reply to wilk

Mon, 25 Apr 1994 12:01:56 CDT

Rick Wilk's letter--that's what it was--was not one of those posts that was
simply dashed off on the run. I very much appreciate the thought that went
into it and the yearning that generated it, reminding me of a line from Carl
Sandberg: "Nothing happens without a deep, rich wanting." If I feel somewhat
ambivalent about Rick's thrust, it is because my experience tells me that the
goals of any group are always tempered by and tampered with in the natural
growth of that group.

In 1967, I was part of a group that founded the Association for Social
Anthropology in Oceania. Sixteen of us formed ASAO to do comparative
anthropology by each participant addressing a common topic with his/her own
data. Precirculated papers were discussed in a symposium format with a
chair and one or two discussants. It was tough going for us, since we were
not used to discussing stuff. We'd been trained to present papers--the adult
version of show-and-tell. We didn't know how to proceed, and discussion
went in fits and starts. As the years went by, things didn't get too much
easier, but the discussions did get more productive. Several of our
symposia had produced volumes in our ASAO monograph series, others had
produced special issues of journals, and yet others were published in
Academic presses. As ASAO grew during the 70s, the nature of the discussions
began to change. More sessions were organized around presentations by
participants, and there was little time left for discussion. Empirical
generalizations of our data were, thus, harder to come by, and the work of
comparison was left to whomever was selected to write the conclusions to
the volume (when there was one). ASAO came to look more like a mini-version
of AAA but with a lot more gemutlichkeit. I made a Quixotic effort to
change that trend in 1982, but it failed utterly. People come to ASAO
meetings for a variety of reasons, the least of which was to do the sort of
comparative discussion that the founders had envisaged. People's professional
interests are varied, and the growth of ASAO's membership served to amplify
that variability, which has both its advantages and its disadvantages. The
likelihood of finding more than one person interested in the same kinds of
data that interest you are a lot greater than before. The likelihood of
getting all of them to precirculate papers before the symposium convenes is
a lot less than it was before, leaving presentations as the only avenue to
discussion. There are lots of other implications of variability, as you
might expect, one of which is that the vision of comparative anthropology
that drove our organizational efforts is just a memory, an experiment that
didn't quite work. The memory could be revived, of course. All it would
take is a determined, hard-nosed symposium organizer willing to choose
participants very carefully and ride herd on them from start to finish. It
ain't so easy to pull off, particularly when the average length of time
between first draft and published volumne is about 5 years. But it's
possible if one has that deep, rich wanting.

I have since started ASAONET as a forum for the Oceanic types, because that
gives us a way of expressing the variability among us, talking with one
another about the many things and in the many ways that we do when we
get together. But in the back of my mind, there is always the possibility
that one of those threads is going to hit, and a sub-group is going to
form and organize itself and actually prepare for a face-to-face symposium.
If it happens it will be like no other we've ever had, and the volume will
be like no other we've ever produced, and it will mark a watershed in our
sector of the discipline, not to speak of our professional lives.

So, Rick, Iguess what I'm saying is just this--anything can happen if you keep
showing up.
Mike Lieber
U of Illinois at Chicago