Category Archives: Topics for Discussion

Made in Palestine

Christopher Pinney, UCL

[Please note: this  post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]

I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons.  The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.

So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.

We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes.  Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.

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Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments  around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.

In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.


A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.


Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.


As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).


Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too.  Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.


Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out.  Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom.  After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.


Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.


We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance).  But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.



An update on our perspective on Open Access

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In October last year (2013) I posted a draft of an editorial for the Journal of Material Culture which rehearsed some of the options we (the editorial board led by myself and Susanne Kuchler, with guidance from Danny Miller) have been working through regarding taking the journal towards Open Access. The take home message for that piece was that we felt strongly that the current recommendations for open access “compliance” in the United Kingdom were inadequate and inappropriate in terms of their effect upon ideas not just of scholarship, but on scholarly community. The prevailing models in the UK for Open Access, known as Green and Gold, both depend on individuals to decide whether or not their individual articles should be made open access. Gold Open access costs significant amounts of money but results in an article openly available through the journal’s home page. Green means that any author has the right to post the accepted version of their article on their homepage or institutional repository (for some journals after a specific embargo period). This is very much a national situation for OA in the UK and it’s different in the US (and indeed in many other places), but in our editorial, Susanne Kuchler and I argued against models that sidestep the journal itself as an intellectual frame for committing to OA by passing the buck to individual authors. We raised questions regarding the implication of moving to a view per article/pay per article model for the future of scholarly journals.

Some people interpreted the editorial as a statement against OA. In fact, we take the journal’s responsibility for open access very seriously and have spent considerable time (after hours from our regular job and duties as editors) exploring these issues as we really want the journal to be accessible to everyone who wants to read it. we are balancing these desires with the fact that Sage owns the journal’s name, the back issues and has said that they will reform the journal with a different editorial board if we leave to move to an open system (like open journal).

Our editorial launched an online questionnaire with which we hoped to gather more opinion from material world readers and Journal of Material Culture readers. This probably says more about electronic survey burnout and the limitations of our own reach, than it does about the question of open access but since December 2 we have had only 16 respondents to the survey (If you would still like to participate you can by following this link.).

Whilst 16 is obviously far to few a number to make any kind of generalization, I can report that out of the 16 respondents (15 of whom work in academia), most only read the journal in digital form accessed via a university subscription. Of those 16 people, 5 would be prepared to pay a submission fee to a journal without guarantee of acceptance (and 11 would not). The following chart shows how people felt about paying for open access, upon acceptance for publication:


The following response was more interesting:


People had many different ideas about the most appropriate source of funding for open access, but NO ONE thought that authors were the most appropriate vessels to provide for open access.

People were also given the chance to provide substantive comments about open access and 5 people chose to share their opinions, which I cut and paste here:

Respondent 1: Publishers views should not be considered. They are not neutral stakeholders. Their goal is to maximise profits, not to further scholarship or increase accessibility, despite the lipservice they may pay.

Respondent 2. Elsevier, T&F, OUP, and many others are multinationals using slave labour of tenured individuals (not me – I’m unemployed though I have a visiting fellow position) to maintain the high standards of journals. They are taking public money and putting it into private hands, just like in war time. Some of the most interesting, innovative, and exciting journals are open access. While stodgy publishers need to make their buck somehow, knowledge and research should be shared among those to whom it is relevant. The multinationalisation (a fantastic nominalisation) of publishing is as boring as it is restrictive and elitist.

Respondent 3: The questions are confusing. The question of whether I am prepared to pay for my article depends on how and by whom the journal is edited. I refuse to pay submission fees if the journal is edited by a large publisher such as currently is the case with JMC with SAGE. As long as the journal is with sage, I don’t pay any submission fee. If the journal would move to Gold open access and away from SAGE to an independent, not for profit platform, I would be prepared to pay. The question is not: to pay or not to pay, but about the relationship between publisher and author. The main point is to get away from for profit publishers.

Respondent 4: In principle I am fully supportive of the move towards open access. However, as an early career researcher (postdoc), I am concerned about the transition to open access on two different levels: 1) Whether my financial situation (be that personal finances or relating to grants/institutions) will limit my ability to publish my work in a timely manner; 2) How the costs of open access AND the changing nature of publications under these changes will affect my ability to be competitive on the job market. We have very little information, for example, about how hiring committees view open access/non-traditional publications vis-a-vis more established journals, or whether open access will make the road towards a monograph publication (still considered a basic requirement for permanent employment in anthropology) more difficult/costly.

Respondent 5: effectively is a ‘pay to publish’ system that also completely excludes early career or independent academics who have neither the money nor the backing of an institution to pay for them. This will ultimately mean that material from these types of researchers and writers will never be published, thus compromising the academic exercise and diminishing the scope of debate as some excellent work will be missed, go unheeded. A disaster for the future.

These figures show that there are many different opinions and feelings about open access even within our admittedly tiny sample.

At the same time as publishing this editorial, impatient and unsure of our options, we also decided to experiment with Green open access. We emailed all the contributors to the first issue of this year and asked them to upload their author version (which we handily appended as a cleaned up pdf) to their own home page or institutional repository, in compliance with Sage’s Green archiving policy. We also asked them to send us the link and we set up a sort of mirror page of the journal, with the intention of creating a Green archive. So far, only one person has even replied to this email so the site remains empty apart from our editorial).

