Epistemic ecologies in beta: anthropology beyond open access

On October 16-17, a group of doctoral and postdoctoral students from the Research Group on Anthropology with a Public Orientation (GIAOP) based at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid are organizing a fabulous workshop on ‘Open access in anthropology and beyond.’ I am delighted at the initiative of these researchers, and the fact that this will be taking place in Madrid, at Medialab-Prado.



In my own talk I have decided to displace the question of ‘openness’ in anthropology slightly, from issues of ‘open access’ to issues of ‘open source’. I will be taking the work that Adolfo and I have been carrying out with guerrilla and open source architectural collectives Basurama and Zuloark in Madrid as a guide and example.

The conference organizers have asked us to produce a c. 3 page text which will be used to produce a pre-conference publication / provocation – and which presumably will contribute towards framing the debate to be had at the workshop itself.

This is the text I have sent to the organizers:


As I see it, the question of open access in the academy, and in anthropology in particular, raises at least three types of issues:

1. Questions of infrastructure and technical systems, and how they underpin, facilitate and/or modulate collaboration – for editors, authors and librarians, but also, sometimes, for readers too, including our informants and collaborators.

2. Questions of intellectual property, licensing and law.

3. Questions of epistemic ethics: access, distributive justice, and freedom.

Now when we talk about the work that goes into publishing anthropology (be that as a journal operation or a press) there is some consensus as to how these various issues play out. By consensus I do not mean to imply that we know how to solve the issues, only that we know were the problems lie: for example, we know that we need to work and figure out a business model for our operations (through patronage, subscriptions, subsidies, alliances, etc.); we know of the important role that university libraries and green OA repositories play; we know of the thorny issue of free and volunteer labour, which all too often falls upon the shoulders of students; we know of the increasingly important role that graphic and web design play, as well social media, for it is through these that reputational and symbolic capital are often managed, especially in the early days of a new journal’s operation.

However, I will not be going into any of these issues here because I think others, not least those who have successfully set in motion and run successful and pioneering OA operations, can do so much better and intelligently than I can.

Instead I will offer some remarks on my own experience in working with open access, in this case, a brief account of the work that along with my colleague Adolfo Estalella I have been carrying out with open-source guerrilla architectural collectives Basurama and Zuloark in Madrid.

I believe this experience is worth recounting because the issues I mentioned above –infrastructure and technical systems, property and legality, and epistemic ethics – are ones that we have confronted in our work too. Importantly, however, our work with guerrilla architectural collectives has shown us the difference between making anthropology open-access and making open-source anthropology. I want very briefly to explore what this open-sourcing of our anthropological project has entailed for us – and what implications it may have for the discipline at large.

First, though, a quick word about open-source architecture.

Open source architecture

Open source architecture poses challenges of a rather different nature to the digital projects, not least of all free and open-source software (F/OS) developments, that have become flagships of the open-source movement worldwide.

For example, open source architecture is different from F/OS in that the work of design is different from the final output. Design and output do not coincide in the same object. Thus, what makes an architectural work ‘open’ is its design process – this is very much the definition that applies to all open source hardware projects (OSHW – Definition of Free Cultural Works 2014).

This is important because unlike software, where writing code is at once a form of self-grounding design and infrastructure, in the case of architecture one can make designs freely accessible (architectural drawings, sketches, templates, renders) yet the actual process of building the infrastructure may still be carried out behind closed doors. In other words, whereas for some digital projects opening access is tantamount to opening the sources, in the case of hardware projects, opening access and opening sources are in fact different operations.

In this light, when guerrilla architectural collectives speak of open-sourcing their practice, they don’t just mean granting access to their designs. What they mean, rather, is that every stage in the process of designing and building an architectural project should be open. This is easier said than done – and just so you can get a sense of what is at stake, let me go over some of the problems that these collectives are standing up to (for a detailed account see Corsín Jiménez, Estalella, and Zoohaus Collective 2014):

Iconographic challenges, involving how to make designs intelligible to people who are likely never to have seen or worked with an architectural drawing before.

Technical and legal design challenges, involving the protocols, standards and systems of certification (if any) to be applied to the infrastructure in question. Who is going to sign-off the installation, under what authority or whose responsibility?

Sociological challenges, involving the design, development and infrastructures of collaborative work: how does an infrastructure / architectural work become a ‘source’ of community concerns? How are these various interests and agendas negotiated, mediated and ‘mattered’ into a project management programme: resources, materials, skills, competences, capacities, tools, availabilities, deadlines, etc.? Who has a say over what matters? What decision-making mechanisms are employed?

Political challenges, involving local authorities, legal permits, public liability insurance, tenure rights over public land holdings, waste disposal, access to electricity and water, etc.

– Plus of course funding and financial challenges, involving both obvious accounting ambiguities (how to account for cooperative and community work, for instance), but also unsuspected openings and opportunities, such as crowdfunding, local patronage or community sponsorship, or quite simply tapping into and re-circuiting local communities’ recycling and waste management systems.

Altogether, then, you can see that the work of designing and building an open source architectural project is a rather daunting endeavour. In fact, elsewhere I have described such projects as epistemic ‘ecologies in beta’ (Corsín Jiménez forthcoming), for they fare in effect as investigations into, as well re-modulations of what a social research environment might look like. The way in which these projects take residence in the city truly re-dimensions what cityness might mean today (Corsín Jiménez 2014). For instance:

(i) The iconographic challenges result in inventive explorations of the genres, formats, languages and media used for describing and documenting the nature of collaborative infrastructures.

