Calum Mathison is a recent Anthropology graduate from Roehampton and is preparing to start his masters at Manchester this year. Calum’s main areas of research are magic, witchcraft and religion. His dissertation was titled ‘The Internet and Communities of Witchcraft belief; The impact of the Democratization of ritual knowledge’. I spoke to Calum over Skype and we discussed the bookshelf in his family home as well as online witch communities and the ‘digital library’.
SP: Have you changed your bookshelf for this interview?
CM: Uh, only slightly. Mainly neatening it up so it’s not so horrifying! And replacing a few things because most of this bookshelf is my fantasy and D&D stuff so I got a few of my Anthropology books from downstairs and put them up.
SP: So, what other books do you have other than Anthropology based books? What takes up the majority of your collection?
CM: So the majority of this bookshelf is mainly fantasy books- lots of Brandon Sanderson, a few books on mythology. That’s another big interest of mine. Bits and bobs, scattered sci-fi, dungeons and dragons manuals because they are quite big! I’m at my family house at the moment so the top shelf is all stuff I had when I was a kid, so horrible histories, horrible science all that kind of stuff.
SP: What was your first anthropology book?
CM: Ooh that’s a good question, I suppose it depends on what you count? I’ve been reading stuff on mythology since I was quite small. I don’t think I actually owned one before I had to buy a load of textbooks while I was studying abroad in America, so it probably would have been ‘the Gift’ by Marcel Mauss.
SP: Do you find that any of your fantasy books are useful in your studies of witchcraft and religion?
CM: Most certainly yeah, so there’s a few. I like to read a lot of fantasy where there is quite strong will building and very distinct cultures. Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite authors because he does a lot of that, especially in his Stormlight Archive trilogy. I’ve also been listening to ‘Legends of the First Empire’ on audible which is very interesting to me because they are talking about the very early history of a fantasy universe, sort of from the start of the bronze age and up which is really interesting. I think anthropology also influences the way I see RPGs like D&D because I’m a Dungeon master so I do all the world building, so I think that has a lot of interplay with [anthropology].
SP: How do you organise your books? Is there an organisation method?
CM: Ah not really, [laughing] it’s all a bit of a higgledy-piggledy at the moment but sometimes things get grouped together vaguely like the top shelf is all books I don’t read but keep for sentimental reasons but other than that it’s mostly sorted by practicality so it’s sort of by size. [points to shelf] Some areas of this shelf I’ve made attempts to do stuff like “oh this is where I put my sci-fi, this is where I put Sanderson”, but it usually doesn’t stay that way for long.
SP: What Anthropology book would you recommend for everyone to read?
CM: So for a more general audience something that I really enjoyed recently was reading through a book called ‘Dent’s modern tribes’. Which is kind of a glossary of linguistics and words used in all different professions from legal to sort of sound technicians which was really interesting, even the bits in between because it isn’t just a book of words. It was funny and just an all-round good book! Basically, each chapter is sort of a summary of the history of the groups and where some of these words come from and then like a list of word and definition. It’s a wide variety of people which is interesting.
SP: Do you lend any books?
CM: Occasionally yeah but most of my friends mostly listen to audio stuff these days but when I have the opportunity to I definitely do!
SP: Is there anything you wouldn’t lend to anyone? Anything with lots sentimental value on the top shelf?
CM: My sentimental shelf! Most things on that shelf with the few exceptions of weird things on there, the first half is all horrible histories and horrible science which I loved to bits because before I became interested in anthropology I was going to go into science and then I realised it would be too much maths! So, I was going to do history but then I realised I was bad at dates so Anthropology was a perfect all-rounder. On from that they are all similar, facts that I loved when I was a kid, I’ve got the QI book, do polar bears get lonely! All that kind of stuff. Old, very moth eaten books with the spines built out of duct tape.
SP: So do you find the books you read when you were younger inspire any of the work you do today?
CM: To a point yeah. One of my main interests in Anthropology is the temple aspect of Anthropology and looking at the past as if it was another culture is something I’m interested in at the moment. I’ve written an essay which should be up on the Roehampton blog soon about the history of mental health which I wrote from that kind of scale. But also the aim of the Horrible History books is something that I kind of aspire to because one of my main aims with anthropology and one of my main criticisms of anthropology as a field is that it tends to be quite constrained to an academic audience- especially with social anthropology not so much with biological. I think Horrible Histories did a really good job of doing a bit of that outreach and getting people to understand these concepts from History. Not necessarily for kids because anthropology would probably be too complicated to actually explain [laughs] but just to make it available to a wider audience.
SP: Is there anything else that you wouldn’t lend to anyone?