Now there are many reasons why people may not fill in online forms, reply to emails from me, or want to self-archive their publications, but to my mind these experiences highlight the need to make decisions about journals at the highest level, in the model of Cultural Anthropology, rather than leaving it up to individual authors or readers which will naturally result in a patchy experience of open access at best, and no open access at worst.

They also indicate that there is a much more complex field of engagement with these ideas than would be seen from the presentation of very polarized debates in the media. I present these partial perspectives here not as an indication of any complete picture of opinion regarding open access, more as the beginnings of an ethnography of how open access is currently being parsed by some people in the academy whose views are not often represented in literature that presents the voices of editors and publishers, but far less often authors. Indeed, in a conversation I had recently with another journal editor, they observed that many of their authors are content to have their work behind paywalls. They observed that many people working in South Asian studies are extremely fearful of cases like Wendy Doniger‘s, namely of having their work willfully misinterpreted by others in what are highly fraught political contexts (in Doniger’s case, Hindu nationalists succeeded in having her scholarly book on Hinduism pulled from the shelves in India). This is NOT my view, as I do not think we should write or publish defensively or with only a control audience in mind (and Doniger’s book was published by Penguin and was hardly behind a paywall) but I cite it, and the comments above, to reflect the fact that there are large number of academics who are either disinterested, or fearful, of open access, for numerous different reasons (sometimes just because they are plain old tired!) and that we need to take stock of their opinions and situations, if we are to convince them that open access is something that they should sign up to.

This experience has also shown me how geo-located these debates are – the conversation in the US is different to the UK, which is different again to France, India, China or Australia. The Journal of Material Culture has an extremely international author pool which may (or may not) explain why many of our authors seem to be less engaged than we are in the highly specific questions that are emerging around OA in the UK.

So now – alongside the issue of how to take the Journal of Material Culture forward in terms of open access, I am also wondering why this isn’t of concern to many people, what issues do drive decisions around publication and how we can participate and even intervene in those conversations, expanding the one we are already having. I see this is a nascent anthropology of open access which would locate OA as an experimental moment within a very particular institutional discursive frame that constitutes authors, intellectual property, and openness in specific ways. I’ve started a small dossier of these fragmented perceptions, misgivings, and complex feelings that may not only help us to see OA as some others do, but help us to unpack the assumptions about OA that we ourselves are working with. As always, comments more than welcome here or on the survey.


Chipping into the debate on Open Access

Haidy Geismar, UCL Anthropology

As the incoming co-editor of the Journal of Material Culture, as well as one of the editors here at Material World Blog, I have been involved in many conversations regarding the politics, economics, and materiality of Open Access.

It is clear that there is great concern about open access in many arena from policy (see for instance, the UK’s Finch Report  ”Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications”), within academia (see the discussion on Open Access in the new online only journal, Hau and this interview with Tim Ingold) and in the world of cyber-(h)activism (a good summary of the Aaron Schwartz case is actually presented on JSTOR’s website).

It’s hard to find a place in which all the issues in fact coalesce: some people are concerned about democratizing accessibility to research (particularly across national borders, and to people without the support of privileged universities). Others are concerned about who should pay for, and who should profit, from academic publications. Yet others are interested in the implications of Gold open access (where authors pay or fundraise for their invidivual articles to be made publicly available) or Green (where final versions of peer-reviewed articles are placed within institutional repositories) on the form of journals as the need for issues is replaced by an emphasis on individual articles.  Many of us are wondering about the implications current policy requirements have for open access on the fate of academic monographs and are also following with interest the move in the sciences towards “open data” (which naturalizes many assumptions about data versus research, and raises problems for past informed consent and research ethical clearances). Finally, lies the overarching question of value: how is research valuable and for whom, who should profit and how. For instance, I was intrigued to have the value of peer review laid out as “in kind donations” by a representative of Taylor and Francis.

Below, is an editorial upcoming in the Journal of Material Culture, laying out our current concerns and thinking about Open Access. The journal is undertaking a survey of readers. If you are a reader of the JMC please take some time to fill it out. If you aren’t a reader, you can still take the survey, skipping the couple of questions specific to the journal. The link is here.


On Open Access and journal futures

All academics are, by now, aware of the on-going discussions and key policy directives concerning “open access”. Philosophically, open access publishing has the potential to circulate scholarship more broadly and democratically, to more diverse audiences, allowing for potentially greater impact of, and engagement with, research. Logistically, thinking about how to achieve open access also provokes us to rethink how we evaluate the labour that goes into academic publishing, who should be entitled to profit from academic research, and who research is really for. Pragmatically, many important questions are currently being raised about the allocation of resources for the dissemination of academic researchers and the sustainability of academic publishing.

In the United Kingdom, where the editorial board of the journal of Material culture is based, the National Research Councils, the primary organs of British academic funding, have stipulated that in future their audits will only accept Open Access publications, which will make research funded by taxpayer money available to all readers without subscription. The UK Government commissioned a working group, chaired by the sociologist Dame Janet Finch, to evaluate the best methods to achieve Open Access. Their report, “Accessibility, Sustainability, Excellence: how to expand access to research publications” (2012) identifies two principle routes to open access. The Gold route involves direct payments by the author (or their research grant or university) to the publishers to cover the costs of publication and distribution.  The Green route, which is supported by most publishers, permits authors to make available the final accepted, but unbranded or copyedited, version of the article through their institutional repository, usually after a specified period of embargo. Details such as fees or periods of embargo vary considerably from press to press.

