Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise (or: why anthropologists should write about football)
It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?
The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short, who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?
Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.
When Jennifer Cool, Jordan Kraemer and I co-founded this blog we began on a web page and a prayer, or if you prefer, an incantation. Drawing on an “if you build it, they will come” inspiration, we felt that starting a blog would be a great way to encourage more conversation about science and technology studies. As members of CASTAC, the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing, we felt excited about the organization’s goals, and we sought ways to connect to the other members of the group who chose to hang their hat in this corner of the American Anthropological Association.
We launched with a “start-up” mentality in which content was king. Our goal was to bring in guest authors while also sharing our work. Our initial goals were modest: as long as we could consistently put up one interesting post per week, we were happy. I was excited to see our blog grow and eventually garner several hundred views a month. Going forward, we realized we would need to create a sustainable model to expand the blog’s content and reach, and thus the idea of an Associate Editing team was born. I crafted a structure roughly modeled after publication organizations in which Associate Editors (AEs) managed particular “beats” or specific topic areas of interest. The idea was to encourage AEs to contribute posts about their own research as well as solicit exciting up-to-date content from other CASTAC members, researchers, and practitioners engaged in projects conducted within the auspices of the anthropology and sociology of science, technology, and computing. « Read the rest of this entry »
“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer. « Read the rest of this entry »
Earlier this month, I wrote about potential risks of sharing preliminary findings from the field, especially when they are related to a major social media company like Facebook. As anthropologist Daniel Miller discovered, doing anthropology in public carries the danger that journalists, bloggers, and others will pluck an ethnographic morsel from its context, and circulate it unmoored from those origins. Some news commentators, for example, reacted with panic to his contention that Facebook is “dead and buried” for some teen users in the UK. But if we don’t reach out to share our work, we equally risk provoking those who castigate academics for being too insular and our research too inaccessible. The debate about scholarly engagement in public resurfaced with renewed vigor last week (Just Publics @ 365 has a nice roundup) in response to New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof’s piece “Professors, We Need You!” (Feb. 15, 2014). « Read the rest of this entry »
At the 112th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last November, I was pleased to take the reins as co-chair of CASTAC alongside returning co-chair Jennifer Cool. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Rachel Prentice for all of her hard work in building our organization up to its current strength and numbers. In what follows, I’ll introduce myself and share some thoughts about CASTAC and its future.
I come to CASTAC and, more broadly, to science and technology studies via the study of sustainable development in non-urban spaces. My current project explores the intersection between renewable energy projects and ordinary life in a northern German village on the path to zero-sum living. Germany’s current “energy turn,” its transition from nuclear power to alternative energy sources, is transforming rural communities into sites of lucrative speculation, where capital investment and environmental politics take form around the technoscientific promise of renewables. In the two decades since the transition was coded into federal law, the village where I work has been terraformed by the installation of wind turbines, solar arrays and now biofuel processing technology. Practices that were already commonplace in the village (such as the harnessing of wind for land reclamation, the use of sun for heat or the use of biomass for fertilization) have been mutated and scaled up into engines of ecocapital (as wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas processing plants) at the same time that villagers have been recast as energy citizens who take part in the transition by recycling, installing solar panels or investing in wind parks or biofuel ventures. « Read the rest of this entry »
Years ago a colleague commented that the AAA meetings were becoming, well, a bit predictable. There would probably be scores of papers on social injustice expressed through ethnicity, race, gender, nationalism, class, and other familiar socio-cultural variables. I have spoken in my own work about how we must begin including, in a more systematic way, notions of injustices based on technological affiliations and values. But even if our recognizable list were expanded further, it still leaves anthropology operating within a particular paradigm of investigation. This paradigm might be conceptualized, as Lyon-Callo (2013) puts it, as a project of “critical thinking,” in which anthropologists as educators engage in “critically [problematizing] common sense things like race, class, gender, sexuality, family structures, migration and trade policies.” He writes quite insightfully about these patterns in his article, “Teaching for Hope?” which appeared in Anthropology News (January/February, 2013). I will extrapolate on these ideas and refer to this model as the “critical thinking paradigm.” (If you don’t like the word “paradigm” you can substitute the word, “orientation”).
