A mountain landscape near Stellenbosch University

Critical Point 1: The aesthetics of good and bad ethnography

This is the first substantive 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.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, Gusterson’s paper calls for what he pictures as a more “systematic” anthropology of the university. It is worth revisiting his initial formulation in detail:

Some good ethnographic studies of aspects of university life have been written, but it must be said that, after three decades of “repatriated” anthropology (Marcus and Fischer 1986), the anthropological literature on universities is, taken as an ensemble, underdeveloped, scattered, and riddled with blind spots. And in this literature universities tend to be treated as spaces where particular phenomena, such as ethnic or gender relations, can be studied, but not as institutions to be theorized in and of themselves. (435)

Now this passage evokes a whole aesthetics of scholarship. First, it is based on a radical distinction between two kinds of knowledge: the flawed ethnographic research that actually exists now, and the fantasy set of idealized ethnographies that do not yet exist. Second, it is based on a problematic distinction between “studying universities in and of themselves” and “studying particular phenomena within university spaces.”

Flawed reality or fantasy perfection in ethnography?

The studies that actually exist now are, for Gusterson, decidedly partial. They only study aspects of the thing, not the thing itself. They are incomplete or full of holes, “riddled with blind spots,” leaving things out. They are good, but not good enough. Later on, Gusterson also says that these existing studies are fundamentally out of proportion: the existing literature “tended to focus disproportionately on undergraduate student life” (437). As if their humoral balance was off, these studies demonstrate an excess of interest for some things (things which Gusterson does not find all that important), and a lack of focus on other things (which Gusterson does find important).

Gusterson then devotes much of his paper to imagining a fantasy set of idealized ethnographies that do not yet exist. These not-yet-existing studies, for Gusterson, would be “systematic,” “more self-aware” (437), “reinvigorated” (437), and more “programmatic” (446). These studies would study universities “as institutions to be theorized in and of themselves.”

It is already very curious that Gusterson invokes an ideal of a comprehensive and systematic inquiry. Most other ethnographers have long since abandoned the desire for epistemic mastery and totality that this ideal seems to presuppose. And it is unclear to me whether there is any subfield of anthropology whose ethnographic monographs would satisfy Gusterson’s epistemic ideals. Has any ethnographic study ever given a comprehensive and systematic study of anything? I realize that Gusterson’s paper can be read positively, as an exhortation to do better research. But for those of us already working in this field, it has a demoralizing effect, because it insinuates in silhouette that we are not all that self-aware, are not programmatic, are not vigorous, and do not meet Gusterson’s scientific ideals.

It is also radically telling that the examples of particular phenomena which do not count as studying the university “in itself” are… ethnic and gender relations. It doesn’t take a lot of exposure to critical theories of race or gender to know that ethnicity and gender are among the quintessential signs of the particular, as seen by white men who imagine themselves as universal subjects of history. Surely it is not Gusterson’s intention to inhabit that stance, but his resistance to the stuff of “identity politics,” along with his putdowns of the existing literature, are vitally important points that I will take up in separate posts later in this series. Let me postpone further comment on that, and continue thinking here about Gusterson’s aesthetics of scholarship.

The impossibility of studying universities “in themselves”

I got worried, I have to say, as soon as I saw this distinction between “studying universities as institutions to be theorized in and of themselves” and “studying particular phenomena within the university.” Clifford Geertz long ago pointed out that “the locus of study is not the object of study.” Or more famously: “Anthropologists don’t study villages… they study in villages” (1973:22). It follows that there just is no such thing as studying the university in itself ethnographically. We have to distinguish sites from ethnographic objects of analysis, and we must ask whether “universities in themselves” ever make good objects of analysis.

(One note on terminology. As already evident in the paper’s abstract, Gusterson vacillates between speaking of “universities” and speaking of “the university.” This, unfortunately, suggests that he still has a lot to learn about distinguishing an incoherent set of particular social practices and organizations from a general “thing” with an underlying essence or structure.)

I would submit that “the university” is nothing but a culturally circulating, unevenly materialized, but fundamentally idealizing abstraction. You can’t get to “the thing itself” in this case because it is unclear even what the term university means or whether it has any stable referent. “University” is not a universal or unproblematic label for all of higher education, a crucial point which Gusterson does not seem to appreciate. Would he count the Experimental Community Education of the Twin Cities, a recent anarchist teaching initiative? Or the Bard Prison Initiative, which “works to redefine the availability, affordability, and expectations typically associated with higher education in America”?

In any case, even if “the university” were an unproblematic label, it would make no more sense for an ethnographer to study “the university as such” than to study “the village as such.” There is actually a name for this mistake, in fact: the “scholastic fantasy” consists of confusing intellectual abstractions for things out there in the world, “taking the things of logic for the logic of things.”

In practice, all an ethnographer of universities can do is study within a small number of sites among the massive set of particular university spaces. Within these sites, of course, we can try to analyze any number of different social phenomena. Perhaps we can examine the ways in which some of these sites seem to form a system, or are construed by actors themselves as forming a system. There are many ways to study globalized, totalizing systems that acknowledge their systematicity without trying to study a “thing in itself.” We can perfectly well study people’s imaginaries of the university, or their totalizing models of the university. We can study transnational universities as capitalist enterprises, or trace the global flows of knowledge or of students. We can study the organizational workings of a particular university, or its place in class reproduction, or its relation to the state, or whatever. We can, for that matter, study how the core dynamics of national and racial identities are reproduced in higher education.

Now Gusterson would likely approve of these sorts of research agendas (except the last, which he arbitrarily rules out as too particular.) Let me stress again that my comments here are not meant to diss everything that Gusterson likes; they merely aim to unpack the way he frames his analysis.

And the point is that, try as we might, the university in itself is never going to appear unmediated before an ethnographer’s eyes, nor will it ever become a good ethnographic research object as such. For a theoretical lens really is the fundamental prerequisite of any specific investigation. Yes, we can study “the university,” but only if we have previously chosen (or unconsciously adopted) some social theory that enables us to see “it” as a legible object of inquiry. And there are always multiple theories available, which constitute their objects differently, and their respective merits are not just obvious without argument; they are open to debate and scrutiny. I am trying here to reopen more space for theoretical pluralism.

So in the end, Gusterson’s distinction between studying the university-in-itself and studying the university-as-context (for race and gender) mainly serves to camouflage his own substantive theoretical preferences behind the net of his own epistemic values. His claims to invent a more “systematic,” “self-aware,” “programmatic” ethnography of the university are really doing two things.

1) They give free reign to Gusterson’s imagination. I absolutely grant that it is fun to try to imagine what a not-yet-existing body of ethnographies might look like, and he seems to have enjoyed his act of fabulation.

2) But these epistemic values are also a sneaky way for Gusterson to smuggle in his preferred theoretical approach and pass it off as the only adequate approach. When he says we should study the university in itself, it really means we should study higher education from a political economic standpoint, while asserting that only this particular approach will give us the thing in itself.

My claim in this post has been that it is problematic in general, as a matter of ethnographic epistemology, to claim that one particular theoretical approach has a special access to the thing in itself, while denigrating other people’s approaches as partial approaches that do not reach the inner nature of a phenomenon. In short, I have sought to recall that ethnographic objects are never total, ethnographic inquiry is never entirely systematic, and ethnographic analysis never gets to things in themselves. It only ever constitutes objects under particular theoretical (historical, political) descriptions.

I will turn in the next installment to an assessment of Gusterson’s preferred theoretical approach, which is a return to political economy.

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Eli Thorkelson

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

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