Sunday, January 30, 2011

What is to be Done for (Almost) Historians?

via pneyu
'Publish or Perish' is the time honored maxim espoused by academics in many fields, meaning that if one does not produce research accepted in a peer-reviewed journal on a timely basis they will find it very difficult to advance in their profession.  While this pressure is significant for those already in the opening stages of their career, for graduate students the harrowing hurdle of publication can be compounded by lack of original viewpoint (beginning students are rarely so lucky as to know exactly what they want to research from day one), access to primary sources (how many graduate students have large amounts of personal cash to spend traveling across the country or even across oceans?), and relative dearth of journal space to accommodate the large volume of graduate work.  Graduate students also are at different levels of their professional development, yet younger students need a venue to develop their writing style with the ability to receive and react to comments.

While the current spectrum of professionally published, peer-reviewed, academic journals showcase high quality articles and reviews, their downfall, from the viewpoint of the graduate student, is the total number of pages they produce in one year.  The average journal, published quarterly, may contain around five or six articles, plus some essays and book reviews, meaning that each journal publishes about 20-24 articles each year.    While some fields, like my own in Russian history, contain several journals in which content could be published, many of these journals have a specific focus, like the Cold War period or a strong basis in works centered around literature.  There just isn't enough (printed) space to accommodate all the potential work produced by very talented and promising graduate students.

via Lauren Pressley

But there is one place where plenty of space exists- the Internet.  The continuing digital revolution, washing over our society and reconfiguring long established relationships between information and the individual, offers the promise of a collaborative framework in which graduate students could conceivably set up their own 'on-line journals', that, properly maintained, would not only solve the current lack of printed journal space but also provide budding historians with the opportunity to engage in a submission and peer-reviewed process that will strengthen their writing and argumentative skills.  The key will be to emulate those practices in printed journals that certify the material within (peer-review) while also utilizing social-medial tools and platforms (like Scribd and Creative Commons licensing) to extend the circulatory information path of the content created.  The result will be a more engaged community that actively creates and shares the information produced.

Inspiration for this post comes from diverse sources, but two pieces, one from the recent online Nature article entitled 'Peer Review: Trial by Twitter' and the other a report of the American Historical Association 2010 meeting, gave shape to my thoughts today.

In 'Peer Review', the phenomena of instant critiques, via twitter or other social media platforms, of published material is dissected.  This practice heralds a new era of rapid circulation, exemplified in this quote from the Nature article:
Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather than at small conferences or in private conversation.
Instant communication technologies allow reviewers to quickly assimilate the information presented and then broadcast their views in forums outside those traditionally established for article critiques.  The result is a double edged sword; flaws are more quickly found but the frenzied pace and volume of 'corrections' or opinions can overwhelm individuals or teams presenting research.  Again, a quote from 'Peer Review':
To bring some order to this chaos, it looks as though a new set of cultural norms will be needed, along with an online infrastructure to support them. The idea of open, online peer review is hardly new. Since Internet usage began to swell in the 1990s, enthusiasts have been arguing that online commenting could and should replace the traditional process of pre-publication peer review that journals carry out to decide whether a paper is worth publishing.
Hints at a solution are discussed later on in the article:
One solution may lie in new ways of capturing, organizing and measuring all these scattered inputs, so that they end up making a coherent contribution to science instead of just fading back into the blogosphere. Perhaps the most successful and interesting experiments of this type can be found at websites such as Faculty of 1000 (F1000) and, and in online reference libraries such as MendeleyCiteULike and Zotero, which allow users to bookmark and share links to online papers or other interesting sites.
F1000, which was launched in 2002 and evaluates papers from journals across biology, is among the best known of these websites. It now relies on a 'faculty' of more than 10,000 peer-nominated researchers and clinicians who select, evaluate and rate papers with a score of 6 ('recommended'), 8 ('must read') or 10 ('exceptional'). The individual scores are then combined using a formula to generate the paper's F1000 article factor. These scores, in turn, are making some appearances in tenure packages and grant applications. "It's the only one we've been using in any systematic way," says Liz Allen, who leads post-award evaluation at the Wellcome Trust in London. "It adds another dimension to the citation index."
Citation of Old!
There is only one catch to the system described above- few people actually comment on the papers presented.  Yet there is a nugget of truth to be gleaned: the systems that have the most 'additive value' utilize formats that contribute to the citation index.  This is an important point, and something I wish to visit more as this post develops.  On to the second inspiration piece!

Heather Prescott, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, wrote a post on the 'Digital Humanities' situation at the recent American Historical Association 2010 annual conference.  She concludes that, despite the growing role digital tools and sources play in our profession, Historians are woefully lacking in ability to utilize these tools or instruct students as to their proper use.  

