembles the brain of a Homo erectus despite the size differential(H. erectus brains averaged 900 cubic centimeters).

Due to the amalgamation of traits that the Liang Bua cave finds possess, various theories have been put fo
rward to explain them. The first theory was posited by a majority of the members on the research team that discovered these subfossils. They claim that H. floresiensis are descendents of H. erectus. The small size of the brains and bodies of H. floresiensis in comparison to average H. erectus is said to be an adaptation to the environment through endemic dwarfism which occurred in response to the scarcity of resources found on the island. Endemic dwarfism, they argue, has been found in other large mammal species living in island environments and so they feel that this should not be discounted as a possibility. They support this with the evidence of fire usage, tool usage and animal bones at the site that indicate that they were intelligent and cooperative hunters.

Other ideas put forward argue that the dwarfism displayed in these specimens is not a product
of the evolutionary environment, but is instead solely genetic in nature. These genetic dwarfisms include postnatal growth retardation, pituitary dwarfism, microcephalic dwarfism and Laron Syndrome. All of these hypotheses have merited rebuttals.

On March 4, 2008, the Proceedings of the Royal Society B(Biological Sciences) published a paper in their online journal titled "Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?" by Australian scientists Peter Obendorf, John Oxnard and Ben Kefford. They contest the attribution of species status to the Liang Bua finds and state that the peculiarities of form found in these samples can be explained by environmental factors. Specifically, they state that these specimens are Homo sapiens that suffered from endemic congenital hypothyroidism(aka cretinism). Congenital hypothyroidism is a disorder that exists because of severe iodine deficiency while in utero, causing individuals gestated in these conditions to be born without a functioning thyroid gland, leading to dwarfism and reduced brain size. Many of the other 'primitive' traits that LB1 possesses are explained as being signs of the disorder. This argument is based largely upon the supposed existence of an enlarged sella turcica(aka the pituitary fossa), a depression in the base of the skull where the pituitary gland rests, that is charac
teristic of the disease. They attempt to support their idea through comparison of 2D-CT scan reproductions of LB1's endocast with the cranial measurements of microcephalics and cretins, as provided in studies conducted by others. Though they were unable to find any publications featuring such a severe hypothyroidism that had been documented as having historically caused a drastic reduction in brain size as found in LB1, they cited undernutrition and post-mortem deformation as potential factors having affected brain size in LB1.

This paper has produced quite a negative reaction within the anthropological community and has translated into a significant amount of press in newspapers, journals and blogs. The main points of criticisms have thus far been unsound methodology, statements not backed by tangible information,
and usage of incorrect data. They have also received criticism for never having personally handled the remains(they used "captured images from X-ray scans presented in The mystery of the human hobbit(BBC Horizon, 2005)" to measure the sella turcica (Obendorf et al.)), for having little to no experience with hominid subfossils, and for not being paleoanthropologists. One blogger has even called the article "a failure of peer-review." Peter Brown, a member of the original team has become rather prolific in the media as of late and has made many comments regarding his feelings and the Obendorf et al. study. He critiqued the paper for "being complete nonsense...without a glimmer of factual support." Colin Groves, a biological anthropologist from Canberra's Australian National University stated to the press "I recall spending an hour or so in the pub with Peter Obendorf about three years ago when he confided to me about this lastest bee in his bonnet...I warned him that he would be simply laughed to scorn if he produced what is mainly idle speculation." The most colorful statement about the study comes from evolutionary anatomist and paleoanthropologist William Jungers at Stony Brook University, saying that the paper "is a rather large and stinky pile of misinformation and wild speculation."

Obendorf et al.'s main argument for endemic congential hypothyroidism on Flores is hinged upon the enlargment of the sella turcica(pituitary fossa). They state that the length of the sella turcica is 12.9mm, a size which is disproportionately large for an individual with a brain of that size. This point has been emphasized in the press and addressed by well-respected scientists who have studied endocasts of LB1'a braincase. Dean Falk, in a news piece in the journal Nature, stated "There is no way they can reach the conclusions the did." She stresses that the maximum possible length would be 9mm. Ralph Holloway, of Columbia University, New York indicated that though this particular area on his endocast "is not the best preserved, but even still, I cannot see where it was possible that the pituitary fossa showed enlargement."

It is very likely that Obendorf et al. are wrong in their estimate of the size of the pituitary fossa if only because they measured it using a 2D representation of a 3D-CT scan that they captured from a TV show. Had they access to a photo or an endocast, their measurement would have been demonstrably more accurate. Again, Peter Brown makes an appearance and asserts that "I'm the only person on the planet to have seen what's left of the pituitary fossa. It is very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." The problem within this particular statement is that very few people have had access to the specimens from Liang Bua. John Hawks critiques this particular comment by Brown and says "It may be true, but that doesn't make it science. If nobody can see it, then nobody can replicate it. Which means we have no reason to believe it." He later goes on to suggest that the results be put up on an FTP site so that everybody could review the information and refute invalid hypotheses without having to take them to the presses first. It seems ridiculous to waste one's time with papers that have weak hypotheses based on a lack of access to data. It seems even more ridiculous to condemn these papers for having been written without better access to quality data when a lack of information sharing is a problem within the broader community. These papers are a product of environment. If we were to share access to quality data perhaps we could create more feasible theories concerning the evolutionary history of the hominid family.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Social Media: The Intersection of Sociocultural Anthropology and New Media

