End of term research note

It’s the end of term and I’ve fallen behind with talking about what I’ve been doing. I got a bit caught up in deadlines (both work and academic). So I’m here now, again. Let’s catch up.

The MAA courtyard at night.

The meaning of text

I’ve been doing a class called “ethnographic portraiture” this term. In short, it has been looking at how you write about the work you do. Research is very subjective and impressionistic and some great anthropology has read more like a novel than a set of statistics, so looking at the range of ways people have written (or more than written) about their subjects is fascinating.

What it has really made me think about is how academic text is sort of self-reinforcing. People have an idea in their head about what is “academic”. Obtuse phrasing, bad puns, a seemingly deliberately off-putting register. Oxford’s exam regulations stipulate that academic writing must be in Times New Roman. Academic work must be specifically serifed. And reading the corpus of people already writing in a particular way makes it harder to break out of the tradition.

The traditions of government

I’ve been seeing this as well in the way that things can sometimes start to feel insular in digital government. Something about the job ads that list “GDS experience” as a pre-requisite (to say nothing of the linkedin recruiters that only contact you once it’s on your CV), to the procurements which insist that SMEs have to have experience passing a service assessment (which, again, why?). I see it in the change in the service manual from open (github) to closed (government only or invite only community).

I’ve had these arguments before, but I want to say again that it has been playing on my mind again. There are a lot of special people in government, there are a lot of important things that government does, but I’m worried about how closed government is happening and what that loses.

Of course, this is tempered against a better community. There are gains and losses, but as someone without a government email address I feel constantly on the edge of it.

Actual _work_ work.

I wrote up my bit on data trusts pilot synthesis in the last week or so at the ODI. I have some takeaways that I’m going to write up into a better blogpost soon, but here are my headlines. Caveat emptor, this is not an official ODI view, nor is it necessarily shared or rejected by other people on the project. There are going to be reports and so on very soon. You should read those.

  • Most organisations express data in terms of “yes, it would be nice to share it, eventually, maybe” or “after GDPR, we are never touching that toxic bullshit ever again”. This makes talking about governance a higher order problem.
  • Each business uses software that defines its ontological (in the Heidegger/dassein sense) reality. Things like creating comparable data trusts rely on the mental models and line of business software of multiple businesses converging. It is more than an open standards problem, it is a fractured reality problem. It is anthropology, not technology. I have to thank Irina for this one, it’s taken several good coffee/chats to nail this one in my head and it mixes well with some of the PhD work.
  • Trusts aren’t trustworthy just because they have the word trust in them.
  • EXTREMELY MY OPINION: governance can be used as a tool to frustrate legitimate public interest investigation. I worry about that framing of data governance layers.

There is much more to be said about this, and it’s pretty important that people who are working for the public good get ahead of the snake oil machine.

My runway for work is starting to be a bit empty. I’m free for work from early April. If you’ve got something that fits my profile then let me know!

Public anthropology

I remember my first few lectures of my anthropology degree. In it, the lecturer talked about how doing the degree had similarities to joining the army. There would be a term of deconstructing everything you thought you knew about how the world works, and then a couple of years of reconstruction. He was right. I’d come to the degree with A Levels in Tudor history, post 1979 politics and classical history. I knew about dynastic marriages, the d’hondt method of elections,

I write this because I’ve been thinking a lot about how anthropology can be a public discipline. And I think the answer is more complex than anthropologists writing things for the LRB or appearing on news programmes when their field site comes up. Historians, economists and political scientists talk on twitter, get featured on Newsnight and their books and theories are written about at length in literary magazines.

Why is anthropology such a difficult discipline to place in the popular discourse? I think we’re obtuse and hard to understand. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of content design. Who is the audience? What do they want to know? There is a reinforcing circle effect here. Anthropologists write in such a way that they are absolutely uninteligible outside the discipline and so they don’t feel the need to become inteligible as “that is not our audience”.

Anyway, I’m putting this Mead clip here because it is fascinating that there was a whole recorded album of interviews with her. A public intellectual for a discipline that might be a break and a challenge from history and top-down views of the world. That might offer a respite from that understanding of the world. I just would like all these books that come from people taking years to understand other people to have more of an impact in the way the world works.

Music

This album by Luke Vibert which mixes UK garage and hardcore breakbeat together (but came out in 2017) is an absolute banger.

Culture

I went to the launch of UCL’s Media Anthropology Lab on Friday, mostly because my friend Charlotte was presenting her photographic work on pigeon fanciers. The discussion was where it got interesting.

Local Government being put to good use(!)

I think everyone who spoke was interested in their work being some category of “intelligible” as I was on about above. Anyway, have a browse through the art/anthropology pieces there, they’re really interesting.

Also got some last minute tickets to go see Witness for the Prosecution at the old GLC chamber in County Hall. It’s good fun, high camp and not too serious. Also makes the BBC adaptation from a couple of Christmases ago look like The Crow in comparison.

Bruce

Thanks

  • Terry and Liz for the room all term
  • Democracy Club and the AHRC for the funding