Dominique Daniel and Steven Wise both addressed issues of digital literacy and the critical role that librarians/information specialists play in teaching “Generation Y” how to use both digital and analog sources properly (amen to that!)   The key point I got from both presentations: historians recognize a need for information literacy but are doing little to address it.  Librarians, on the other hand, are doing all sorts of great things with media literacy but are not necessarily addressing the issues particular to the discipline of history (unless, like Wise, they are both librarians and history instructors).  There needs to be more collaboration between historians and librarians around issues of media literacy — this goes beyond just showing students how to use databases and other e-resources and tools.   
That last line is the crucial point- we have to go beyond showing students how to use these digital tools and, instead, make their use one of the centerpieces in any course designed.  However, beyond changing the way we educate undergraduates, there should also be a means to get current graduate students more active in the 'digital humanities'.  One solution I will propose over the next few posts is the creation of graduate centered on-line journals, where the full spectrum of students, from beginning to almost complete, can sharpen their writing and editing skills.  Articles could be submitted, edited, and then 'published' online, most likely in bianual editions.  The short term goal would be to bring greater exposure of the fantastic work graduate students produce across this nation.  The long term goal would be to bring a new generation of historians up in a fully digitized system with the knowledge and desire to utilize digital skills and tools in the furtherance of collaboration and knowledge production.  

I'm not sure what the specific form this on-line journal would take- that's something I want to explore over the next few posts.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Special Friday Videos- Rocket to Egypt Style

I am incredibly blown away by the current events in Egypt- the January 25th protests are no doubt succeeding far beyond the initial hopes of organizers.  I had some good readings to give you this weekend, but this news is just too crazy and too interesting to pass up.  I've found some videos on the protests in Egypt- just so you know, America is not supporting the protesters and is instead throwing their weight behind the Mubarak regime.  *Sigh.*

(Editors Note: This article on 13 February from the New York Times brings the Obama reaction to the events in Egypt into greater clarity- as always, behind the scenes work can be difficult to discern from the outside.)

This first video is from Al-Jazeera, and discusses the current situation in Cairo.

Here is a video by the AP- it depicts a man being shot and other images of the protesters.  Brutal.

No doubt much more will come out today.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday Videos: Return from the Long Absence

If you are a regular visitor to the Muse, you probably noticed that I didn't update my Wednesday Videos, Thursday Links, or Weekend Reading for quite some time now.  I could fill you in on the intimate details of my life, or I could just say that I've been very busy with holidays/portfolio stuff and really haven't had time to do the more routine updates.

But all that changes today.  I'm back on the wagon, so to speak, and I have two educational videos (don't worry one has animation) to share with you today.  The first selection is from the Harvard University Press Blog with Professor David Blight discussing the impact of the Civil War on American Memory, now celebrating its sesquicentennial.

(This is only part one of a three-part series- you can watch the rest on YouTube by clicking the link in the video above.)

The second selection comes from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA)- it is an animation that accompanies a recent talk given by sociologist David Harvey on the 'Crisis of Capitalism'.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Russia's Legacy with the Rule of Law

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
via Wikimedia Commons
I really enjoy reading the New York Review of Books Blog, especially when Amy Knight produces posts exploring various aspects of the Russian political scene today.  Her latest piece in the NYRB Blog, entitled "The End of the Medvedev Revolution?", addressed the latest courtroom drama involving Mikhail Khodorkovsky (former Yukos executive) and his colleague Platon Lebedev.  A Russian judge recently found both men guilty of additional charges beyond those brought to bear in 2003, when both men were arrested, pushing back their release date to 2017.  Pundits believe the verdict came as a result of pressure Prime Minister Putin directly or indirectly applied to those involved in the case.  Knight characterizes the ruling a setback for Medvedev, who promised to reform the Russian Judiciary in an attempt to squelch 'legal nihilism' pervading the system.  She goes further in saying, 
...the Khodorkovsky verdict demonstrates his seeming powerlessness when it comes to high-profile political cases in which the Putin clan is directly involved. (Indeed, a Moscow court ruled that a recent Medvedev law making it illegal to imprison people for economic crimes before their trial did not apply to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.)       
However, all is not lost for Medvedev.  Many in Russia saw the verdict on Khodorkovsky and Lebedev emanating from the Kremlin, not the judicial system, a belief that may help distance the president from his steely-eyed prime minister in the upcoming 2012 elections.  He has certainly not been afraid to broach sensitive topics with a moderate tone, seen here in this quote from Knight's piece:
Medvedev also had this to say about political opponents: “The fact that they are in opposition does not mean that they are cut off from public life. They should openly speak about every problem.” For the most part opposition leaders have reacted to Medvedev’s words with skepticism. But some, such as Nemtsov, co-chairman of the Solidarity movement and one of Putin’s fiercest critics, continue to urge Medvedev to get rid of Putin and introduce democratic reforms.
Knight believes that Medvedev, with his careful presentation and sculpting of message, might be able to capitalize on Russian discontent with Putin's strong-arm tactics and make the 2012 election anything but certain.  Yet reading her piece, I could not help but think about the long and somewhat difficult relationship Russia traditionally holds with regards to the western conceived notion on 'rule of law'.  All too often the current day situation of Russia is analyzed with little regard for the historic past of the nation, making present analogies and insights less informative and lacking in appropriate depth that would give the arguments in question more rhetorical power.  Therefore, I propose to sketch out some general themes surrounding Russia's interaction with the liberal conception of 'rule of law' in an attempt to provide background to the issues explored by Knight in her post.  Doing so allows one to gain perspective on the challenges faced by Medvedev in his stated quest to eliminate 'legal nihilism' in an atmosphere where entrenched Kremlin forces staunchly defend tight central control over the judiciary.

