Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Discursive Tai-Chi and Social Assemblages

These are a few notes on reading Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.

On pp.141-156, Latour (as professor) recounts a conversation between himself and a graduate student (click on link for the entire dialog); in which he pulls the negativist (in contrast to ‘positivist’) trick of simply negating any attempt at any positive constructive statement. The conversation goes on over more than 15 pages, but discursively consists of something like this:

Student: “So, by Actor-Network-Theory, do you mean X?”

Professor: “No, I do not mean X.”

Student: “So then, you mean Y?”

Professor: “No, I mean not-Y.”

Student: “So you do not mean X and you do not mean Y?”

Professor: “Yes.”

Student: “So what do you mean?”

Professor: “I just told you!”

Et cetera, et cetera, and so on forever. This is the argumentative equivalent to the martial arts of Tai-Chi or Aikiko, in which one (the Professor) never makes any positive statement and does not meet”force with force”, but rather uses a negative construction to deflect every attempt (by the student) to attempt to understand and construe that which is being talked about (ANT) in a positive way. This is very effective in defeating an attacking opponent (either in martial combat or discursive argumentation). But, it is also empty meaninglessness that brings nothing positive into the world (and in martial arts, is criticized for being purely defensive). As an exclusive, sole tactic, it is purely deconstructive, not constructive; uncreative (dis-creative? de-structive?), not creative.

If that is all there is to scholarship, ultimately, nobody isn’t talking about nothing, which makes for a rather boring, meaningless conversation; one that I lost interest in a long time ago… at least when done purely for its own sake. It is useful to be able to engage in this sort of emptying out of all meaningful signification, if one is engaged in deconstructing something such as a theory of race or system of sexism that really should be done away with altogether. But mere deconstruction, leaving nothing in its place is useless when creativity is called for (e.g. in creating public policy or put forward suggestions for ethical action in the world). Deconstruction alone is a belief in all yin and no yang.

To Latour’scredit, in this book, he is working toward a “reassembling” of the social; but the long interlude in the form of conversation in the middle of the book reminded me of too many annoying, pointless conversations I’ve had with “po-mo” professors and colleagues, who seem to think that deconstruction exclusively and for its owe sake is useful (or even more annoyingly, that it makes them look clever).

As for Latour and ANT, the main contribution of ANT is to afford agency to non-human actors (or ‘actants’ as Latour prefers). That is a rather useful contribution, especially for those who are interested in attending specifically to understand systems or “assemblages” involving both human and non-human elements/actors. Although, for myself, since I draw my own understandings or models for systems-theory from Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory of the Santa Fe Institutesort, and since most of the systems they deal with are non-human systems to begin with, there is nothing very surprising (or even all that interesting or original) in conceptualizing systems in which non-human things can be actors/agents. (Fully mapping out the parallels and divergences between Latour’s assemblages and CAS theory would take a lot more than a blog post!)

I also find Latour’s argument about “the social” very weak. He seems to setup a straw-man type argument by presenting the common sociological understanding of “the social” as a very vague sort of “context” (in his formulation, “the social” as used by sociologists becomes something of a Derrida-type ‘supplement’; a constitutive outside or context to positive constructs such as economics, law, politics, etc.). While it may often be used in such an undertheorized, weakly constructed way, I would not expect that is how most sociological theorists see it (I’m still trying to figure out what sociologists actually think “the social” is; Giddens’ “structuration” model, for example or Bourdieu’s “habitus” are more substantively defined than mere supplemental “context”).

Latour’ssubstitution of ANT as a means of tracing out ties or significant relationships of things (human and non-human) to identify “assemblages” is fine. But it does not strike me as necessarily substantially different from empirical systems theory. Except, perhaps, in that ANT (correctly) does not assume that the ties we trace will lead us to find a “system” (relationships exhibiting some degree of efficacy, regularity and persistence over time). However, CAS theory (for example) does not assume that either. In fact, CAS theory explicitly includes states (or relationships) of “chaos” which can be described mathematically (insofar as I understand the math involved) but do not produce systemic regularities. Complex adaptive systems are themselves defined as “far from equilibrium” systems that approach (are at the ‘edge of”), but do not become chaotic (i.e. they are not ‘purely random’ patterns).

