Interview with the Anthropologist

by Alphaville Herald on 30/05/05 at 7:23 pm

Tom Bukowski (no relation to Charles)

We know they are here. Philosophers, journalists, sociologists, anthropologists, proctologists… And worse! But what are they up to as they skulk around the grid? In this interview our intrepid reporter Montserrat Snakeankle talks to Tom Bukowski, who by day is an anthropologist at UC Irvine and an avid shopper at Fashion Island (ok, I made that last part up) and some of the rest of the time a resident of SL. Tom talks about research methods (both on and offline), and his new book on gay subcultures in Indonesia, and other things too!

montserrat Snakeankle: ok let’s start this way: what would you like 2nd life readers to know about you?

Tom Bukowski: oh gosh – I’m a Taurus?

montserrat Snakeankle: for example: some researchers here say that their projects are shall we say, influenced or to some extent approved or disapproved by linden labs. what’s been your experience with LL

Tom Bukowski: Personally I’ve had no problem with LL. I went through the regular human subjects review at my university, which is all they ask. And anyway as far as I’m concerned my greatest ethical obligation is to my friends and acquaintances here

montserrat Snakeankle: so you have not had the experience of LL saying that they want oversight of your project, you have not been censored or had any discussion of that sort with them?

Tom Bukowski: Nope – nothing like that at all. That might be because my research project is so open-ended, or because I’m a more experienced researcher, I don’t know. but as I understand it (and my knowledge is limited)…most of the problems that have happened with researchers have involved undergraduates who weren’t properly trained or supervised

montserrat Snakeankle: have you discussed your projects on the SL forums? because at least in one case, a researcher got noticed by LL that way.

Tom Bukowski: Not yet, because I still don’t have much to say. That will happen. I’m just about to celebrate my first SL birthday but I haven’t really got going with my research yet. If you notice the book “The Gay Archipelago” behind you…

montserrat Snakeankle: yes

Tom Bukowski: you’ll see that it’s coming out in November…

montserrat Snakeankle: congratulations 8-)

Tom Bukowski: ty … Finishing that book and my teaching load at Irvine has been taking up all my time. But I’m really excited about having more time in sl

montserrat Snakeankle: yes it seems like it would! what kind of research to you plan here?

Tom Bukowski: Good question! My idea is that I want to approach sl just like I approach Indonesia, with the same methods and same respect towards my fellow travelers and study the cultures of sl

montserrat Snakeankle: do you expect to have resistance from residents? You know the old “we are not lab rats” thing

Tom Bukowski: so far I have not had one problem

montserrat Snakeankle: what were those approaches, in Indonesia, i mean

Tom Bukowski: lol Okay now there are like 3 questions lemme see — With my Indonesia research, there are important ethical issues — I am studying gay men and lesbian women there, in a predominantly Muslim country. I must be very careful to protect their confidentiality. It could have serious real world repercussions. So I am very, very careful about that. The people I work with there respect me. Not once in 13 years have I had someone say “I don’t want to be your lab rat” etc.. But I spent a long time there before starting research. getting to know people — that is very important. Now on to sl.

There may well be people who won’t want me to interview them or talk about them in my research, which is fine. Because as an anthropologist I’m trying to study the culture, not the individuals per se. And even the people I do interview or talk to, I will never use their real names or their real screen names, or even identifying info like “runs a great club in the Clunn sim” or whatever. Most of the problems that arise with research happen when people don’t protect confidentiality. If you respect people, I find that most of the time they want to be interviewed, they want to share their stories. So my experience is that 99% of what’s needed is just common sense and respect. That goes a long way

montserrat Snakeankle: i see. what about the problem of self-selection – for example at your meeting the other day, it seemed to me that people there were kind of stuck in a rut, asking questions that seemed very dated, kind of circular. how will you make your investigations relevant to present day thinking about tech?

Tom Bukowski: Ah, another good question!

montserrat Snakeankle: you flatter me, dr.

Tom Bukowski: For anthropologists doing ethnographic research, self-selection isn’t the problem, it’s part of the method

montserrat Snakeankle: how so?

Tom Bukowski: Our view is that while random sampling can do useful things, it has important limitations. every method has limitations.

montserrat Snakeankle: what limitations does your field enjoy?