Laura Engelstein's essay on 'Combined Underdevelopment' along with Michel Foucault's 1978-79 lectures at the College de France on 'The Birth of Biopolitics' provide a starting point for our exploration.  While most Americans are familiar with what one might term the western conception of 'rule of law' (that being trial by jury, knowing the charges brought against you, right to counsel, etc...) it is far less clear if they understand how Russia historically interpreted such a liberalistic conception.  Engelstein and Foucault, directly and indirectly, address this issue.  What they reveal is that Liberalism, as an ideal and set of institutions, is far from monolithic and certainly capable of being 'mutated' to fit the needs of even absolutist states.  Seen in this light, Medvedev's efforts to reform the Russian judiciary must overcome more than just resistance by Putin's supporters, he must redefine the relationship Russia has with liberalistic values along cultural and historical lines acceptable to the larger public.  Yet, as seen in the American conceptions of 'corruption' in Afghanistan, we must take care not to impose our own cultural viewpoint on a society that shares tangential links to the 'western' tradition, otherwise we risk misreading the motivations of Medvedev, among others, in their maneuvering within the Russian political system.

Engelstein and the 'Combined Underdevelopment' of Russia

One of the most pressing themes of Russian history has been the often strained relationship its authorities possessed vis a vis the public under their rule.  The absolutism of the tsar, a governing power quite unlike those found in either British or French rule, produced peculiarities with regards to the Russian state/society configuration.  'Combined Underdevelopment' explores this relationship by asking how Foucault's understanding of Western integration of Liberalism, which hinged on the movement from coercion to discipline exemplified by the use of the power/knowledge nexus to encode scientific 'norms' into structures of civil society, compares when used to analyze the same question in the Imperial Russian context.  Engelstein concludes that Foucault's method falls short in the Russian example, namely because the power/knowledge nexus never adequately developed to the same extent as seen in the West.  This meant that while governments in Western Europe increasingly let go of centralized control in favor of heavy regulation, thus allowing the private creation of specialists whose products of knowledge, while not directly emanating from the state, find regulation and acceptance by the state through disciplinary means, Russian absolutist tsars instead held tight to the reigns and refused to cede centralized authority in favor of regulatory oversight, in effect stunting the private development of specialists except for those created and pressed into service by the state.  

via Oknovokght
Addressing the 'rule of law', Engelstein says that Liberalism in the West altered the alliance between the administrative state and exercise of discipline by using the 'rule of law' to formulate boundaries for the operation of disciplinary measures.  This sounds confusing, but lets look at it from the vantage point of a nondescript monarch in a general Western European nation. (This is a generalization, so take it with a grain of salt)  

Back in the 12th or 13th centuries, for example, Kings could generally issue edicts that acted as law governing the actions of their subjects.  If someone violated an edict, they would be generally bought before the king or one of his representatives and some form of punishment would be meted out.  The point was that only fear of reprisal from the king or his agents motivated acceptance of such edicts. (Again, very general) 

via Aprilzosia
However, by the 17th and 18th centuries this often draconian method of instilling respect for the rule of the king began to have serious consequences, inspiring political theorists of the day to devise new methods of rule that centered upon individual acceptance and willingness to adhere to the desires of the authorities.  By advocating such measures as elected representation acting as a check on monarchial power, the right of a trial by jury, and the general inclusion of greater segments of the population in governance, a king could manage to surrender some measure of his personal authority in exchange for a greater level of support from subjects and citizens alike, in effect creating a configuration of the state/society relationship that relied more upon internal discipline rather than external coercion.  

Again, that might sound confusing but consider your own life- you generally follow the laws of the land despite not having police constantly following your every move.  Most follow the rules because we have faith in our system; we can vote for our leaders, we have the right to free speech and trial by jury, etc..  Essentially we are a disciplined society that requires little coercive pressure when it comes to acquiescence of the law. (See the generality?  Obviously one could point to just the Civil Rights Movement as a counterexample, but in our modern day this disciplinary trend mostly accepted)

But what about absolutists states, like Imperial Russia?  Engelstein notes that unlike the West, Imperial Russia rejected the legitimacy of 'rule of law' and instead relied upon largely coercive methods in order to harness the professional disciplines and control the population.  Having never ceded authority in favor of regulation via legalistic means, the Russian state created a state/society configuration predicated on a wholly different foundation than that found in the Western order.  This is not to say they rejected Liberalistic values carte blanche, rather the Imperial, and later Soviet, state simply took the forms of liberalistic practice, like the trial by jury, and infused them with content more suited for absolutist rule.  Thus, the Soviet Constitution (and today's Chinese Constitution) provided rights one would generally assume would be found in a modern, liberal society, yet the implementation of these rights fell under strict, centralized control by the ruling authorities.  This legacy remains today, despite the fall of communism, as historical state/society configurations are particularly difficult to overcome and replace.  