A final question: From a social science point of view, such “chaotic” (non-systemic) assemblages may be of interest as descriptive histories, but if we are trying to understand power (for example) or efficacy, are not chaotic relational states defined by the absence of both? Isn’t power and efficacy (cause-and-effects), by definition, a systemic state in which outcomes are at least theoretically or probablistically predictable? Is it not just as incorrect to assume that all assemblages are not “systemic” as it is to assume that all relationships and assemblages are?

And, finally, just because I’m interested in studying and understanding systems does not mean that I assume everything is a system any more than just because I’m an anthropologist interested in studying humans means that I assume everything is a human being! It amazes me how often I encounter criticisms – of my work or of others – of the sort that would imply if you are doing systems theory (or any X theory) you are assuming everything is a system (or everything is X).

P.S. – After writing all this and ‘googling around’ the web for ‘social assemblages’… I came across A New Philosophy of Society by Manuel DeLanda. Skimming it for about 2 minutes, it looks like a good introduction to this whole idea of “social assemblages”. More lucid and ‘postively’ constructed than Latour’s Reassembling the Social.


May 29, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 1 Comment

The Brief Life of “Squeezy”

I squelched the brief life of an emergent signifier today.
I feel a bit bad about doing so, which perhaps inspires me to blog about it… and thus at the very least create an archival record of the brief life and death of the very evocative word: “squeezy”.

This word is one that I have noticed my son using for some time (not sure when it first entered into his vocabulary). In fact, I was not entirely clear what he meant when I first heard him use it (which in part is what brought it to the attention of my consciousness).

Today may be the beginning of the end for “squeezy”, however, as I authoritatively stepped in and eliminated it from his vocabulary by suggesting a “correct” alternative. Here is an account of the events:

The animals (of which there were about 18… in plastic toy form) were fighting the dinosaurs (who were bigger and stronger, but out numbered about 2-to-1). This was happening on the floor, in the middle of our family room (I was sitting to the side, marking exams, trying to keep out of the battle). The fight, according to my son, was taking place in the middle of the road, making the road “squeezy” and nearly impassible to some of his larger (toy) busses and cars. He proceeded to demonstrate (“look daddy, look daddy”) how the road became more and more squeezy as the animals and dinosaurs closed in on one another in close combat.

A Very Squeezy Situation

A Very Squeezy Situation

At this point, I stepped in to explain that the word he wanted was “narrow”… the road was “narrow” not “squeezy”. He took a few moments, contemplating this, then smiled, moving the dinosaurs and animals yet closer together. “Look daddy, it’s more narrower!”

Children are a wonderful agents in the production of linguistic (and more broadly cultural) diversity. It is a bit sad that we have to constantly reign in their creative energies – in order that linguistic complexity not devolve in to sheer chaos.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | , , | 2 Comments

Wiki Wiki Boom Boom

I don’t know what the title of this post means…
Just a rhythm bouncing around in my head…

Here is what this post is about:
I have now finished two semesters using wiki as a platform for participatory learning. It has been a booming success.

The last time I updated my thoughts and experiences on Day 18 of the Wiki Experiment. It is now about day 180. And it may be day 1800 before I update again. I hope no one out there is holding their breath for my posts.

In the first semester of this 2008-2009 academic year, I used wiki for SC2218: Anthropology and the Human Condition (an undergraduate, introduction to anthropology course with an enrollment of 68 students) and SC6214: Gender, Culture and Society (a graduate seminar with an enrollment of 10).

In the second semester, just completed, I used wiki for SC2220: Gender Studies (an undergraduate, introduction to gender studies course with an enrollment of 145 students).

