Conclusion: Reading the work that is already there

This is the conclusion to a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction to the project, or see the whole list of posts.

I realize it may seem that I have been very hard on Gusterson in this series.

In part, I do think that is justified. Prominent academics with big platforms have a proportionately larger obligation to get things right. They deserve close scrutiny and high standards.

But I still don’t want to make it seem like there was never anything worth taking seriously in Gusterson’s project. Let me briefly state some alternative claims, based on the paper, that Gusterson could reasonably have defended.

1. “There is plenty of anthropological research on universities, it just doesn’t use the approach I think it should.”

We might then have had a discussion about the merits of different approaches to anthropology of higher education.

2. “There is plenty of ethnography of universities, but because it is done by marginal actors, and I am a dominant actor, I’m not very aware of it.”

If Gusterson had said this honestly, it might have led us to an important discussion about what is legible and recognizable within U.S. cultural anthropology. It could have let us discuss the structures of power that organize disciplinary recognition.

3. “There is a lot of critical writing about higher education from feminist, critical race, and intersectional perspectives, but I refuse to view it as sufficient, because it seems to be speaking about minority concerns and not about the general political economy.”

I have tried to say something about this claim already, since it seems perilously close to actually being Gusterson’s (unstated) thesis, and it deserves to be examined quite critically. Such debates resonate more broadly with current debates in U.S. anthropology, in the wake of #hautalk, MeToo, and other controversies about structural exclusion and violence in the profession.

4. “It would be good if more critical work on universities were undertaken.”

Gusterson could easily have made this simple assertion without putting down the existing body of literature. Admittedly, it doesn’t make for very interesting reading. But if it were all that Gusterson had said, I would have readily agreed with him that more critical ethnography of the university could be a good thing.

Is that certain, though? After all, the value of any act of critical research is never given in advance, nor is it guaranteed by the good intentions of the researchers, nor even by picking the “right methods” or “right theories.”

There are many problems with political engagement, but there are even more problems with a lack of political engagement.

Let me be frank: I fear that unless “anthropology of universities” becomes more directly connected to on-the-ground activism and reform efforts within higher education, it may remain a purely academic exercise. And Gusterson, as I indicated, has no clear political project. He just wants to advocate “a lifetime of study.” Even though precarious folks literally cannot afford that

Nevertheless I suppose I am glad, in the end, to see someone like Gusterson working to bring attention to ethnographic research on the university.

I just wish he had done it in a more sympathetic, generous, and more genuinely reflexive fashion.

Gusterson’s dismissal of most of the extant work is, I think, unkind. And I have tried to disprove his key claim: that there is an “avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit.”

That avoidance relationship may well have existed in another era, last century. It is now gone. Today there is lots of ethnography of higher education. Lots of it is transnational. Lots of it is feminist. Lots of it is by Black and Brown scholars. Lots of it is by institutionally marginalized folks. It has plenty of different theories, and just as higher education is not a hermetically sealed institution, so too do our theories of it end up being theories of lots of other things too.

The bottom line is that this work is absolutely not the specific province of U.S. cultural anthropology, and there is profoundly no need for critical ethnography of universities to become a new “thing” in mainstream U.S. cultural anthropology.

What mainstream U.S. cultural anthropologists could usefully do is actually read the work that is already being done, and read it deeply (which Gusterson does not always do), and teach this work, and hire people who do it, and extend it when necessary, and improve its disciplinary politics, and definitely not retreat into a weird disciplinary nationalism or “not-invented-here syndrome.”

As Gusterson says, “homework” is in order. But this homework is less about creating a new research field than about learning how to recognize the work that is already there. Folks like Gusterson have a lot to catch up on.

Published by

Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

One thought on “Conclusion: Reading the work that is already there”

  1. This is a general comment covering Critical points 3-7 and the Conclusion.

    As in my experiences with Eli since he was a Cornell undergraduate, I marvel at the combination of scope, incisiveness, and ultimately at the combination of critique and generosity that his work embodies. This analysis of Gusterson’s ideas is one more case in point.

    Critical point 3
    Gusterson engages in what is a replay of the objectivity argument, the search for an unmediated position of analysis. This affects much more than feminism an identity theory and is an epistemological, methodological, and moral dead end.

    Critical point 4
    I think the idea even of the elite “we” is now a fantasy. It is clear now that senior university administration now have taken over the “university” and they appropriate the “we”. So it seems to me that Gusterson does not realize his own now subordinate position in the university.

    Critical point 5
    Anthropology as good guys is quaint. Every field has always good and bad guys. Consider the academic “rock stars” who have lived off the elitism of the academic system and helped perpetuate it. Are they the “good guys” while the “poor” educational anthropologist are the janitors of the system?

    Critical point 6
    This position not only subordinates educational anthropology but continues the internal hegemonies that subordinated the work of the anthropologists who focused on contemporary institutions, science and technology and areas like Europe. The conceit of anthropology as non-Western, non-modern, pre-scientific no longer characterizes most of the field but was a key dynamic that affected my own career for at least 30 years. It is surprising to see the same processes of subordination deployed in reference to educational anthropology at this point in history.

    Critical point 7
    Methodological nationalism is not just an error but makes understanding causality impossible. The spread of the neo-liberal model of higher education around the world is general but does not take a uniform trajectory. Had anthropology operated in this ethnocentric way in earlier generations, we would have continued to take the nuclear family as the norm and all other forms as exotic variants. This is an ethnocentric dead end.

    In particular, I oppose the subdisciplinization of critical university studies. The neo-Taylorism of academic silos has permitted domestication of the social sciences in studying rather than acting in the world. It has turned each innovation into a new form of disciplinary commodity production rather than promoting reformist inquiry into the causes of a host of social ills. This is why I lived most of my academic career outside of the department of anthropology working in interdisciplinary and multi-national programs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *