Author Archive

December 5, 2010

“Knowing” in art, design and science

by johnmccreery

From a thread on Savage Minds in which the voles might be interested

From Jon Kolko ( )
Design typically utilizes a form of applied anthropology – I’ll take “bastardized”, if you’ll give me the time of day as a result of the compromise – to understand a problem with sufficient depth to move forward. It’s part of a larger process of abductive reasoning, where an intuitive leap based on “just enough data” allows for forward motion.
Design is not Science, and it’s not Art.

From McCreery

Jon, would it make sense to you to suggest that “knowing” varies from subjective conviction, sufficient for the Artist, to public verification, demanded by science and courts of law at whatever level is taken to count as beyond reasonable doubt, with design falling between these extremes. Practically speaking the issue is when certainty reaches a level sufficient to drive action.
The artist is free to be inspired and proceed however he or she wants; the feedback that will determine the ultimate status of the work, as masterpiece or forgotten in history’s dustbin will be relatively slow. Indeed, in some cases, the artist may be long dead before the value of the work is recognized.
The designer works to order and combines inspiration with immediate feedback from clients whose wishes must be respected if not always obeyed. And when designs go into production the public response is fairly rapid.
The scientist’s inspiration leads to methodical research whose methods and results must then be exposed to the scientist’s peers for verification. The results may then be further confirmed by application in development of new and, sometimes, radically world-changing technology.

This latter point marks the difference between science and the bulk of sound humanistic scholarship. The humanist also writes for peers who will question his or her methods and results. In the humanities, however, truly world-changing ideas are rare. The humanist’s ideas are only effective in changing the world in so far as they lead to the mobilization, energizing and organization of political movements. Most of what now counts as anthropological research is not in this category.

November 15, 2010

How would you describe…

by johnmccreery

someone who said, “What’s a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn like me doing singing a mass in Japanese at the Vatican”? If this were all you knew about him?

October 28, 2010

On the light side

by johnmccreery

Just what the title says. Follow the link.

October 21, 2010

A Five-Minute Talk

by johnmccreery

I and several other speakers have been asked to give five-minute talks as part of the celebration of the launch of a new journal of Japanese studies, Contemporary Japan. Here is what I plan to say.


Why study lifestyles? A five-minute talk.
By John L. McCreery (,

Our hosts have asked that I talk about why lifestyles are relevant to academic research? That could be seen as a tough question, since, on the face of it, lifestyles, in the usual mass media sense, are the froth on the surface of social change.

If, however, we pause to consider the economic and political implications of how people live their lives, the topic becomes very serious, indeed. Lifestyles are, after all, where economic and political forces take on material form.

So we might be talking about the demographics of Japan’s aging population, in which people like me, 65 and older, already outnumber children 15 and younger. The implications for Japan’s labor force, companies that sell their products to young consumers, schools with shrinking student bodies, and demand for social services and the funding required to pay for them are staggering.

We might be talking about how generations differ. I think of a conversation between Oka Yasumichi, the founder of Tugboat, Japan’s first independent creative agency, and his friend Odajima Takashi, in a delightful book called Jinsei 2 wari ga choudo ii (20% of life is just right). Oka, who graduated from college and went to work for Dentsu in 1980, says that members of earlier generations found satisfaction in sacrificing themselves for something greater than themselves—the nation or the household. He himself found satisfaction in competition and striving to be a winner. He doesn’t know what to make of his son, who justifiably has no faith in nation or family and for whom competition seems meaningless.

When I think of more recent issues that have caught my attention, two instantly come to mind.

First, is the disenchantment with the automobile that seems to be spreading among young Japanese. For Japanese Baby Boomers, a car was part of the package, a nuclear family, a house in the suburbs, a car of their own, that defined a modern lifestyle. For New Breed men who came of age during the economic bubble of the late 1980s, an imported car was a girl magnet. Now that incomes are stagnant, that kind of toy is too expensive. Taking the train is cool again.

