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22 February 2010

Writing for a Popular Audience

As odd as it may seem, one of the reasons I got into anthropology is because I wanted to write books and articles for a general audience. Now, of course, anthropology classes don't teach this, but I felt like they would give me a solid base of knowledge to feel confident about the issues that I would like to write about. I've always been told that I'm a good writer - though modesty keeps me from believing it fully - but I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write for a general audience as opposed to an academic one. A couple of recent posts on Savage Minds spurred my thinking along and provided some interesting ideas, but I have a few thoughts of my own.

Academics often complain that most readers don't want to navigate all of the subtle nuances of an issue. This is often blamed on either laziness or a lack of intelligence in the general population. To me it's neither, it's more about efficient use of time and energy. Think about the last time you read a book that wasn't about a topic that you research - what was it about the book that kept you reading? Why did you take time out of your busy schedule to finish it? Everyone's busy. Everyone has a lot on their minds. An author shouldn't expect too much from the reader - say what you have to say, make it engaging and let them do with it what they will. Academics, particularly anthropologists, expect the reader to follow every twist and turn, every complexity, every odd detail of the topic. It's not that they can't, but that they don't have the time and energy to spend following our trail after working, taking care of a family, being social, etc. Popular writing should accept that. It should serve as an entryway, drawing people in with inviting architecture and then allow them to wander the many paths as they see fit.
When I have time I would like to survey popular science books and popular social sciences books and see why some work and others don't. Until then, here are a few preliminary thoughts on how to write a good popular piece.

Tell a story - People like stories. They're interesting, engaging and help us remember the information better. The whole book doesn't have to be a story, but if you frame the information in a narrative the reader will hold on longer than if you just start presenting information. All of the most memorable popular science books use this little trick, and it really does work.

Avoid jargon - This should be obvious. Jargon serves only to distance those who understand it from those who don't. Popular writing is meant to bring the reader closer to the discipline, not push them away. Jargon may have its place in academic writing (I'm not completely convinced of this, but I'll grant it for now), but it's best kept out of popular writing.

Make it concise - Like I said before, people don't have the time and energy to follow you down every single trail. Popular writing should provide the information as clearly and concisely as possible. That means that some people will misunderstand it - they'll lose track of the complexities and the details. But some people will be drawn in to follow the trails, and it's those people we're after.

Be Persistent - Write often, keep trying to get published, and correct people when they misinterpret you. It's not easy writing for a general audience. It takes a lot of work; if you don't have the time or energy to put into it then don't expect readers to have the time and energy for you. Readers will misunderstand and misinterpret you. You have to own that, and understand that it's your responsibility to keep working to make it right.

That's it for now, but I'll revisit the topic later.

19 February 2010

Everything is Data: Latour's Four Notebooks


I'm still working my way through Latour's Reassembling the Social. Life's been pretty busy this past week, so I haven't had time to get through it - plus there's all the other reading I have to do for classes that's starting to pile up.
Anyway, going through the section on the "Fifth Source of Uncertainty: Writing Down Risky Accounts" I was intrigued by his idea of keeping four notebooks for research. To a degree it mirrors what many ethnographic methods books teach - you have your jottings notebook, your field notes, and your journal - but Latour has a slightly different idea of what the notebooks should include. His main idea is that "everything is data" and so everything about the research must be documented. Each notebook, therefore, is meant to capture a different aspect of the research process, and I want to describe them briefly here:

The First Notebook - The research log
In this notebook we would keep a detailed account of how we go about doing the research. We would note appointments, discussions with advisers, reactions to research from others, phone calls, internet searches, etc. - anything that describes how we came up with the idea for the research, how we get funding and from where, and how we go about finding the data. He says that "...[E]ven years after, it should remain possible to know how the study was conceived, which person was met, what source was accessed, and so on, at a precise date and time."
This is reminiscent of a lab notebook where you are supposed to describe in detail every step you took in performing an experiment. They serve two main functions: 1) if something goes wrong, you can look back and see where things might have gotten mixed up and 2) others can look at your work and replicate it exactly. In fieldwork, we generally can't replicate our research, but by documenting every step, we can show how we got our results or look back and see where we might have gone wrong.