While all of the wiki “experiments” were useful and successful (IMHO), I’ve been most impressed by the amazing work and outcomes of the most recent wiki; in part because I built on some things I learned in the first semester.

The main benefits of the wiki medium were:

1. Students contributed very substantially to the course content.They brought into the course, via the wiki all manner of valuable, thought-provoking, useful and even hilarious (but relevant) material – from book reviews to current news items to YouTube videos to songs to you-name-it. For a small sample, take a look at the page of my favorite things on the SC2220: Gender Studies wiki. As the instructor, I learned about all manner of things – from a documentary on the “Sworn Virgins of Albania” to latest findings in primatology to “the mom song” (hilarious, check it out), which I did not know about and might never have stumbled across. Those are just a very few of the great items contributed. Just as great is the commentary and discussion of these by the students who posted them as well as replies by other students. And in some cases, insightful valuable contributions were not references to external sources and materials, but reflections and commentary by students themselves, on such topics as Islam and Gender (started as a discussion thread by one student, then re-created as a ‘page’ by another) and on Islam, Gender and Culture, contributed by Muslim students in the course.

2. The Wiki provided a window into students’ thoughts, perspectives and understandings.The basic format of large lecture classes at NUS (with 100, 150, 200 or more students) is a two-hour lecture once a week supplemented by two-hour “discussion group” (or “tutorial”) sessions every other week. The “small groups” in tutorials are made up of 25 students. Attempts at discussion in tutorials are often met with long stretches of painfully awkward silence and more often than not when discussion does get going, it is dominated by a few students. I’ve used all kinds of techniques to try to overcome the deficits of this format, but the bottom line is my access to what the students are really thinking and understanding about the course material is extremely limited. With the wiki, my knowledge about the students’ understandings and ideas was radically transformed and multiplied many fold. As an educator, this is invaluable in allowing me to speak much more directly to the students. It allows me to engage with the issues they care about and identify their concerns and important points of course content that may be misunderstood.

3. The Wiki inspired peer-to-peer learning. Ok, I have little or no direct evidence of this (other than the engaged, back-and-forth discussion in the wiki!), but I can’t imagine that if I as the instructor learned a lot that the students did not learn just as much if not more from each other. This harnesses the network effects that Mike Wesch discusses in his Portal to Media Literacy lecture (it is fairly far into the video/lecture; but there is a very nice discussion with diagrams of the network structure of classroom learning; watch from min.42-45).

4. The Wiki make “participation” far more transparent.In so far as part of my job as a university professor is to  evaluate the students (that’s why we give grades and write letters of recommendation), the wiki is very valuable in making students’ contributions far more obvious and accessible. Part of the built-in architecture of the Wetpaint wiki platform that I’ve used includes a list of “members” each of whom has her own pages, listing (among other things) all of the contributions she has made to the Wiki. It provides a quick quantitative overview (number of page edits; number of discussion thread contributions; number of words and other material added!). More over, the list of each students contributions is hyperlinked, connecting me directly to those contributions. When it comes to the evaluative stage of the course (not my favorite part of teaching!), I can very quickly access everything each student has done on the wiki and quickly browse/read through all their contributions – student-by-student. This is much, much easier and more accurate (IMHO) than trying to take notes or recall the flow of discussion participation in the 25-student tutorial sessions.

5. The Wiki provides great participatory flexibility.With the wiki, students (and teachers) can “participate” in the course any time day or night (if they are online or have access to an internet connection). This is an obvious but important value of the wiki. For students, if they have a brilliant idea or comment 10 minutes after a class or tutorial session ends, in the traditional format (classroom attendance) it is difficult if not impossible to make that contribution. With the wiki – no problem. They can post their ideas any time. Also, the wiki provides much more space (and time) for students (and teachers) to develop their ideas more fully than a rushed classroom session.