Tom Bukowski: In the case of random sampling, the problem is that the statistical aggregate is taken to stand in for the society or culture — wait a sec — let me give you an example: let’s say I go to Japan and I want to study Japanese. I do a random survey of 10,000 or 100,000 people. from that data set I could learn a lot about the Japanese language, but I could never learn to speak Japanese. Now, I could also go to Japan and spend an intensive amount of time with 10 or even 5 people, live with them for a year — and from that data set of just 10 or 5 I could learn Japanese, and with that speak to millions of Japanese speakers. I would not learn every dialect, or every vocabulary item. so there are limitations but i would learn something broadly shared. so that’s how anthropologists study things. It’s always known to be a limited knowledge. but still useful and can say things that you can’t get from surveys. So I don’t expect that I will discover the “truth” of sl. But I can learn some of the broad patterns that are emerging. So you don’t want to talk only to the same circle of people of course — but “snowball sampling” is actually good because you want to learn how people interact with each other — and with surveys you atomize people and their responses. (That Japan language example is in my Gay Archipelago book by the way lol)

montserrat Snakeankle: it sounds like a very interesting book!

Tom Bukowski: lol ty let’s hope it sells more than 10 copies lol

montserrat Snakeankle: in a society as diverse as SL, how will you find the “motive” force, if any.

Tom Bukowski: I won’t in that sense, just like in my Indonesia research. Anthropologists are always finding what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledge’s”

montserrat Snakeankle: but it seems like there might be fewer cultural patterns in Indonesia than in SL

Tom Bukowski: Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world! It’s big, so it’s not that I think, lol. What I mean is in Indonesia for instance, I claim to have found a widespread set of cultural beliefs and practices that gay men and lesbians engage in… but I’m not claiming all Indonesians or even all gay men and lesbians in Indonesia think that way and in the same way…there can be interesting and widespread cultural things going on in sl worth discussing…but it’s not necessary to claim that everyone shares them or that they are motivating forces. All cultures involve debate and they are almost never homogenous, which is fine and interesting!

montserrat Snakeankle: let’s talk about haraway for a minute — if you don’t mind, because i think some of her ideas are relevant to my question

Tom Bukowski: Sure – Haraway isn’t an anthropologist but she is very influential in anthropology. I know her and she’s been at Irvine recently

montserrat Snakeankle: in haraway’s book “simians, cyborgs, and women” she talks about salvation history and the garden — yeah she used to be at ucsc, my native land

Tom Bukowski: I remember that, faintly (been a while since I read the book lol)

montserrat Snakeankle: now haraway suggests that mainstream meatbody culture for the most part clings to the idea of the garden and a culture like 2nd life, which a cyborg culture (although it builds gardens) on some level does not share those origin stories. what do you think about that relative to anthro research here

Tom Bukowski: hmm I’ll have to think about that! … not only the garden question, but is sl a cyborg culture – because I think cyborg culture and virtual culture might be different things, but then again might not. That’s a very interesting question. that’s sorta the kind of question I’m interested in more generally, very basic questions…like what does identity mean in sl when people can have alts or more than one person can control an avie? Or what does embodiment mean here in sl? That’s a great question I’ve been thinking about and I should re-read Haraway to help me think about it

montserrat Snakeankle: the thing here is that identity construction is easy. there’s no defined center

Tom Bukowski: I’m interested in a lot of those kind of big questions – language, for instance, is another one — yes it’s definitely different here…trying to figure out what exactly differs here from rl, and what does not, is a really interest gin question to me too. In my gay archipelago book…I actually talk about how I don’t use the term “Identity” anywhere in the book, really, what I walk about are subjectivities and subject positions, because in the West the language of identity is really tied up with notions of agency and choice

montserrat Snakeankle: i think that’s an interesting position. why did you choose it?

Tom Bukowski: so I think about the ways people can occupy subject positions in different ways the analogy I use is that we have a biological capacity to speak language…but no one speaks “language,” we speak English or Chinese or whatever… and there will never be a gene found for those…and in the same way, our subjectivities don’t just exist out of thin air…we occupy subject positions that form in culture and history… but how does that work differently here in sl? I don’t know yet . that is a very interesting question because there is great flexibility here great choice, but still within horizons of intelligibility so to speak

montserrat Snakeankle: don’t you think also that identity construction is involved with whatever fetish objects a community decides is important to it?

