Posts tagged ‘conference’

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

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

2 comments July 30, 2012

What would a Carbon Neutral Global Anthropology look like?

In this blog, I want to discuss the detrimental environmental impact of anthropology. Two key activities come to mind: printed publications and air travel to conferences.

Some arguments supporting digital open source publications stress the high environmental impact of paper publishing due to the harvesting of forests. For instance Discover has estimated that putting each issue of their magazine into the hands of subscribers releases 2.1 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Yet there are also concerns about the environmental footprint of electronic devices (see Low-Tech Magazine for a critical review). Eco-libris, an NGO which encourages people to plant a tree for every book they read (I have a lot of planting to do!), has provided a page dedicated to keeping track of some of these eco-debates regarding e-books vs. printed material. Providing people around the world with information that could be useful for improving their livelihoods is at the center of the debate regarding open access publishing. Integrating the “sustainability” or “eco-friendly” discourse into this discussion should, at the very least, be well founded through empirical studies. One of the possible options for such empirical studies is life-cycle assessment (LCA), sometimes called cradle-to-grave analysis. This method makes an attempt to consider all of the inputs from the environment and outputs to the environment that result from the production, exchange, consumption and disposal of a good. The company Verso Paper has actually done such a comparison of print and digital material for massive publications such as National Geographic. While there is much that we could learn from such a study about how we could reduce our negative impact on the environment, we also need to consider the positive social benefits which come from dissemination of digital information. Perhaps more widely disseminated information on the environment will help people find creative solutions to ecological degradation that may be incredibly difficult to predict or imagine for inclusion within an LCA study. Conversely, we need to be cautious about making assumptions about who has access to digital technology. While our globalizing world is becoming ever more connected through digital media, a large portion of the world’s poor cannot afford to purchase the basic hardware technology that would give them access to more freely disseminated information. There are no clear cut answers to solving these questions, but putting them into practice and further discussion could be useful for realizing a global Anthropology that is at least approaching Carbon Neutrality. These issues are important to discuss for any anthropological organizations or publications currently considering different options for disseminating their data and articles to the general public.

Second, there has recently been discussion regarding the massive carbon footprint that is emitted due to the hosting of conferences around the world. For instance, in Full Disclosure, I’ll be attending a conference in Montpellier next week, one in Edmonton in June, and assuming all goes well, back to Norway in September and San Francisco in November. Scholars fly from all over the world to attend international conferences every year, releasing a large amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The David Suzuki Foundation has provided some suggestions about how to organize Carbon Neutral Conferences. This is a concern that many organizations, such as the American Anthropological Association’s Task Force on Climate Change, is taking quite seriously. One possible solution is even the dissolution of the international conferences altogether or truly reinterpreting the meaning of conference gatherings. For instance the Australian International Cultural and Educational Institute has recently sent out a call for papers for an Online Conference on Multidisciplinary Social Sciences. This could be a very simple way for scholars to record presentations, have them posted on Youtube and receive comments from colleagues all over the world without the unnecessary release of carbon emissions from airline travel. There are also suggestions of reorienting the field of presenting anthropology in formal settings at a regional scale, with the hope of reducing the need for members to use airline transportation to participate in the meetings. These are certainly provocative but also, from an environmental perspective, practical suggestions. Yet it is important for us to consider, once again, what would a Carbon Neutral Global Anthropology look like? Perhaps even moving beyond this question, we could even ask ourselves, what would a post-Peak Oil Anthropology look like? If regional conferences become the norm, how will that impact the current relationships between the regional anthropologies that already exist? And conferences really are only one aspect of this discussion. For those of us who grew up in the mountains of Western Montana, travel back and forth to the mountains of Western China for fieldwork, we probably need to be more conscious of our carbon footprint from air travel etc. Perhaps more importantly we also need to be aware of how such travel arrangements will continue to be impacted by Peak Oil. While my personal decision to move to Hong Kong for graduate school was based on an interest to engage more closely with Asian anthropology, I have to admit, being closer to the field seems like a more sustainable option now and for the future. These are realities that anthropological organizations and really the discipline as a whole should begin to consider.

While hopefully not showing my personal bias, I’d like to highlight the importance of the WCAA (and really the auspicious timing of its establishment) as a possible core for helping anthropology cope with these transitions. The WCAA could provide that vital connection of making sure that our findings and discussions within, say, East Asia could be heard and appreciated amongst anthropologists in the U.S. Additionally, it provides those of us in East Asia with a conduit for learning about Brazilian anthropology and how it might be helpful in our work here. A colleague of mine after reading a discussion about the abolition of large international anthropological meetings made an insightful point: this is where social media, such as Facebook or ResearchGate could become an essential tool for academic interaction. I could not agree more, although I would say that these issues require further study and pondering (perhaps even an LCA-study of airline flights vs. webcasts and teleconferences?) before we can truly envision a Carbon Neutral (or post-Peak Oil) Global Anthropology.

Edwin Schmitt, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

schmitte[AT]cuhk.edu.hk

Add comment May 21, 2012


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