Members of the Journal of Material Culture’s editorial board have been discussing these issues for some time. One of our founding editors was recently part of a broader debate in the new online journal Hau ( In his piece, Daniel Miller (2012) argued that anthropologists in particular have an obligation to ensure that the people they work with should have access to research and that we have a moral responsibility to make our work as accessible as possible. Since then, we have been considering the different models available and discussing with great seriousness the future of the journal, entering into conversation with Sage, our publisher, and with UCL’s Library and Repository services. Our discussions have highlighted that the issues are in fact more complex than those presented in the Finch report. The wider contexts include the ethics of accessibility,; the shift from print to digital publishing (with potential for additional visual and other materials); and the shift from print to online consumption. It also raises hard questions about how “profits” are defined and who should benefit from research outputs.

The problem with Gold

The Finch report is generally concerned with the UK situation, and is responding to concerns by both national publishers and funding bodies. Since 2007, the share of submissions to the JMC from within the UK has fallen nearly year on year, and now stands at roughly 20%. We currently receive about as many submissions from North America and Continental Europe.  The Finch report also does not concern itself with unfunded research. In this journal, funded research comprises about one third of published articles in the past 5 years and its share shows a falling trend, accounting for only 10% in 2012 and 5% in 2013: and just 20-30% of submissions between 2011 and 2013. Whilst the Gold route makes open access the decision of individual authors, from the perspective of the journal we cannot think of open access solely in the narrow and exclusive terms of work produced by UK funded researchers.

In turn, publishing houses are notoriously opaque in quantifying the price of journal publication, especially article by article. If the burden of financial support is being passed onto individual authors, do they not have a right to know how the money is spent, what percentage is profit for the shareholders of the company, and what is not included in the business model? Editors and reviewers are perhaps the most essential part of a journal’s “value”, yet their work is considered to be a “time/expertise donated4free” (@Taylor&Francis Open 2013). In fact, commercial publishers are also concerned about the Gold model, which shifts the burden of paying for future articles onto authors but still maintains a subscription model for back issues and articles not paid for by authors to be open access, a phenomenon that has come to be called “double dipping”.

For all of these reasons, as academic editors we do not favor the principles of the Gold model. We do not think that shifting the decision to go open access onto individual authors is good for the integrity of journals as a whole and we challenge the economic rationale behind the pricing of the Gold route.

The problem with Green

Whilst making an important leap towards accessibility, the Green model also raises significant problems from the standpoint of both journals and authors. Like the Gold route, the Green route transforms journals from curated intellectual conversations into a more ad-hoc presentation of individual research. Green open access requires the additional support of an institutional repository and an institutional investment into a digital infrastructure that will by no means be consistent from institution to institution, or from country to country. It also potentially compromises our scholarly integrity: putting the accepted but not final version online means that there is the potential for multiple versions of articles to circulate with multiple forms of citation, different paginations and so forth. Fundamentally, the Green route places the burden of archiving and maintenance onto the individual repository and also undermines the intellectual support and framing that a journal itself is supposed to provide. We are exploring the possibilities of creating a parallel Green archive for the JMC, but we also wonder how the Green route will ultimately effect the future of journal publication. Both Green and Gold dismantle the structure of journals in favour of the dissemination of individual articles and it is important to evaluate the impact of this on the editorial policies and intellectual framing of journals.

What do we mean by “Free”?

Both Gold and Green routes demonstrate that open access may ensure an opening up of readers, but that there are still significant costs. The recent success of the new online only, open access anthropology publication Hau, demonstrates that open access journals can work well, but also demonstrates that they depend upon significant financial support from Higher Education (or equivalent) Institutions as well as a significant amount of freely donated labour. In the longer term is this a model that can be applied to the entire realm of academic publishing? This journal certainly requires a robust institutional framework that ensures the income and the labour required for its production. It is important to carefully assess what kinds of support journals need to be successful, ethical, and sustainable.

Alongside the supportive environments of some universities and learned societies, organizations such as JSTOR have been established to consolidate and archive scholarly material, made available by subscription, but on a non-profit basis. Whilst it is not without its detractors, as the Aaron Schwartz case made clear, JSTOR makes its content available for free or at low cost to high schools and to other institutions in more then 69 countries. The cost of its subscription has not gone up since 1997 (source: In turn, it does not claim copyright on any of the material it archives which means that that material may freely (or at cost) circulate elsewhere as well. Perhaps the non-profit model of economic costing and institutional infrastructure instantiated by JSTOR, and some University Presses, alongside the critical regime of the creative commons license, will create a publishing ecology that is both ethical and liberal, allowing authors to make strategic choices within a strong framework of accountability.

We also wonder if the possibilities of electronic publishing have been realized within academic journals as they transition to online. At present online journals generally maintain the form (largely text based), the structure (set numbers of issues per year, set word limits for articles) and the coherence (themed issues, centralized editorial staff) of print publications. Yet we now have the capacity to present other kinds of data hyperlinked and internally cross-referenced. We can present articles simultaneously in multiple languages, amongst many other possibilities. What are the implications of electronic media for the form of the journal essay – a tightly written textual argument, limited to a set number of words or pages? These developments are attractive, especially for a journal such as ours, but may require further costs and skill-sets that cannot be taken for granted amongst most academics involved in editing journals.

The climate of open access has therefore provided an opportunity to rethink the intellectual framework, as well as the economy, of scholarly publications. Accessibility means more than electronic circulation – it requires us to think about the politics of language, of inclusion at every level, to understand our current and possible constituencies, and how we may best engage with them. The current shift of publishing practice must make us reflect on the intellectual frameworks and aspirations of academic journals, as well as on their place in the world. Conceptualizing open access as the reduction of each article to a single payment makes what should be a collective and on-going conversation and responsibility into a one-time individual decision.

