Archive for the ‘culture’ category

Island stories

March 20, 2018

This blog is coming to you from the Orkney Islands, more specifically from Kirkwall. I am here to discuss with government agencies, the local council and partner universities the role we might play in developing a high-value innovation agenda for Orkney, thereby increasing its prosperity but also its attractiveness as a place in which to live or invest.

Like many islands, Orkney has a long history of cultural and economic activity, but a less certain future. But islands are important centres of human culture and endeavour and deserve to be supported and protected. They are also wonderful locations for biodiversity.

Orkney in particular is fascinating. Unlike Scotland’s western islands (the Hebrides), Orkney’s (and Shetland’s) ancient history is not Celtic but Norse; in historical terms it only joined Scotland relatively recently. But its contribution to Scotland is enormous, particularly in the arts and in the creative industries. This is a good place for universities to provide the kind of support that normally goes to city regions. That way Orkney will leave an even greater legacy to future generations.

PS. The Italian Chapel pictured above has a particularly interesting history. You can read more about it here.



March 22, 2014

Aa some readers of this blog will have gathered, I am a technophile. I love gadgets, and in particular am fully immersed in the digital world. I read my newspapers on the iPad, and I have goodness knows how many ebooks and electronically stored documents and reports. But I have not completely left the analogue world, nor will I. So for example, whenever I read, in ebook form, a book I really like, then I buy it in hard copy, indeed preferably hardback if available. And in my family home in Ireland, I have a very large collection of contemporary and vintage books, several thousand by now.

I love books. I like the look, the feel, the smell. In older books, I love the knowledge of the procession of people who have read them through the ages. I also own some books printed in the 19th century or earlier that were never read – the pages were still joined together until I cut them. I love the sense that these leather bound volumes were prepared by some craftspeople 200 years ago to be read by me now, for the first time.

So here you can see a small selection of my books from one particular shelf: 19th century travel guides. They are a particular pleasure to read, and in this case, as you can see, they were much used long before I got to them. They are the inherited appreciation of the world we can visit.

travel guides

travel guides

The undoubted grandeur of really bad poetry

March 11, 2014

There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.

McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

And who could fail to be moved by his account of the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, or not be impressed by his ability to explain complex (and tragic) engineering issues:

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

And of course nobody could fail to be persuaded by the sound common sense of those last two lines.

McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:

Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.

In these current challenging times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again. And while he may have hoped that his heart might be patronised by the Queen, we shall certainly do no patronising here.

How should culture be studied?

April 5, 2013

This post is by Jessica Reynolds. She is a graduate anthropologist, but now works as a freelance writer with special interests in science, anthropology and archeology. She writes for

As globalization becomes increasingly prominent in our everyday lives, cultural research becomes the cornerstone of social advancement. Many problems between countries and even individuals stem from a misunderstanding of culture and cultural differences. Cultural research aims to create an understanding of the mechanics and implications of various cultures across the globe to help remedy misunderstandings and intolerance.

The biggest obstacle cultural research faces is the question of how it should be observed, recorded, and interpreted.  How do we study culture? First, we must define what culture is. Culture has many definitions, but they all synonymously denote culture as the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people. Although the definition of culture is easy enough to understand, how to study culture has created debates among the social sciences.

Emic and Etic views

Culture must not only be observed but be understood to be studied. There are two approaches to understand culture: 1. An inside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in its own terms and 2. An outside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in terms of general standards. These views are often referred to as emic and etic. Emic views are employed to understand a culture from a native’s point of view while etic views are employed to identify universal truths.

Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the study of a culture from the culture itself which arguably relies on solely emic viewpoints. Cultural Relativism can be broken down into many different categories but there are three major categories that are consistently used in the social sciences: descriptive relativism, normative relativism, and epistemological relativism.

Descriptive relativism is based on the theory of cultural determinism (the theory that human social and psychological characteristic are determined by culture). It thereby assumes that different cultures have different thoughts and ways of understanding the world than other cultures do.

Normative relativism is the idea that there is no way to judge a culture on a scale of merit or worth in terms of good vs. bad because all standards are culturally constituted.

Epistemological relativism is similar to descriptive relativism except for the idea that culture not only dictates what we think about our lives but how we feel about our lives, providing a limitless view of cultural diversity (Spiro 1986).

The three categories of cultural relativism have not been supported by all social scientists, with some supporting one and others supporting the other or a combination of the three. It was with American anthropologists Franz Boas and the rise of the American Historical School that they all began to be used in conjunction with one another. Boas and his followers rejected the idea of cultural progress and cultural evolution because that suggests that one culture is superior over another and is a result of ethnocentric views.

A long term debate has been going on in the field of anthropology over cultural relativism and psychic unity. Are cultures incommensurable and is it impossible to make generalizations about cultures because every person perceives the world differently depending on the culture they are a part of? If this is so, then how can ethnographers even begin to describe a different culture’s kinship systems, rituals, and other cultural aspects?