Second is the rise and fall of TV and the still continuing rise of the Internet and digital news and entertainment. In another conversation, Oka Yasumichi is talking about TV with his Dentsu mentor Odagiri Akira, who joined Dentsu in 1961. Odagiri remembers when there was one TV in the living room and commercials targeted families. Oka says that his commercials assume being watched by individuals, who watch them on their own sets or, increasingly, their own PCs or mobile phones. He suggests that TV was once a lover, whose every word demanded attention. Now it is only a friend or acquaintance, to whom you only sporadically pay any attention at all.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a’changin.”
Contemporary lifestyles have serious consequences.

October 10, 2010

Media, Entrepreneurship and How They Affect Us

by johnmccreery

That interview with Oka Yasumichi that I was worried about went pretty well.  Oka was affable, impressed and intrigued by the network diagrams illustrating his career that I showed him, and willing to answer my questions at length. Listening to the recording of the interview I realize one thing—my interviewing skills are rusty; I talk too much, wasting time better spent on listening. Still came away, however, with some interesting things to think about.

1. How media have shaped the experience of different generations. To older advertising creatives, who got their breaks in the 60s and 70s, print advertising was the prototype, the medium in which they made their bones. People in Oka’s generation, who graduated from college and went to work in the industry in the 1980s, a Japan without TV is unthinkable. The prototypical ad is a TV commercial, the core of a big campaign in which print ads are ancillary. This generation, however, is struggling to deal with the Internet, which is disrupting the TV-dominated world that is their generation’s normal.

2. The relationship of TV to its audience has not been a constant one. In a fascinating conversation with his Dentsu mentor Akira Odagiri, who joined Dentsu in 1961 and was in at the start of TV advertising in Japan (a conversation transcribed as a book titled CM (i.e., Commercial Message), they note that Odagiri made commercials on the assumption that a family was gathered in front of the TV set and that he was speaking to everyone. In contrast, Oka grew up with his own TV in his own room and makes commercials on the assumption that he is speaking to a viewer one-on-one. Odagiri started working on commercials when TV was new and exciting; the TV set was like a lover, someone you can’t take your eyes off, whose every word is important to you. By the time that Oka started making commercials, TV was at best a friend or acquaintance; someone you hang around with but don’t always pay much attention to.

3. When Oka thinks of the changes in his world that changed his life, the first is the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in 1991. The collapse of the bubble was good for Oka’s career. Commercials during the bubble had been bakasawagi (stupidly noisy); with the bubble’s collapse Japanese audiences turned more receptive to the subtle melancholy that infused the commercials that made Oka an advertising star. The second was the decision that he and three Dentsu colleagues made to quit the big agency and set up TUGBOAT. Their decision forced others to think about whether they, too, would stay in the big agency cocoon or go out on their own. Oka was disappointed that most similar projects were nothing more than spinoffs from big agency groups, of which they remained wholly owned subsidiaries. But for him the results were dramatic. He no longer had bosses! He notes, moreover, that the fact that he and the other TUGBOAT founders quit and kept working together as a group made their situation different from that of individuals who quit agency jobs and become freelancers and often wind up working with their old colleagues in much the same way as before.

4. When I asked Oka to name those in the industry whom he considers his rivals, he said there was really only one, Sasaki Hiroshi. When I mentioned other big names, he said that he didn’t see them as rivals. They are either of different generations or playing different games. I found myself forced to stop and think about how a rival must be a peer with whom you compete in the same space.

5. Finally, I asked Oka about a sentence he had written, in which he said that he is almost never conscious of being part of a team and then went onto write that he can work with anyone who is tops in their field; after all, he said, he doesn’t have to live with them. He then pointed that team only becomes an issue when you have to pick the members of a team, A,B and C, for example, instead of A, D and F. Since at TUGBOAT, there are only the four principals and they always work together that issue never comes up. Yes, you might say that the members of TUGBOAT are a team; but they never have to worry about the issues that arise when you have to assemble a team for a new project.