We are currently debating all of these issues at the JMC so that we can make a considered decision about the future of the journal, in terms of its form, content and its model of distribution. Before any decisions are made, we would very much like to solicit the views of our readers. So please take some time to answer the short survey below by following its link. Our readership is the most important part of our community and we would like to hear from you.

Survey Link:

Haidy Geismar and Susanne Kuchler, Editors, Journal of Material Culture

(with thanks to Daniel Miller, UCL Anthropology and Martin Moyle, UCL Libraries)


Miller, Daniel 2012   Open Access, Scholarship and Digital Anthropology, Hau 2 385-411

@Taylor&FrancisOpen,  Twitter exchange with @haidygeismar July 3, 2013.


Our editor at Sage, very kindly provided us with a series of links about OA publishing from their perspective, focused around a conference they convened in association with the Academy for Social Sciences and the British Academy.

*   View conference presentations that Sage organized at LSE to discuss Open Access here and here

 *   Watch the recording of the event here
 *   View the twitter conversations, and here, and here


Discarded ontologies

Blanca Callén Lancaster University,


Behind the images and narratives of progress, effectiveness and innovation of electronics that make us believe in dematerialized technology without consequences (Gabrys, 2011:57), there is something dirty and ‘forgettable’ (Hird, forthcoming). That is electronic waste (e-waste).

Over the past November and December, I followed a group of informal waste pickers in Barcelona to study how they re-materialize and re-purpose discarded computers. What I found is that e-waste is not merely about dirtiness and forgettable materials. It is also about innovative everyday practices that compete to establish and negotiate different ontologies of value and functionality as waste moves across different legal regimes.

A common European Directive, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), currently regulates the Spanish system of e-waste management.  As a legal tool, the WEEE defines a new scenario where agents are more interconnected with their (contaminating) activities and responsibilities. Institutionally, the circuit of e-waste management lies on the so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This means that, at least theoretically, producers are responsible for the collection, treatment, evaluation, and, if applicable, elimination of waste related to their products. However, as Queiruga et al. (2012) argue, this is not what actually happens. In practice, fines and responsibilities are divorced, and the ‘polluter pays’ principle’s core is corrupted.

Although citizens pay (through an invisible tax that doesn’t appear on bills) for sustaining the treatment of the WEEE, only producers (through the EPR) and recycling companies have the right to deal with waste and to make a profit from it. Producers pay municipalities for the collection and temporal storage of waste and then companies make a profit through the dismantling and recycling of waste, which is sold and returned to the production industry.

This European-wide legal framework is supplemented by different municipal laws. In Barcelona, where I conducted my ethnography, the Municipal Ordinance regulates the use of urban public spaces establishing that “the selection and extraction of waste placed in the public thoroughfare” is a minor infraction that is fined with up to 450,76€. This means that recovering things from the street in order to reuse them is penalized.

 A (g)local detour in the e-waste flow

Different agents defy these legal dispositions, like the illegal migrants, most of them sub-Saharian, who have been living off waste collecting for almost one year in a squatted industrial complex of warehouses. Most of them get up early in the morning and scour the city with a ‘shopping’ trolley looking for scrap and all kind of materials and objects, which then they bring to the warehouse, where everything is separated and classified.

Dealers buy scrapped computers and electric and electronic components from these waste-pickers and check if they work. If they don’t, they are dismantled into different pieces, such as metal cages, motherboards, or materials, like copper from wires, and are then sold by weight to scrap-yards; functional pieces, such as hard-disks or memory RAMs, are recovered and sold to companies or personal contacts which use them for assembling “new” old computers. Other computers just need to be repaired and have their OS reinstalled. Working electric and electronic appliances are sent by trucks and vans to Africa. Both content and container, appliances and trucks, are then sold in African second-hand markets.


Tilan lives in a nearby squatted warehouse and he is the guy who repairs some of these computers. He tests them, tries to repair them, or dismantles and reuses the functional components in order to assemble new computers. Then he installs pirated OSs  such as Windows 7 or XP. He has learned how to do it thanks to ‘the Czechs’. “They know a lot about it”, he says. The Czechs were his housemates and he has learned by quietly observing how they repaired. He blames some of the waste-pickers, most of them from Romania, who treat computers as if they are just a piece of metal, handling them like scrap. In Tilan’s view they aren’t scrap: dumped computers are valuable and need to be carefully treated in order to reuse some of their components. If they are dropped, the components may be ruined.

Struggling computing ontologies

The growing number of people scavenging bins and pushing their supermarket trolleys full of scrap, attests to the unsustainable patterns of technology’s consumption cycle and problematises utopian narratives of innovation. Importantly, they also hint at the re-materializion of electronics that takes place through their collecting, dismantling, repairing and re-assembling, which keeps these computers in operation and in circulation.

