Tuesday, May 1, 2007

It's visual... but is it anthropology?

I've been thinking a lot during the Golden Week holidays about the nature of visual anthropology. This posting is inspired by a short video called to my attention by an EASIANTH posting and recent discussions in our Visual Anthropology of Japan class. Initially I had much harsher comments/critiques for both, but after reviewing both, I have mellowed a bit. Still there are many important issues to explore.

Yes, it is a pretty picture, but what is the point of it all?

I have said many times, everything is anthropology. If anthropology is the study of humans, how can this not be so? Let me unpack these statements.

Everything has the potential to be studied within anthropology. Once something has been identified and/or used by human beings, it can be the subject of anthropological research. How do people use it? What and how do people think of it? Why is it important? To whom is it important? What are the stories behind it? These are among the basic questions anthropology strives to answer.

Every discipline, approach and perspective has the potential to be utilized within anthropology. Answering the above questions entails interaction, whether it be with people, books, journals, the media, the internet... One must be careful with assumptions, especially those made without any interaction. Interaction is challenging. Sometimes it's difficult to talk with people. Sometimes it's difficult to access texts. Sometimes there are language difficulties. Sometimes there are time constraints. But these are challenges, not impossibilities. What can you do to overcome them? No one is perfect with regards to interaction, but challenges should not turn into excuses.

Recall some of the special features of anthropology.

Long term research: "Long term" is relative; it can mean a year, a semester, a month, a day. Long term really entails a commitment to one's research.

Concern for the people we study: Concern for the people we study refers to the ethical dilemmas we encounter in the field among the people we interact with. Ethics are a personal matter but there are certain standards that anthropologists should strive for. A lot of it is simple: ask people for permission (to ask questions, for interviews, for translation assistance, for taking pictures and/or video...) and explain to people what you are doing. Avoid secret research. Be honest and caring of people. Protect the rights and privacy of the people we interact with. Treat people the way you would want to be treated.

Contextualization and multiple perspectives: Answer the basic questions of anthropology and try to explore your subject from multiple views and perspectives. What is the point of you research? What are you trying to accomplish and why? Why is it important that other people have access to your research?

All of this being said, how are you using visual methods to accomplish your anthropology? Visual anthropology is both, visual and anthropology. Visual anthropology is an art and a science. One should not be sacrificed for the other.

A picture by itself isn't always worth a thousand words. A thousand words via interaction (anthropological research) makes for an illustrative image.

Off the soapbox... Here's the link to the video I mentioned above. It is a short (two and a half minutes) introduction to Japanese religion (Shinto and Buddhism). My initial reaction was, what is the point? How can one explain any aspect of Shinto and Buddhism in two and a half minutes? Is such an endeavor bowing to the idea of people's short attention spans? A quick sound bite and then move on to the next subject? Maybe I was being a bit harsh. Or was I?

Link to Intro to Japanese Religion Video

Granted, the video is shot and edited in a competent way. It is fast-paced and doesn't get bogged down in too much esoteric knowledge. For once my students shouldn't complain about a film being too long... Also, consider the goals of the filmmakers and their educational organization, NextVista.org.

What's NextVista.org?

An online library of free videos for learners everywhere - find resources to help you learn just about anything, meet people who make a difference in their communities, and even discover new parts of the world. And Next Vista for Learning wants to post your educational videos online, too. Everyone has an insight to share and yours may be just what some student or teacher somewhere needs!

NextVista.org believes learning is stronger when it starts with an engaging introduction of each topic. With teachers and students from all over the world contributing content, it will get easier and easier to find the presentation a student needs to say, “I get it.”

(from Next Vista For Learning Homepage)

With the resources of the library available for free to anyone at any time, students will be in a good position to learn when they are most ready to do so. For teachers, the available videos can be used in the classroom to generate discussion, or even when planning lessons to generate ideas. Having a simple system for watching others’ work will strengthen professional development, which is one of NextVista.org’s goals.
(from the "Light Bulbs" Collection List page)

Is this video by itself visual anthropology? I would have to say no. But it can be utilized within visual anthropology. The comments that appear after the film on the website (especially by GPWitteveen) are interesting and useful. This can be an example of open text and collaboration. The video is an engaging introduction that will hopefully generate more ideas and discussion. Mission accomplished for NextVista.org. And well worth a look by students of visual anthropology.


Rushton said...

Thanks so much for the kudos and critical thoughts - I'm hoping that my video will prompt others to make similar intros to cultural components of countries near and far. We are open to ideas from anyone about how to increase the quantity and quality of material in our library, so please share ideas!

Take care,

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