(ii) These documentary practices often demand setting up in turn archival technologies and repositories where the technical specifications, standards, certificates and controversies surrounding architectural works are filed and made available for others to consult, edit or keep contributing to. Designing these archives can become a challenge in its own right – and in many respects the archives become not just placeholders of documentary legacies and legal ritual, but spaces themselves of political debate and exchange. There are some grounds to think of these novel archival spaces as the agoras of the contemporary polis.

(iii) Further, guerrilla archiectural collectives spend not inconsiderable amounts of time opening-up spaces for political interlocution between and within all manner of urban agencies, including neighbourhood associations, state administrations, social movements, professional associations, politicians, technical experts, etc. Theirs is a rather unique point of view on the ‘urban empirical’ as at once a complex object of governance, a specific methodological disposition, and a particular cultural habitus and sensorium, inflected by fragility and care.

Epistemic ecology in beta

The challenges of open-source architecture are also the challenges that I see ‘open-source’ bringing to the academy. A challenge that invites – some would even say, presses – the social sciences to re-imagine and re-function their methodological, collaborative and epistemic equipment.

To put it bluntly, I want to suggest that the challenge of open-sourcing anthropology effectively entails re-designing and re-functioning the ethnographic project as a collaborative infrastructure and ‘prototype’ (Corsín Jiménez 2013; Marcus 2013).

This is, in fact, is what happened to us during the course of our ethnography. It got to a point where to keep carrying out our work with guerrilla architects we had to devise ways in which to collaboratively ‘infrastructure’ our presence – that is, our ethnographic toolbox and sensorium – in the city.

Let me bring this brief piece to a close, then, by introducing the infrastructure that has become the epistemic ecology through which we reach out ethnographically these days.

About two years ago we came to the realisation that much of the work we were carrying out – ‘we’ standing here both for the architects and ourselves – involved elucidating and granting visibility to what Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers have called ‘trajectories of apprenticeship’ (Pignarre and Stengers 2011). Every new project we embarked on with a local community ‘liberated’ pedagocial capacities that sourced anew the iconographic, archival, documentary, medial or negotiating skills, instruments and sensibilities that stocked our urban tool-box. This of course was predictable. One is always learning from the people one works with.

What we realised, however, was that perhaps there was some virtue in ‘open-sourcing’ the trajectories of apprenticeship themselves. We wondered thus what the city would look like if reimagined as a pedagogy sourced (open-sourced) on grassroots and community projects.

This is how Ciudad Escuela (The City as School, http://ciudad-escuela.org) came about. We have described Ciudad Escuela rather bombastically as the world’s first open source urban pedagogy: a platform and interface where grassroots community projects showcase their work, use digital certificating technology to liberate the educational dimensions of their projects, and in so doing contribute towards shaping and infrastructuring a sustainable environment for minor politics in the city.

Ciudad Escuela is built using Mozilla’s Open Badges technology. Open Badges have been designed by Mozilla to help people learn skills that might otherwise not easily be ‘certified’ in the age of the Internet. Although badges can be put to many different uses, they are particularly useful for showcasing pedagogical capacities that escape the disciplinary and normative canons of traditional schooling systems. Badges are of course ideal for experimenting with in an urban context. From urban community gardens to Occupy assemblies, from free and open source Wi-Fi networks to recycling communities, urban projects are pregnant with relational capacities through which people learn to turn their cities into more hospitable and sustainable environments.

At Ciudad Escuela we have initially designed 15 badges. Our badges may be thought-of as grassroots urban skills: skills, abilities or tools that have proven useful for specific community projects. To-date some of the activities that communities have participated in to earn badges have included auto-construction workshops by guerrilla architectural collectives, online digital literacy workshops, academic seminars, or a negotiation table attended by municipal delegates and various citizen initiatives.

We are currently working with some community projects to have them design their own badges – to have them ‘source’ their own technical, legal, pedagogical and political needs. It is in this sense that I speak of Ciudad Escuela as an example of an epistemic ecology in beta: an infrastructure that enables the mobilization of relations, media surfaces and devices, and urban sites in novel contingent and productive arrangements for community projects themselves. Ciudad Escuela is therefore not quite a ‘Citizen School’ (Escola Cidada), as in Paulo Freire’s well-known pedagogy of urban liberation (Freire 1993). For us, rather, the city is the school, and it is our challenge to measure-up to its own forms of openness, to open-source its technical, legal, material and associative capacities.


Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. forthcoming. «Spiderweb anthropologies: relational worlds trapped out». In Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues about the Reconstitution of Worlds, edited by Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser. Durham: Duke University Press.

———. 2014. «The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open-source urbanism». Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2).

———. «Introduction. The prototype: more than many and less than one». Journal of Cultural Economy 0 (0): 1-18. doi:10.1080/17530350.2013.858059

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto, Adolfo Estalella, and Zoohaus Collective. 2014. «The Interior Design of [Free] Knowledge». Journal of Cultural Economy 0 (0): 1-23. doi:10.1080/17530350.2013.859632.

Freire, Paulo. 1993. Pedagogy of the city. Translated by Donald Macedo. New York: Continuum.

Marcus, George. 2013. «Prototyping and Contemporary Anthropological Experiments With Ethnographic Method». Journal of Cultural Economy 0 (0): 1-12. doi:10.1080/17530350.2013.858061.

OSHW – Definition of Free Cultural Works. 2014. Accessed September 15. http://freedomdefined.org/OSHW#Open_Source_Hardware_.28OSHW.29_Statement_of_Principles_1.0.

Pignarre, Phillipe, and Isabelle Stengers. 2011. Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell. Palgrave Macmillan.






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June 2024