By constantly re-imagining e-waste, these waste-pickers and menders create new forms of value and informal innovation. The innovative character of these practices lies in the fact that they defy e-waste destiny and its ontology: in their hands, a waste-computer is not a singular object defined by its disposal and treatment after manufacture and consumption, instead it is a precarious and temporal knot of heterogeneous assemblages in transition. The key point here is the (possibility of) transition. A computer in the bin, like the boats Gregson et al. (2010) describe, is not valued “for what it is, but for what it ‘might become’” (Ib. 2010:853). Informal waste pickers do not work with certainty and ‘actuality’, but with pure ‘virtuality’ and possibilities of ‘becoming’ which transform brokenness, failures or legal restrictions into productive occasions. When an old computer is considered waste and then dismantled and reassembled, it is being transformed from a static metal ‘black box’ into an open modular object. In this sense, waste-pickers can be easily compared with the Parisian maintenance workers of the transport system followed by Denis and Pontille (2011): both “go through what one would see as the ʻnaturalʼ boundaries of things, and explore and test the relations of components” (Ib., 2011:7).

These waste-pickers operate in a register in which success, functionality and value are not defined by the closure and stability of computers as ‘black boxes’ through manufacturing (Lepawsky and Billah, 2011:135), but by their ability to move across different ontology registers after they have become waste. This movement, however, is not easy. It depends on different technical knowledges, personal networks, and savings, and implies several risks, like defying European and municipal laws or crossing a desert to deliver them in Africa. Success and failure, it follows, cannot be mapped onto different kinds of objects (e.g. functioning vs non-functioning objects). As a matter of fact, the same object, a computer, can be inscribed in (and by) different logics: the logic of the material and the logic of function, which imply two different value systems defined, alternatively, by weight or bytes. This ontological and temporal issue is the reason for Tilan’s complaints about Romanian pickers and also reflects a current tension. The urgency of earning one’s living means that success doesn’t always mean to repair and re-assemble a computer, but can also mean to destroy and take it apart in components and metals that can be quickly turned into ‘fresh’ money. A first inspection of the outward aspect of the object and a quick test to check whether it starts up are ways to calculate the potential profitability of the object. Depending on the result, the waste-pickers will decide whether to take it apart or to sell it as an entire object for being re-assembled and repaired.


The story about Tilan and the others talks about ‘outsiders’ and illegality, and how they intersect, at different points, with the formal circuit: challenging it, when they collect stuff from the bins; dealing with it by symbiotic complicity when they sell the remains after dismantling to recycling and scrap traders; or complementing and polishing it, when they selectively collect stuff from streets and dismantle, classify and sell components and pieces to be later recycled, while earning money throughout the process. Legal and illegal, formal and informal cross over and leak into each other. In this sense, this story shows how we cannot rely on linear and formal accounts to understand the regime of e-waste. This waste regime (Gille, 2010) requires a combination of different scales, circulations and exchanges of boundaries and edges, and a complex meshwork of overlaps, intersections, leaks and detours. It follows that, if we are to understand a particular waste regime it is not enough to pay attention to institutional and formal practices, we also need to pay close attention to those informal, unknown, intentionally hidden or ‘forgotten’ agents and practices that discretely traverse the streets.
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The computer that you have in front of you right now will die sooner or later. And when it does you will get rid of it, perhaps, if you are well-behaved citizen, in one of the designated recycling drop-offs points your city council has created for technological equipment. That, however, won’t mark the end of your computer’s life. It will only mark the end of the first phase of its life as a valuable cultural and technological object.

After you dumpt it, you computer will start a second, and more complex, life as e-waste, most likely somewhere in India, China or Africa. You can see some pictures of what will likely be your computer limbo here and here, or here. And, if you are interested, you should also check this timeline to map out the evolving set of relationships, conflicts and strategies developing between the market, consumers, institutions configuring the particular political ecology of e-waste.


Invoking the Apocalypse: A Promenade with Pentti Linkola


Interview by Francisco Martínez (EHI, Tallinn Univ) & Larissa Vanamo (Dept of History, Univ. of Helsinki).

A democracy where there is freedom of consumption is the worst thing possible”
 The worth of an individual is smaller when there are a lot of humans”
Force and oppression are needed because life as such is a value”

A promenade with Pentti Linkola

Pentti Linkola is a Finnish fisherman and ornithologist. He was born in Helsinki in 1932 and lives in a 30 square meter wooden cabin in Sääksmäki (Ritvala).

We visited him together in March 2011. Despite our awareness of some general gossip about his temperament, he kindly attended to us for several hours. During this time we talked and took a walk. As a curious anecdote, he seems to have a particular notion of order and disorder. On the wall of his cabin hangs a sign that says: ‘a house which is not dirty is not a home’.

Linkola has two daughters and until not so long ago he had no electricity at home. He lived from what he earned, selling on horseback the fish he caught in the lake Vanajavesi. His father, Kaarlo Linkola, was Rector of the University of Helsinki and his grandfather was Chancellor there too. Regardless, he chose to leave his zoological and botanical studies after one year in that same institution.

For a long time, his family lived in the main building of Kaisaniemi’s Botanical Garden, which was planned as a castle for the king of Finland in 1918. Nevertheless, most of the family heritage that Linkola received he donated to the Finnish Natural Heritage Foundation, an NGO created by him to preserve the forest for the Finnish society. He has also been writing for Finnish journals with a certain frequency; added to which he has published nine books in Finnish and a book in English compiling some of his articles (see here). As a curiosity, he asked during our interview which of his articles were translated into English (one search engine reveals over 180,000 hits when entering his name).

Linkola is not totally isolated there in Sääksmäki. He appears occasionally on TV and from time to time he visits his family in Helsinki or goes to listen to certain seminars (for example about Dostoevsky). He is also known for his legendary expeditions -walking for weeks throughout the forests of Finland or riding a bike in continental Europe (he has never gone lower than the Pyrennees). Besides literature, one of his favourite hobbies is to study the migration routes of water birds.