Lyon-Callo argues that the critical thinking paradigm in pedagogy comes close to presuming ignorance of these issues on the part of all students. In anthropology, this paradigm is often treated as a form of “secret knowledge” that only we as experts can see. It is up to us to reveal this knowledge as well as the cultural and political conditions under which it becomes hidden. However, he argues that today’s students are different. Many of them are personally familiar with injustices such as class exploitation and racism. In the western Michigan area where Lyon-Callo teaches, students have direct experience with class and poverty issues. Even when the critical thinking paradigm remains powerful, Lyon-Callo observes many students leaving his classroom with a sense of hopelessness and a “what do we do now?” feeling. Lyon-Callo is concerned that this orientation will just produce a legion of pessimists.
This article obviously made an impact on me, as my colleague and I also observed anthropology’s patterned pessimism. Certainly many studies show that if you seek negative patterns you will find them—and only them. Books such as The Happiness Advantage (2010), which one of my students recommended, argue that it is important to seek out positive ideas and messages, even if they are not immediately visible. The exercise should not be done in a vacuous, Pollyanna way, but in a way that helps create tangible change, instead of focusing one’s entire lens on problems that initially feel intractable.
Similarly, Lyon-Callo looks to inspiration from JK Gibson Graham and Stephen Healy, who recommend rejecting the idea that exploitation is inevitable and “work instead toward producing a politics of possibilities.” Some might read in this the resurrection of an age-old debate between applied and basic research. Do we have the right to interfere in other people’s lives on this level? But the better question is, can we continue to morally ignore all the things we might do to help people move beyond their situation?
For Lyon-Callo’s students at Western Michigan University, ideas about exploitation and the failure of capitalism are all too real. Do they really need a continued stream of pedagogy filled with the attitude adjustment of critical thinking? Maybe some do, but many others are experiencing it first hand. For many students, problems are so chronic that, according to Lyon-Callo, “The fantasy of the American Dream has been replaced with a fantasy of the loss of the middle class as inevitable.” There is really no need to upend these students’ common sense—they are not the children of privilege that need a new world view. In response, he has turned his pedagogical focus toward imagining tangible change in his students’ lives through creative solutions, such as cooperativism, and other problem-solving, novel approaches.
I like the way he advocates for a “politics of possibilities,” and I too am interested in how imagination and visions of the future might pave the way for alternative approaches to doing anthropology. The vision described here goes beyond the simple debate about applied versus basic anthropology. At their core, these ideas speak more broadly to the orientation of an entire discipline, one which advocates moving beyond observing problems to turn its lens toward collecting data about what is going right in the world.
Could it be that my colleague and I recognized the pessimistic panels at AAA because that is what we were primed to see? We are quite well aware that anthropology is a huge discipline with many projects that are obviously complex and involve more than reiterating a list of patterned injustices. But it feels as though there are, at least, “hot buttons” that tend to get pressed more than others on particular topics when viewed through an anthropological lens. Perhaps it is time to change the paradigm away from only “critical thinking” and analysis.
The idea is not that we are abandoning basic research on social injustice; clearly these projects will and must continue. Just because people are sensitive to one thing, such as economic injustices, does not mean they understand all the other means of discrimination. The economically oppressed, for example, may not understand issues of sex and gender, or what it might mean to feel prejudice as a transgendered individual. Anthropology deals with an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of issues. Further, injustices continue to happen all over the world in places that dominant populations continue to ignore.
Critical thinking and exposure of hidden problems are not going away. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that it is time also to embrace and incorporate a new orientation toward a future that hasn’t yet occurred—and doesn’t have to. It is time to turn our orientation in part toward a future anthropology that is a hopeful anthropology.
I look forward to having my own orientation expanded through the stories and research projects that will hopefully appear on The CASTAC Blog in the coming months.
As a longtime CASTAC member, I’d like to offer my take on where we’ve been and where we, as an organization might go in the future.
My first encounter with CASTAC came at the 1992 AAA meetings in San Francisco. I was a new grad student of Gary Downey’s in the STS program at Virginia Tech; however, CASTAC had been founded earlier. The following brief history is based primarily on “corridor talk,” oral histories passed along informally at AAA meetings and other fora by folks like David Hakken, Lucy Suchman, Julian Orr, David Hess and others.
