What does a critical ethnography of the university look like? A critical reading of Hugh Gusterson

Last year, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, known for his book on nuclear rituals at the U.S. government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, published a sort of manifesto in American Ethnologist entitled “Homework: Toward a critical ethnography of the university.” It is the most prominent statement on anthropology of universities to emerge from U.S. cultural anthropology in recent years. I wanted to write up some thoughts about its argument, which I think deserves to be considered carefully.

The first premise of this paper is simple, albeit negative: Anthropologists have not systematically studied universities. Or as Gusterson claims in his first paragraph, “the anthropological literature on universities is, taken as an ensemble, underdeveloped, scattered, and riddled with blind spots.” As a professional anthropologist of universities, I sympathize somewhat with this initial thought, because I too found it very hard at first to find my bearings in this research area. But as an attempt to give a definitive judgment about a research area that Gusterson does not actually work in, questions emerge. What are its criteria of evaluation, what are its politics of research, and from what social position is this evaluation rendered?

It is not that I have any general objection to nonspecialists writing critically about specialized fields. But critical engagement is always a two-way street.

Let me say bluntly that I came away from this paper feeling many reservations about the direction of Gusterson’s intervention. As Academography has tried to make clear, there is actually a great deal of new, excellent critical ethnography of higher education. Gusterson is right at least that it is “scattered” across many venues and subfields, but my general sense is that he is very quick to dismiss it because, in essence, it does not happen to do what he wish it did, and does not adopt the theoretical stance he would prefer.

So here I want to elaborate on some reservations that I had about Gusterson’s criteria of evaluation, his theoretical project, and in the end, about his problematic embrace — in my view — of disciplinarity, of methodological whiteness, and methodological nationalism. My thoughts have gotten much too long to fit in a single blog post, so I will break it into a series of successive posts here. Let me begin this one with a quick summary of his paper (which again you can read in its entirety at Wiley).

Overview of Gusterson’s paper

Gusterson’s paper has three major parts. The introductory part consists of a limited review of anthropological work on universities, focusing only on the United States and mainly on the (moderately) well-known book-length ethnographies of college students, like Moffatt’s 1989 Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture, Abelmann’s 2009 The Intimate University: Korean American students and the problems of segregation, Mir’s Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity, and Sanday’s 1990 Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. This first section is quite critical of this literature, I think even dismissive (for reasons we will come back to). I think it has to be dismissive, rhetorically speaking, because if Gusterson were to admit satisfaction with the state of this research, his core argument — that we have “not been doing our homework on universities” — would just not get off the ground.

The second part of the paper consists of a summary of interdisciplinary social research about Cold War universities in the United States. Gusterson proposes this research as a model for what a “future” anthropology of the university should look like: less focused on undergraduates and more attuned to large-scale political and economic structures, to the changing system of disciplines (particularly to the ascendance of grant-funded research), and to the protest cultures that the Cold War system elicited.

Finally, a long third section of the paper rehearses a number of well-known empirical findings about contemporary U.S. higher education, which it generically labels “the neoliberal university.” Gusterson’s presentation here is useful and synthetic, I must say. It retraces the major lines of the AAUP’s longstanding studies of adjunct labor, Christopher Newfield’s work on the U.S. public university, the growth of American student debt, the political pressures exerted by conservative political interests, and the contrasting forms of class reproduction in elite and mass universities. It also advocates a critical ethnography of the discipline of economics, which Gusterson holds responsible for failing to predict the 2008 economic crash.

The paper ends with positive shout-outs to a couple of existing campus research projects: the University of Illinois’ longstanding Ethnography of the University Initiative, which we’ve written about before here, and the University of Toronto’s somewhat less extensive Ethnography Lab research projects on the university. Gusterson’s bibliography, I might add, is also one possible introduction to this body of literature, though it is very far from comprehensive.

An introduction to my take on this paper

Before I turn to my more critical remarks on this paper in subsequent posts, let me reiterate here that I do sympathize with Gusterson’s empirical interests, and with his generally critical stance towards higher education at large. I would be delighted to see further studies of the things he emphasizes (debt, administrative work, class domination, etc), and if he were to actually conduct these studies himself, that would be most welcome.

In short, my reactions to Gusterson’s paper are really not about what he affirms or about what energizes him. They are, rather, reactions to the overall framing of his paper; they have to do with what he has to deny and reject to hold together his polemical argument. And I want to take some time to describe these in subsequent posts because I am all too aware that it actually does matter how we frame our work, and who speaks on behalf of others.

So in this series of posts, I want to discuss the following points that strike me about Gusterson’s work:

  1. The aesthetics of good and bad ethnography
  2. The return to political economy
  3. The resistance to identity theory, or methodological whiteness
  4. The tenured “we” or the subject of liberal pity
  5. Critical anthropology without a critique of anthropology
  6. Gender and dominated subfields in U.S. anthropology
  7. The problem of methodological nationalism

The critical direction here is, I hope, obvious from the titles.

After I go through these points, I want to conclude with an alternative proposal of my own, which right now I’m planning to call something like, For an intersectional, transdisciplinary ethnography of the university. [Edit: It ended up being called Reading the work that is already there.] At this point I have a fairly clear idea of where I plan to go in this series, but it’s possible that these points may evolve as I finish putting it together. I haven’t had such extensive thoughts on a paper before, so I wanted to take the time to do it deliberately.

Stay tuned!

Abelmann, Nancy. 2009. The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation. Durham: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-intimate-university.
Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. “Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University: AES Presidential Address, 2017.” American Ethnologist 44 (3): 435–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12520.
Mir, Shabana. 2014. Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1990. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. New York: New York University Press.

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Eli Thorkelson

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