Sympathy for an Undiscriminating Collector: or, how I am a Boasian Photographer

I’ve always had a collector’s mentality. When I was little, it was things like Matchbox cars. My parents thought that it was neat the way I’d have dozens and dozens of the things (Hundreds? I don’t remember.), yet I always knew exactly which ones in the store were not yet part of my collection. I think my collecting tendencies could easily graduate to hoarding if I’m not careful. One of the last times I moved, I brought two carfulls of computer parts -I filled the trunk, the backseat, and even removed the passenger seat to make more room for them- to an electronics recycling drive. I’d kept them for the longest time out of some belief that I’d do something with them. That someday they’d be important and useful. In a way, I felt like I was maintaining a sort of museum; that if I didn’t have these things, then they would someday become inaccessible. Lost to the us. I’ve felt this way about many more things over the years: CDs of computer software, Magic and other CCG cards, books [possibly my greatest weakness; I have many more of them than places to put them, so they end up being inaccessible after all, packed away in boxes]), and more.

I’ve gotten better about hoarding physical things, but I still have issues with digital hoarding. I have a file full of basically every program I’ve downloaded from the internet over the past fifteen-plus years, ‘just in case I need them.’ But perhaps the worst of it is my photographs. Whether it’s a trip to New York City, or random shots of the household dog, almost every photograph I make is stored away in redundant copies on two external hard drives, just in case something happens to one. I have a very hard time getting myself to delete photos that are, for instance, out of focus, over-exposed, or near-duplicates. It pains me a little bit to *destroy data* in this way. Because it’s not only the direct data in the photo; it’s the meta-data. Somehow, it feels like I’d be diminishing a whole in some way that could never be restored. I’m getting better about this. On my trip to Mexico, I actually, *gasp*, deleted some poorly shot or composed photos in-camera before even seeing them on a screen! But it’s hard. What if I need that photo later, for some inexplicable reason? I will *never have the chance again* to take that photo. This is why I have something like a hundred thousand digital photos -many, many gigabytes’ worth-, and my ‘to-process’ backlog grows ever larger and more intimidating. I just don’t have the time to effectively process them all.


As I read about Boas’ indiscriminate salvage ethnographies, I felt kinship with him. Here is motivation I can not only understand, but emphasize with. All of these cultures -these actions, behaviours, thoughts, relationships, collected knowledges, these achingly beautiful and unique junctures in socio-cultural space-time- are going away. They’ll be gone forever. We need to preserve everything we can about them before it’s too late. We need everything! Now!


When I start photographing a particular place, I like to start by sitting down and thinking about what it is, what I feel about it, and what I want my pictures to say. But I don’t always have the time. In the brief trip I took through Mayan ruins over Spring break, for instance, I was constrained by external factors like the speed of my group and the schedule. Sometimes, I react to this by thinking less and shooting more. Moving from active creation of compositions to profligate snap-shotting, trying not to miss something neat.  In the same way, Boas (and many anthropologists since) have been constrained in their work by external factors. Archaeology especially is often in these rescue situations, doing as much as can be done with a site before a new building or road is put in. But cultural anthropologists as well must accept that their time in a place is limited, and they can’t know everything.


I think that must have been deeply distressing for people like Boas. It’s distressing for me. What if we miss something critical? That one magnificent photograph, shot almost as an afterthought, or its anthropological analogy, that one almost accidental observation that turns out to unlock something really critical to your work. Nevermind that it becomes a needle in the proverbial haystack of accumulated data. There’ll be time to sort it out later as long as we collect it *now* before it’s too late! Boas and I would likely both benefit from applying a theoretical framework to our data collection. But it’s so hard to know where to start sometimes. Well, maybe we can figure it out later; there are photos to take and data to collect….



No Vouchers! Social Order vs Conflict in Education

I saw, on the way home, a car with a bumper sticker saying “No Vouchers”. While I agree with the sentiment, that’s for another discussion. It made me think about the issue of school vouchers  (money made available by the state for parents to partially fund their children’s attendance at private schools in lieu of public ones) and how it fits in to the theory we’ve talked about.