Linkola encourages the concept of an integrated nature of life, besides the intrinsic value of nature. For that he proposes a set of radical mesures: to return to a smaller ecological niche, to reduce human population (licensing procreation), to abandon “the quasi religious” pursuit of economic growth implanting subsistence economy, and to abolish democracy and the distribution of energy (electricity, gas, oil, etc). To sum up, Linkola takes the idea of environmental balance as a base for the organisation of society (we should turn from anthropocentrism to eco-centrism).

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Together Again: the link between transnational ties and photo archiving among Ghanaian families

Elad Ben Elul, Department of Anthropology, UCL


Photos from Ghanaian family reunions are distributed through Facebook. The elders are often recorded telling family tales.

Recent debates around the motivations for taking digital photos ask whether people document for memory or as tools for communication (Dijck 2008:58). However, this debate tends to dichotomise memory and communication while romanticising digitisation as a revolutionary force brought from beyond the cultural landscape. Moreover, digital archiving destabilizes traditional divides between storing and sharing and creates new forms of memory through ‘distributed storage’.

During my research with diasporic Ghanaian families living in London and their digital archives, it was essential to put photos and videos in their wider context of transnational communication and new media. Rather than focusing on the content of the archive and working my way out, I started by exploring the choices of where and how to store photos, while illustrating how these choices emerge from existing socio-cultural understanding of family, photography and digital communication. Just as domestic cameras allowed Ghanaians to step out of photographic studios and document family festivities (Wendl, 1998), the arrival of digital communication meant Ghanaians in the diaspora could finally recreate their extended familial intimacy, which was threatened in the West.

Lets take Nana Mensah’s family FaceBook page as an example. Migrating to London from Ghana, in the mid 1980s, Nana says she did not pay “enough” attention to photos or genealogy in the past but after losing some elderly family members, including her father, she felt something must be done to keep the family together. She explains:

In Ghana we all used to live in one large household. Other family members lived nearby and gatherings were more frequent. We are now spread and struggle to squeeze everyone in our small British houses. We call them chicken coops.

For the Mensahs, family bonds are not simply kept for pleasure but are essential for the biological, financial and cultural systems around them. For example, Nana is planning to build a large block of flats on ancestral land in Ghana; the communal building will be equally divided between Mensah siblings or their descendants. The planned building symbolises a dream of return and reunion, a recreation of familial intimacy after transnational separation, but until everyone is geographically united, family ties must be preserved. How is this done?

Apart from annual family reunions, relatives meet at engagement parties, birthday celebrations, funerals and ‘naming’ of new-borns. However, these are only special occasions and throughout the year it is digital technologies that maintain transnational bonds.

Emails, Skype sessions and phone calls are not half as important as the archiving and sharing of photos. Four years ago Nana and her cousins opened a Facebook page titled: “Mensah Family Worldwide’. The page has 85 members and helped Nana meet relatives she never knew, who turn to her with questions on family history and genealogy. Announcements on reunions, funerals and weddings, as well as questions and stories about distant relatives, appear as wall posts. Photo albums from reunions are posted via the page, alongside pictures of family celebrations and funerals from across the world. The archive is a tool for communicating, updating and filling the absent/present gap (in oppose to remembering). This post, for example, shows how the page became a living archive of familial memories:

I recently got a text message and the sender wanted to know the location of Florence Mensah (her father was a police officer)… Kindly post all information here if you know Florence (Facebook page)

While the socially aware family archive aims to contribute to the keeping of ties through communicating text and photos, it also hopes to be a platform for the practising and documenting of oral culture. In fact, the first target of the page (as stated in its introduction) is to draw a detailed family tree that ‘will enable us to know and identify each other, acknowledge anniversaries, and provide the data for allocation of monies for funding education and health’ (FaceBook page).

Growing up with  vicar as a father, who also worked in the Colonial Civil Service, Nana absorbed many values on modernity that included ideas on photography and archiving. Like her cousins she sees oral culture from a Western perspective, as something to be archived/materialised. Family members record speeches and stories of elders during gatherings and upload the videos or transcriptions to the communal FaceBook archive. The last two surviving sons of the ‘first’  Mensah, are especially respected and considered a living repository of knowledge that must be materially documented before it is too late.

In my study I witnessed repeating dual relations towards oral traditions: Nana wishes her culture had been documented more but she also hopes storytelling will remain alive. Regarding future generations she says:

I believe the second generation will continue the tradition of oral culture but they will combine it with more documenting, probably less through writing and more through photos or videos.

The choice of archiving platform, as discussed, sets the tone of the archived material and reflects the approach towards it (Derrida, 1998). Storing photos in FaceBook, then, allows a communal experience with multiple participants, even more valued than one on one communication. The FaceBook family page, with its timeline, photos, videos and notes, plays a part in storing what is not yet lost; it negotiates the recording and practising of oral culture and maintains family ties that are vital for future reunions and financial support.

To recap, like the block of flats in Ghana or the crammed living room in England, FaceBook in its Ghanaian context is a place for being a family. As one of the keepers of the archive, Nana (and her co-administrators) becomes the conductor of global kinship, which she sees as a major responsibility. She shared a quote on the page saying: ‘Like branches on a tree, our lives may grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.’

Other families interviewed for this research used different digital platforms for similar goals;- building a digital family tree through MyHeritage, exchanging photos via Google or simply screening slideshows through a portable hard drive. The main point was that although in the Ghanaian case photos are perceived as objects of communication more so than objects of memory, this was not created by digitisation but existed in previous understanding of family, oral culture and photography.