Any thoughts about these remarks will be most welcome.

October 7, 2010

What will I learn from this conversation?

by johnmccreery

In 1980, Ruth and I and daughter Kate moved to Japan. That same year, Yasumichi Oka graduated from college and went to work for Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency. I was hired as a English-language copywriter by Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest agency in 1983. Two years later in 1985, Oka, who had spent five years as an account executive (he describes it as the worst time of his life), passed an internal exam at Dentsu and switched from account executive to creative. A decade later, Oka’s career was taking off. His TV commercials were winning advertising prizes right and left. I was leaving Hakuhodo, wondering what life’s next twist would be. After thrashing around a bit, I came out as Ruth’s partner in The Word Works, a role in which I have pottered along ever since.  In 1999, Oka quit Dentsu to found Tugboat, Japan’s first ad agency wholly dependent on income from creative work (what in the West we would call a creative boutique). I was a year away from the publication of my book on Japanese consumer behavior and five years into the adjunct teaching gig at Sophia University in Tokyo that would lead to my current research project, exploring the world of award-winning ad creatives in Japan, a project that combines social network analysis with ethnography. I’ve crunched the numbers and studied the network diagrams, read a good deal of the relevant literature (though there is still a mountain to go), and daydreamed about interviewing some of the big names who are key figures in the networks I’ve analyzed. Now it’s happening. Tomorrow I have an interview with Oka Yasumichi, one hour starting at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.  I’ve prepared what I think is a list of interesting questions; but what will Oka want to talk about? I am very much the supplicant here and will have to go with his agenda. I’m nervous as hell.

September 27, 2010

Who do you understand?

by johnmccreery

Award-winning TV commercial creator Taku Tada is often praised for his shrew insights into human nature. In a speech that included in a year 2000 collection of talks given to aspiring ad creators titled My Advertising Technique, Tada remarks,

If we could understand what people respond to, we could create hit TV commercials. That would be simple. Yes, there is that logic….but, at the end of the day, how can we understand what other people are thinking? Please think about it carefully. Do you understand everything that your friends are thinking about? What about your lover? Even if you spend a lot of time with them, do you never find yourself saying, “I can’t understand what they are thinking”? What about your parents or siblings? If you can’t understand what people that close to you are thinking, how can you understand what people you’ve never met sitting in front of a TV set are thinking? That’s impossible.

What, then, is a master manipulator of public opinion to do? What about you?

September 17, 2010

National Anthems (x-posted from OAC)

by johnmccreery

Yesterday evening I found myself, as a member of the Roppongi Mens Chorus, at the Mexican Embassy in Tokyo singing the Mexican and Japanese national anthems as part of the celebrations of the Bicentennial of Mexican independence (1810) and the Mexican Revolution (1910). I was moved to quip to a friend that,

“Given the tendency of some of our colleagues to read sacred texts literally, I wonder what they will make of the words and music of the Himno Nacional Mexicano. Personally, if I were living in a part of the country that the Mexicans feel was stolen from them in 1848….”

He replied,

“Yes, stanza five’s a cracker:

War, war without quarter to any who dare to tarnish the coat of arms!
War, war! Let the national banners be soaked in waves of blood.
War, war! In the mountain, in the valley, let the cannons thunder in horrid unison
and may the sonorous echoes resound
with cries of Union! Liberty!”