Approached from this angle, the state/society configuration in Russia today is why Medvedev is having such a difficult time making good on his promise to overcome 'legal nihilism'- quite simply, the judiciary does not have a tradition of operation outside of central direction and the ruling authorities are distrustful of anyone outside of their control.  Khodorkovsky was arrested because he supposedly broke the 'golden rule' set out by Putin, namely that the wealthy oligarchs of Russia could keep their money, and continue to make more, so long as they stayed completely out of politics.
Yes, I know this is wider than my blog column.  But it fits so well, I'm going to use it anyway.
via Vladimir Putin Action Comics by Derse
This sort of 'rule' seems laughable in America, yet demonstrates exactly the point made by Engelstein above.  Whereas in America the use of disciplinary measures over coercion and favoring regulation over tight centralized control allows for professionals to develop in a manner that is generally not threatening to the state, in Russia the opposite is true.  Individuals like Khodorkovsky, who made their money and status outside of state control, represent real threats to the regime as their independence is not regulated by disciplinary measures but instead by coercive power alone.  This, in part, is why Putin and his supporters continue to use a heavy hand when dealing with potential rivals and why the Russian judiciary appears compromised by, supposedly, taking orders from above.  

'Biopolitics' and the Liberalism Shift of the Chicago School

The Man Himself  via Inge Knoff
For real change to occur, significant alterations to the state/society configuration must be achieved.  Interestingly, Foucault himself diagrams a method by which this might occur in his series of lectures around the subject of Biopolitics, given during the 1978-79 academic year.  While the lectures touch on a great breadth of topics, the specific example I want to draw on for this discussion is the role the Chicago School played in the reformulation on the role Liberalism played in the operation of the economic sphere.  (I discussed this same example in another post, 'Stakeholder Similarity and the Mobility of Liberalism')  Effectively, what the thinkers of the Chicago School accomplished was to broaden the predictive scope of economic behavior (market behavior to be exact) so that other social relationships and individual actions could be rendered more intelligible.  Simply put, the Chicago School extended economic analysis to areas largely considered non-economic.  

This 'Liberalism Shift' produced by the Chicago School held profound impacts on American intellectual and political debates up to the present day.  The emphasis on minimal government intervention in the market- already a tennet of Liberalistic economic theory- became inflated with the Chicago School, as they argued that the market not only operated best when left to its own devices but that it also could 'divinely' dictate the limits of government reason.  Suddenly, direct interventions in the market by government, exemplified in full by the planned economies of Europe and the Soviet Union, became anathema to full economic productivity- surely the invisible hand knew more than the state economist- and justifications for reduction of the welfare state in America suddenly held considerably more gravitas.  Without entering into the murky waters of political judgement, we can safely say that the Chicago School demonstrated that Liberalism was flexible and adaptable, capable of being shaped to fit the desired needs of a particular viewpoint.  

Perhaps Medvedev can use the current political situation of Russia to his benefit, shifting the state/society configuration away from tight, central control to one in which the larger public and even political opponents have room to operate independently.  A logical starting point would be the judiciary, something Medvedev has clearly made a priority.  However, observers would be misled to conclude that the recent Khodorkovsky episode represents a setback for Medvedev, especially if the standards of the West vis a vis the 'rule of law' are the measuring stick used.  A recent essay in The American Interest by Lawrence Rosen titled 'Understanding Corruption' makes the point that evaluating charges of corruption in Afghanistan by Western standards fails to account for the considerably different standard marking corruption for many Afghanis.  Here is a quote from Rosen's essay:
When, for example, I asked the men in Hussein’s village, as I have so many in the Arab world, what passes for corruption in their view, I always receive the same answer: Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence.Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty. It is a world in which the separation of impersonal institutions from personal attachments is very scarce. Failure to service such attachments is thus regarded as not only stupid but corrupt.
This is, of course, rather different than the American view of corruption. We mean by the term the influencing of the performance of a public duty—meant to be carried out in accordance with objective, impersonal protocols—for personal ends. The position trumps the individual who holds it. More generally, we mean by corruption disrupting “the level playing field” owed to all as citizens equal under the law. And bathed in the glow of our Enlightenment universalism, we take it as second nature that it is everywhere the same.
It is not.
The same could be said for Russia and its judiciary- not because it practices a tribal kinship social reciprocity function, but because it adheres to a state/society configuration different from that encountered in Western Europe and the United States.  Amy Knight is correct in saying that Medvedev should not be counted out of the 2012 presidential race, but the West needs to recognize that societal change requires much, much more than idealistic phrases and that the nature of change might not resemble forms embraced here.  For the Russian judiciary, this will require a fundamental shift in the way the state exercises its power and control.  For Medvedev, it may require laying low and quietly cultivating an image and support that advocates a realignment of the relationship between state and society- but whatever he chooses, he does so against a larger historical legacy of Russia's unique interaction with liberalism.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Russian Peasants Inform The Social Media Experience