The Art of Being Infrequent: Erratic Cultural Consumption and the Attachments of Taste

Ana Gross, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick


A number of years ago I conducted research amongst infrequent audiences to the Opera, Ballet and Theatre in London. I was working within the cultural policy arena, looking at identifying the dispositions, gestures and mechanisms which perpetuate infrequent and erratic patterns of attendance to such artforms. By that time, we were focusing the analysis on an understanding of cultural inequalities as being produced by qualitatively distinct social tastes. However, one could also explore such inequalities by trying to understand how they are being actively produced via the implementation of collective techniques, myths and ceremonies of pleasure (Hennion 2001), attachments which can contribute to explain from a micro perspective the quantitatively unequal exposure to culture across different social groups. In this brief piece I explore and hypothesize this approach while I also challenge Antoine Hennion’s notion of (positive) ways of attaching to artistic experiences by describing how certain (negative) arts consumption patterns can also produce erratic, less productive attendance.

I would like to start by arguing that infrequent arts attenders produce a different (and less productive) set of capabilities which actually enable them to configure and realize the value of cultural consumption, albeit inefficiently. I want to here explore how inequalities in the acquisition of cultural capital are not only produced by the (material, symbolical or social) impossibility or unwillingness to access certain types of artforms as a matter of taste, but also by the infrequent deployment of taste in a field in which better equipped and frequent attenders are possibly able to capitalize on culture in a much more effective and (what appears to be) natural and therefore un-normative way. I would like to somehow challenge the notion that the acquisition of cultural capital actually ‘happens’ in the sole act of consumption (in the encounter of well-adjusted habitus and certain fields), and claim instead that an array of mechanisms and devices (both material and immaterial) need to be operating in order for cultural consumption to actually convert into cultural capital, and for cultural experiences to be enacted as a naturally occurring phenomenon, that is, one worth of experiencing frequently.

While Pierre Bourdieu (1979) understands cultural practices in terms of social systems (or fields) and strategies of social distinction via the acquisition of cultural capital (mediated by habitus), Antoine Hennion acknowledges these structural determinants but is much more interested in their boundaries, and works towards understanding the arts consumer field of manoeuvre as opposed to seeing these consumer types as somehow passive victims of external determinants. Hennion considers arts consumers as fully aware of the structural (but productive) constraints they are subject to, and sees them as agents actively working with or against them (Looseley 2006). As a result my analysis seeks to explore and uncover taste as performance (Hennion 2007), always in the making and situated. While Bourdieu’s understanding of the process of reproduction is framed in terms of the different levels of economic, social and cultural capitals with which people act strategically on the basis of their habitus within different fields, the aim is to locate the same processes of reproduction on a different level. It is in Hennion’s pragmatics of taste, in the routines and rituals, the set of conditions likely to trigger and conjure up arts consumption as a pleasurable experience that I aim to understand the relatively reduced frequency of attendance of this particular audience group.

So I depart from the notion that there is not such a thing as a passive infrequent attender, but that infrequency is actively being produced and that ‘taste is not an attribute, it is not a property (of a thing or of a person), it is an activity.’ (Hennion, 2007, 101). The emergence of taste closely depends on its situations and material devices: time and space frames, rules, ways of doing things, recollections, etc. Far from revelling a purely natural or deterministic nature of infrequent attenders tastes, this model points to the importance of specific (individual and collective) attachments which produce infrequency as a particular mode of cultural consumption: I will categorize such forms of attachments as Experience and Normativity.

Experience refers to the recollection of past (possibly unique) attendances and the romantic disposition towards the live performance. It relates to the immediacy and intimacy apparently present in the performing arts which induce a certain state, as if live performance would allow attenders to make themselves sensitized in a different, more authentic and valuable way, whilst memories of first or past attendances seem to create a rite of passage and an ephemeral sedimentation of the pleasures of being lost, being taken away out of this world, or the sense of having a double life. The act of attendance is therefore not the end result of a passion for certain artform, but is a means for reaching certain states and means for suspending and intervening in the temporality of daily life, ‘concerts do not dispense music, they are performances, in the sense that they make something happen’ (Hennion 2001, 13). This form of attachment is what Hennion refers to as the secularization of the sublime, that is, ‘the gradual formation of a specific, highly sophisticated ability developed collectively to attain through music, in an orderly, non-self-indulgent, risky fashion, states of emotion and moments that are sublime’ (2001, 11). Immediacy however is not so easily accessible but paradoxical result of a lengthy, laborious and un-spontaneous sequence of mediations, mediations which can also limit or disrupt cultural consumption.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Father of Material Culture?

Christopher Pinney, UCL

Sherlock Holmes was many things: cocaine addict, violinist extraordinaire, expert on Ceylonese Buddhism, master consulting detective, and accomplished amateur boxer. He was also a published anthropologist of sorts having (as is revealed in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box [1889]) published two short articles on the outer morphology of the human ear in the Anthropological Journal. But was he also a pioneer in Material Culture?

The firmest evidence for this proposition comes from the first chapter of The Sign of Four (1888). Titled “The Science of Deduction” there is much here that lays the ground for Alfred Gell’s later elevation of the Peircean notion of “abduction” as a key element in his theory of a new anthropology of art (Gell was an ardent Sherlockian).  But it is here that Holmes also reveals that several of his “works” were in the process of being translated into French for publication. These included a volume titled Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccoes which detailed the visual appearance of 140 ashes of different cigar, cigarette and pipe tobaccos with the help of coloured plates. Visual signs and the ability to read them properly were crucial to Holmes’ new “exact science” one based first and foremost on rigorous observation. As he tells Watson: “To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s eye as there is between a cabbage and potato”.

