Cultural Differences in Organizing Anthropology Meetings: East Asia as an Example

July 30, 2012

I helped organize a meeting earlier this month of the East Asian Anthropological Association here in Hong Kong, a group consisting of anthropologists from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We had long discussions about how we want to proceed with this organization in its future meetings, and some fascinating differences emerged. I don’t want to get into the specifics of who from what society argued what—this is not the place for that, and privacy should be protected—but I do want to discuss basic differences in organizational principles that may seem, at first glance, to be commonsensical but that in fact are culture-bound.

If you seek to organize an anthropological meeting on a broad topic with 60-80 or so slots open for paper-givers, is it better to have an open registration process, whereby every interested anthropologist in these five societies can submit an abstract to be evaluated by referees, and then be accepted or rejected? This is the American and European pattern for all but very small meetings, and ensures that even those whom the organizers have never heard of can attend the meeting if they can write a good abstract that passes the referees’ gaze.

But given the different anthropological traditions in these five societies, can the organizers serve as referees? Could a Taiwanese fairly judge Chinese abstracts, or Chinese fairly judge Japanese abstracts? For that matter, can American referees at AAA fairly judge abstracts from any of these different anthropological traditions?

Perhaps they can be, but if there is any doubt, then this may not be the best approach. Would it better to invite only the anthropologists who are known to the organizers in various of these national circles, and invite them to participate? This would severely limit the influx of fresh participants, but would also prevent what might potentially be the widespread rejection of papers in an open conference, and the ensuing bad feelings that would then result. This is a style that is often practiced in China and Japan and Korea.

After all, refereeing can only work if you have a more or less large and anonymous pool of referees—but what if your pool is small, and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else? And what if you are also from a hierarchical society, where seniors are to be respected? And what, on top of this, you are from a society where English continues to be a troubling foreign language, fully mastered only by those junior scholars who went to graduate school overseas? The complexities seem to make objective refereeing not merely daunting, but all but impossible, a fantasy.

On top of all this, what if you have limited financial aid for these participants—perhaps only 20 can have their accommodations paid for. Is it better to provide it for younger scholars, or even more, for graduate students, who may truly need it, or for their elders, who have proven, unlike their juniors, that they are worthy anthropologists, and who as eminent scholars should be rewarded—despite the fact that they are no doubt financially better off than their juniors? How does Confucianism, the dominant conviction of East Asia, play out against egalitarianism, or what some might consider basic fairness? There are no right answers here.

I had assumed that open registration is best, and that financial aid based on need is best, focusing particularly on graduate students. But I also realize, after this meeting in Hong Kong, that my own assumptions have been shaped by my American experiences at AAA, and other such meetings. There are multiple ways to organize meetings, and it may be cultural imperialism to insist on one way over another. I feel that particularly as a white person in an East Asian context—“our token Caucasian” as I was once jokingly referred to—and as the only native English speaker in a group for whom English is for many, a distinctly second or third language.

In fact, the East Asian Anthropological Association is indeed dedicated to eventually having full open registration processes and refereeing—its members have agreed to that—but the issue is how, and how quickly, to get there, given the necessary progression towards growth of the association versus the unfortunate necessity of English-language usage and, perhaps, American organizational-style hegemony. I have asserted my own opinion in all this, but am increasingly learning so sit back and watch and listen. As a cultural anthropologist for two decades, I am ceaselessly amazed at how hard it is for me to do this. I also realize, though, that culture can sometimes be used as a rationale for other motivations, whether on my part or others’ part. I would have thought that as an anthropologist, I would be better than I am at understanding these complexities, but although I can do this intellectually, in day-to-day life, I am, to my ongoing chagrin, as stupid as anyone else I’ve ever met.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mei  |  January 20, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Awesome article.

    Reply
  • 2. SIDIBE EL HASSAN  |  August 25, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    I AM A SCidoctorating in anthropology in the subject of hygiene and diet in tropical diseases and nutritional medicine.
    i am a MD since march 28 ;1984-Resident /assistant in 1986 at Jussieu University-Msci in year 2000.
    sincerely yours and respectfully;best wihes;best regards;
    sidibé el hassan MD
    POBOX 5O62
    DAKAR-FANN

    Reply

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