The other day I had a friend of mine come through Portland for some interviews at local hospitals.  He only had a few days to stay, but wanted to see the sights of our fair, but grey, city.  When I have guests, I make sure they see a few things before they go- Multnomah Falls, My House, and Powell's City of Books.  (I should probably update my tour guide selection, but why mess with success?)  I was particularly excited as there was one specific book- Joseph Reagle's 'Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia'- that I wanted to pick up and read, as the topic dealt with issues I find especially relevant to my evolving beliefs regarding the practice and teaching of history.  I'm about half-way through reading it, but knew right away this book would speak to me.  Check out this quote from Lawrence Lessig, general Internet Culture god and provider of the forward for Reagle's book.  
Wikipedia is a community, but one formed through a practice, or a doing- collaboration.  That collaboration happens within a culture, or a set of norms, guided by principles that the community accepts and fights about, and through that struggle defines.  The collaboration produces a social good that an enormous number of people from around the world rely upon.  The project is a generation away from its objective of "a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."  But it is the first time in ten generations that the aspiration of the Enlightenment seems even possible to anyone but the likes of Jefferson.
We need many academic disciplines- economics, political science, history, even law- to help us understand this phenomenon.  But the first rich understanding must come from ethnographies.  Only a deep reading of the culture of this community- for it is a community rich with a distinctive culture- can begin to make the important lessons of Wikipedia accessible.
No one ever accused Lessig of espousing lackluster idealistic phrases, especially when it concerns the potential for digital technology to remake knowledge production models, and while some may find his 'pie-in-the-sky' sentiment that Wikipedia brings the Enlightenment quest for universally accessible knowledge tangibly closer, they cannot deny the institution the power it holds and continues to grow within our cultural landscape.  So radical are the changes being enacted by continuing wireless mobility (via cell phones and tablets/laptops) and the production of digital culture that almost every sphere of human activity is altered by its very presence.  Wikipedia provides only one example.  While the average American might marvel at the 'connectedness' social platforms like Facebook or Flickr bring to their personal and professional relationships, the scope of these platforms projected influence in creating, shaping, and furthering public discourse concerns parties across a wide spectrum.  Authoritarian regimes along with 'stalwart' democracies express frustration with the potential of social media to disrupt their programs or policies, evidenced, in the former, by China's pre-emptive censoring of news related to the Nobel Peace Prize presented to an absent Liu Xiaobo, and, in the latter, the continuing brew-ha-ha over Wikileaks with American authorities, now issuing subpoenas for Twitter account information of Julian Assange and other supporters of the site.

I wrote a post in November addressing what I termed 'Stakeholder Similarity and the Mobility of Liberalism', part of which dealt with an article written by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen on the 'Digital Disruption' capacity inherent in social networking technology of today.  Clay Shirky, author of a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled "The Political Power of Social Media", also engages with the question of potential impacts communication technology could have on the promotion of a vibrant civil sphere in nations where such activity is severely constrained.  Clearly, the implications of digital culture possess enormous potential for radical change- yet what shape that change will take, or what path it will trod to make its (grand?) entrance, is little understood.  Returning to Shirky's essay, there is a lamentation in the beginning that,
The use of social medial tools- text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like- does not have a single preordained outcome.  Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes… Empirical work on the subject is also hard to come by, in part because these tools are so new and in part because relevant examples are so rare. (29-30, emphasis mine)
However, as I will posit and this essay will argue, there exists a large source of empirical data relevant to the concerns of scholars, such as as Shirky, and business guru's, like Cohen and Schmidt.  It exists in the life and activity of a historical group some consider lowly and backward- the nineteenth century Russian peasant.  I say some because, as I hope to make clear below, I believe nineteenth century Russian peasants- particularly their behavior regarding use and manipulation of (then) contemporary informations flows- provided a great deal of empirical data the likes of which Shirky, among others, might find interesting.  I do not wish to provide an exhaustive review of the potential- I only wish to demonstrate the connections between some common issues encountered by agents of media and politics alike regarding the use of social media and that of the Russian peasant.  Much like the 'ethnography' of Wikipedia by Joseph Reagle and praised by Lessig, the 'ethnography' of the Russian peasant can also 'begin to make the important lessons' of the social media experience more 'accessible'.   

via hunsonisgroovy
Comparison between the questions of today and the realities of yesterday certainly do not come without some caveats.  To begin, historical analysis is lousy at predicting the future but it can provide guidance as to the position of today.  When I say that peasants inform the discussion currently surrounding social media, I do so in a historical sense and not in a manner more akin to strict correlative relationship- obviously peasants never had access to email or text messages.  Yet, one reason I labor to point out these connections is to make the larger argument that humans practice very old behaviors when it comes to the operation of social media.  Compared to today's instant communication, old behaviors moved much more slowly, but humans routinely dealt with information streams in every era, many times to their personal benefit.  I cannot claim that studying peasant behavior will unlock the mysteries of Twitter or Tumblr, but it can help one understand, in part, the personal reaction to social media experiences.  If we begin our analysis from this viewpoint- that interaction with media of all forms is influenced by old behaviors- then analyzing Russian peasant behavior for potential insight into today's issues may avoid the pitfalls of so many 'dueling anecdotes' and provide a clear vantage upon which rich understanding can be built.   

To that end, I propose to visit some texts elaborating concerns journalists and others grapple with in the current digital era.  With each example, I want to show how peasant culture and daily life provide foundational understanding into the underlying issue presented.  Beginning with Damon Centola's article "The Spread of Behavior in an Online Social Network Experiment", I want to show how network behavior evidenced by Centola's data mimics that of peasant behavior in marriage networks.  Matt McAllister's recent collected thoughts gathered under the heading of 'Generative Media Networks', the second article in our tour, explains how the circular nature of social media involvement should influence future journalistic endeavors. This narrative was familiar to Russian peasants, whose interaction with media streams, official and otherwise, hinged on a similar circular process discussed by McAllister.  Finally, I want to return to Clay Shirky's essay and discuss how his correlation between promotion of social media tools and the development of a vibrant civil society and public sphere echoes similar concerns Russian Imperial rulers held with regard to ruling their largely peasant population.