Another work in translation described the “tracing of footprints, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.” This work was doubtless influenced by Notes and Queries in Anthropology’s pre-occupation with making transient indexical traces permanent with “paper squeezes” and other moulds, and was perhaps also inspired by the work of Gujarati pugees in identifying the movement – through footprints – of criminal tribes. There is an echo here of the “low common intuition” which Carlo Ginzburg suggests colonial practitioners such as W. J. Herschel appropriated when they took Bengali practices of “finger-tipping” and translated them into bureaucratically systematized regimes of finger-printing. Holmes’s pioneering work (including the Priory School narrative – see below) would also have a considerable amount of what, in our present bathetic age, we would term “impact” for it was the inspiration for George Whitty Gayer’s promotion of footprints in Indian police detective work. Gayer, an officer in the Central Indian Police published Footprints: An Aid to the Detection of Crime for the Police in Nagpur in 1909 and acknowledged Holmes’ pioneer work as an inspiration.

Perhaps of more interest from a Material Culture perspective is Holmes’ third monograph, which was also extensively illustrated, although he deprecated it as “a little work”. This examined the “influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of the slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers and diamond-polishers”. Holmes declared these “of great practical interest to the scientific detective” but Holmes’ investigations need to placed in the context of the occultism and palmistry which would shortly bear fruit in William John Warner’s popular Cheiro’s Langiage of the Hand (1894) a quasi-Theosophical echo  (Warner claimed to have studied with Brahman palmists in India) of Charles Bell’s The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833). Despite also being an Edinburgh surgeon Charles Bell was sadly only a remote relative of Joseph Bell who had taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh and who is conventionally credited with providing the lineaments for Holmes’ character and method. From the viewpoint of intellectual history we might see Holmes work as indebted to the two Bells. But equally we might see it as prefiguring what we now know as techniques du corps. It is but a small leap from Holmes’ concern with the manner in which different kinds of work, reflecting cultural practice, come to remodel the body, to the work of later anthropologists. What for Bell was a singular and natural hand becomes for Holmes – in anticipation of Mauss and Leroi-Gourhan’s technogenesis – a concern with the nature of cultural influences “upon the form of the hand” as Holmes puts it. The concern in other works is with hands in the plural, in their social determination.

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Rethinking material relations: Happiness, wellbeing, and alternative indicators

Haidy Geismar, UCL and NYU

In 2006, the New Economics Foundation (nef) published the Happy Planet Index, a quantification of the “happiness quotients” of the world’s nations which considered life expectancy, the experience of wellbeing and, most importantly, ecological footprint as indicators of happiness,  displacing the usual measure of happiness: GNP or ability to consume endlessly. Surprisingly (or not) the UK, US and Australia were placed amongst the unhappiest nations of the world, Vanuatu the small Melanesian country where I have done research over the past 12 years, came top. By the second edition, Vanuatu was no longer top (due to data collection problems rather than unhappiness) but a widespread move to devise alternative indicators of wellbeing and to institutionalize them was well underway.

The development of alternative indicators has increasingly reformulated consumption and emphasised not only environmental wellbeing as the basis of human wellbeing but has linked economic activity towards the continuation of meaningful cultural practices.  The material basis of contentment and happiness has increasingly been detached from commodity consumption, and embedded within (a much more anthropological understanding) of consumption as part of broader structures of meaningful and generative social interaction. It is this kind of push that allowed the Bolivians to award the natural environment the same rights as people (in terms of global human rights regimes) through the Law of Mother Earth and a similar move has been made to in Aotearoa New Zealand to recognize the rights of the Whanganui River.

This month, Vanuatu’s National Statistics Office released their official Well Being Survey, drawn from a two year research project to devise alternative measures of wellbeing, satisfaction and avenues for development. This is part of a global move to develop alternative indicators of societal wellbeing, as well as a very local initiative to think through issues of futuricity, development and the role that individual people and communities can play in determining their own welfare and wellbeing. This is all noted by Alicta Vuti, a representative of the Malvatumauri (the National Council of Chiefs) in his welcoming statement:

In July 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 65/309 titled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development”. The resolution states that happiness is a fundamental human goal and universal aspiration; that GDP by its nature does not reflect that goal; that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption impede sustainable development; and that a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance well-being and happiness.

In August 2011, the Conference on Happiness and Economic Development was organized by the Kingdom of Bhutan, hosted by Honorable Prime Minister Thinley and Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This resulted in the World Happiness Report presented in April of this year, 2012, at the first ever UN High Level Meeting on Well- being and Happiness in New York City. The report provides empirical evidence that happiness—as well as being a fundamental human goal—also contributes to greater productivity, better health, faster recovery from adversity, less risky lifestyle choices and more pro-social behavior. It adds up to a convincing argument for changing the governance agenda from one that focuses primarily on economic growth to one that takes all domains of well-being into consideration.

The Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs has completed a pilot study on well-being which measures happiness and considers variables that reflect Melanesian values. The three unique domains of well-being explored in the study—resource access, cultural practice, and community vitality—are intended to modify the existing progressive measures accepted internationally by governments and aid agencies in order to better track the factors that contribute to, specifically, ni-Vanuatu well-being.

The report can be downloaded here