Tom Bukowski: Oh yes, definitely, and you really see that with the consumerism in sl, probably (still thinking about that)…but community is another big question….that’s actually a very complex term that isn’t found in many languages, Indonesian for instance…it tends to presuppose physical proximity, shared institutions, a lot of stuff. so here how do communities work? there are groups neighbors in a sim. all kinds of social groupings. that’s another interesting question I plan on learning more about.

montserrat Snakeankle: i wonder how you define community in a world where one person can belong to 12 groups, say. do you define it by nodes around the prson?

Tom Bukowski: yes, that’s a great question, and I really don’t know yet!

montserrat Snakeankle: patterns of belonging?

Tom Bukowski: Something like that perhaps. I’m at this stage of my life…where I’ve just finished that gay archipelago book (and I have a contract for a second book on gay Indonesians that will be finished in a couple months)…and now I’m starting this new research project…and it’s really fun to be in this place of having lots of questions but few answers…and what I find is that most people in sl are also asking lots of questions, and like the chance to talk about those questions

montserrat Snakeankle: well. is there anything else you’d like to tell the 2nd life community?

Tom Bukowski: Uhh…How about this… I’m typing off the top of my head here so hope this sounds good…

montserrat Snakeankle: it sounds great 8-)

Tom Bukowski: Because anthropologists do “participant observation” – that is, participating in the cultures they are researching…

montserrat Snakeankle: i really want to tell you how much i appreciate your time and good humor with this interview

Tom Bukowski: I think that good ethnographic research requires empathy, caring for the worlds you are studying. and I just thing sl is fantastic, and amazing new world my “research” doesn’t require a build a house like this lol obviously, I love sl personally as well as intellectually…and I’m just really honored and happy to be part of this new experiment in human sociality I can’t wait to see where we go! And I want to say that while there are controversies and grievers and all that…and you can learn about that easily on the forums lol my experience thus far is that…most people here are incredibly generous and patient…in fact, that’s one thing I want to research, people who don’t know anything about each other in rl share so much and there’s so much trust and I find that inspiring in this day and age that people from across the world come together here and what you find, overwhelmingly, is trust and respect. let people know they can come here anytime just to hang to or learn more about me

montserrat Snakeankle: thanks, i will do that…

Tom Bukowski: kewl

4 Responses to “Interview with the Anthropologist”

  1. Prokofy Neva

    May 31st, 2005

    The analogy of learning the Japanese language from a few people as a “data set” versus learning about Japanese culture from expose to lots of people doesn’t hold up for me. You seem to be saying that you can have an immersive study of say, 7 people in a grouplet, and that will be just as valid as if you had used the methods of a neighbouring field, sociology, and done a weighted, proper, sociological survey of say 1500 people on 30 sims or whatever. Will you use any of those sociological survey methods? I think montserrat is right to probe on the issue of self-selectivity. You didn’t mention the role of your regular “focus groups” or informal meetings on different topics. These are surely self-selected, they join the group Digital Cultures and then they are notified of the meetings (or see the notices among the Tringos). The other day I went to one of these and it was the usual forums types promoting the usual socialism — sorry, but there it is, the usual small-but-vocal-minority stumping against business, land-dealers, etc. and bemoaning the “commercialization” of SL blah blah. I pointed this out, made a vew comments, got the usual smackdown, told I was “lying” etc — the usual. So I left the group and said I’d put an alt on it. I see someone else who has like 4 alts on that group (wonder what’s up with that — trying to give Tom some good group numbers to win a contest or something lol?) Oh, well, if nothing else, Tom can study alts. My point is, I think you have to get out more. Groups like that are a terribly tiny slice of the SL life. You really have to roam around a lot more, and honestly, to really study SL, Tom, you should get 4 alts yourself,male, female, furry, etc., and go around and hang out and wildly different places. It’s the only way.

  2. Azriel Sands

    Jul 13th, 2007

    Check out Tom’s book coming out in April 2008: Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton University Press. He’s a great writer!

  3. Ich

    Jul 16th, 2007

    Tom Bukowski is ein Vollspack

  4. Anya Daligdig

    Dec 7th, 2007

    I didn’t see Tom saying he had different learning goals from the two different subsets (small group versus massive; learning Japanese vs. learning Japanese culture) but that his goal was the same with each group: to learn Japanese. I believe his point is that different forms of research will lead to different types of learning, but what one learns in either case will be valid insofar as the group makeup fits the goal.

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