Critical Point 2: The return to political economy

This is the second 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.

I was saying in the last post that Gusterson smuggles in his own preferred theoretical approach beneath a set of ostensibly neutral epistemic criteria, such as “systematicity” and “self-awareness.” His preferred approach is, in substance, a contemporary version of political economy. So let us take time here to see what Gusterson’s political economy looks like.

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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)

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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.

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Furner, “Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905”

Eli asked me to review one of the major books on the history of the social sciences in the United States, Mary Furner’s Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905. The book was originally published by the University of Kentucky Press in 1975 and a new edition with a long and interesting preface was published by Transaction Publishers in 2011. The current edition was published by Routledge in 2017 and there is a Kindle edition. Since the Kindle edition is what I used, all quotes will be to Kindle locations rather than page numbers.

Why bother with a 43 year-old book by an American historian in a blog on the ethnography of academia? For one thing, the level of ethnographic and behavioral detail Furner is a nuanced tour de force. Despite its compelling qualities, the book completely fails to capture the issues uniquely affecting American anthropology and therefore sets us a task that has yet to be addressed. The book remains, however, the most detailed and sustained treatment of the passage from political economy as a combined analytical/social reform effort to a set of academic disciplines called the social sciences that have mostly abandoned social reform and even abandoned the discussion of social reform issues in anything but veiled terms. The cases of the rebels she so vividly documents, and the controversies they created and how they were settled, rewards a close reading for the clues they provide to the present passive, defensive, and inert postures of most of the non-STEM fields.

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What is Neo-Taylorism?

Morten Levin and Davydd Greenwood, in their book “Creating a New Public University,” put a lot of emphasis on what they call Neo-Taylorism. This is their general term for the corporate organizational form that dominates most contemporary universities. While everyone reading this has likely heard the expression “neoliberalism,” most people won’t have heard of “Neo-Taylorism.” So I wrote up a little primer in Q & A form.

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Madden, “Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College”

Radical Teacher has just published a very interesting auto-ethnographic piece by Jaime Madden, called “Instructor or Customer Service Representative?: Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College.” I wanted to pick out some important moments from it.

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A feminist student movement in Chile

I don’t know of any new ethnographic research on Chilean student feminism, but the media is reporting on a significant feminist protest movement that has been going on for a month in Chilean universities and schools. The watchword seems to be “Against macho violence” (contra la violencia machista).

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Naidu, “Glaring invisibility: Dressing the body of the female cleaner”

I’ve been teaching more South African ethnographic work lately, and I just came across a great paper about outsourced campus cleaning staff at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Maheshvari Naidu‘s 2009 Glaring invisibility: dressing the body of the female cleaner is a particularly rich feminist ethnography of how black African women cleaning staff relate to their mandatory work uniforms. The bottom line is easy to convey: They don’t like them. Yet they are required to wear them.

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Academography year three

The Academography project began in late 2016 and now it’s almost March 2018, so it seems as good a time as any to take stock of our progress.

Globally speaking, as far as I can tell, higher education has not changed enormously in the past sixteen months. It continues to be a highly contested space whose history is inseparable from all the other major global processes. I’m thinking of things like the evolution of neoliberal governance, the progress of decolonizing projects such as Transformation in South Africa, the ongoing conflicts about immigration and racialization, the resurgence of ethnonationalisms notably under Donald Trump, antisexist projects like #metoo, and ongoing debates about precarious labor.

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Interview with Gina Hunter (Ethnography of the University Initiative)

Gina Hunter is an anthropologist teaching at Illinois State University, in the Midwestern United States, and a longstanding participant in the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI). The EUI, which we’ve written about before, is an institutional initiative housed at the University of Illinois which aims to support reflexive student research projects about higher education. The project has been around since 2002, and Hunter was its co-director from 2006–2014. She generously took the time to answer a number of questions about the project, its politics and context. The interview, if I may say so, is particularly relevant for teachers thinking about the politics of students doing critical research on their own educational institutions.

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