My hope is that these preliminary examinations might prompt more inclusion of historical humanistic analysis into the current debates on the role and impact of social media practices.  

The Spread of Peasant Behavior   

Damon Centola, in the 3 September 2010 issue of Science, published a study on user behavior on a health centered social medial  community website.  Participants, recruited from health-interest websites, received a few 'health buddy' connections (think 'friends on Facebook) upon signing up for the experimental service and were also placed into one of two network-connection models; a clustered lattice network or a random connection network.  

Display of Random and Clustered Lattice Networks.  Blue nodes represent 'neighbors',
 or 'health buddies' connected to users.  Notice the clustering connectivity of blue nodes
 on the right, as compared to long blue node connection on left.  via Wired
Users could not communicate directly with their 'buddies', but did receive information regarding their 'buddies' activity.  Those in the lattice network formed dense 'clusters' of interconnectedness, while those in the random network formed more broad connections with less clustering behavior.  The article has several graphs and figures to denote information spreading among the two network types- sparing you facts and figures, here is a quote summarizing Centola's findings:
The results show that network structure has a significant effect on the dynamics of behavioral diffusion.  Surprisingly, the topologies with greater clustering and a larger diameter were much more effective for spreading behavior…. I also found that the behavior diffused more quickly in the clustered networks than in the random networks. (1196)
Of course, the study was rather limited in scope; it contained around 1,500 participants and obviously curtailed the social aspect of the network experience by prohibiting personal contact, yet the findings point to some interesting conclusions.  Clusters of connections among users generated a higher degree of information spread/acceptance.  We might call it the 'Facebook' effect, where you are more prone to accept new information and pass it on if several of your friends also 'like' the same information.  (I believe the 'Top News' tab operates in this way- the more 'likes' it has the longer it stays 'top news')  For some this may seem like an obvious observation.  Yet it is interesting that denser networks, not longer ones, spread information further and quicker.  Here is Damon Centola explaining his research findings:

Peasant networks in marriage operated in much the same way.  Alexandre Avdeev, Alain Blum, Irina Troitskaia and Heather Juby wrote an article on peasant marriage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries using registers from rural villages around Moscow, during the period of 1815-1918.  Three specific villages, Vykhino, Zhulebino and Viazovki, provided the demographic data the researchers used.  There were some gaps in the record, but the sources allowed for general conclusions to be made, especially regarding choice of bride.  Below is a self-made (hence ugly) copy of the graphic in the article that makes this data (somewhat) more clear:

A bit confusing- it was a quick sketch for note taking.  Essentially, ext A, ext B & ext C represent brides
found outside the three village system described here.  Most brides went from one village (say B, or
 Vykhino) to another (say C, or Viazovki).  Thus BC = 61 means, for the period studied, sixty-one brides
traveled from Vykhino to marry men in Viazovki.  

Marriage was constrained by several factors.  There were limits imposed by the state and religious authorities, creating prohibitions on marrying blood relations or even the days one could marry.  Before emancipation of the peasants in 1861, one's landowner also had a say as far as leaving the estate was concerned.  Regulation of movement in order to keep the labor supply adequate was a major concern of  landlords in Russia.  Marriage could also be complicated by rural community or head of family constraints- the wives traveled to live with their husbands, and because most of Russia practiced communal land holding there was different association between household wealth and size than that encountered in Western Europe.  

But, looking at the picture above, we can see that the majority of marriages occurred within the dense clustering of the three villages under examination.  The practice of universal marriage and a relatively early age of marriage (around 19) meant that prospective husbands had to move fast to secure a good wife.  The couple as a working unit was the basic level of labor organization in the village and failure to marry could jeopardize a young man's ability to have a family and potentially secure his own household separate from that of his father.  A young man had to know, or at least have the confidence of someone who did know, about available prospects for marriage; hence the predominance of local sources for brides over those outside of the village system.  A peasant may have contacts in far away villages, but when looking for a bride they more often than not stuck to the local area because the 'dense' networks formed there provided more information as to who would be good wife.

Yet the article also makes a very interesting point.
This study suggests that the peasants' limited freedom of choice faced institutional constraints imposed by serfdom.  Once removed, they opened the way for a different behavior.  Thus, practices that might appear to be socially determined wee only partially so, since they changed in response to modifications in the nature of the circles within which peasants were inserted. (745)
Once the peasants were emancipated, their marriage patterns changed.  No longer limited by the locality, some turned to broader horizons to find marriage partners- but many remained local.  Of course, larger trends were at play towards the end of the 19th century.  Urbanization and loosening of travel restrictions helped to erode the social constraints village elders and heads of households imposed.  However, marriage patterns generally remained the same for the period studied.  Centola's work on social behavior in online health information networks certainly could have been informed by looking at the demographic data gathered by Avdeev, Blum, Troitskaia and Juby.  If you want to spread behavioral change, target dense cluster networks.  

Generative Media Networks and Circular Information  

Matt McAlister, director of digital strategy at the Guardian Media Group, recently released a collection of thoughts on journalism and the digital media landscape entitled "Generative Media Networks: Fueling Growth Through Action".