That got me to thinking. National anthems and the flags with which they are commonly associated are what Victor Turner labeled dominant symbols, the focus of attention at civic ceremonies that celebrate patriotism. That let me to Wikipedia, where I found the following bits of history,

Anthems rose to prominence in Europe during the 19th century, but some are much older in origin; the oldest national anthem is “Het Wilhelmus”, theDutch national anthem, written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt. The Japanese anthem, “Kimi ga Yo”, has its lyrics taken from aHeian period (794-1185) poem, yet it was not set to music until 1880.[1] “God Save the Queen”, the national anthem of the United Kingdom and one of the two national anthems of New Zealand, was first performed in 1745 under the title “God Save the King”. Spain’s national anthem, the “Marcha Real” (The Royal March), dates from 1770 (written in 1761). The oldest of Denmark’s two national anthems, “Kong Kristian stod ved højen mast” was adopted in 1780 and “La Marseillaise”, the French anthem, was written in 1792 and adopted in 1795. Serbia was the first nation to have a national anthem in east,[clarification needed] having Rise up, Serbia! in 1804.
An anthem can become a country’s national anthem by a provision in the country’s constitution, by a law enacted by its legislature or simply by tradition. The majority of national anthems are either marches or hymns in style. The countries of Latin America tend towards more operatic pieces, while a handful of countries use a simple fanfare.
Although national anthems are usually in the most common language of the country, whether de facto or official, there are notable exceptions. India’s anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”, is a highly Sanskritized version of Bengali. States with more than one national language may offer several versions of their anthem: For instance, Switzerland’s anthem has different lyrics for each of the country’s four official languages (French, German, Italian and Romansh). Canada’s national anthem has different lyrics for each of the country’s official languages (English and French), and on some occasions is sung with a mixture of stanzas taken from its French and English versions. The Sri Lankan national anthem has translated lyrics for each of the country’s official languages Sinhala and Tamil. It was actually written in Sinhala, but a Tamil translation is also played on some occasions and mostly played in Tamil Provinces and Tamil schools. On the other hand, South Africa’s national anthem is unique in that five of the country’s eleven official languages are used in the same anthem (the first stanza is divided between two languages, with each of the remaining three stanzas in a different language). Apart from God Save the Queen, the New Zealand national anthem is now traditionally sung with the first verse in Māori (Aotearoa) and the second in English (God Defend New Zealand). The tune is the same but the words are not a direct translation of each other. Another multilingual country, Spain, has no words in its anthem, La Marcha Real, although in 2007 a national competition to write words was launched.[2]”

Am I mad to think that looking into anthems, the circumstances in which they appeared, and how they are now regarded and played would be a marvelous exercise in comparative, historical sociology? A big book for someone ambitious or an interesting assignment for smart undergraduates?

August 2, 2010

Moral Judgment and Perceptual Metaphor — Good to Think?

by johnmccreery

Morality is so rich and complex. It’s so multifaceted and contradictory. But many authors reduce it to a single principle, which is usually some variant of welfare maximization. So that would be the sugar. Or sometimes, it’s justice and related notions of fairness and rights. And that would be the chemist down the street. So basically, there’s two restaurants to choose from. There’s the utilitarian grille, and there’s the deontological diner. That’s pretty much it.

We need metaphors and analogies to think about difficult topics, such as morality. An analogy that Marc Hauser and John Mikhail have developed in recent years is that morality is like language. And I think it’s a very, very good metaphor. It illuminates many aspects of morality. It’s particularly good, I think, for sequences of actions that occur in time with varying aspects of intentionality.

But, once we expand the moral domain beyond harm, I find that metaphors drawn from perception become more illuminating, more useful. I’m not trying to say that the language analogy is wrong or deficient. I’m just saying, let’s think of another analogy, a perceptual analogy.

Johnathan Haidt, Edge.

To an anthropologist entranced for more than four decades by Levi-Strauss’ call to consider the “logic in tangible qualities” and a student of Victor Turner, who envisions symbols as bipolar–one pole a cluster of concepts the other, the sensory pole, a cluster of tangible qualities that evoke powerful emotions, Haidt’s thinking is highly appealing. What say others here?

July 11, 2010

Creativity Declining?

by johnmccreery

Is the trend reported here consistent with your experience in your classrooms or workplaces?

