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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