CM: Other than those there are probably one or two others that are a bit delicate. I’ve got a few downstairs from my aunt that are these huge books on ancient history that I was given when I was doing my EPQ in sixth form which I did on the Maya. Those I probably wouldn’t lend to anyone because of the sentimentality and they are quite brittle and might fall apart. Those would probably be up there along with my copy of ‘The Origin of Species’ which is battered, it’s one that I think has always been in the house and I co-opted it when I went to the US because it was one of the recommended readings.
SP: Is there any non-book ‘stuff’ on your shelf?
CM: Yeah, so we have a hat at the top there which is a purely ornamental hat that I got from doing some gardening work from a friend of mine. Other than that what else do we have up there? A few Christmas cards, an electric fan tucked into the right hand side somewhere. Oh and I forgot I had that, there’s a very small, miniature book of Native American sayings which my Dad gave me when I was about 14. I didn’t actually know this but he was really big on Native American culture when he was a kid which is pretty interesting. Also got a fridge magnet of a French baguette, and I have this little scroll seal which I made for D&D. Underneath my bookshelf I have a wax sealing kit!
SP: Would you say the objects on your shelf are in some way anthropologically based?
CM: Most of them are just curiosities I’ve picked up, I think the only stuff I’ve got on my shelf that is based off the stuff I’ve actually researched is a few books on witchcraft up there from when I did background research for my dissertation. Although it didn’t end up being all that useful in the end because of the way the field site was.
SP: In what way do you mean?
CM: So effectively, because my study was on communities of witches on the internet the problem I came across was that the books I got where specifically based on one type of practice. I ended up arguing in my final dissertation that the rise of the internet has caused a diversification of practices and made a more holistic view, so having a specific book on witchcraft was less useful when the people you are studying are pulling from multiple sources and even from multiple practices in quite a few examples.
SP: That links to another question I was thinking about how new Anthropology students don’t use as many books due to the availability of online, free sources. How does that make you feel?
CM: A lot of the books on that shelf, they are books that I have either been given or I’m interested in personally. Most of the books that I actually reference in essays are things I only have PDFs of. One of my areas is magic so obviously I reference Evans Pritchard almost daily when I’m writing essays but I don’t own a copy of ‘Oracles’ anywhere I probably have multiple PDFs of it at this point hanging around my computer (laughter). It’s interesting isn’t it you get the trade-off of availability but also that strange feeling of connection you have with a physical object. Hau? Is that the name, I might be misremembering but I believe Hau was Mauss, talking about the emotional power of objects.
SP: I also almost think that having physical books legitimates you as an Anthropologist.
CM: Yes, certainly. The image of the academic sitting in a library with their stacks of books. Actually when I graduated a few months ago one of the options I got for my graduating photo was either a white background or a sheet of fake books!
SP: Do you have any books that you reference all the time that you have physically or digitally?
CM: ‘The Oracle’ definitely. A copy of some of Sherry Turkle’s stuff, she wrote a lot on the culture of the internet and I ended up referencing her a whole lot! I borrowed a book of hers from my lecturer and I said I really should get myself a copy! They are particularly helpful to have when your research is based on the internet.
SP: Yeah, I’m really interested in your dissertation to be honest! Did you conduct your fieldwork online?
CM: What really worked was that I already had a Tumblr account for my D&D stuff that I was doing and the whole way it started was actually that I have a couple of friends who are witches so I got in contact with them and said “Hey what’s a good place that a lot of vaguely witchy people hang out online” and I got the address of a particular discord server and I basically got in touch with the head administrator and said that I was an Anthropologist and that I would be interested in studying your server and I basically hung around the server asking questions and talking to people for the next few months. It was a very interesting time although definitely a challenge. The problem with fieldwork online is that it is it’s own beast really, it’s a bit of an odd place to be. Especially because sometimes you are dealing with the issue of the implicit assumption that when you’re an anthropologist working in the field can generally tell that you’re an anthropologist by looking at you even if you are in the field for a long time. Whereas if you’re online, obviously that is very difficult to replicate so then informed consent becomes more difficult. What I ended up doing when I realised that a lot of people didn’t know I was anthropologist, I put “Active Anthropologist” in front of my username on the server. But then it turned into another issue because people thought it was just a joke! (laughter). My idea of how the internet works is that it is much like social space in meet space but faster, so a lot of people join and then leave at a much faster rate which creates more people that don’t know who you are or why you’re there. The biggest issue I ended up having was because I’m British but a lot of people on the server were American, it also happened that a lot of witches are students, academics and artists a lot of them do their work on magic or do self-motivated research and read a lot of anthropology. So they know exactly who I am and why I do it.
There were a few Anthropology students from the US, and the problem ended up being that in the US they are a lot more stringent on what consent you need to get. So, how they work at least would be that, every person in their field site they would have to get a consent form off which is difficult when you are on a server with 500 people! (laughter) In the end I managed to discuss it with them but some even contacted my dissertation adviser which was a bit scary but luckily she was on my side!
Thank you very much to Calum for letting me interview him!