The Second Notebook - The Data
This notebook is where we keep our data - interview transcripts, field notes, thoughts, observations, etc. Latour says that it should be "possible to simultaneously keep all of the items in a chronological order and to dispatch them into categories which will evolve later into more and more refined files and sub-files." This is really easy to do with computers, and I think Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) software like Atlas.ti or TAMSanalyzer is the best option. QDA software allows us to tag our text at the paragraph or even single word level (as opposed to tagging the whole text in EverNote or other bookmarking type programs). That way we can either scroll through our data as a whole chronologically, or we can query those sections that we've tagged with particular codes. We can even call up sections that are cross-referenced with two or more tags for more intricate analysis.

The Third Notebook - Writing
Latour says that we should not wait until the data is collected and the research is finished to begin writing up our results. This is what the third notebook is for - writing up the research as we go. If some idea comes to us as we're collecting data, some speculation on what might be going on, we would write it here. Think it through, play with it, experiment with writing, with using different models and metaphors. Not only is this good practice for the sake of the research - to keep your own thoughts from mixing with those of your informants - but it will also improve your writing.
For this notebook, it occurred to me that the best resource might be a blog. I say this for two reasons - it's a good place to write casually about anything we like and keep track of our work, and it makes our research available to a large audience. Other researchers, the general public, or our informants themselves can come by and see exactly what we're thinking. They can even comment, add their own thoughts, critique our thoughts or challenge us to dig deeper. I know the comments on this blog often help me think more about whatever it is I'm writing on, and at times they have changed my whole way of understanding a topic.

The Fourth Notebook - The Effect of the Research
In my previous post, Mediators and Intermediaries, I mentioned that Latour sees every part of the research as having an agency and value of its own. We can no longer think of the research divided into discrete phases - preparation, data collection, analysis and write-up. Instead we must see them all as interwoven with one another. Furthermore, the whole process doesn't stop with the write-up - it continues as the effects of the research and the report (small though they may be) cascade outwards to affect others. The fourth notebook, according to Latour, should document the effects of the research. Even if the report is only read by one or two people, that should be noted and its trace should be followed. This is not an exercise in vanity - it allows us to understand what happened with our research after the project was finished, it allows us to see what people are doing with it, how it has changed behavior (or not), and how we could do a better job of making our research useful and effective.
Last semester, when I was taking my applied anthropology course, we read article after article in which the researchers said that they had created a website for some (noble) reason. Time after time, we would visit the website only to find broken links, dated material and a general sense of waste. Too often these grand projects are completed and then forgotten - allowed to decay - without a second thought. Keeping track of what happens to our research after it's done is essential to keeping it relevant and worthwhile.

Those are Latour's four notebooks, and, like I said, I find it absolutely wonderful. I think if we all followed his advice, it would make us better researchers, better writers and better activists. I think it applies equally well to those of you who aren't social scientists, but perhaps want to write literature or make films. Maybe you don't have to keep all four journals, but keep in mind the axiom "Everything is data" and do what you can to document any and every aspect of your life including interesting stories, mundane details, unique ideas, and observations, . You may not use all of it, or even any of it, but I assure you that it will have a positive effect on your skill as a writer and on your general creativity.
That said, it's quite a tall order. For someone like me who has to take classes, teach classes, run from place to place, cook food, write papers, read articles and books, not to mention find time for some minuscule social life, I think I'd find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain all of these notebooks for all of the projects I might work on. It's a worthwhile goal, though, and I will certainly do my best.

11 February 2010

Intermediaries and Mediators

In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour introduces an interesting dichotomy - between what he calls intermediaries and mediators.
Intermediaries - Objects that simply replicate their input. They obey basic laws of cause and effect where the effect can easily be predicted by the cause.

Mediators - Objects that transform their input or alter it in some way. The effect cannot easily be predicted by the cause. They are complex.
This is interesting to me. It basically parallels what a lot of researchers in complexity theory and systems theory have been finding - that even a seemingly simple function can produce very complex results, usually as a result of some sort of feedback. Mediators are like the dog in Bateson's example - unlike a ball, when you kick the dog you can't necessarily determine its trajectory from the force and direction of the kick. The dog may turn around and bite you, or it may run off to cower in a corner.