So, those are some of the things that made use of wikis a great success in my opinion over the past two semesters using them. It was also very rewarding, in that I felt like I got to know the students in my classes (especially the large classes) better than I ever had in the past. Our “mass education” system is not only alienating to students but to professors as well. Most of us cringe at the large lecture structure, which inspires pontificating to the masses but not interactive (Socratic?) teaching-and-learning. It is also deeply depersonalizing to stand in front of a hundred or two-hundred students (who of course, all insist on sitting way, way in the back, up by the rafters!).

That’s all for this post. I plan to write more soon about what worked and what didn’t… when I have time (this week, I hope, but as I said, don’t hold your breath!)

Wiki Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Boom Boom

Has a nice rhythm to it… don’t you think? 🙂

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Teaching | 2 Comments

Mapping Global Connectness… From the Source

So, within 48 hours or so of my previous post on small world syndrome, I get a message from Andy Nelson who is one of the main authors of this work. Thanks Andy! This is certainly evidence that global connectedness is for real. (As far as I can tell, he is based in Europe; and I’m in Singapore).

As a public service, here are the links he sent me:

Time Travel to Major Cities: A Global Map of Accessibility
This is the original map, research and related papers. This should be of great interest and value to all of us who do serious research on globalization. Even if you don’t, you’ll likely be fascinated by the pretty maps and pictures… really, worth a look.

Also, a radio program discussion of the global accessibility map.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | Leave a comment

Everywhere (Almost) is 48 Hours Away

The BBC reported this morning (Singapore time) on research by mapping transportation interconnections in the world. Almost all of the earth is accessible within 48 hours (less than 10% of the Earth is not).

We all know this. In the social sciences, this is taken as an important “social fact” with important consequences. In fact this map of connectedness, demonstrates that this is not simply a social fact (in the Durkheimian sense). This particular mapping of that social fact and social reality is worth considering in some detail.

I’m very frustrated, because I am unable to find the BBC report that I heard! (Spent a good hour or more searching the BBC WorldService website for it… if anyone can find it, please let me know!)

The interviewer said something like, “If you can get anywhere on Earth within 48 hours, it’s very hard to say that you are an explorer.” Reflecting – in a different register – the theory that ‘we don’t need anthropologists’ because there are no more ‘primitive’ (remote) peoples. Of course anthropologists know this is nonsense; that anthropology is not “the study of primitive people.” But that is how our discipline is still percieved (and many of us still feed that myth in various ways).

There is really too much on could say about this map and the “small earth” syndrome it demonstrates. So a few points:

1. These maps have incredible potential in the context of teaching/demonstrating this social fact. Beyond that, they have great potential for us as researchers (in anthropology, geography and related disciplines) to imagine our research agendas and projects.

2. One respect in which I am interested in the map and its implications regards my own research on cultural theory. It may be very useful in thinking about culture and cultural diversity. I have made the point before (somewhere in writing… forget where at the moment!) that cultural diversity, at least in the (very limited) way we generally concieve of it, is primarily a product of geographic isolation (just as ‘racial’ difference is; but culture changes at a much more rapid rate… thus, far more diverse than our genetic make-up). What does all this mean for cultural diversity? I believe it forces us to rethink both what we mean by culture in general and cultural diversity (cf. Wesch on YouTube). 

3. This map (the data and methodology behind it) could be used to produce a “remoteness index”. It would be a empirically grounded way to think about all these vague notions of ‘global flows’ and such we are all keen to talk about. I imagine a project to construct such an index such as the following: For any point on the map, one could produce a set of other points (maybe n = 10?), then measure the average proximity from those 10 points. This would produce a “global proximity index” (or remoteness index; whichever one wants to call it). How would this be useful? It would demonstrate the global, networked interconnections of humanity. It would also provide substantial findings to consider in how we think about what places are truely “remote” and central/peripheral in the world today. (It reflects a recent discussion at a seminar here, where a colleague was talking about “working from the periphery” here in Singapore… I – only half-jokingly – said, “you should try living in Kansas, where I grew up… relatively speaking, Singapore is not a peripheral site!” The point being: working with this map in a form of a “global proximity index” would provide at least one method for actually addressing the question: Which is more “peripheral” in our global society, Singapore or Kansas? (Yes, of course, there is much more to it than mere transportation networks; still such an index might push us to consider more seriously what we mean by center/periphery relationships.)

