Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tortoise: Harbin - Real & Virtual, Purpose, Method

I’ve visited Harbin Hot Springs – - for over 15 years. During a five-month stay (January – June 2005), I became acquainted with Harbin’s residents and the community (a place that emerged out of counterculture) from the ‘inside.’

Other experiences that have prepared me in significant ways for this field of study include my research and teaching about Society and Information Technology, with a particular focus on the research of long-time Berkeley Professor Manuel Castells on the Network Society, as well as my academic interest in the Internet and virtual worlds.

Furthermore, at the University of Edinburgh (2004), I examined related virtual-real questions about emerging, nascent, online ‘place’ in my virtual St. Kilda project, developing methodologies and analytical approaches that I will use in this study.

I’ve been teaching and taking classes in Second Life on Berkman Island (Harvard) for 2 years (Fall 2006 – present). Second Life is a 3-D virtual world, an emerging society, where avatars (interactive figures representing computer users) can communicate, as well as build any object imaginable; Second Life also has an economy with a currency.

Anthropologists have historically studied in a geographically bounded field (Gupta and Ferguson). Examining Harbin Hot Springs on-the-ground and in a 3-D virtual world, as “field sites,” produces methodological questions relevant to the field, such as 1) How can one study both field sites ethnographically? 2) How can one represent them and compare them? 3) How can one theorize anthropology, based on this type of field research?

I’m interested in the people who participate in Harbin, in order to document Harbin for the future, as an anthropologically-constructed and -studied interactive 3-D virtual field site. To start, I propose to model Harbin in Second Life as accurately as possible, and then begin to study the life that develops there through avatar conversation/interaction. Not only are analyses of processes of ethnographic representation significant here, but also articulating and distinguishing on-the-ground processes vis-à-vis virtual ones.

Two other broad, related areas of anthropology interest me. I’d like to consider Harbin in the context of Darwin’s evolutionary theory vis-à-vis sociocultural anthropology. I’d also like to examine, perhaps metaphorically, culture as ‘code,’ including the significance of language and music, using 3-D modeling and the resulting avatar interaction as a starting point.
Studying Harbin as an ethnographic field site provides multiple avenues for exploration. Harbin has developed its own unique lifestyle. As a curious, hippie commune, it is also a liminal place (Turner), where fascinating forms of communitas take place, especially in the hot springs’ area. Harbin, which is legally both a church and a business, has 150+ residents who have lived there for at least a year.

Harbin has also given rise to a number of unique cultural forms and developments. Watsu (water shiatsu), bodywork (massage), and clothing options (where nudity is accepted, but not enforced) are all common practices at Harbin. From a medical anthropological standpoint, people can often find relief for a variety of medical conditions in the Harbin pools, otherwise not possible. While Harbin is the main site for its Watsu School, instructors travel around the world to teach Watsu as well. Harbin thus has given rise to unique educational and therapeutic practices, along with its own fabric of hot springs’ culture. Conducting fieldwork at Harbin gives new meanings to the ethnographic method and practice of immersion.

Harbin is owned and run by NACOB (New Age Church of Being) & HCC (Heart Consciousness Church), whose mission is to promote heart consciousness, a form of monism. Heart Consciousness Church also trains people to be ministers. Emerging out of the 1960s and 1970s, Harbin’s spirituality is informed by its embrace of New Age ‘religion.’ As such, Harbin Hot Springs is an embodiment of the common thread uniting the Human Potential Movement, the Holistic, Natural Movement, and Universal Spirituality ( As a culture and a spiritual community, Harbin boasts a fabric of life that can be very affirming; it is a fascinating place to think about its New Age practices. To visit Harbin, one person in the party must be a member of Heart Consciousness Church, although in general, however, HCC plays an unobtrusive role at Harbin, which in some ways is as free and open a place as humans can envision.

Since the social significance of virtuality and information technology is a developing anthropological field, I’d like to work with faculty on an ethnography of Harbin Hot Springs in the context of anthropological theory, to valorize information technology and virtual worlds as co-constituting what humans do, and as a new field.

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