Fields of care and online collaboration

There’s a good discussion over at the Savage Minds anthropology group blog in relation to the recent publication of an article discussing the pros and cons of Open Access Anthropology.

The article has been written by no less than seven anthropologists using email and Google Docs to create an online collaborative space. Following the publication of the article, the authors have also posted it in a CommentPress format, where everybody can add their comments to text.

Interestingly, the follow-up discussion to the article on the Savage Minds blog focuses on why it is so difficult to engage other academics in a follow-up discussion using such an open format like CommentPress. Christopher Kelty, one of the article’s authors, writes:

I for one, am not surprised at what Rex called the ??lackluster success? of certain projects??-like the ??modulations? of (…) the Anthropology of/in Circulation article (…) ? in large part because I have become more and more familiar with the tenacious grasp that sedimented habits and practices can have on people…

Alex “Rex” Golub introduced to the discussion the term “field of care” to describe how we structure our time and priorities, as well as the values we see in our work. As Christopher Kelty sums it up,

… it is something learned, but not quickly, and something social??-it is not possible to simply opt out of it. Whether or not people take up a project in academia is heavily structured by this field of care, which to outsiders starts to look like tradition, conservatism, expertise, or maybe madness, depending.

I’m fascinated by this idea of a “field of care” – it seems to contain our individual goals and the means through which we expect to fulfill them. It is the reach of what we care about. In this understanding, the lack of people engaging with the above article seems to be that it is not part of their field of care. Kelty writes:

For academic contributions to feel meaningful within a field of care, they must also feel special, in the sense of participating in cutting edge research, in work that needs to get done, and to something that plays to one??s strengths? in some ways this was indeed the experience of writing that interview, and not the experience of reading it or discussing it. So absolutely, there may not be much more to discuss in the frame of that interview simply because the moment of participation is over.

What??s more it was conducted in an old-schoolish way, via email and on a private google docs document, and maybe it should have been on the comment press site all along, with invitation for people to comment as the core content unfolded? but that would have been too much of a free for all, and relates to my point that the tools don??t necessarily support the kinds of collaborations we know well and care about.

In a way, the ‘moment of participation’ in which the article came about could only be open to a small group of people collaborating. If it had been open, it would have been a free-for-all, which, quite likely, wouldn’t have allowed seven individuals shape it as personally and thoughtfully as they have (though that, again, is a tradeoff against letting many people get involved with their collective insight and ideas).

This got me to thinking about how social web entrepreneur Ross Mayfield‘s 3 levels of network ties on weblogs might fit with the idea of “fields of care” in the context of online collaboration.

Mayfield posits that there are three different types of networks developing among weblogs: creative, social, and political networks. A concise presentation of these are given in Joi Ito’s collaboratively written paper Emergent Democracy:

A creative network is a flat network of a production-oriented group of close associates with deep trust and dense inter-linking. It is said that 12 people is the optimum number for holding a dinner conversation or a tight team.

A social network is the traditional weblog form. The Law of 150 is a theory that people can maintain an average of 150 personal relationships. The Law of 150 is a bell-shaped distribution where some weblogs receive more attention than others, but the distribution fairly represents the quality of the weblogs.

A political network follows [Clay] Shirky’s power law and is similar to a representative democracy where weblogs receive links from thousands of other weblogs. Each link may be thought of as a vote. The weblogs at the top of this power curve have a great deal of influence.


It is the ability to operate in all three of Mayfield’s clusters, and to transcend boundaries between them that make weblogs so potentially powerful. A single weblog and even a single entry in a weblog can have an operational purpose, a social purpose, and an impact on the political network. (…) For instance, when I blog something about Emergent Democracy, I may be speaking creatively to the small group of researchers working on this paper; socially to a larger group of friends who are thinking along with me and trying to get a handle on the concept; and on a political level to readers I don??t know, but who I??m hoping to influence with my talk about a new kind of politics.

Following this, it wouldn’t be possible for more than 12 people to collaborate closely on an article such as “Anthropology in/of Circulation”. These collaborators would have the article at the centre of their field of care, at least for the duration of the collaboration. Another 150 people could have the article at the periphery of their field of care, and offer a comment or some sort of modulation (such as this blog post). And thousands of others might read the article and reflect upon it in order to relate it to their own field of care, even link to it, but – for one reason or another – remain passive.

The issue, then, seems to be how to make the most of the potential for collaboration and peer-review from each type of network.

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