Tuesday, March 26, 2013

(the social layers)

Recently I argued that college students are learning and writing in a mind-boggling range of genres, including electronic genres, and that these include "an increasing number of social layers on top of their work, leisure, and family genres." True. But let's drill deeper into this notion of social layers.

What social layers? Consider this experience, which I reported to someone earlier today in an email:

When I was working on my PhD (1994-1999), we knew almost nothing about grad students in other programs. We would see them once a year, at CCCC, and we would eye them like the Jets eyed the Sharks. They were competitors. Now, grad students in different programs are all Facebook and Twitter friends. 
The difference is that social networking made it a lot easier for people to network with each other—networking became cheaper, easier, and more quotidian. Collaborative writing software such as Google Docs has similarly lowered the barrier to scholarly collaboration across time and distance. And mobile phones have meant a terminal in your pocket—collaboration can happen anywhere. So we see a shift from closed, institutional structures to open, networked ones. This change is happening in academia, of course (we’re prime candidates for using these technologies), but also in most other aspects of our society.
Social networking provides a social layer that connects today's grad students, both within their own institution and across institutions. Other publicly available online services such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Facebook allow teams to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate easily—once again, both within an organization and across organizational barriers. In fact, we're seeing an increasing number of studies examining how these additional layers affect work. These change how we work, but also how we intuit each other's moods and availability, how we see each other's contextual activity, and how we manage collaborative complexity. They even change how we structure our organizations, making it feasible to make them smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more distributed. They provide an always-on switchboard for working groups.

That doesn't mean that this social layer is unproblematic. It can be very problematic. But it's pervasive, and it's going to continue to have a big impact on how we do business.

Reading :: The Invention of Primitive Society

The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion
By Adam Kuper

"This book is a history of the ways in which anthropologists have thought about primitive society," Adam Kuper declares on p.1 of this book. Kuper argues that, although the study of primitive society in the late 19th century and beyond tended to invoke Darwin, it was actually Lamarckian in its interpretation: Darwinism doesn't imply any sort of progress, but Lamarckian ideas of evolution do. And early anthropologists seized on the notion that societies were progressing, more or less universally, from one state to another (p.2).

Indeed, Kuper argues, Europeans looked around at their society in the late 19th century and saw fundamental transformations from the familiar "traditional society" to the "new world" (industrialism, capitalism, bureaucracy). And "behind this 'traditional society' they discerned a primitive or primeval society," Kuper tells us (p.4). But
in practice primitive society proved to be their own society (as they understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. For them modern society was defined above all by the territorial state, the monogamous family and private property. Primitive society therefore must have been nomadic, ordered by blood ties, sexually promiscuous and communist. There also had been a progression in mentality. Primitive man was illogical and given to magic. In time he had developed more sophisticated religious ideas. Modern man, however, had invented science. Like their most reflective contemporaries, in short, the pioneer anthropologists believed that their own was an age of massive transition. They looked back in order to understand the nature of the present, on the assumption that modern society had evolved from its antithesis. (p.5)
By the end of the 1800s, most anthropologists believed that

  1. "The most primitive societies were ordered on the basis of kinship relations." (p.6)
  2. "Their kinship organization was based on descent groups." (p.6)
  3. "These descent groups were exogamous and were related by a series of marriage exchanges." (p.6)
  4. "These primeval institutions were preserved in fossil form," i.e., if one were to find a relatively untouched society in a remote place, their society could be taken to represent ancient societies that predated the state. (p.7)
  5. "with the development of private property, the descent groups withered away and a territorial state emerged." (p.7)

He adds:
But hardly any anthropologist alive today would accept that this classic account of primitive society could be sustained. On the contrary, the orthodox modern view is that there never was such a thing as "primitive society." Certainly no such thing could be reconstructed now.  ... Human societies cannot be traced back to a single point of origin, and there is no way of reconstituting prehistoric social forms, classifying them, and aligning them to a time series. There are no fossils of social organization. (p.7)
Nor could it be generalized. Even "surviving hunter-gatherers certainly do not conform to a single organizational type" (p.7). He further argues that ecological variations affect social organization, so "there must have been considerable differences in social structure between the earliest human societies" (pp.7-8).

He concludes: "The theory of primitive society is on a par with the history of the theory of aether. The theory of primitive society is about something which does not and never has existed" (p.8).

