Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs

COPAA: Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs COPAA Home

Distinguished International Scholar Series

Keynote Address
By COPAA’s First Distinguished International Scholar

At the Conference of the Society for Applied Anthropology,
Memphis, 25-29 March 2008

Making Application Count in a Global Knowledge Economy

Susan Wright

Professor of Educational Anthropology
Danish School of Education
University of Århus

Thank you very much for inviting me as COPAA’s first Distinguished International Scholar. This is not only a huge honour but it enables me to express a debt of gratitude. On 12-17 April 1981, the SfAA held its decennial conference at Edinburgh, Scotland. I wasn’t there, but it changed my life.

One of the sessions at the SfAA conference brought together a number of British lecturers and practicing anthropologists and out of that meeting, they set up GAPP – the Group for Anthropology in Policy and Practice.  GAPP became BASAPP (the British Association for Anthropology in Policy and Practice) in 1988 and Anthropology in Action from 1993 to 2000. I was a founder member of GAPP and Convenor of GAPP/BASAPP/AinA between 1987 and 1994.

For PhD students and applied anthropologists, then excluded from membership of the Association of Social Anthropologists, GAPP was very important for learning the skills of applied anthropology. More than that, GAPP was also very important for anthropologists seeking to analyse and work out how to act on the enormous reforms to the welfare state under the Thatcher government and beyond.

Today, I wish to focus on the equally important changes that are re-shaping the public sector – and in that I include universities – and that are changing the boundaries between the public and private sectors in many parts of Europe.  These changes go under the banner of making a nation competitive in the global knowledge economy. My questions are, how do anthropologists and our students analyse these large scale transformations in the nature and organisation of governance? How do we find room for manoeuvre? How do we work out how to act to try and influence and shape these changes?

In addressing these questions, I will argue that there are new opportunities for applied anthropology, but only if we challenge the ways government and university leaders, industrialists and others in the public debate currently think about ‘application’. Towards the end of this presentation I will return to Anthropology in Action and suggest that the approach to application developed by that organisation is much more productive, even within the terms of the policy makers and interest groups who advocate the knowledge-based economy. Plus, it is an approach to application which enables anthropologists to act as what I call ‘politically reflexive practitioners’.

What is the ‘global knowledge-based economy’?
An early proponent of the idea that the future lay in a world economy based on knowledge was Robert Reich, President Clinton’s Secretary for Labour, and currently Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His hugely influential book, The Work of Nations (1991-8) argued (in brief)

  1. Mass production is moving to the Third World. US corporations which are organised on economies of scale cannot compete on price with Third World producers.
  2. For the USA, future profits lie in generating ideas – new products, new designs, new ways of marketing, new ways of organising – all based on knowledge.
  3. To do this, a high proportion of the labour force in the USA needs to become ‘symbolic analysts’. That is, people who can create, manipulate and interpret symbols (numbers, images, words) and who can simplify reality into abstract images that can be

    ‘rearranged, juggled, experimented with, communicated to other specialists and then, eventually transformed back into reality’ (Reich 1991: 177-8). These people can then work with others around the world, often in short-lived teams, responding to fast-changing opportunities and markets.

  4. This knowledge-based economy requires at least 50 percent of the population to have higher education qualifications – to have skills of abstraction, system thinking, experimentation, collaboration.
  5. The work of national governments is no longer to steer a national economy, but to create this high-skilled workforce, so that such workers can attract or create a good share of this global high-income work.
  6. There is a danger to social cohesion. If half the population has the skills to participate in this global labour market, they could begin to slip the bonds of national allegiance. The other half, excluded from such highly paid employment, could feel left out, and this could lead to social divisions and unrest. It is therefore also the work of national governments to use redistributive taxes to invest in education and continually increase the percentage of the population that can participate in this global labour market.

Critique of the western idea of a global knowledge economy
This idea of a global knowledge-based economy posits that western countries will maintain their prosperity by becoming the ‘heads’ in a globally-organised economy in which the rest of the world takes on the manufacturing work of ‘hands’. Why would emerging economies be willing to accept this new version of Western imperialism – or what Harvey (1989) calls ‘peripheral Fordism’?

Phil Brown and his research colleagues (Brown et al. 2008) have interviewed policy makers in western and emerging economies. They found that third world and emerging economies are accepting the manufacturing jobs from the west. But they are also massively expanding their own universities and the production of their own graduates. They see themselves as global centres or hubs of knowledge based enterprises organised on a global scale, and especially drawing on their diasporic populations. In short, such emerging economies plan to become both the hands and the brains of a global knowledge-based economy.

Spread of the idea of a global knowledge economy
These criticisms have not impeded the spread of ideas such as those of Reich. Indeed they have brought a frenzy of university reforms around the world.

Tony Blair took up Robert Reich’s thesis directly in his election mantra in 1997, ‘Education, Education, Education’. He and his closest advisers espoused the ‘thin air thesis’. That is, the idea that British people will no longer have to engage in strenuous and dangerous manual labour because future prosperity depends on creative and information-based industries. For example:

The generation, application and exploitation of knowledge is (sic) driving modern economic growth. Most of us make our money from thin air: we produce nothing that can be weighed, touched or easily measured. Our output is not stockpiled at harbours, stored in warehouses or shipped in railway cars…That should allow our economies, in principle at least, to…be organised around people and the knowledge capital they produce. Our children will not have to toil in dark factories, descend into pits or suffocate in mills, to hew raw materials and turn them into manufactured products. They will make their livings through their creativity, ingenuity and imagination.
(Charles Leadbetter, policy advisor to Tony Blair, major author of Department of Trade and Industry’s 1998 White Paper Building the Knowledge Driven Economy, quoted in Wolf 2002: xii).