4. The methodology of the map itself raises major questions. In fact, what the researchers have done is to measure “time to nearest population center of more than 50,000” (hmmm… Manhattan, Kansas almost counts as one of those!). The time measures are based on several factors of ground/surface transportation: roadwaysrail connections, shipping laneswaterways, and topography. They exclude air transportation from their mapping! (Assuming that when you reach an urban center of 50,000 population, one can then easily fly to anywhere? Haha, not from Manhattan! Though one can fly to Kansas City from there.) Nevertheless, the map they have constructed is very impressive and valuable. “They” are apparently the EU’s Joint Research Centre; but I can’t find any of this on their website at the moment!

At the very least, this research is interesting enough, it gave me reason to blog again. 🙂

P.S. – In case anyone missed it; I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas. Which is, of course, the center of the universe.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 2 Comments

Persistently Non-Political

A friend from the United States emailed yesterday and asked, among other things, if I had any thoughts on introducing for classroom teaching issues related to the current elections over on that side of the world. She is teaching an intro to anthropology course (as I am) and as she put it, wants the students to engage in discussion of these things, but to introduce it in a non-partisan way. I don’t think I have much advice for her, but at least it is a way to introduce this blog entry…

I woke up this morning again to more US election nonsense on the BBC. Last week it was the nonsense about unwed teenage pregnancy (yes, that should be nobody’s business – except as Bill O’Reily legitimately points out, if the public is expected to pay for it (for the source of this see link to ‘gross hypocrisy’ below) and/or, as I would point out, insofar as it should be “exhibit A”” that “abstinence only sex education” espoused as policy for all American children DOES NOT WORK… furthermore, the issue in this regard is NOT so much pregnancy and abortion as it is the public health issue of sexually transmitted diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS… but I digress). This week the important issue is nonsense about porcine cosmetics and the deep sexism espoused by America’s number one uppity Negro. Given that these are the issues, it is a good thing that this campaign is not about issues.

I think my friend who lives on the left-hand coast of the United States has the same dilemma I have (her in the classroom; I with this blog). We both have this elections on our mind because it is daily fare in the media of our lives. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, in my own estimation, to have lived the majority of my adult life outside of America, and thus largely immune to the gross hypocrisy and unending nonsense of American politics. But every four years, like a plague of locusts, America’s silly season becomes difficult to avoid.

It is obvious from the posts in this blog that things going on in America’s election cycle are a point of reference for things I think about. But following one of the bright lights of social commentary here in Singapore, I want to assure and assert that this is and will remain a persistently non-political blog. To anyone reading what I have posted to date, it should not be too difficult to figure out where my general political sympathies lie in the American scheme of things. But I really want this blog to be about matters more related to teaching and research; and really do not want this to become a space for political rants.

That said, I certainly think that current affairs are an important subject matter to draw on in teaching about culture and society. How one does this, without being sucked into deeply divisive partisanship, I’m not so sure.

Hmmm… that all is just the tiniest fraction of thoughts gnawing at my mind this morning. But, I’m going to leave it at that for this post.