July 9, 2010

Quant, Qual and Team Size

by johnmccreery

There is no question about it, quantitative analysis requires that we count. But counting requires a sharp focus, a clear definition of whatever it is that we count. Proponents of qualitative analysis are then able to point to this or that anomaly or neglected part of the background and smugly assert, “See! There’s something you just don’t get.” The annoying thing is that they’re right. To which proponents of quantitative analysis, drawing on a philosophical tradition that insists that knowledge requires precise definition, reply,”But you don’t know anything at all.” If we accept their premises, they, too, are right. A third pragmatic position, the one I suggest here proposes that we count whenever we can, while also keeping our eyes open to possible complications. Oscillating back and forth between counting and what our counting misses leads to richer understanding. Consider, for example, teams.

As any sports fan knows, the number of players on the court, pitch or field can dramatically change the game. Tennis played as singles or doubles and rugby sevens (with seven players) and standard rugby (15 players) are good examples. Ditto for six-on-six (a now largely archaic form of women’s basketball) and NBA five-on-a-team basketball. Some games like football (soccer) and ice hockey include penalties that remove players from the pitch or rink without replacement, often with devastating results for the team left with fewer players.

In my own research on the social networks of winners of a Japanese advertising contest, I have had to think about the implications of working in larger and smaller teams on advertising creatives’ careers. Teams that produce newspaper ads average five members; teams that produce TV commercials average more than 10. I see two clear results in my data. People who work in TV have much larger personal networks and the mode of the network distribution is in the third circle of people with whom they are connected. People who work on newspaper ads will have smaller personal networks and the mode will not appear until the fifth or sixth circle. (“Circle” refers here to the number of steps in the path that connects ego to alter. Thus, for example, “third circle” refers to those three steps from Ego.)

These gross differences may, however, conceal important subtleties. All creative teams include both core members, those primarily responsible for coming up with ideas, and production staff who contribute craft skills to producing the work. A newspaper ad team is likely to include a creative director, a copywriter, and an art director in the core, plus an illustrator or photographer and the designer who produces the final layout. A typical ratio of creative core to production staff is, then, 3:2. A TV commercial team is likely to include the same creative core (creative director, copywriter and art director–with the copywriter or art director doubling as the commercial planner who comes up with the rough storyboard). Some production staff may be purely craft specialists. Others, however, the producer and film director for example, be closely involved at the idea development stage. A typical ratio might be 4:6 on paper, but in terms of involvement with the project, 6:4 might be more realistic. Considering these numbers suggests all sorts of questions for ethnographic exploration. How tight is the core, for example; do the same people tend to work together on multiple projects? It may seem likely that the turnover in the core is lower than in the production staff. But is this true? Or equally true for newspaper ads and TV commercials? But these are quantitative questions—we are back to counting again, but also to thinking qualitatively. If differences in turnover do exist do they reflect the nature of ties to the agency in charge of the ad? As an agency employee? An employee of a TV production company? A freelancer? And how are these formal relationships affected by informal personal ties, e.g. a creative director’s preference for a particular freelance cameraman who is both a drinking buddy and delivers the look that a particular project requires?

The deeper we dig, the more artificial the classic Quant vs Qual distinction becomes. As we oscillate between the scientist’s search for things to count and the humanist’s attention to depths lurking in unexamined detail, our understanding grows deeper still.

July 6, 2010

Reflections on Sunbelt XXX

by johnmccreery

I spent last week in Riva del Garda, a spectacularly beautiful Italian resort town that lies in what used to be part of the southern Tyrol, i.e., part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until it was ceded to Italy in 1918, at the end of WWI. I was there for the 30th annual Sunbelt conference, the annual meeting of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA), to present the latest findings from my ongoing research on the network connecting winners of an advertising contest in Japan and to search for new approaches to analyzing the sort of data with which I am working. What is striking to me, returning to my favorite online forums is how similar the debates I encountered there are to those found all over the Net.

At a session on philosophical roots I heard about precursors to network analysis and balance theory in Spinoza.