What's interesting in Latour, I think, is the dichotomy. There are two classes of objects, one which simply replicates the input and one which transforms it. A system composed entirely of intermediaries would not be very interesting; it wouldn't do anything unique, it wouldn't generate anything new and eventually it would run out of steam and collapse. In order for self-organization, pattern and other interesting processes to occur there must be some mediator(s) involved. Furthermore, an object can act in one case as an intermediary and in another as a mediator. For example, humans are typically mediators - unpredictable - but stick one in a large complex bureaucracy and they often become mere intermediaries - performing repetitive tasks with little or no thought, and simply doing what their told until they punch the clock. That person can become an intermediary if s/he notices an injustice in the bureaucratic system and, for example, does small things to gum up the works (interestingly, humans may be unique among animals in their ability to go back and forth between the two roles).

What Latour wants, as far as I can tell (and I haven't finished the book yet), is for scientists - especially social scientists - to treat all objects to the greatest extent possible as mediators. In some cases, this would mean erring on the side of interpreting something as a mediator when its role is ambiguous. That includes both the researcher and the product of the research. Most scientists think of their work as consisting of three discrete objects - the subject of the research, the researcher(s) themselves, and the text where the results are written up. These are taken as being merely intermediaries - not changing or influencing one another. For positivists, the subject is the most important, for critical scholars, the text takes center stage.

For Latour, however, all three are important because they are all mediators interacting in a complex relationship. The world doesn't exist "out there" for us to study "objectively" without interacting or influencing it, and it doesn't stop moving once the text has been written. Researchers must begin to see their work, not as discrete steps that have little relation to one another but as a continuing process of unfolding.

The relationship between the research and the object of study is complex and dynamic - producing novelty and unpredictable behavior. The same is true of the relationship between the text and the researcher, and between the text and the object, and between all of them and the rest of the world. The text collapses numerous historical threads - some of which the researcher isn't even aware of - into a singular event, and it generates numerous new threads, pathways for new possibilities to emerge.

This new way of seeing our research suggests a whole new ethic, where we must represent the process and all of the participants equally as mediators. We have to ask ourselves what our research does, what new threads might it generate, and can we live with those consequences. Research becomes a much more ethical issue as well as a far more interesting practice.

01 February 2010

Emic and Etic

Emic: An explanation of a behavior or belief in terms that are meaningful to those involved. Culturally Embedded.
Etic: An explanation of the same phenomenon from the point of view of an observer. Culturally Neutral.
(Paraphrased from Wikipedia)
These are two terms that are widely used in anthropology, and they're among the first terms discussed in any introduction to cultural anthropology class (such as the one I'm TAing for now). Here's the problem; there is no such thing as an etic explanation, that is, one that is culturally neutral. One could give an etic description, perhaps:
"He carries a bag filled with various items which have been discarded outside and places it in a large plastic bin on the edge of the grass."
As opposed to an emic description:
"He takes out the garbage."
However, any kind of explanation would have some cultural inflection. Thus "because it is trash day" might be an emic explanation, given by the person carrying the garbage to the curb. On the other hand, and anthropologist observing the behavior might say that he takes out the trash to keep it from filling his house. This is a functional explanation which might be considered etic, but is, in fact, grounded in a vast historical/social/cultural setting. That setting is essentially a Western, modernist one, which values "objective" "rational" over the "biased" and particular explanations given by most people. Not all etic explanations must be functional (though, by tradition, they often are) it could be genetic ("because his genes told him too") social ("because power made him do it") or based on any number of other approaches.

There's nothing wrong with taking an "objective" point of view, except that it is a delusion. To be "objective" is merely to take a Western/Modernist perspective. The claim that this perspective is "objective" hides the fact that it too is culturally embedded. Furthermore, it privileges the Western point of view by suggesting that it is more true than any other - thus emic explanations tend to have an air of superstition and irrationality around them.

This is not to deny the validity or value of etic explanations - they are true and they are useful. Sometimes they are better or more useful (or more just) than emic explanations; sometimes they are not. The point is to recognize that what we call etic explanations are not culturally neutral, they are simply embedded in a different culture than the emic explanations.
Framing it this way is both a challenge and an opportunity. By seeing etic explanations as culturally embedded in a modernist frame work, we must recognize that they are not inherently imbued with value - we must struggle to decide and demonstrate that the etic perspective is worthwhile. On the other had, the reward to be gained from this extra work, is the ability to value alternative perspectives, and the knowledge embedded in the emic understanding.
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