Cultural Materialism

The cultural materialist perspective was a response to cultural relativism and is really thought to have originated with Karl Marx. Karl Marx explains that societies and culture are systemic and his major interest was how those systems both maintain and destroy themselves. To Marx, this sort of change does not happen because of the ideology and social organization of a culture. It instead happens due to a chance in the surrounding environment (Marx 1970). In this way, ideology and social organization are considered to be adaptations to environmental change making cultures not only predictable but comparable to one another.

Cultural Research as a science

Viewpoints other than relativism and materialism are used when conducting research but they all beg the question of whether or not cultural research can be done scientifically. Science is arguably quantifiable so if cultural research cannot be quantified, it is likely that it cannot be considered a science.  What is quantifiable can be replicated and the very scientific method is focused on replication. Franz Boas and his followers reject the idea of culture being quantifiable because quantification suggests cultural progress and the idea of progress between cultures is a result of ethnocentrism. Thus there are those who have determined that cultural research can in no way, shape, or form be considered a science nor should it be.

Many cultural relativists argue that cultural studies cannot be a science because generalizations cannot be made cross culturally. Therefore researchers should focus their studies on Western Cultures and try to compare them to non-Western cultures. Studying non-Western cultures would not produce results that Westerners would be able to accurately perceive nor discuss.

The idea that relativism doesn’t seem to have a place in the field of anthropology or any other cultural studies is perpetuated by the fact that ethnographers have been able to achieve such understandings of other cultures.  In order for cultural research to be quantifiable, comparisons must be able to be made cross-culturally as a materialist perspective would inevitably allow. This does not mean that all qualitative work or relativist perspectives in the social sciences are meaningless, but that when used in conjunction with a quantifiable materialist perspective, they would be able to produce invaluable information concerning our own culture as well as cross cultural studies. Cultural relativism needs to be seen as a methodological position that explains the practices and ideas of other cultures within the terms of their own cosmologies as opposed to the only way to study and observe culture. When conducted from both a relativist and materialist perspective, cultural research provides the framework by which to understand variation among and across cultures.

Marx, K., Engels, F., In Arthur, C. J., Marx, K., & Marx, K. (1970). The German ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Spiro, M. (1986) ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’ American Anthropological Association No. 3 pp. 259-286

Christmas is coming, not (yet)!

October 31, 2012

One of the hazards of being in public buildings with PA systems in late October or thereabouts is that you are transported into a weird world where Rudolph is pushing his red nose through a winter wonderland in which Slade wishes everyone a ‘merry Christmas’. Roy Wood’s dream has nearly come true, and it more or less is ‘Christmas every day’.

Right now I am waiting for a rather delayed plane in Edinburgh airport. And my mood is not helped by the Christmas music. Paul McCartney may be ‘simply having a wonderful Christmas time’, but I’m not, nor am I intending to for nearly two months. I hope I can find a corner in which the music cannot be heard. Now.

So how are we coping with social media?

October 16, 2012

I tend to be an early adopter of new technology and all things online. But when it comes to the social media, I was a late developer. I first became aware of the whole scene when, as President of Dublin City University, I was approached by a colleague who wanted to block access by students to Bebo. You may not even remember Bebo now, it’s so very 2007. But in that year it was suddenly all the rage, and students were hogging access to library workstations while chatting to their online friends.

The early lead enjoyed by Bebo was, as we all know, wiped out by the all-conquering Facebook. And along came Twitter also. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the social networking revolution was that older online vehicles began to fade. From about 2008 you could see students gradually abandoning the use of email, as their virtual interaction moved to Facebook. Twitter, which was not initially popular with students but was more influential amongst more mature internet users, eventually also caught on and brought the culture of mobile phone texting to internet communications and commentary.

But it has to be said, the academy was nonplussed. It simply could not understand what this was all about. Academics are, in terms of social trends, not always at the cutting edge, and Facebook and Twitter just seemed alien to many of them. Even now, more than half a decade after social networking really took off, most academics have no social networking presence at all; and while universities in their corporate sense do, most have absolutely no idea how to use it. Indeed the risk is that the university world will finally come to grips with Facebook and Twitter just as the online world is moving on to something else.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend who is a very senior professor in another university. For him, the social media represent a flight from intellectual discourse to ephemeral trivia; a whole generation of young people turning their backs on scholarship in favour of gossip.

For me, it is very different. I suspect some find the social media so difficult because they make directly visible the conversations that previously took place privately in the pub or in a student residence. But this interaction always took place; what’s new is that it is now on the same platforms that also support, or could support, academic conversations. We must not only get used to this, we must be anxious to have some of our scholarship in the places where students, and others, actually want to be. We must look again at how we communicate what we do, and how we engage our partners in the educational journey. And maybe we should remember that pretty much the same reservations were voiced about the printing press when it first emerged.

As for me, I joined Bebo, Facebook and Twitter in 2007. I have no regrets. It is time to harness social networking, and not resist it.

Digital ephemera?

September 18, 2012

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.