CASTAC, as an organization, began as CAC (Committee for the Anthropology of Computing) at the initiation of David Hakken and a few other anthropologists who were pioneering anthropological studies of computing. David approached Marvin Harris who was, at that time, the President of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) about creating CAC as a Committee within GAD. Harris and the GAD board at the time supported the idea and CAC began its long association with GAD. CAC expanded to CASTC (and later modified to CASTAC) as anthropologists interested in the related areas of science, technology, medicine, work, and engineering joined the nascent group. The 1992 and 1993 AAA meetings were a coming out party with invited sessions that included both anthropologists and scholars from other fields like Donna Haraway and Susan Leigh Star, among others. During the same period, the same anthropologists were crashing the sociology-dominated 4S conference—a pattern recently emulated by the Science, Technology, and Medicine interest group within the Society for Medical Anthropology.
The 1990s were in many ways the high point of CASTAC activity. Sessions were organized at both the AAA and 4S meetings. CASTAC business meetings were always crowded and productive. The tragic death of Dianna Forsythe resulted in the Dianna Forsythe Prize celebrating her legacy and the work of anthropologists working on science, technology, and medicine. CASTAC held summer conferences at RPI and Columbia and CASTAC chairs were active participants at GAD board meetings. And the “science wars” raged in anthropology, STS, and the academy in general—halcyon days indeed.
I became chair of CASTAC in 2005 after a period of relative decline and inactivity during the early 2000s when CASTAC did little beyond award the Forsythe Prize. The summer conferences ended and CASTAC didn’t hold a business meeting at the AAA meetings for a number of years. I offered to serve as chair because I considered, and still consider, CASTAC to be my intellectual home within the AAA and wanted CASTAC to continue to serve as a place that mentored young scholars. Senior scholars in CASTAC have always been extremely generous with their time for junior scholars and I hoped this would continue.
The first challenge, aside from walking into the middle of a GAD board meeting immediately after being elected as CASTAC chair (I was the only volunteer to take the position), was to deal with an existential crisis. We broached the question of whether we thought CASTAC still served a purpose and ought to continue as an organization and, if so, in what form. There was discussion of merging with the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), of forming our own section or independent interest group within the AAA, or of maintaining the current status of staying a committee within GAD. There were benefits to each organizational model and after extensive discussion on the listserv we voted to stick with GAD. GAD provided a $500 annual budget and required much less work to maintain the organization—all we needed was a chair to represent CASTAC on the GAD board and two representatives to serve on the Forsythe selection committee. However, CASTAC still had a problem—we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted CASTAC to do or be—a problem that we are still facing today.
When CASTAC began and for most of the 1990s, CASTAC was about the only place within AAA that folks working on the boundaries between anthropology and STS could go. But by the mid-2000s, STS was emergent in all kinds of places in anthropology. All kinds of anthropologists working in all kinds of areas like medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, media studies, development anthropology, linguistics, and even biological anthropology had discovered STS. And most of these folks had never heard of CASTAC and some were forming their own groups like the STM interest group in SMA. I saw the proliferation of STS-inspired ideas outside of CASTAC not as a threat to CASTAC but as an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships to enhance all of these groups.
I reached out to many of these groups and individuals to let them know that CASTAC existed and that we would love to work together with them to expand the visibility and influence of STS in anthropology and anthropology in STS. I worked with a number of CASTAC members, the GAD board, the STM interest group, and SAW to organize a series of prominent CASTAC invited sessions including a session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Forsythe Prize. I also produced a new CASTAC Directory to facilitate collaboration among people working on related areas.
My term as CASTAC chair ended after four years and current co-chairs Jenny Cool and Rachel Prentice are leading CASTAC into the digital age of the internet and the blogosphere—ironic that it has taken CASTAC so long to create a strong presence here when the organization was founded by folks studying computing. I urge CASTAC to continue to remain open to new perspectives and new areas of anthropology that intersect with STS. Finally, and most significantly, I urge CASTAC to continue to be a place where senior scholars mentor junior scholars whose research interests, much like their own research interests, may be the proverbial squares that don’t quite fit into the circles of the traditional research areas within anthropology.
My special thanks to Patricia Lange for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I hope many of you will consider adding comments and your own posts to keep the CASTAC momentum moving forward. Participating in the blog has helped me realize that it is the longstanding collegial relationships that make CASTAC my anthropological home.