Critical Point 7: The problem of methodological nationalism

This is the seventh post in 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 before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

The blindness to intradisciplinary status, gender and power is not the major blind spot in this paper. We also need to pay close attention when Gusterson writes a preliminary disclaimer, seemingly in passing, that handicaps his whole enterprise.

“In view of my own location, the analysis is necessarily—and unfortunately—focused on US universities and their remaking in the context of contemporary neoliberalism” (437).

He is right that the omission is “unfortunate,” but was it remotely “necessary”?

To learn about non-US cases, Gusterson would not have needed to leave home. He merely needed to read the work of scholars who work on higher education anywhere else in the world.

And if he had read this work, that might have made clear that we literally cannot understand the real stakes of the US academy without seeing it, among other things, as an imperial force in globalized academic space.

Indeed, I would argue that one of the single most important points of anthropology of higher education, and its most promising feature compared to the deeply nationalist vantage of most sociologists and education scholars, is that it can think globally and comparatively.

I will not give an exhaustive bibliography here. Let me just note in passing that, to get a glimpse of this urgently needed transnational perspective, one could do well to examine Neha Vora’s recent paper, Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf States, which examines the transnationality of American universities and their complex interface with non-American systems of race, class and gender. Or for instance, in South Africa, where I was recently teaching, there is a large body of critical research on South African student politics, the legacy of Apartheid, and the complexities of decolonization, and one of the things that comes up frequently in this literature is, precisely, the outsized influence that North American and European academics still carry in the global system. One cannot understand the urgency of epistemic decolonization in South Africa without understanding the hegemonic force of U.S. academia itself. A hegemonic force that includes U.S. cultural anthropology.

I have come to feel, in general, that there is a good reason why most other national academic fields have a clear perception of U.S. academia, while the U.S. academy — personified here by Gusterson — thinks it need only know itself. That’s usually how knowledge works in hierarchical situations. The dominant party indulges in comparative ignorance about the dominated. Whereas the dominated party develops a keen vision of their Other.

So when Gusterson gives hasty apologies for limiting his project to the U.S. case, he ends up reinforcing a global epistemic hierarchy in the guise of “limiting himself to what he knows.” He writes:

“In view of my own location, the analysis is necessarily—and unfortunately—focused on US universities and their remaking in the context of contemporary neoliberalism” (437).

Gusterson is right to acknowledge that other national cases have their own complexities and variations, but that is not an excuse for the methodological nationalism that he ultimately prefers. He is right to acknowledge too that his own location limits his knowledge in certain ways. But instead of accepting these limits, he should have asked why they were there and what they do. Why should Gusterson’s national location limit his critical analysis to the boundaries of a given national territory? And what kind of hierarchy does this express?

In short, Gusterson’s paper reminds us that there can be no critical ethnography of the university that is not global and transnational in scope. As academic capitalism itself is globalized, so too must be our analysis of it.

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Eli Thorkelson

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

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