New media, including video games, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, wikis, mash-ups, et cetera, are part of the mediascape. The mediascape is one of five dimensions of the social imaginary, as stated by Arjun Appadurai(1999). The concept of the social imaginary was expanded in the 1990s from the original notion of psychoanalyst and theoretician Jacques Lacan that served to indicate the cultural practices and values of a particular culture/community.The expanded usage of this phrase by Appadurai is that the imagination is "an organized field of social practices" that exist as social facts-social structures and/or cultural norms that are external in relation to the individual. He indicates that the social imaginary possesses five different dimensions; they are ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes (Appadurai 1999). The term "mediascapes" refers to both the "distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information" to a large number of people as well as the "images of the world create by these media(Appadurai 1999)." Mediascapes are characterized by being image centered, narrative based and by their ability to offer a "series of elements...out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives(Appadurai 1999)."

Various blogs are now paying attention to the mediascape and conducting ethnographic research as well as theoretical explorations of this sphere of human-system-technological interaction. Among those researchers are Michael Wesch and Brad Levinson. Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor at Kansas State University who is working towards the creation of an ethnography of YouTube. He discusses the sites' limitations and its possibilities in a blog post that exhibits student work, responds to criticisms levied at the site and highlights the merits of studying entities within the cultural contexts which they inhabit as exmplified by Twitter, a micro-blogging platform. Brad Levinson, MA, previously of Georgetown's Communication, Culture and technology Program, currently works within the public affairs/strategic communications sector and discusses the relation between technology and culture by examining Twitter as a social-technological phenomenon. I have commented within these blogs and, for the sake of convenience I will repost my comments here.

Social Media and Social Anthropology, Part One:Technological Constructivism

I rather favor your perspective in that I also believe that culture shapes technology and applies technology so as to satisfy it's needs and desires. In addition, i think that these needs fluctuate over time and dictate the changing functions and formats of technology. The relationship, as you state it, is one of constant change that emphasizes quite heavily the impact culture has on the creation and usage of technology. This being the case, I find myself curious to hear more about the ways technology impacts culture. By this I do not mean to say I believe that t
echnology determines culture, because I do not believe that to be the case. I just find myself curious to know more about the ways technologies impact the lives of individuals, the minute components of culture.

Your discussion of how Twitter exemplifies the formula and steps within your post is well done and reinforces your thesis. It also provides an individual unfamiliar with that platform information on the cultural context from which it emerged and an idea of it's potential personal applications. As an individual user, would you be able to tell me about your experience and how you re-shaped/modified your life to allow room for Twitter to exist within it? Also, has your usage of Twitter changed over time from when you initially began using it? I find myself curious to know this.

Upon further reflection, I find these ideas of the technological determinist/constructivist to be rather binaristic. I do not think that operating based off of seemingly mutually exclusive dualistic principles can allow us to make great gains in terms of mapping mediascapes and their impact on culture, the technology and the individuals involved in the
ir creation/existence. In real life, it would seem that there is an overlap between these two perspectives in that the culture possesses unmet needs, the technology is shaped to meet these needs and the individuals then shape their lives to these technologies as a response to their personal needs. From this point I imagine that the changing needs and desires on the individual level change the needs and desires of the culture, that then in turn changes the technologies to meet these newly modified needs and desires. A discourse, as opposed to a simple give/take relationship exists between three entities and not two. Perhaps you meant to convey this notion in your blog and I simply failed to understand it, but I would be interested in seeing you highlight the discourse between the individual, the culture and the technology in future posts.

Visualizing the Mediascape(another step toward an ethnography of YouTube)

YouTube is only a small part of the mediascape. The criticisms levied at the site by those individuals on "The State of the Art" panel at the 24/7 DIY Video Summitt, as portrayed within your post, certainly did not seem to take this fact into account. As you point out, Henry Jenkins and Yochai Benkler do make mention of the fact that users embed videos into their blogs and other forums for public discussion and so in this regard they do address YouTube as only a component of a larger phenomenon. But, overall, it seems as though the time would have been better spent if the panelists critiqued the structural limitations of Y
ouTube while emphasizing users and how they cope with/navigate around these limitations. A deeper exploration and discsussion of how users interface with YouTube to create community and advance discourse within other locales would probably draw attention to how users impact the mediascape through their manipulation of and interaction with diverse cultural tools.

By looking at what the users are doing and where they are doing it, a web of inter-relatedness among various other components of the mediascape would emerge. This would both increase our understanding of the mediascape in terms of where it is and what is currently occurring within it more broadly. I believe it would also facilitate the mapping of the mediascape through the usage of static imagery.

You were absolutely right when you said "We think understanding this broader context of YouTube is necessary for understanding YouTube itself." We are better able to understand entities by exploring their structures and examining where they are situated within a particular historical context. Your ideas to map the mediascape and create an ethnography of YouTube are ingenious and, honestly, inspire some amount of admiration and envy within me [laughs]. As an individual who does not see herself as particularly involved within this dimension of the social imaginary, I'm extremely interested in learning what is occurring within this sphere. As a student of anthropology, I find your projects to be extremely enterprising and exciting, and hope that the field will continue to produce understanding in areas that it had previously left unexplored.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999. 220.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.