At the mixed-methods session in which I participated, most of my colleagues were grappling with projects that begin by selecting a sample of egos, asking them about people with whom they interact, and using the results to generalize about the networks to which they belong. I was starting with whole networks combining several thousand events (winning ads) and twice as many individuals (members of the creative teams). We all were concerned with how best to blend quantitative and qualitative analysis to understand events that clearly require both.

Closest to my own immediate interests was the session by the “Vizards,” experts in visual representation showing off their latest ideas by developing their own representations using the same data set: scraped from a site that provides information on music groups and links to “similar groups.” It was astonishing to see a self-organizing map produce a hugely complex and detailed picture of musical genres based only on this information.

The major difference between Sunbelt and other forums in which I participate  is, of course, that most of the participants in the former are comfortable with quantitative analysis and involved in a subfield of social science to which mathematicians and physicists have and continue to make profound contributions.

June 24, 2010

Theories and Canoes

by johnmccreery

Discovered the following thought by George Dyson in the Nieman Report via Edge. It can be read as a continuation of the conversation begun in Theories and Tools, but is, I believe, striking enough to deserve promotion to higher-than-comment status.

In the North Pacific Ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results—maximum boat/minimum material—by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Theorizing in an era of abundant, easily accessible information may become something quite different from theorizing in a past when information was scarce and hard to lay hands on and finding and using every possible scrap was highly valued.

June 22, 2010

Theories and Tools

by johnmccreery

The following is something I wrote for a thread on Savage Minds. The topic is the relation of theory to ethnography. In it I recommend that we take seriously the metaphor that likens anthropological theories to tools and see training in anthropology as preparing people with a toolkit filled with a rich diversity of tools, some of which may prove useful at the sites where we do fieldwork.

Once we get past the “love a theory and apply it” trap — the one with the consequences implicit in the maxim that to someone who only has a hammer everything looks like a nail—the virtues of entering the field with a diverse toolkit of theories and methods quickly become apparent. Whatever else ethnography is, it is clearly exploratory research, an attempt to get oriented in a space that at first is largely unknown. Every fieldworker rapidly discovers both unanticipated opportunities and unexpected barriers to doing what their grant application says they are planning to do.

Could I have anticipated that a Daoist healer I met in Taiwan would pull me aside one day and tell me about a vision in which the Jade Emperor had told him that I should become his disciple? No way. Should I have foreseen that, while Victor Turner worked in Africa with a people who live in villages with an average population of a couple of dozen people, I would be working in a Chinese market town with a population of 35,000, with people who keep much of their lives private behind the brick walls of their houses? Probably, but nothing in my training had taught me to think like that.

And it wasn’t just me. I remember a seminar in which Terry Turner told us about going to Brazil intending to do the kind of extended case studies of social dramas that Victor Turner had done in The Drums of Affliction. He quickly discovered that, while the Ndembu might have long memories and be ready to tell you who did what to who going generations back, this wasn’t at all true of the people he found himself studying. What they would rattle on about was myth.

I also remember hearing something that made the opposite point, someone remarking on how the African peoples studied by British anthropologists all had complex social structures but the African anthropologists studied by French anthropologists all had complex cosmologies.

The point of all these anecdotes is a recommendation that we avoid looking for the Theory with a capital T that will be our key to understanding everything and, instead, see theories as tools that direct our attention to some particular aspects of whatever we happen to be studying. Take the toolkit metaphor seriously. No one gets much work done by staring endlessly at the hammer, screwdriver or wrench that catches their eye when they look in the toolbox. The work begins when we recognize that, for this or that particular problem, this or that tool (or, more likely, combination of tools) is what we need to use. Some of us may recognize that for the problem they are working on, none of our tools works very well, and invent a whole new tool. But trying to do that without first becoming familiar with the uses and limitations of the tools already in the toolkit is foolish, indeed.