He states that those media networks that provide their users with 'more value' out of the content they create will not only encourage more creation of content but also generate a larger user base as well.  This represents a shift from the way these platforms operated, even just a few years ago.  Here is a quote from McAlister's work:
Where media businesses once believed that winning digitally meant attracting eyeballs to web pages today there's a greater understanding about the role of the various platforms around the network and the value of the network itself…Whereas the pre-internet newspaper world looked like a one-way relationship, the new era is one where we grow as others grow, a circular relationship, a self-reinforcing marketplace. (8)
He goes on to elaborate four areas the Generative Media Network model touches upon- things made by the network and used by the people, and ideas shared by the people and evaluated by the networks.  In this way, media platforms can not only capitalize on traditional streams of revenue but also ensure that they don't miss out on new opportunities, more and more emerging from the activity of social networks.  This is because information behaves in a circular manner, with users taking the presented form provided by journalism outlets and transforming, or mutating, the end result into a new form that potentially extends the life of the original product.  McAlister argues that media platforms need to build applications or provide services that allow users to participate in the creation and embellishment of services, as giving one individual a satisfying experience will prompt them to tell others and bring them into the circular process.  (McAlister never mentions it, but clearly his own analysis on attracting new users could benefit from looking at Centola's work)

Peasant interaction with information streams of their day involved similar processes highlighted by McAlister.  David Moon discussed this peasant capacity for circulation and mutation of officially promulgated edicts or laws in his work titled, 'Russian Peasants and Tsarist Legislation on the Eve of Reform'.  Moon, one of the most prominent Russian peasant scholars living today, researched peasant reaction to tsarist edicts as they were transmitted in written and oral form across the vast empire.  Once drafted, laws would be distributed to provincial authorities, yet the general condition of roads meant that delivery would be staggered.  Some laws were marked for general distribution (others were kept secret from the larger public), in which case they would be read aloud at markets or fairs, but not in small villages.  Bureaucrats worried constantly when issuing new laws to peasant populations because, despite large levels of illiteracy, they proved more than able to 'interpret' the code so as to provide viewpoints beneficial to their desires.  One general example of information mutation involved what scholars titled 'native monarchism'; if the law presented came across as harmful to their interests (this could include rent hikes or change in labor obligations to the state or lord), peasants would resist implementation by claiming that the tsar, protector of the Russian people, could not possibly have approved of the new law and that the latest measure was nothing more than machinations of the 'evil boyars', or lower level nobles in the service of the state.  

The Boyar's Wedding by Konstantin Makovsky. via Wikimedia Commons
Contemporary observers assigned such claims to peasant backwardness or 'willfulness', unwilling to see the larger motivations behind the statement.  Later scholars, including Moon, agree that the 'naive monarchism' claim was merely a sophisticated twisting of the tsar's professed responsibilities to the people in order to point out the disconnect between (in their view) what should be done and what is actually done with regards to new laws.  Often the staggered reception of laws in the provinces, not to mention the numerous oral readings orchestrated at markets and bazarrs, spurred the spread of various rumors which peasants used to their full effect.  When confronting landlords over rent, for example, peasants were quick to use 'rumors' of decreased labor obligations or rent in 'neighboring' villages or districts to press their claims for similar treatment.  Rumors proved very difficult for Russian authorities to fight, as peasants often outnumbered visiting officials and used collective defense to intimidate those who arrived to make the governments case.  Only the arrival of the Imperial army could persuade peasants to give up their resistance, although some groups pushed conflict into violent terms.  Yet these tactics often prompted compromise between lord and peasant, as resistance, even if violently put down, often paved the way for incremental changes in the peasants favor.  

Why did this work?  The answer lies in the ability of the Russian peasant to interact with the information streams piercing through their daily lives.  Use of rumor and the claim of 'naive monarchism' formed prime examples of peasants engaging in the circulatory process described by McAlister and his 'Generative Media Networks'.  Laws, produced by the state, were used by the peasants which in turn generated various interpretations of those laws that were finally evaluated by the state as to their efficacy and possibility for compromise.  The very transmission of information created mutations that forced the Russian state to, at least temporarily, accept the claims of peasants as legitimate to discuss.  While McAlister sees only the collaborative benefits 'Generative Media Networks' provide, Imperial Russian authorities felt the opposite, having seen first hand the kind of dissonance peasant 'rumor networks' created.  (Shirky makes this point in our contemporary setting, something I will cover below)  Indeed, it would be this issue of information mutability through circulation that plagued not only Imperial Russia but also the Soviet Union.

Return to the Political Power of Social Media

Finally, Clay Shirky in his Foreign Affairs article, quoted above in the introduction, analyzes the potential of social media to lay the groundwork for development of vibrant civil societies in the geo-political landscape.  Noting that such changes require years, not days or weeks, to take effect, Shirky advocates a realignment of US foreign policy towards promotion of broad-based social media and citizen access to these tools.  Whereas a specific tool- Shirky mentions 'Haystack', a program designed to allow for encrypted web surfing- can be easily targeted and defeated or circumvented,  ('Haystack' was designed, in part, to assist Iranian dissidents fight their theocratic governments censorship of the web- yet once tested, it was quickly determined that the program contained 'holes' that could have compromised users) in contrast, broad based social medial tools like Flickr or Facebook are relatively more difficult to censor or shut down as they serve relatively large populations who would no doubt complain, or at least become aware, of government interference in their lives were these services to suddenly go offline.

