Material World Blog Community?

Haidy Geismar, NYU and UCL
I was interested to read a very brief, rather parochial, account of the world of anthropology blogging over at the site of Anthropology News, the journal of the American Anthropological Association, . Material World was singled out as an example of a “team blog” but the authors were worried that the free spirit of blogging might be lost with the fence of editors and the feel of an online journal. Following on from Danny’s point about open access, I’ve been thinking about the remit of Material World and what we, as editors, could do to contribute to some of the ongoing discussion about the public dissemination of anthropological, and other, ideas.
This prompted me to look a little more closely at our range of contributions, our diversity of contributors and our own editorial policies.
I know from google analytics that we have a very broad international readership, which is also reflected in the international diversity of our contributors. Most of our contributors are in the world of academic scholarship, many in anthropology, but also in many other related fields of enquiry. Our editorial policy is to keep threads of discussion and themes going, to encourage the presentation of new material. Unlike a conventional academic journal we are less concerned with promoting academic writing styles, and more concerned to exploit the inclusivity and format that the blogging platform facilitates. We see our peer review as really a form of encouragement – I think I can count the number of things we’ve turned down for the site on one hand – as a form of promotion, and as important outreach to wider communities of interest. We also have tried to develop a blogging strategy which looks outwards rather than inwards, and which is more interested in big ideas and descriptions than in personal opinion pieces.
For me, as one of the founding editors, the missing piece of the puzzle is the way in which we don’t generate a lot of comment on the site itself  – although I’m also wondering, counterintuitively, how important that is. I know from talking to contributors that posts generate interest and that many private connections are facilitated. Little of our vibrant community is actually visible through the comments section of each post. In that way, we do function more like a journal and less like a blog, I suppose?
Looking through this post from 2008, I was happy to see the range of people that came out as material world readers, students, academics, even soldiers stationed in Iraq. I’m breaking our non-reflexive tradition here and am wondering if any of our readers could weigh in on the need for comment on these kinds of sites. Is visible comment important? Are the comments of interest when visiting other sites? If so, how can we encourage more visible discussion and dialog? WE would also love to get a sense of who are readers are today and how we might work better to connect you to one another (and if this is even something you would be interested in coming to Material World for)?


  1. Hi Haidy,
    Having read the Anthropology News piece I’m struck by how slowly, in some quarters, the debate about the nature of academic work on the web has progressed. The polarities of old (meaning closed) and new (meaning open), absolute freedom and restriction, don’t seem useful terms for assessing the changes that academic blogs have brought about in the past decade. And I sometimes get the impression that people can forget that academic publishing has always been various and editorial standards have always differed, it is not as if, through the advent of the academic blog, some once solid standards have now melted into air; those standards have always been airborne.
    The reason that I come and read things on Material World is that it gathers together articles by writers that cluster around things from many different perspectives. A very broad, international, fast-paced clustering that gets some of its pace from the values of openness that it promotes. As a reader, whether Material World is ‘team led’ or not really doesn’t concern me, the network and the news are what’s important. I can’t see how a paintbrushes’ splattering of reader’s comments on each article would change how I use the site.
    Re: comments on blogs in general. I run a personal site about my research, a collaborative platform for academic broadcasts and have some interest in blog run by the academic publisher that I edit for. Despite regular visitors to all of these sites people rarely leave comments. As you say above, I think it really depends on what you want this dialogue to do. Are the number of comments an adequate or reliable measure of engagement, review or a reliable indication of a participant community? Probably not. Are the private emails, the citations or the inspiration given by a piece, whilst less immediately gratifying, might prove a rather more enduring effect of a network? I don’t know, perhaps. Just as an aside, I read an article on Scholarly Kitchen recently that suggested that many STM publishers are now giving up on trying to drive comments on their online journals; it simply doesn’t work. Their academic community, it seems, either don’t have the time or the inclination to publish their responses.

  2. Sure, both articles are in the context or peer review but have interesting consequences for those working outside the sciences, I think.
    1. Kent Anderson –
    2. David Crotty’s follow up, which I had in mind with my comment above. ‘Article commenting is increasingly seen as a futile pursuit. Nearly every publisher has tried to drive commenting in one way or another to little success.’ -

  3. I read this blog through a newsreader, so I’m not sure whether I appear in your stats. I have to say that I’m sceptical of relying on that kind of data as a market of the intrinsic value of your work. And I can’t imagine the comments section of the blog indicates even a shadow of the dialogue that this blog engenders. My experience is that individual posts get forwarded around and real-time conversations ensue. So what happens on the site is a fraction of what I see actually going on. But mostly among people who already know each other.
    Again, that’s my experience. For what it’s worth.

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