June 21, 2010

To Err is Human

by johnmccreery

Via Slashdot,

Hugh Pickens sends in an excerpt in last week’s Boston Globe from Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

“The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to make mistakes is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent. Rather than treating errors like the bedbugs of the intellect — an appalling and embarrassing nuisance we try to pretend out of existence — we need to recognize that human fallibility is part and parcel of human brilliance. Neuroscientists increasingly think that inductive reasoning undergirds virtually all of human cognition. Humans use inductive reasoning to learn language, organize the world into meaningful categories, and grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Thanks to inductive reasoning, we are able to form nearly instantaneous beliefs and take action accordingly. However, Schulz writes, ‘The distinctive thing about inductive reasoning is that it generates conclusions that aren’t necessarily true. They are, instead, probabilistically true — which means they are possibly false.’ Schulz recommends that we respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity and demand that our business and political leaders acknowledge and redress their errors rather than ignoring or denying them. ‘Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy.'”

June 4, 2010

The Anthropologist’s Prayer

by johnmccreery

Hail Hermes, Holy Trickster
God of boundaries, weights and measures
Agent of chaos, agent of order
Marker of limits, seed of conflict
Holy messenger, bringer of news
Hail Hermes, Holy Trickster
Mind in motion

Inspired by the High Time for Hermes thread on OAC started by Philip Swift. Author, yours truly. With tweaks suggested by Keith Hart.

May 30, 2010

Clarity and Surprises

by johnmccreery

In a commonsense frame of mind, we are likely to assume that clarity eliminates surprises.* If only we can be perfectly clear, what we know will be unimpeachable. Science teaches a different lesson. Clarity is a framing that exposes gaps in our knowledge, gaps through which surprises appear. We reach a perfectly clear conclusion; then reality intrudes.

We may still be right; but something we haven’t thought of is affecting what we observe. (We may, for example, raise a bow and launch an arrow that misses our target. That doesn’t discredit the laws of physics or the mathematics that describe the arc we intended. Our hands trembled or a gust of wind intruded. Accidents happen.)

Or we could be completely wrong. Financiers who took for granted the Black-Scholes theorem assumption that market probabilities are arranged in normal curves have screwed not only themselves but the rest of us as well.

The trick is to be perfectly clear but also open to surprise. Failure is the mother of learning as well as invention.** ***


*Both Descartes, with his search for self-evident, clear and simple ideas, and lawyers seeking to write contracts that anticipate every contingency share the blame here.

**Unless, of course, rigid adherence to categories makes surprises taboo (See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) or a zero defects mentality makes people afraid to improvise.

***For anthropologists, the key point to remember is that these thoughts apply both to the people whose lives we study and to ourselves. We both have our theories about how things do or ought to happen. We both encounter situations in which we find ourselves surprised. We both may be rigid or flexible. Flexible survives.

May 21, 2010

Are the Voles Dead?

by johnmccreery

We seem to have hit a wall here. Or is it just that time of year when the end of semester approaches and academics are overwhelmed? Anyway, Carl, who is a Gramsci scholar might enjoy this.

May 18, 2010

A Long Time Ago

by johnmccreery

Here is a different kind of result, a series of photographs taken during my first fieldwork in Taiwan, in 1969-71. The man in the yellow gown is my Daoist master Tio Se-lian. The woman holding the white cock is his wife. The person behind the camera is probably my wife Ruth. This was a partly staged situation. I had purchased the statue of Lao-Tzu as a gift to Tio, who had taken me on as his disciple and provided me with a topic for my dissertation. He paused at key moments in the ritual to allow the photographs to be taken.  In this case I am curious about what you see in these images and the questions they arouse in you.

May 18, 2010

Winners’ Circles

by johnmccreery

Carl has issued us a challenge to move beyond meta discussion of what might be and “Get on with it.” If you click here you will be taken to slides from a presentation on my current research project delivered last fall at Zhengzhi  University in Taiwan.  Comments and questions are welcome, especially since I am now in the midst of preparing a presentation on more recent results from this project for this year’s INSNA Sunbelt Conference.