"Folk anthropology" (was: Anthropology ?) [LONG]

Cameron Laird (claird@STARBASE.NEOSOFT.COM)
Tue, 24 Jan 1995 10:52:01 -0600

In article <95Jan22.055130est.6218@neat.cs.toronto.edu>,
Calvin Bruce Ostrum <cbo@cs.toronto.edu> challenged:
>Presumbly the "number" you are talking about is not merely non-zero,
>but perceived by you as rather large. Could you give some examples
>chosen from the contributions of this number which lead to the suspicion
>voiced in your final question, or is the suspicion just based on a general
>view you have of "computer scientists", with no particular evidence
>in this case?
in response to article
nominally written by jonM <Jonathan.marshall@anthropology.su.edu.au>. My
advice to Mr. Cook, who actually authored it, is not to bother replying.
Or do, if it interests you, Mr. Cook, enough, but I sure don't think folks
should feel under any obligation to add to the evidence that the main
business of Usenet is talking about Usenet. For myself, I find your
questions more engaging. You asked
>| Why is it that this group appears to be continually concerned with
>| questions pertaining to sociobiology and genetic notions of race? There is
A. it's partly true.
B. you're an unsophisticated reader of Usenet newsgroups,
and misjudge what's *really* going on. I grant that I
am only speculating about your experience, but I know
that others have missed in the early parts of their
newsreading careers these subtleties:
1. The topics a newsgroup chooses to discuss (to
anthropomorphize the process) are quite dynamic.
sci.econ has in the past been obsessive about
the finance of health care in the USA. With
little apparent correlation to external events
or non-events, it has recently gone weeks with-
out a single appearance of the characters "medic".
At times within memory, the hot action in
sci.anthropology had to do with whether early
Europeans were matriarchal, or the value of
Foucault to working archaeologists. My bet is
that those are also not topics high on your
list or mine of active professional production,
but they illustrate that sci.anthropology is
not static.
2. There is, in fact, a lot of other action, that
you probably don't notice. While that loud
pair in the corner are coming to blows over
whether dark-skinned women feel less pain dur-
ing delivery, there are quieter discussants
all around the room, passing notes and chat-
ting briefly about more technically engaging
matters. Many newsgroup readers regard news-
groups as a way to meet minds with whom they
prefer to converse through email, *not* the
public forum of newsgroup postings.
3. Many readers ignore a great deal of what goes
on in sci.anthropology, but still find the
residuum valuable. Some benefit from automa-
tion in this process of ignoring, using "kill
files" or other means to filter noise out and
signal in. As a student, you likely feel an
obligation in your classes to give attention
to all the work during the course of a semester.
Do NOT read a Usenet newsgroup that way; look
for points or threads that interest you, and
don't let the rest slow you down.
4. As always with the Internet, be slow to gener-
alize from your experience. You read
newsgroups in a particular technical and social
milieu, and I guarantee that other readers of
the same newsgroups see them differently. One
notorious problem (still true? Anyone? I don't
much keep up with the weather reports) is that
Australian readers don't receive some/many/most
of the postings submitted to some newsgroups by
European authors.
>| nothing that this group discusses that I would seriously connect with
>| anthropology as a professional discipline as it is today.
I understand your frustration. A number of professional have "tuned
in" briefly to sci.anthropology, only to leave in disgust and/or
confusion. I think you're wrong, though. Of the two hundred
messages easily accessible on my home system, I see quite a few
that "*seriously* connect with anthropology ..."

I suggest you also consider the serious professional point that
there's something wrong when laymen and academics have such divergent
notions of what's "on-topic" for a discipline. One of the questions
that has been raised in this group, repeatedly, is what anthropolo-
gists can do right now to educate their fellow citizens about the
realities of race and ethnic diversity and biological determinism.
I'm sure readers would welcome any contributions on this score.
>| Is this because the popular perception of anthropology still revolves
>| around theories of biological determinism and scientific reduction? Is the
No, more like meta-theories. I agree with your framing a question
in terms of popular perception, but I suspect that the mismatch is
at an even higher level. Popular perception (or some of them) has
an instrumental view of science and the humanities; anthropology
*must* be reductive to supply the answers that fit this definition
of scholarship.
>| number of computer scientists in this group robbing it of the ability to
>| address questions of cultural meaning (or anything meaningfully for that
>| matter)?
Nope. Bogus. Identifying "computer scientists" and "[no]thing
meaningful ..." just isn't right. Maybe there's a more interesting
hypothesis you can construct from the same words, but this one isn't
worth falsifying.
There's a standard answer to your "pissed off"-edness, as you
characterize it: it you don't like a newsgroup, change it.
You post analyses or critiques of what interests you. There
are more professional-level anthropologists reading this forum
than you suspect; if you toss your stone in the water, the
ripples will reach farther than you expect.