September 11, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks | | 1 Comment

Culture’s Deep Currents

Culture involves deep currents of symbolic meaning. One imporant point in learning and understanding how culture operates is that anything we say, anyway in which we communicate with others, is bound up in these systems of meaning. They enable our communication; but they also constrain what we can say because we have to operate within the system as given (the system changes, but we cannot change it by fiat; rather only through discourse – which no single person ‘controls’). Symbolic complexity is also the basis for mis-communication and ambiguity. Here is my latest example (in a political rant sent to a couple friends; the main point here is in the last paragraph):

“I don’t want to be mean, but, let me put it this way…
Obama and Bidden are running against a crotchety old Vietnam-war vet whose running mate is a clueless beauty queen with a knocked-up teenage daughter.
Can the Democrats seriously lose this year?
That’s all I could think of when I woke up to the latest on the Sarah Palin fiasco this morning.
I know that portrayal is deeply unfair to McCain-Palin (even if I am not a fan of their politics). But that seems to be the ‘archetype’ or stereotype of Americana that they seem to be falling into (just as Obama has had to prove to white folks that he is King and not Malcom… the other night, he did that in spades – to use a deeply inappropriate metaphor).
Why does so much of the English language have to be so complexly interwoven with the tragic history of racism? For example, the other day as I was watching Barack give his speech, right at the end when the confetti was exploding all over the stage, my five-year old daughter came in. She looked at the tv and asked “who won”? (It DID look like a sporting event, after all.) I laughed and told her “Barack Obama” – pointing him out on the screen. We had a fairly long Q-and-A session about this (of the sort one has with a five year old… her endless stream of questions; my fruitless attempts to find answers that do not lead to another “Why?”). In the course of this, she found “Barack Obama” to be a completely incomprehensible tongue-twister. In the course of the Q-and-A, she finally settled on a moniker for our soon to be President of the United States of America… “Barry Banana” (closest word she knows to “Obama”). I think it is great – utterly hiliarious. Plus, she thinks “Barry Banana” is really wonderful. But then, there is a little nagging voice in the back of my mind remembering ugly episodes involving banana peels tossed and waved at black athletes when I was a little boy growing up in Kansas. And I fret that anyone hearing my daughter and I joking around about “Barry Banana” will take this totally, totally the wrong way. Grrrrr… can’t we all get over it and once and for all relegate racist bullshit to the dustbin of history? Sigh.”

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks, Teaching | | Leave a comment

Wiki Experiment… Day 18

It is now about 18 days since the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki went live. We have also now completed three weeks of the semester at NUS. I’m very encouraged – delighted, to be honest – with the results of this “experiment” in participatory learning so far. The Wiki format is bringing forth lots of thoughtful engagement with the topics and ideas in the course. Still early days… but bravo to all you brave souls who have gotten on early and boldly gone where no NUS students have gone before…

That said, a few reflections on using the Wiki, getting it going, and keeping it active…

THE FEAR OF WIKI… We met with the first two small-group discussion sections this week. It is clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty – and anxiety – surrounding the Wiki. What exactly are we supposed to DO with this thing? What exactly is required of us? I’ve created a page on the Wiki to try to allay some of these fears and calm nerves. But ultimately I believe all of this will be resolved in the end (and only) by participants – students – getting on the Wiki and working with it. The goal, expectation, hope is that this will be a transformative experience and the 70 or so participants in the course who started with little or no idea what a Wiki is let alone how to edit and create one will become saavy consumers and producers of this form of Internet-mediated communication.

MAKING THE LEAP, from discussion, blogging, chatting, and so forth to Wiki… So far, participants have added much more content to the discussion threads on the Wiki than to the main Wiki pages. As one of our participants in discussion sections today pointed out, the discussion thread area feels much less intimidating than contributing to Wiki pages. It is a space where participants feel more at ease commenting and expressing their take on things. So why Wiki at all? Because as pointed out in the same discussion, information is easily lost and hard to find in discussion threads. And the threads themselves are hard to follow. Wiki’s are set up to present a more concise, accessible – dare we say authoritative? – presentation of ideas, information or whatever.