Conflict or social order? A social order perspective would seem to suggest that everyone should be socialized the same way. Looking at it through the lens of Durkheim, social orderists would want to promote organismal unity by socializing everyone in a controlled, uniform way.

So by creating a system where the state is forced to subsidize educational socialization of people outside of the state-created educational system, are we setting up conflicting systems? Does that harm organismal unity and set up conflict between the public school network and the private school network? If so, then people in favor of school vouchers would seem to be against a monolithic structure of cultural reproduction via education, favoring instead a system of many different alternatives means of such education.

It seems, though, that a lot of the people who favor private schools for reasons of religion do not want a plurality of voices. Indeed, some have objected to the use of vouchers to fund student attendance at private schools that are based in a religion other than theirs. So do people who favor school vouchers in order to promote unified education with a grounding in religion consciously hold a social order view? And if so, are they unthinkingly feeding in to a conflict view by promoting both their favored form of education against that of the state, and by promoting various forms of educational cultural reproduction in forms they never considered when pushing for the voucher system?

Perhaps concluding one way or another without actually asking those involved would be in line with Durkheim and functionalism or positivism in disregarding people’s own understandings of their motives.

My thoughts on the readings so far

I hope you’ll pardon me if this is a little bit of a ramble. I do feel like there are connecting threads!

As I mentioned in class, one of the things that I found striking in the discussion of theory so far was the way that, in one important respect, positivism and post-modern thought converge when taken to logical extremes. They both suggest that it is impossible to know anything. To be fair, our inescapabable ignorance would stem from very different causes: either we can never make complete enough rigorous observation to make a valid conclusion, or we must accept that our observation is simply incapable of the necessary rigour. But either way, the end result would appear to be the same.

It reminded me of some discussions I’ve had about politics. Something about a theory that, rather than a linear spectrum, political beliefs are actually circular, and that extreme forms of both ‘right’ and ‘left’ politics circle back to meet each other. I wasn’t sure if there was a term for this theory, but some Googling led me to the Wikipedia article on “Horseshoe Theory.” Horseshoe Theory, I learned, proposes not a circle, but a non-linear, though still bipolar, continuum whose warped ends begin to aproach each other, if not to actually meet.

This horseshoe interpretation is, of course, subject to some criticism which I didn’t dig into. But the concept makes me think that the critical approach, as described by Moberg, is best suited for both politics and anthropological theory. (This is a slightly difficult admission for me as someone who is an avowed leftist, and who feels like the viable parties in my country are less left and right than they right and middle. But I digress.)

Perhaps in much the same way that I’m left politically, I also lean toward post-modernism over positivism in coming to an understanding of why things are the way we are and how we know what we know. Yet my inclination toward post-modernism is, for the most part, limited to the humanities. Again, as Moberg points out, it’s important to recognize that some bases for knowledge have greater validity than others. (It helps, sometimes, that one of my partners has a physics degree and was a working science journalist before going back to school; she keeps me a little grounded in reality!)

In matters of theory, and I suspect this may be true for politics or other fields where multiple viewpoints contend as well, I’ve felt for some time that what’s important to consider is not “Which theory works better,” but rather “What does each different theory tell us?” I believe that there is a reality out there to know, but as we move increasingly far from the hard sciences, it becomes more difficult to get at that reality. Each different theoretical approach has its own contribution to make; its own set of conjecture and relationships to serve as a framework for observable phenomona.

This reminds me too of a piece I read in my LGBT Studies class last year by Karen Haraway about the concept of situated knowledge. ( She argues that a major failure of science is its attempt to generate knowledge of a universal nature. In reality, our knowledge is situated in the context that it arises from. We cannot make universal statements because we do not know the universe; only our small part of it. The way to approach something resembling universal knowledge is to combine many differently situated knowledges into something resembling (though perhaps never quite attaining) a whole.

In that way, I feel that each different theoretical perspective is its own bit of situated knowledge. I stand with Moberg in thinking that some may have more validity than others, but I also think they may all have at least a little utility to them, even if only to stand as examples of how things are not. The best way, then, to work toward an understanding of the reality underlying our observations is to look through as many different lenses as possible and compare and contrast the insights gained thereby.