The rest of the book is Kuper's attempt to examine how the theory of primitive society developed, how it spread, and why it persists (p.8). Throughout the book, he describes the history of this theory in anthropology, examining its persistence through patriarchal theory (Ch.2), Lewis Henry Morgan's notions of ancient society (Ch.3), totemism (Ch.4-5), taboo (Ch.6), the Boasians (Ch.7), Rivers and his critics (Ch.8-9), and descent theory (Ch.10). I'm often interested in these sorts of metatheoretical histories, so I found the discussion riveting, especially since it put many of my anthropological readings in relation to each other and to a shared timeline.

Let's close with one intriguing passage. In Ch.6, "Totemism and Taboo," Kuper examines Durkheim's impact, especially his evolutionism, which "owed much to Spencer and nothing to Darwin." And:
Spencer believed that all societies shared a common point of origin. Moreover, the original institutional forms were never lost, but were simply recombined in various, more complex, new forms. (This was a form of social Lamarckism. ...) Durkheim further concluded from these premises that institutions could be most easily understood in their simplest, original form, and that if they were studied in a primitive state their relations with other institutions would be most readily apparent. (p.114).
 A thought-provoking book, well written and with a broad sweep. I'm still processing it. If you're interested in anthropology, societies, or societal organization, take a look.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reading :: What Kinship is—and is Not

What Kinship Is—And Is Not
By Marshall Sahlins

Recently I asked an anthropologist friend for some recommendations on anthropology readings about kinship. Among other books, he recommended this one, which I promptly bought and read. And I'm glad I did. Sahlins elegantly argues for an understanding of kinship based not on bloodlines, but on culture.

In the Preface, he summarizes the argument: "The specific quality of kinship, I argue, is 'mutuality of being': kinfolk are persons who participate intrinsically in each others' existence; they are members of one another." And "kinship categories are not representations or metaphorical extensions of birth relations; if anything, birth is a metaphor of kinship relations."

This might be a surprising conclusion for people who have read older anthropological works on kinship. (Newer works have largely turned to other concerns, or so my anthropologist friend tells me.) In the early 20th century, the first thing an anthropologist would do was to conduct a census to understand kinship relations; ethnographies in the 1930s focused on kinship, bloodlines, endogamy and exogamy, tribes and moieties. But Sahlins argues that "kinship is not given at birth as such, since human birth is not a pre-discursive fact. A whole series of persons may be bodily instantiated in the newborn child, including lineage and clan ancestors, while even the woman who gave birth is excluded." And "it is not even inevitable that the kinship of procreation is essentially different from relationships created postnatally. Kinship fashioned sociologically may be the same in substance as kinship figured genealogically, made of the same stuff transmitted in procreation"—and here follows a set of examples from various cultures, including "commensality, sharing food, reincarnation, co-residence, shared memories, working together, blood brotherhood, adoption, friendship, shared suffering, and so on." Such "performative modes of kinship" are "predicated on particular cultural logics of relatedness."

Sahlins draws on a wide range of examples from various studies to illustrate, demonstrating that performative forms of kinship (ex: fictive kinship) are just as much kinship as biological kinship. He believes that "kinship could very well be an inherent human possibility," given our "generic symbolic capacity." "Kinship may be a universal possibility in nature, but by the same symbolic token as codified in language and custom, it is always a cultural particularity."

This book cleared up a lot of question marks about kinship for me. Sahlins elegantly and parsimoniously argues for a definition of kinship that encompasses blood relations, fictive kinship, and other sorts of relations. Most importantly from my perspective, Sahlins' definition encompasses the kinship definitions of the studied cultures themselves: it doesn't draw separations between things that the cultures treat as whole phenomena. To put it bluntly, if Culture A allows someone to be spliced into a family as a full member, why should an anthropologist impose a framework of "fictive kinship"?

Great book. And short. Give it a read if you're interested in the phenomenon of kinship.

Reading :: Collaboration

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results
By Morten Hansen

Collaboration is a business book based on Hansen's scholarly work in reaching and understanding teams, conducted during his Ph.D. (Stanford) and his professorship (Harvard Business School). His question: "What is the difference between good and bad collaboration?"

Bad collaboration, he tells us in Chapter 1, is "collaboration characterized by high friction and a poor focus on results." In contrast, he focuses on effective, disciplined companywide collaboration (not, he hastens to add, collaboration outside a company). And "disciplined collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required." Furthermore, disciplined collaboration makes it possible to "have it both ways—performance from decentralized work and performance from collaborative work."

Throughout the book, Hansen walks through the dos and don'ts of collaboration, pitched to leaders in large companies. It's a solid book, full of not just advice but also matrices and structured worksheets. I imagine it would be very helpful for those readers.