FRAMING AND INCENTIVES… If you troll around various Wiki’s and similar media (like discussion forums), the fact is that most are the creation of a very small number or even just one dedicated individual. (Take a look at members and their contributions on Wetpaint wiki’s for example – often it is just one person adding substantial content.) Nothing wrong with that. But part of the power of the Wiki comes in harnessing the power and participation of as many members as possible. Moreover, for a course Wiki, my goal is for all the students to learn the Wiki format itself. To me, the best way to do this is to recognized that participation (time spent; blood, sweat and tears shed) by making it part of the graded evaluation. The cynical teachers out there (and I’m one of them sometimes) will bemoan the fact that ‘students never do anything except for a grade’. But turn that around a bit: As mentioned, the grading component gives recognition to this being an important part of what the students do in the course. In addition, students at NUS have lots of classes (five generally) with lots of instructors asking them to do lots of assignments all semester long. Is it fair to ask them to step up and “voluntarily” contribute to something like a Wiki… then moan and complain when they don’t?

FORM (FORMATTING) MATTERS… As one of the teaching assistants in the class emphasized, it is important to pay attention to formatting – and generally how the pages look – as well as the content. Formatting matters in terms of how accessible the material is. And let’s face it, plain old visual appeal makes a difference (at least one participant has said they think the Anthropology wiki background graphic is rather ugly… probably true… it seemed the best choice of those available at the time so leaving it for now… perhaps the class wants to find a better, more appealing one?… But, I digress.) The point is that attention needs to be given to formatting – including recognizing and rewarding that as part of “participating” in a course Wiki like this.

All for now… stay tuned to see how things evolve… or better yet, join us on the Wiki 🙂

August 30, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | , | 8 Comments

Society Reconsidered…

(Note: I’m cross posting this here and on the Sociology blog Singapore)

 “Understanding Singapore solely in terms of its citizen population is an unwarranted sociological fiction.”

 A couple days ago, I got back a first round of edits to proof for book chapter coauthored by myself and Zhang Juan (who completed her MA at NUS a couple years ago and is now doing a PhD based in Australia).

The chapter is: “Navigating Transnationalism: Immigration and Reconfigured Ethnicity” In: Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, Bridget Welsh, James Chin, Arun Mahiznan, and Tan Tarn How, eds. Singapore: NUS Press (forthcoming, January 2009)

The quote above, from the chapter, reflects one reason why I think Singapore is a great place from which to do sociology (and anthropology) and thinking about society and culture generally.

Last time I looked (admittedly, about 5 years ago now) I came across statements in introductions to Sociology describing different levels of society, in which “the nation” was described as the highest level or largest form of social organization. IMHO, this is an untenable, deeply culture-bound theory of “society”.

That idea comes from Euro-American folk-theories of “nation”.

If we understand “society” to be defined by “social relationships” (relationships of reciprocity, exchange, interaction, etc.) then I would contend that any attempt to understand “society” in the context of Singapore will be extraordinarily incomplete if defined by the territorial borders of Singapore-as-nation-state.

The challenge (and opportunity) of doing sociology in Singapore (as our place/position from which to think about the world) is that this and many other sociological constructs developed in Europe and America do not fit the context we live in. Understanding Singapore also means that we need to think seriously about some common, oft-repeated, yet questionnable cliches about Singapore. For example, that “Singapore does not have a hinterland”. If by a hinterland, we mean those places outside of urban areas on which cities depend for labor and commerce, then this cliche is simply not accurate. Rather, the interesting point is that Singapore’s hinterland lies beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state (and it is worth thinking seriously about all the consequences this entails). Of course, I’m far from the first to think about this – many social researchers in FASS @ NUS have been addressing this and similar issues for sometime. But the idea remains a common one in Singapore generally (e.g. in some great discussion on the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki).

The point of raising this in the Sociology blog Singapore is to challenge all of us doing sociology and anthropology in Singapore to use our research to challenge (and we hope improve on) traditional sociological concepts – not just adopt them and try to squeeze the social realities of Singapore and Asia more generally into them.  (Yes – this means you, our intrepid grad students 🙂 ).

