Ethknoworks LLC

Michael Agar @alcaldemike


Home Base


Thanksgiving tuneup

I'm going to try something different here. ("Oh oh," sounds the warning alarm in the mind of the experienced reader). I wrote some time ago about how my recent water career in the Southwest was starting to feel like my past career in the drug field, namely, intellectually fascinating and politically useless. You can see that history in the left-hand column with a long list of popular articles for the Santa Fe New Mexican, more so for the New Mexico Mercury, now unfortunately out of business. Even though I'm old enough to know better, I had decided an anthropological perspective and popular writing could influence public policy. Sometimes it can – I know from the work of other colleagues – but in the case of the more general problem of climate change in US politics, the more I learned, the more futile it seemed, especially considering the many knowledgeable and progressive water scientists already at work. And with our new pendejo – in – chief, climate policy doesn't look like a promising place to be useful. I'm too old now to start up an awesome ambitious research plan (AARP for short).

So I read and thought and stared at the sun for a while and contemplated my checkered past and came up with a project. In graduate school I became a linguistic anthropologist. In part it was because I'd already had two second-language experiences, one with Kannarese and the other with German. In part it was because the linguistic anthropology faculty were friendly with each other and treated students like interesting people rather than pond scum. Besides, they worked in a place called the Language Behavior Research Laboratory with faculty from many different departments. It was an early version of what became cognitive science. So I became a language oriented ethnographer.

Of the many threads in my surreal life the one involving culture and the other involving language have usually been part of the pattern of things I've worked on. And my applied research and practical work have taught me how most of the real world applications of those concepts have been dysfunctional rather than helpful. Why is that? Answering the question and coming up with an alternative way to use the concepts sounded like a Nobel prize-winning project.

But, answering that question required understanding where language and culture came from in the first place. Back in the day we were still in the "bow wow, dingdong, etc." schools of language origin. Surely, I thought, we have better ideas of culture and language origins by now. We sure do. It's a little overwhelming and scary to write about it given the amount of material now available. But it's extremely interesting and suggests a preliminary answer, that the solution to cultural differences lies in culture as a defining characteristic of humanity, a universal base for translating differences. This tied in with some recent work I've done on rethinking the emic/​etic distinction, trying to restore the relationship between two rather than a way to sort one kind of research from another.

So I started reading and writing and I still am. Then I thought why not draft the book on my webpage? I'm old. I could drop from a Geritol overdose any day. Besides, maybe someone will read it and give me some useful comments or references. Or, given how much activity there is today, maybe someone will steal it and use it as the "before" picture in a course on dual inheritance theory. Worth a try. Even if it doesn't work, I'm finding that the workflow is helping me write.

The book is tentatively called, “Culture: How to Make It Work In a World of Hybrids.” It is written for a general audience. It is most definitely a draft circulated to learn where I am on and where I am off. At the top of the left-hand column is Chapter 1, called "Culture." The next chapter, almost ready to go as a draft, will be about language.

Have a look if it sounds interesting. If the look continues and the urge strikes, please send me any comments that occur to you. I'll acknowledge any that I use. There's a button to send email at the lower right hand corner of the homepage.

Life is interesting.




Selected Works

Nonfiction
Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography