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Author: Kathryn Graber
Title: "Personal Communication, 2006": Authorship and Ownership in Anthropology
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: "Personal Communication, 2006": Authorship and Ownership in Anthropology
Kathryn Graber

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [200kb ]

“Personal Communication, 2006”: Authorship and Ownership in Anthropology

Kathryn Graber

Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

“...and that is why the Berlin Wall fell.” My colleague-friend taps the table with a finger to emphasize her point. “Hey, that’s good!” says one of the assembled. He cocks his head to one side, looks thoughtful, swirls the beer in his glass. “Can I cite you on that?” We laugh, adding to the surrounding din of the bar, and a third speaker raises one eyebrow with a twinkle in her eye. “Personal communication, 2006?” she suggests, drawing double quotation marks in the air.

I have heard variations of this joke several times in graduate school, and have probably made it myself on more than one occasion. Why is it so popular? At the risk of killing a joke by outing its efficacy, I would note preliminarily that the humor draws on a collective uncertainty about how to navigate the space between ‘official’ academic discussion and ‘unofficial’ friendly conversation. Whether our colleague-friend is more colleague or more friend will depend on her footing and the frame of her utterance (Goffman 1974, 1981); clearly in this instance, we feel a mismatch between the suggestion that her footing is that of a citable scholar and the frame provided by a late-night bar. A great deal of humor plays on such mismatches, whether it be the antics of Borat at formal dinners or the image of an elite political figure in a silly costume or cartoon. Managing shifts between frames (public and private, formal and informal, and so on) often proves both very difficult and very consequential, and the resulting anxiety surrounding this management makes for good comedy.

But this is specifically a graduate student joke in that it also plays on our uncertainty about how to treat the discourse of colleagues-in-training who are not yet publishing articles. What is worthwhile in our discourse, and what is not? When are we taking ourselves too seriously, and when not seriously enough? It is not yet clear whether we ourselves are ‘authors’; nor is it clear whether and when we should treat one another as the originators or owners of particular ideas. We may suspect that many in-text journal citations noted as “personal communication” refer to informal conversations like ours at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), but we are not yet members of that professional cadre ourselves, so we play at making citable assertions about the nature of human society over beer, poking gentle fun at our senior mentors while simultaneously aspiring to be them.

In short, the “personal communication” joke is about academic professionalization and its attendant anxieties. It is about learning to treat ourselves and one another as the authors and owners of particular ideas, discourses, and texts, while necessarily excluding other ways of thinking about intellectual origin and attribution. This essay draws out some of the conceptions of authorship and intellectual property that we learn in the course of graduate school socialization in anthropology, with special attention to ethnographic writing. How do we learn to give one another credit and distinguish between authors and non-authors in anthropological texts? When do informal conversations with peers become naturalized as moments of authorial genesis, and when, by the same token, do informal conversations with field consultants become naturalized as instances of ‘collecting’ non-authored data? How do we make and mark the difference? How do we become authors and owners ourselves?

I begin by exploring what citation practices mean and do for us as scholars and scholars-in-training, underscoring some of the peculiarities of citation practices in anthropology. Graduate socialization into citation practices is explored, as well as the textual emergence of an authorial self through citation. I then consider our native ideology of authorship and authorial right, drawing especially on principles implicit in the philosophy of copyright. While explicit graduate socialization into copyright law may be cursory or nonexistent, the philosophy of copyright provides a way of examining underlying cultural ideas about authorship, many of which we learn, hold, and reinforce unknowingly (and sometimes in direct contradiction to our academic ideals). Authorship, I argue, is especially sensitive and fraught in cultural anthropology—and with good reason. Scholars and non-scholars, natives and non-natives, insiders and outsiders, storytellers, friends, wordsmiths, etc. all contribute to the ethnographic knowledge and interpretation that is ultimately expressed in a published text, which nonetheless usually sports a sole author on the dust jacket. As anthropologists, we must at some level distrust the implication of hegemonic ‘truth’-telling, the easy institutional credibility, the drive to elevate ourselves as the arbiters of ethnographic knowledge. We also possess the terrifying responsibility of representing the various persons who do not appear on the dust jacket, hopefully in an empowering and sensitive way. Graduate students are therefore socialized into a deep ambivalence about how ethnographic texts fit into copyright and intellectual property regimes. Below, I extend this ambivalence by considering some anthropological reasons to critique copyright and some theoretical ways of denaturalizing singular authorship. I will not advocate a programmatic overhaul of graduate socialization on these issues; rather, I offer this essay in a reflective spirit, encouraging more careful consideration of the consequences of our current modes of scholarly authorship and ownership—as well as some possible alternatives.

What’s your “impact factor”?: citation practices and why they matter

Our joke draws on real, pan-academic anxiety about being externally validated by a scholastic community. Frequency of citation is often taken to be a direct index of scholarly importance. In the biological and physical sciences in particular, the value of this index has been quantified, its measurement developed into a science itself by statisticians like Eugene Garfield. Citations, in Garfield’s model, are the primary determinant of the overall “impact factor” of a particular journal, where the “impact factor” refers to the ratio of the number of citations received to the number of articles published. The correspondence between citations and scholarly impact has been controversial (Garfield 2005), but it remains important to ranking scientific journals, and it has been picked up in the social sciences and humanities as well. Prospective graduate students seeking to rank anthropology departments on, for instance, will see two criteria for “Faculty Reputation and Activity”: the average number of citations per faculty member and peer-assessed faculty quality ( 2007). Such ranking systems are, however, only the grossest way in which citations matter. More often, citations build a scholar’s reputation in subtler ways.

Citing a particular author legitimizes that author’s voice and affirms her contribution to scholarly debate (Lutz 1990). Citations rapidly enter a feedback loop: when an author is cited, he or she has been flagged as worth reading (and citing), and so is cited again, particularly if the context of the original citation was work by a heavily read scholar. By the same token, a reputable scholar not citing a given work where it would have been relevant indicates either ignorance of its existence or intentional exclusion, both of which reflect negatively on the uncited author. The context of most citations is positive—that is, the writer agrees with the argument being cited (Cozzens 1989, Lutz 1990). However, even if the context of a citation is negative, the appearance of a citation lends credence to the cited author because it implies that the author’s argument is worth criticizing in a public academic forum (Hutson 2002). Moreover, in a variety of ways, citation practices inside of texts can reflect and reify important social practices outside of texts.

Patterns of citation reflect positioning within interpersonal networks and, potentially, the hierarchical relations endemic to those networks—such as differential treatment of the work of women and men. This particular correlation has received some reflexive attention from concerned anthropologists. Based on a survey of anthropological journals like American Anthropologist, Ethos, and American Ethnologist, Catherine Lutz (1990) found that through the end of the 1980s, women were citing women more often than men were citing women. The proportional citation of women’s scholarship (compared to men’s) was significantly less than would be expected given their proportional occupancy of prestigious academic jobs, a phenomenon that Lutz called the “erasure of women’s writing.” Similar studies have extended Lutz’s analysis into archaeology (Hutson 2002), sociolinguistics, and linguistic anthropology (McElhinny et al. 2003), finding similar gender-based citation patterns in the key journals of these subfields. [1] Bonnie McElhinny and her co-authors (2003) have also qualitatively examined textbooks as a venue in which scholarly canons are constructed through citation.

Scott Hutson suggests that bibliometric analyses like his can reveal detrimental patterns that may otherwise operate “below the level of awareness” (2002:331). [2] Indeed, because most in-text citations in English contain only non-gender-specific last names, the main text of an article or textbook will not readily reveal gender-skewed citation patterns. And chances are good that the author using a male-heavy bibliography is not aware of his (or, though less likely, her) choices. Only upon closer inspection do we see how painfully common it is for us to treat authors of one social category as more influential and citation-worthy than authors of another social category—despite the fact that by the usual standards of academic worth (such as rank, training, or institutional affiliation), they might be considered equal.

Learning to cite like an anthropologist

The social consequences of citations are by no means peculiar to anthropology, and learning citation practices is a fundamental part of academic professionalization in all disciplines. But anthropologists take it particularly seriously. Style guides to citation format tell us that anthropology is “especially concerned” with acknowledging the work of others (USD 1995), and this concern is demonstrated to some degree in anthropological citation style. In comparison with scholars in, say, sociology or history, anthropologists strongly favor placing citations within the main text rather than in footnotes or endnotes. Citation practices within American anthropology are discipline-specific and standardized across institutions. A simple review of the anthropological style guides that are currently available online reveals that all anthropology departments in the United States that have posted such guides follow AAA format (see AAA 2003), with most citing American Anthropologist as the model.

I have also heard it said that anthropologists cite more than scholars in related fields. While I have not undertaken an extensive bibliometric analysis to test this intuition, it at least appears valid upon review of two recent issues of the flagship journals of the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association. The main research articles and reports contained within the October 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review had an average of 46 unique citations per article, while comparable articles in the September 2007 issue of the American Anthropologist had an average of 73 unique citations per article.

If anthropologists do have a disciplinary preoccupation with citation, why? I would argue that anxieties about citation should be especially poignant within our field, for several reasons. Firstly, textual ‘property’-sharing in anthropology presents special practical challenges. Like most academics, anthropologists often co-author theoretical and ethnographic works with their academic colleagues—and I do not mean to discount those collaborations here. But what is more difficult and interesting is the sort of secondary authorship that is diffused through networks of fieldwork consultants, assistants, and friends, as well as through networks of fellow scholars—all of whom may be socially proximal or temporally and geographically distant, and all of whom must be credited somewhere, be it in acknowledgments, endnotes, or bibliographies.

As a point of comparison, laboratory sciences tend to treat the individuals who contribute ideas, technical expertise, and grunt work as co-authors. Journals often accommodate long rosters of co-authors, and many lab-based disciplines have devised ways of marking a joint author’s degree of involvement, such as through by-line ordering. But “scientific authorship” does not follow the logic of literary authorship (Biagioli 2003), and, as Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar have shown, the successful assertion of ‘facts’ in scientific discourse depends on there being no qualifying statements and “no trace of authorship”—though relative “facticity” may be impacted by qualifying statements (1986:82–83). Cultural anthropology sometimes concerns itself with the objective discovery of facts but diverges from laboratory sciences in being primarily a writing discipline—introducing a second reason to be more concerned with citation practices. Anthropological writing inhabits an odd place between, on the one hand, assigning credit and responsibility for truth claims according to scientific disciplinary standards and, on the other hand, embodying some of the ideals of literary auteur-ship. Ethnographic writers might be compensating for the inherent subjectivity of their craft by backing up claims with references to scholars who agree. That is, what cannot be ‘proven’ can at least be attested by a second scholar.

Thirdly, anxieties over representing others might predispose ethnographers to attend more assiduously to the ownership of words and information. Managing the ‘ownership’ of ethnographic writing is a matter of balancing (at least) three competing images of the author-ethnographer: as a creative individual auteur, as a member of a professional cadre with scientific authority (and attendant responsibilities toward ‘truth’-telling), and as a voice or even spokesperson for the people described. The responsibility of textually representing one’s co-workers (‘the natives’) makes the ethnographer especially attuned to the origins of knowledge. But origins are made as much as discovered. Part of what we are doing, when citing a given work or author, is re-fixing the ownership of an idea or piece of information—in short, partible knowledge—within a person rather than leaving it in its scarily and impractically diffuse ‘natural’ social environment.

Finally, we should be concerned with our own citation practices within anthropology because we continually seek to question categories such as property, authorship, authority, audience, personhood, and the relationships between them. To this end, Alessandro Duranti published a brief reflection in Pragmatics on a bizarre incident in which his own work was plagiarized by a French linguist, Christian Baylon. In the piece, which he entitled “Beyond Bakhtin, or the dialogic imagination in academia,” Duranti reflects on the fact that as a linguistic anthropologist, he usually works to problematize notions of unitary voicing and singular authorship. He asks whether, in supporting his academic publisher in pursuing the plagiarist, he is not himself “selling out to the very same logic I was so strongly criticizing in my writing about intentionality and audience as co-author? Shouldn’t I rebel to such a practice and refuse its very assumptions? Why do institutions dare to ask questions that many of their members would be ashamed of?” (Duranti 1993:338)

In my experience, we (student-anthropologists) do not often discuss these quandaries because our socialization into academic authorship and ownership happens largely below the level of awareness. We might think about it in the context of honor codes and other institutional policies regarding plagiarism and academic integrity, particularly if we teach undergraduate students as Teaching Assistants or Graduate Student Instructors. There is an oft-cited rule that plagiarism has been committed when a string of six or more consecutive words is copied verbatim from an independent source; I myself have this in mind when evaluating student work. We might also learn anthropology-specific citation practices from faculty mentors, as they add citations in the margins of our seminar papers and urge us to move citations from our endnotes into the main text. However, we mainly learn citation practices not through any explicit instruction, but by example: by reading hundreds of thousands of pages of other anthropologists’ work. Graduate seminars encourage us to categorize works according to repetitive syllabi headings, and to associate a few key authors with domains of research and knowledge, so that (for example) the mention of “power” will trigger the involuntary response “Foucault.” This is how canons and schools of thought emerge, which can be very productive, but it is also how citation patterns like those revealed by Lutz, Hutson, and McElhinny et al. can quietly self-reproduce.

Learning citation patterns, however, is only one part of graduate socialization into anthropological authorship. We are also continually being socialized into wider cultural patterns and ideological constructions of authorship and ownership that, like Duranti, we might otherwise wish to interrogate.

The authorial self

The preceding discussion has treated texts as pieces or extensions of persons, circulating in academic discourse through direct quotation and through citation-in-passing. [3] As is evident from the concern over gender-skewed citation practices, citations are important as much for their ability to flag persons as for their ability to move ideas or data through academic networks. In fact, in the way we treat and discuss academic publications, texts are often synonymous with persons. This is especially clear in the slippage between speaking of scholars and speaking of the specific works of those scholars: between “citing Foucault” and “citing Foucault’s discussion of such-and-such in The History of Sexuality.” (Note also that a physical copy of The History of Sexuality can be called “Foucault,” as in the response to “What is that thing lying there on the table?”—and the text contained within it can likewise be “Foucault,” as in the response to “What [or ‘who’] are you reading?”) The citation becomes a metonym for a person—where a ‘person’ amounts to an embodied locus of formal/professional and informal relations, ideas, and information flows. The practice of referring to such loci thus becomes a way of positioning oneself within networks of academic persons and information flows; it becomes a matter not only of establishing other people’s ownership of texts, but also of establishing one’s own authorial self (Scollon 1994). One of the fundamental functions of a citation is, after all, to assert knowledge of—and position within—existing scholarship. [4]

My above reference to Foucault, for instance, places me in the broader category of students who went to college in the last years of the 20th century, when to write a term paper on almost any topic entailed “citing Foucault.” I have referred already to lines of thought extending from Bakhtin and Goffman, which might position me variously as a student of poetics, literary criticism, sociology, or the ethnography of communication. Michigan students might recognize a body of literature from Stuart Kirsch’s property seminar, and linguistic anthropology students anywhere probably see parts of the ‘canon’ cropping up. In this essay, in other words, I am not exactly challenging my own socialization into academic citation practices. I am adhering to standard academic citation format to establish my academic credibility, citing some major works (and at least one graduate student) on intellectual property to show that I have some clue about existing literature, and resisting the postmodern temptation to do a glib send-up of authorship by writing one long plagiarized pastiche or by listing 65 authors and institutions on the by-line (though these might be worthwhile exercises elsewhere). Hopefully, my authorial self is emerging as that of a well-meaning graduate student who genuinely cares about the political and theoretical implications of anthropological authorship. However, understanding the relationship between this authorial self and its/her instantiation in this text requires attending more explicitly to how texts are ‘owned.’

Ideologies of authorship: copyright and intellectual property regimes

Investing a text with authorship requires some ideological work. ‘Authors’ must be co-constructed with texts in order to establish an ‘owning’ relationship of one to the other. The most basic ideas about textual ownership found in professional anthropology are not specific to the discipline. We probably do not need to be explicitly socialized into these ideas during graduate school. Rather, they are part of a larger cultural milieu, proceeding from the principles of labor-value, authorial right, and immaterial property as they have been taken up in the philosophy of copyright.

Learning academic citation practices is a more obvious part of graduate student socialization into authorship and ownership. But copyright law is worth looking at more closely here because it contains some of the most explicit statements regarding the relationship between authors and property, and adherence to it is probably the clearest way in which we demonstrate our commitment to certain underlying principles. We do not necessarily think about copyright on a daily basis (a recent workshop for graduate students at the University of Michigan was advertised with the opening line, “When you’re working on your dissertation, copyright law is probably the last thing on your mind”), except insofar as it prevents us from being able to copy articles or dramatically increases the price of doing so. Plagiarism is arguably a more salient topic on university campuses, but its definition differs from institution to institution; it sometimes provides the basis for a case of copyright infringement, but unlike copyright infringement, it does not have a federal legal definition. The six-word plagiarism rule is a crude shortcut for identifying a text, but in order for that text to be framed as academically authored, unique, and worthy of citation when re-embedded, it must first be established that someone has an authorial right to control its distribution. Such rights are articulated in copyright law.

The basic philosophy of copyright revolves around two very different but interlocking principles: 1) a Lockean view of property right based on the labor-value mixed into texts; [5] and 2) a romantic view of authorial right based on the inalienable creative spirit embodied in a work. [6] Following Locke, the copyright systems of the United Kingdom and the United States are based on the principle that authors and publishers have produced value in a text that should be financially rewarded because they have mixed their labor with ‘natural’ thought. “[I]t is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing” (Locke 1980:25). The labor-value principle can be applied to many different individuals within a productive chain or network, and a key element of copyright is that the authorial labor-value is distinct from the labor-value accumulated through the work of printers, typesetters, and bookbinders. For a publisher (or producer), the labor is the transformation of a text into a material object, or text artifact. For an author (or performer), the labor is the making of that text through the speaking, playing, performing—in short, the expressing—of a particular thought, emotion, or inspiration, in a definite form. To take the Lockean metaphor of the ‘wild commons’ to its natural conclusion, copyright exists to reward various individuals for taming the wild sphere of thought and inspiration, including authors for their domestication of some creative effervescence.

The second principle is based on the notion of the authorial “Geist” or ‘spirit’ present within every work. In this view, an immaterial authorial right proceeds from the author’s ties to the work; the text is essentially inalienable. Martha Woodmansee has traced the development of this view to German romanticism and Herder, who observed that “one ought to be able to regard every book as the imprint [Abdruck] of a living human soul” and thus reconceived of the book as “an imprint or record of the intellection of a unique individual” (Woodmansee 1994:55). [7] A given textual product thus embodies the creative spirit of an individual creator and, insofar as it acts as an extension or ‘piece’ of that creator, is not separable from her.

Whether the dominant argument in a given copyright claim is based on Lockean labor-value or on authorial right, it fundamentally concerns immaterial rights. Copyright seems to demand rights only over text artifacts (physical copies), but in fact in its ‘truest’ form it seeks rights over the texts themselves (Rose 1993). [8] Texts, as distinct from the material objects, may be defined as the pieces and instances of talk or music that get detached from their original production, circulated and re-contextualized in speech and different contexts, and eventually (possibly) made into text artifacts. Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban have distinguished between the text and the text artifact in order to show how fragments of culture may be made into texts (in their words, entextualized) “to create a seemingly shareable, transmittable culture” without those texts necessarily being made into material objects (1996:4). The distinction is only a rough starting point, but it is useful in thinking about the object of ownership in copyright. Rights of reproduction, like all property rights, do not consist only of controlling discrete things that are alienable and materially bounded; rather, they mediate social relationships and cultural reproduction (see also Hohfeld 1913). Copyright then extends from the thingy text artifacts themselves to the texts they instantiate, creating intellectual property rights over immaterial entities. This can be seen especially clearly in the principle of partible rights. As it currently exists in the United States, copyright law distinguishes between inalienable authorial rights [9] and the rights of all of those other individuals and professional networks that are involved in the production of books and articles (Litman 2001). That is, copyright is divisible between writers and publishers, authors and distributors, and the makers of texts and the makers of text artifacts.

Copyright law in the United States is currently under fire from various sides, particularly in light of recent developments in internet-based file-sharing and other forms of digital exchange that make current laws appear (at best) archaic and (at worst) suffocatingly restrictive (Lessig 2002 and 2004, Litman 2001). As graduate students, we often find ourselves and our mentors only dimly aware of legal restrictions on photocopying, scanning, and film screening. Or we may be actively encouraged to ignore such restrictions, making it seem as though we are being socialized to resist copyright rather than respect it.

At the same time, however, American academics have internalized an ideology of individual textual ownership that is not going to be seriously challenged by changing the overlying legal framework of textual exchange. In an innovative session at the University of Michigan in October 2007, intellectual property attorneys and experts met with librarians and academics to discuss, as stated in the University Library’s announcement, “strategies for being a responsible copyright holder in a time of increasing limitations on rights and access.” No one in this session was arguing that texts should not be thought of as property, nor that individual writers should not be thought of as sole creators and rights-bearers in textual properties. On the contrary, the predominant argument was that academic authors should retain copyrights as often and as extensively as possible, in order to ensure the greater visibility and exposure of their writings. The implication here is that the publisher will want to restrict the circulation of an author’s work more than the author will. That is, the academic author will most profit from unfettered distribution through photocopying, online exchange, and so on, while the publisher will most profit from tightly restricted access—the ‘profit’ being essentially symbolic in the former party’s case and financial in the latter party’s case. Ironically, the author must accept and aggressively retain her copyrights (buying fully into the intellectual property regime) in order to protect her work from becoming a victim of the intellectual property system. The logic is impeccable, but it places the academic author in a strange social—and ideological—position. By rhetorically placing the individual author and publication industries at odds with one another, the advice to ‘keep your copyright’ reifies the position of an individual creator-possessor as outside and even opposed to larger social networks of text-artifactual production. Moreover, the advice indirectly emphasizes the individuality of the creator-possessor over larger possible social networks of textual production. Because copyright law was formed with single authorship in mind, it is most easily discussed and wrangled by single authors. To ‘keep your copyright’ responsibly is thus to cut the number of authors down to a manageable size, preferably of one.

The doctrine of sole authorship that underlies copyright law is strongly inculcated in graduate programs in anthropology, regardless of whether we recognize it as having anything to do with property rights. While graduate students are rarely instructed to not co-publish, we are routinely encouraged to assert territorial rights over our field sites, research topics, contacts, and ideas. Fortunately, true nastiness is the province of a limited few, but one would be hard-pressed to find an advanced graduate student in anthropology who has not encountered some form of territoriality from fellow students or other scholars. This might not be new, but it might be felt more acutely now as current graduate students sense a looming crisis in academic publishing: with fewer resources for hard-copy printing, increasing competition at top academic presses, and mounting publication requirements for tenure, how will you (the late-stage graduate student) get your first monograph published? Exerting ‘rights’ to a field site or research topic might be a practical response to such fears—and it is a response that jibes with our native intellectual property regime.

Ethnographic quandaries in authorial rights

There are, however, reasons to turn a more critical gaze on existing ideologies of authorship and ownership, especially as they are instantiated in the intellectual property regimes into which we are socialized. The young ethnographer enters the field with an idea about gathering data, collating and interpreting data into a text, and (eventually) submitting that text as a solely authored dissertation. Even with the natty problems of copyright law, this process seems relatively straightforward. But, as is evident from the historical work described above, intellectual property regimes are highly specific to Euro-American intellectual traditions, and their applicability elsewhere in the world is far from clear (Strathern 2005). Depending on where the student has been working and on myriad specificities in her relationships, her consultants and coworkers might not share her idea of what it means to produce a singly authored text. Words might not be ‘ownable,’ or they might be totally inalienable, or they might not travel innocuously through texts. In that case, is the ethnographer using a sort of sleight-of-hand in producing texts that conform to our own ideologies but that are in some way about the ideologies of others? Is it unethical to place the words of others within one’s own home-culture framework of owned and authored texts?

An easy answer (and ultimately the only practical solution) is: “No. Just write your dissertation.” But during graduate training, our anxieties about this problem are intense and pervasive. They are evident in methods courses, in applications to institutional review boards and independent ethics committees, and in conversations in graduate student lounges, as we grapple with the question of who is doing the ‘work’ of authoring our ethnographic texts. We try to find the perfect terms for the people with whom and about whom we work and speak in the field: Are they my “informants”? My “consultants”? “Subjects” sounds too removed and lab-based, while “collaborators” gives the possibly false impression that some or all of the people under study have vetted the final text. Similarly, we worry about whether, how, and when to show the texts we produce to the people they are about. Should they have input? If so, what sort? When is the ethnographic frame broken? When would you need to add an individual to the by-line of your text?

In large part, these questions have to do with ambiguities in the basic principles of authorial rights—ambiguities that always exist, but become clearer when conducting and writing ethnography. To fulfill the Lockean principle of authorial right based on labor-value, there must be some identifiable creative work that the ethnographer has performed. Where is the creative effervescence that is being tamed by the ethnographer-author? Most often it would be locatable (if it is locatable at all) not in her native culture, but in the culture under study. Even if she is working within her own culture, ethnographic conventions require that she cite and explain the specific sources—individuals in one-on-one interactions, performances, media representations, etc.—from which she gathered her evidence. Some of the labor of creative effervescence-taming might be seen as performed by these sources. When the origin of a given text or idea is clear, an ethnographer might be able to attribute authorship by using a consultant’s real name, but this is further complicated by tenuous rules about when to use pseudonyms, when to use real names, and when to identify a person obliquely by class, profession, age, or another relevant category. A related difficulty is distinguishing between the creative labor of initiating ‘an’ idea and the creative labor of expressing it in tangible form. According to current U.S. law, ideas are not copyrightable. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to distinguish between an idea and its textual expression (see Pennycook 1996).

Moreover, it is difficult to identify the point at which something as vague as the cultural milieu or ‘creative effervescence’ stops and individually directed creation begins. Where, exactly, is the creative ‘spirit’ embodied in an authored text? Is it in a text’s “style and sentiment,” as William Blackstone (1760) would have it? How can we identify the “identity of a literary composition” in its “language” (Blackstone 1767:405)? Where, in short, does authorship lie? If it is sited within a text’s peculiar turns of phrase, footnotes, or punctuation, we must have some criteria for determining which of those markers of ‘style’ are more generally conventional, which are specific to a particular professional cadre, and which are wholly individual to the author. Somehow the culture (or professional subculture) at large must be producing criteria through what Urban (2001) has described as a “metaculture of newness,” such that texts can be identified as unique to a given author. To the extent that authorship can then be sited, culturally or metaculturally, in a ‘culture’ rather than in an individual, should authorial rights also be ascribed to that culture?

Singular author-owners and their alternatives

Thus far, I have examined citation practices and the philosophy of copyright as ways in which singular author-owners are constructed and maintained within academic writing—and specifically in anthropology as we are currently being socialized into it. In this section, I review some theoretical ways of denaturalizing singular authorship and some alternative models of authorship.

First, it is worth considering texts that are seen as unauthored. The notion of authorial right requires that there be 1) an identifiable author who has 2) a creative spirit or essence that is 3) embodied in a text. How are these criteria met, and who decides? Surely not everyone is considered an ‘author,’ nor every work ‘authored.’ Michel Foucault has pointed out that the “author function” affects different types or genres of discourse quite differently according to their place and time, with literary texts at present being invested with authorship (and authorial ownership) in a way that, for example, scientific discourses of ‘invention’ and ‘discovery’ are not (Foucault 1984:108–109). The texts on restaurant menus, traffic signs, and the backs of cereal boxes pervade our daily lives, but we would be hard-pressed to call them ‘authored.’ Perhaps this is partly because they pervade our daily lives, and therefore do not appear to have any special creative standing. But more than that, I would argue, these texts appear unauthored because they are more saliently the products of whole social networks and institutions, rather than of discrete individuals.

So, what about cultural products like myths, legends, epic poems, etc., that often cannot be attributed to a single author but rather emerge from broader cultural sources? For the purposes of claiming authorial rights in copyright law, the idea of the ‘author’ is often more broadly construed than in classic conceptions of authorship—as evidenced by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s insistence on determining authorial rights in “Happy Birthday,” “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and Girl Scouts’ campfire songs. Such songs (texts) are widely held to be either anonymously authored or simply unauthored within American culture, such that the RIAA’s attempts to assert exclusive authorial rights have led to both social and legal conflicts. “Happy Birthday” appears to have, in the minds of many Americans, ‘cultural’ authorship—and ownership. Crucially, however, creation in the legal authorial-rights model is based in the individual. When there is no obvious single author-person, authorial rights may revert to the public domain, but they will often fall first to some other sort of single author-entity, usually an incorporated institution like a recording company or publisher that can be legally treated as an individual.

Such institutions provide an alternative model of collective or diffused authorship. This is not co-authoring like the laboratory sciences model mentioned above, and it is not cultural authoring like that of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider;” rather, this is collective authoring, or publishing as a group entity. Large newspapers, for instance, diffuse authorship throughout networks of stringers, staff reporters, and editors, taking institutional credit for triumphs and institutional responsibility for shoddy or fabricated reporting. Reporters may exert different degrees of creative control, but there are separate cultural categories for the journalist and the literary author (Pedelty 1995). It is worth keeping in mind that the ideologies of authorship discussed above have grown out of legal debates over the creation and distribution of literary texts. Journalistic writing, like ethnographic writing, has an odd relationship to literary authorship because of the number of sources, writers, and editors involved, because of the highly intertextual nature of news journalism, and because objective reporting aspires to be like scientific discourse in ‘discovering’ facts. News agencies boost the aura of objectivity by downplaying authorial creativity in favor of by-lines that read simply “AP” or “Reuters.”

Within anthropological theory, the singularity of authorship has also been denaturalized through a broad turn to Bakhtin’s (1981[1934-1935]) observations regarding dialogicity and heteroglossia and subsequent work on entextualization processes (e.g., Hanks 1989; Silverstein and Urban 1996; Spitulnik 2002; Wilce 2005). [10] If all discourse is dialogic, as Bakhtin suggests, then the construction of particular authors through Foucault’s author function—and the dependent notion of ownership through authorship—must reflect endemic power relations rather than an inherent relationship between texts and persons. With their continuous anxieties about citation practices and textual ownership, academic writers are especially concerned with these power relations. Along the same lines, Ron Scollon has argued that journalistic writing is closer to ‘natural’ practices of entextualization than is academic writing—not that journalistic writing is more intertextually indebted than academic discourse, but that it is more honest about the necessarily intertextual nature of all discourse. Routine practices of entextualization, he argues, are more likely to be viewed as plagiarism in academic discourses than in journalism or other forms of mass media like advertising. Journalistic writing is in this sense closer to ‘normal’ discourse, in that texts can be disaggregated and re-entextualized in new contexts without being slavishly attributed to their original authors in parenthetical citations (Scollon 1999).

Gray space (a conclusion)

What are the drawbacks and benefits of how we ‘own’ our craft? On the one hand, textual ownership of any sort has its dangers. By propertizing the domain of ethnographic texts, we have, in Marilyn Strathern’s terms, “cut” networks and established categories of inclusion and exclusion. If, as Strathern says, property creates inclusive communities of rights-bearers, it also “divides” and “disowns” (1996:531). Similarly, in identifying some speakers as ‘authors’ to be cited, we necessarily exclude other possible authors. We might cite our colleague-friend’s comment over beer as “(personal communication, 2006),” but ethnographic objects of study are generally cited by a different convention: not parenthetically, and by personal name or pseudonym, if they are named at all. Non-academic and ill-respected articles are left off of our bibliographies, and only a few authors are fully named in the main text. Citation is always more exclusive than inclusive.

At the same time, using existing citation patterns and committing to rigid ideologies of authorship and ownership in ethnographic writing may be effective ways of balancing the multiple roles of ethnographers. Insofar as the ethnographer works as a creative individual auteur, she publishes alone, holds individual copyrights, and is ultimately held solely responsible for her representations of her consultants because those representations are held to be her unique, authorial-spirit-invested creation. Insofar as she is a member of a professional cadre, she positions herself in academic networks through careful citation practices, assiduously avoids not only copyright infringement but also plagiarism, and conforms to established conventions and patterns of attribution. Insofar as she is a voice or external presenter for the people she studies, she remains uncomfortable with these practices, worries over her use of direct and indirect quotations from consultant-sources, thanks her key consultants in her acknowledgments in lieu of bibliographic entries, and (perhaps) seeks further ways of involving her ethnographic subjects in her native intellectual property regime.

Like professionalization in other fields, graduate socialization in anthropology is largely a matter of learning these established, standardized practices through explicit and implicit instruction (Abbott 1988). As I hope has become clear, part of the purpose of graduate socialization into writing practices is also to limit, fix, and otherwise control processes of reentextualization as a way of controlling representations of persons. While we would expect to find similar processes across disciplines, graduate socialization in anthropology entails special anxieties because the persons at issue include not only fellow scholars, but also the anthropological objects of study. There are enormous and very fuzzy gray areas in how we attribute our words and ideas.

In conclusion, I will briefly suggest some reasons to further explore these gray areas in authorship and ownership. What could we accomplish by paying more careful attention to how we author and own our texts?

1) Make a more inclusive anthropology. As scholars-in-training, we could stand to be more conscious—and conscientious—of how the citation patterns of our mentors and intellectual heroes influence our own practices. If Hutson (2002) is correct that citation patterns can reinforce the social prejudices and inequalities that exist outside of academic texts, then we have a responsibility to attend to what it is not commonly cited, lest some valuable voices be lost. This is especially crucial for graduate students, who are more likely to stumble across less-cited texts as they explore neighboring disciplines, search for dissertation topics, and learn how to do literature reviews (not knowing where to look can be a good thing, perhaps). Graduate students are among the most adventuresome readers, and creative canon-stretching is the province of younger scholars. If we overstuff our bibliographies with Foucault and Bourdieu, what other, fainter voices might we be missing?

2) Address emerging inequalities. Certain forms of cultural knowledge are currently becoming integrated into intellectual property regimes on a global scale. Understanding how we ourselves are socialized into this regime can shed some light on the processes by which words and ideas take on new kinds of value—an issue of considerable importance for understanding and addressing the material inequalities that might emerge in our field sites in the years to come.

3) Get productively self-reflexive. Ethnographic writing is not the only genre to suffer from the ambiguities of individual authorship-possession and collective creation; nor are anthropology students the only writers-in-training to learn citation practices and other professional conventions as ways of managing these ambiguities. Graduate socialization into writing practices could provide an excellent example of how institutions manage authorship and ownership and ‘teach’ a system of authorial self-regulation. Once we understand these phenomena better in our own departments, we should understand them better in the field.

4) Find alternative ways of conducting and writing ethnography. Reflecting on our existing conceptions of singular authorship might also free us to explore alternative modes of collective creation. Examples include collecting data in a team, as was practiced in Soviet ethnography; writing collaboratively with students across field sites; collaborating with consultants to produce self-ethnographies; and setting up or contributing to wiki-format information sites. Some scholars are skeptical of the idea of collectively (or even co-)authoring ethnography. As Jean-Paul Colleyn has mused, “A truly shared anthropology, which would consecrate equality between all the participants, is probably impossible in its very principle” (2005:114). Colleyn refers to the ideological impossibility of sharing input and goals in a co-authored project such as film-making (a problem that extends beyond anthropology), but there seem to be limits on other forms of authorship as well. A number of experiments in collective social science authoring have been conducted over the years, including the contemporary “Collectif Abélard” in France, but these have been largely restricted to short-lived political movements. Pseudonymous and anonymous authoring, which could theoretically be akin to cultural authoring, are also tried occasionally, but they do not seem to work in academia and they usually result in the ‘outing’ of the academic author. For example, Cathy Small now takes professional credit for the controversial ‘undercover’ ethnography of undergraduate life that she wrote as “Rebekah Nathan” at Northern Arizona University (2005).

Experimental publishing forms have not been taken up in anthropology more widely, I would suggest, because they do not allow individual academics to succeed within existing institutional structures. If a graduate student feels that every hour of writing must contribute to her dissertation or that every Saturday afternoon is accountable to her degree program, the chances of her contributing to a collectively authored side project will be slim indeed—because it will not ‘count’ for anything. The solution is not to wait for radical institutional reform on this point, but to set up parallel side projects and integrate non-institutionalized collective actions into everyday graduate student life.

5) Join the intellectual exchange revolution. Current graduate students will likely be part of a revolution in publishing over the course of their academic careers. Various movements to find alternatives to traditional academic copyright rules are underway, a notable example in anthropology being Prickly Paradigm Press, which has published its backlist under a Creative Commons license. MDIA, like many academic journals, observes traditional copyright in theory but has moved to open access publication. Meanwhile, some universities are increasingly facilitating academic file sharing through frameworks such as Michigan’s “Deep Blue” project and MIT’s “OpenCourseWare” project. In order to steer academic publishing and textual exchange in directions that will be beneficial to anthropology, the time is ripe for examining our own political and theoretical commitments to authorship and ownership, and supporting the models we find most promising.


Writing and research for this paper were made possible through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. I would like to thank Elina Hartikainen, Eli Thorkelson, and Richard F. Nance for their insightful comments on an earlier draft. Thanks are also due to the participants in Stuart Kirsch’s 2006 seminar at the University of Michigan on property and property rights for interesting discussions that led, albeit meanderingly, to this essay.


1. Some of the discrepancies can be explained by more general differences in where women and men publish—corresponding, in turn, to gendered differences in specialization. Hutson’s (2002) data on archaeological publishing show this most clearly.

2. Garfield launched the statistical study of citation practices in anthropology with an overview of “core” journals in 1984—despite being an outsider to the discipline, which produced much cause for criticism. Based on the number of studies published, bibliometric analysis appears to be, to date, better developed in archaeology and biological anthropology than in linguistic and sociocultural anthropology.

3. In this sense, texts seem to function much as objects in circulations such as gift exchange, as in Mauss’s description of gifts as “parts of persons” that extend social subjectivities into networks of exchange (1954:11). Annette Weiner (1985) has pointed out the importance of bringing past, present, and future ‘owners’ and travels together in the circulating object—a point of particular importance in academic texts that simultaneously point ‘backward’ to intellectual legacies and ‘forward’ to future uptake. It might also be productive to consider texts as especially agentive extensions of persons. Perhaps in treating texts—and thingy text artifacts such as books—as persons or as parts of persons, we are emphasizing the quality of “distributed agency” that Alfred Gell (1998) describes as adhering in non-textual objects.

4. In a bibliometric analysis of footnote citations in Critical Inquiry, Jay Williams and Anne H. Stevens similarly observe that a “fundamental function of the humanities footnote” is to allow readers “a means of evaluating the level of scholarship of an essay” (2006:211). They consider citations primarily a means of establishing academic authority.

5. Locke’s arguments about labor-based rights and value may be summarized with reference to Chapter V of the Second Treatise of Government: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common...And hence subduing or cultivating the earth, and having dominion, we see are joined together...Thus labour, in the beginning, gave a right of property” (Locke 1980[1690]:21–27; italics his).

6. See Grama 2005 for a similar analysis.

7. See also Coombe 1998 and Walterscheid 2002 on the historical and philosophical development of copyright.

8. This was William Warburton’s argument in 1747 about the “essence of the author’s property” being “immaterial,” composed of the “doctrine” underlying a book rather than the book itself (Rose 1993:73). William Blackstone (1760) similarly argued that the essence of a literary text was its spirit—that is, its “style and sentiment,” which remain unchanged across different material instantiations (text artifacts) of the text. Fichte considered the important essence neither “doctrine” nor “sentiment” but something more like Blackstone’s “style,” shifting the focus slightly from the realm of thought and inspiration to an identifiable expression or form (see Woodmansee 1994).

9. I am using “authorial right” to refer to the abstract principle of ‘essential’ rights over a text, and “authorial rights” to refer to the legal protections that proceed from that principle.

10. Here I am referring to the broader uses to which Bakhtin’s arguments have been put, but his own analysis was based specifically on literary authorship. Bakhtin emphasized the “qualitative uniqueness” of novelistic discourse in relation to “rhetorical genres” like journalistic prose (1981:269).

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