FYI a draft of the chapter is attached (that is if I can get the linking function to work…). (But later, please go out and buy the book!)

Navigating Transnationalism

August 23, 2008 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , | 1 Comment

Collaborating, Competing and Grades

“Pamanthropolgist” (another blogger) raised the question of how to assign grades for a collaborative project (like the Wiki). The problem is that on the one hand we want to encourage students to learn how to work cooperatively on projects. But the entire structure of the university (schools in general) is based on individual competition, expressed in terms of individual grades. So how to deal with this? (I was going to just reply to the comment, but this deserves a post of its own.)

This is always a difficult question – how to assign grades (credit) for a collaborative project. In the past, I’ve always had the students submit an evaluation of their own contributions and those of group members. They hate this. I’ve even been accused of being “unethical” (believe it or not) by one student who said that it was my job as instructor to give grades and unfair (unethical, in her words) to make students do it. Since then I’ve always been clear that I am the one assigning grades and that their evaluation forms are for me to get feedback on what goes on in the group. (In fact this has always been true, I’ve never assigned grades simply on student self-evaluations; rather they provide important inputs in the process.) I obviously can’t be present to see what every group is doing all the time (who is contributing and who is not). Mike Wesch has noted that he tried to use a group ‘self-grading’ system, but had to abandon (or change it) because students weren’t willing to grade down a popular but under-performing group member. (This is mentioned either in his blog or one of his online lectures… forget which).

In theory, the Wiki should make assigning grades easier. The contributions of every member of the wiki can be viewed by clicking on their profile. I did a fair amount of research on the web, trolling through education and course related Wiki’s before deciding to go ahead with a Wiki for SC2218. There seemed something of a consensus that the transparency of the Wiki (knowing exactly who contributed what) made assigning credit easier (compared to older formats for group projects). The downside (complaint) of some students is that the architecture of the Wiki seems to favor quantity over quality – specifically, the built in Wetpaint feature (the platform I’m using), which highlights those members who contribute the most (their picture appears in the “top contributors” sidebar; with the size weighted to the number of page edits). In my syllabus, I make clear that quality and cooperation will be given greater weight than quantity (though, quantity still counts to some degree – one really excellent post alone will unlikely be enough to get an exceptionally high grade for participating on the Wiki). On a member’s profile, one can see exactly what that person contributed and read through those contributions – this of course takes more time than just looking at the number of contributions. But with just a bit more effort one can see the quality of contributions not just their quantity.

The very simple answer to how we (I and my two teaching assistants) will be grading the Wiki is that 10% of the over all grade for the course will be based on participation on the Wiki. Students are assigned to contribute to certain parts of the Wiki (NUS has an internal “IVLE”… Integrated Virtual Learning Environment… system through which students will be automatically assigned to one of five “Wiki Groups”). So first, we will be looking to see that they have contributed to those pages and that the pages for their group are of good quality (in that sense there still is a “group” component). Next, we will be looking at their overall contributions beyond the pages assigned to their group. The 10% Wiki component of their grad will be based on that.

There is also a group project that they will be doing (won’t go into the details here). That will also be Wiki-mediated. Again this should make it somewhat more transparent who is contributing what. This helps to solve the problem of “slackers” getting lots of credit for other people’s work. But at the same time, this is still a group project and collaboration will be important. We are not going to look favorably on group members who appear to be trying to monopolize all the credit for their group project by trying to do everything themselves without collaborating with their peers (we don’t want to reward ‘kiasu’ behavior… Singaporeans know what I mean!).

All that said, I’m not going to hide the fact that this is the first time I am running the class with a Wiki platform. So although I’ve read enough and looked at enough examples to have some idea of what to expect, I’m sure some things will need to be worked out as this project proceeds.

August 13, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | , , | 4 Comments