This is a prime example of the 'conservative dilemma' in action- conservative and authoritarian regimes, by engaging in censorship of social media, risk creating anomalies between the state's 'official' views and those views held by censored citizens.  Herein lies the crux of Shirky's argument- social media provides populations the ability to build a 'space' for the development of a civil society, thus when governments censor or restrict social media they risk alienating themselves from the society created by their citizens.  As more and more economic and connective ties are fashioned through the implementation of social media (how many businesses in other countries are envious of the success Amazon created out of on-line shopping?) it will become increasingly difficult for governments to circumvent their use, even if such activity foments unrest against the ruling regime.  Here is a TED talk Shirky gave discussing the core ideas expressed in his essay:  

Of course, one might be quick to point out several governments that possess an uneasy relationship with the Internet and are quite willing to literally 'turn it off' during periods of instability- Iran and China come to mind- and have suffered little perceptible damage to their credibility or ability to rule.  This point may be correct- however, one of the more curious observations on an authoritarian regimes capacity to withstand social pressure is that one never knows what level of unrest is necessary to enact real change.  Often regimes appear solid until social revolution reveals the extent of 'rot' underlying the bureaucracies hold on power.  The same may be true for nations like North Korea, China and Iran.  It was certainly true for the Imperial Russian regime, whose problems regarding economic and political reform became inflated over the course of World War I, providing a crucial backdrop for opportunists like Lenin and his Bolshevik party.  Yet, looking back to the nineteenth century relations between Russian peasants and the state, one can outline some of the same issues faced by modern states as discussed by Shirky- especially the problem of the 'conservative dilemma'.    

Dissonance between the view of the state and the view of the people can clearly be seen in peasant reinterpretations of tsarist edicts, discussed above.  Since handing down the edicts and deciding what versions were to be delivered or read to whom created a staggered reception pattern that generated prime conditions for peasants to use rumors against the state, a solution was devised that would supposedly address the issue.  In 1837, all provinces of Russia were ordered to publish a district newspaper that would act as a mouthpiece for official proclamations.  It was hoped standardization in print would eliminate peasant 'willfulness' in carrying out the tsar's wishes.  By simply looking at the record of peasant disturbances, instances where the level of peasant action drew the attention of regional and central authorities (one can assume many minor incidents were not recorded), over the course of the nineteenth century, one can see these hopes ran afoul of peasant manipulation of the new information stream.

The vast Russian lands made coordination difficult, a factor peasants
seized upon in their claims of resistance. via David Rumsey Map Collection.
As David Moon noted, mostly illiterate peasants utilized 'brokers', people who were literate or could write, to assist them in their reinterpretation of tsarist edicts.  Lack of direct, intimate knowledge of how to read or write failed to hinder the Russian peasant.  While the Russian authorities no doubt wished that the standardized printing of new laws would promote uniform interpretation among the literate members of society, in turn producing a uniform interpretation among the illiterate peasants who had the printed laws read to them, in truth the new media source failed produce the desired effects.  Peasants still took the information provided them and, through circulation among family, villages and markets, produced a 'mutation' that suited their needs.

This echoes a major point made by Shirky towards the end of his essay:
Activists in both repressive and democratic regimes will use the Internet and related tools to try to effect change in their countries, but Washington's ability to shape or target these changes is limited. (41)          
Again, this point was something Imperial Russian rulers and peasants alike would have known very well, although the terms they would have used to describe it would seem, at the least, antiquarian and, at the most, quaint.  However, as I attempted to demonstrate with my explorations into Russian peasants interactions with information streams, the new terminology and technology examined by Centola, McAlister and Shirky, among others,  provides only a new path for the exercise of old behaviors and strategies.  I presented Russian peasants because my study brings their daily life into close study, but I am assured that one could find similar parallels among the diverse and varied configurations of societies both now and in the past.  

While incorporating humanistic historical knowledge into the present day discussion on social media will not yield foolproof analysis or prediction, but it can provide a solid, empirical foundation of deep, ethnographic understanding, capable of supporting much more ambitious and informed debates from which we could all learn and benefit.  

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Peasant Muse on Facebook

One of the more interesting challenges of writing a blog today is finding a way to cut through the sheer noise the internet can hurl at ones media receptors.  While I enjoy writing posts on Peasant Muse as a way to hone my argumentative/persuasive/informative presentation skills, it is nice to receive feedback via comments and generally have more eyeballs read what I think- circulation of ideas and information is one of the primary goals of this blog.  To that end, I have generated a fair amount of traffic here by using my Facebook account to announce when I've finished a new post.  Now I've taken it one step further and created a separate Facebook page for Peasant Muse.

On the right column, you will notice I've put in a 'Like' button.  (Editors Note: I have removed the 'like' button, as I though it detracted from the main mission of Peasant Muse.  The Facebook page is still active, and if you 'like' it you will receive updates about this blog)  The Peasant Muse Facebook page will be the place to find shorter items I don't post here, as well as find out about updates I've made to the actual blog.  The Facebook page will not replace the blog, but instead help flesh out ideas and topics I think are interesting and provide a convenient place where more people can be exposed to Peasant Muse.  

If you enjoy reading what I write here, give me some Facebook love and spread the word.  I've really enjoyed the feedback on posts so far, and look forward to engaging in more conversations in the coming year.