Such an argument – found in many government reports and speeches since 1997 - invisibilises those in Britain as well as overseas who make the products that Blair, Brown and their coteries continue to wear, drive and eat.

On the basis of the thin air thesis, Blair set a target that 50 percent of 18-30 year olds should attend university by 2010. Government has charged universities with responsibility for producing the next generation of workers and citizens equipped with the abilities and values needed for Britain to succeed in knowledge capitalism.

In other countries, such as Denmark, the reform frenzy has come via the OECD. Godin (n.d.) has traced the emergence of the global knowledge economy as a central policy concept in the OECD. By the mid 1990s the OECD had an agreed definition of the knowledge economy and a scoreboard of indicators to report on member countries’ success in implementing advocated reforms. One of these - that a high proportion of the population needed higher education – fitted with OECD long-standing promotion of a transition from elite to mass higher education (Trow 1973). This also fitted with the OECD’s new theory of human capital, which held that the benefits of a highly skilled population were no longer social and therefore no longer justified public expenditure on higher education. Instead, the benefits were considered primarily individual - higher lifetime earnings - and should therefore be paid for through student fees. A further OECD agenda was to reform universities, to make them entrepreneurial. A new strategic management was to make universities responsive to the demands of fee-paying students and the rising trade in international students. It was also to cope with government’s demands for efficiency and accountability, and with the needs of the knowledge economy for human capital, knowledge production and knowledge transfer. In other words, ‘application’ is high on the agenda.

Danish university reform
Denmark has been an avid participant in this OECD reform agenda, both in a new University Law of 2003, and a Globalising Strategy of 2006 (Denmark 2006).  The latter strategy condenses the government’s argument: Denmark needs to face the challenges and use the opportunities of globalisation to maintain its position as one of the wealthiest countries in the world; and, with echoes of Robert Reich, Denmark needs to avoid becoming a fragmented society where those not equipped to face the labour market of the future fall by the wayside. The way to achieve this is especially through ‘world top level education’ and ‘strong and innovative research’ – in other words the government looks to universities, both in their teaching and research, to be drivers of the knowledge economy.

Government seeks improvements in university teaching - more students with a faster throughput and better equipped to join the labour market. Government also expects students to re-skill or update their education throughout their lives, so as to keep themselves in the labour market. This very instrumental view of education is informed by a particular view of the future worker and the future workplace (Ørberg 2008). 

Government expects that graduates will not work in the public sector as hitherto but in ‘flexible firms’ whose profits depend on the speed of applying new knowledge and new ways of organising. Such workers will not be in permanent employment, but will be in short-term project teams, which are unhierarchical and self-steering, and which operate through networks and through trust rather than control. Denmark’s competitiveness depends on students acquiring the skills to work in these ways, and constantly updating them.

Danish competitiveness also depends on university research. According to the Globalisation Strategy, university research should be world class – which presumably means scoring well in international rankings – so as to attract good academics and companies to Denmark. The 2003 University Law also charged universities with creating better links with ‘the surrounding society’ (principally ‘industry’) and with more effective ways, in the words of one government report, of turning ideas into invoices (Denmark 2003). In Harvey’s (1989) terms, such reforms repositioned universities ‘as ancillary producers of knowledge for corporate capital’.

Flexible organisation?
If universities are to operate as knowledge suppliers to industry, the argument goes, their own organisation needs to be compatible with that of the flexible firm. 

In the private sector, the old, rigid, mass producing corporation carried all the risk of new developments itself, tied up too much capital in buildings and plant, and in wages bills for large permanent workforces, disciplined to work in predictable routines. The new flexible way of organising is to replace the military hierarchy of command and control with a web of enterprises.

Harvey (1989) describes a small core of permanently employed strategic managers at the centre of the web who set the aims, allocate resources, and tie the threads of the network together. Short- term teams of portfolio workers or self-employed consultants work on new ideas and link solutions to clients’ problems. On ‘the outer edge’, suppliers are contracted to supply standard inputs. It is these small businesses around the world that carry the cost of buildings and plant and share the risk of investing in new developments. They subsist on short term contracts, and are dropped when the market changes. Tsing (2006) calls this chain link capitalism, as the networks are created out of contract chains between the core, project teams and suppliers. Power in such a system can be measured in terms of distance from the strategic centre, of whose identity the peripheral suppliers may not even be aware.

Tsing identifies the principles underpinning this form of organising. Contracts are the links in the network which translate value – a sine qua non for capitalism. Contracts are between parties who are formally free – in some of Tsing’s examples sub-contractors even think of themselves as autonomous and as working for themselves. The contracts are the mechanism through which all the operations are made consistent with the strategic goals of the central core. The contracts also cross differences – there is no need for homogeneity between the parties, or even any pretence that capitalism is coherent. Through the contracts, the centre also diffuses responsibility. It is the subcontractor who decides the methods to meet the contract, the employees’ work conditions, and even the legality of the operation.

Flexible university?
The Danish University Law of 2003 changed the purpose, legal status, governance and management of universities in ways that seem to mirror the business model of networked enterprises. In other words, universities were to become ‘flexible’ organisations, capable of entering into contract chains and becoming knowledge suppliers to ‘the surrounding society’.

In brief, the main changes were:

  1. The purpose of Danish universities was defined as ‘contributing to the growth, welfare and development of society’ by improving relations with ‘surrounding society’.
  2. Instead of being part of the state bureaucracy, universities were given the status of ‘self-owning institutions’. This gave them the status of a legal person, capable of entering into contracts.
  3. The previously elected Senate, Faculty and Department Boards were abolished as was the election of the rector, faculty dean and head of department. Instead a system of strategic management was instituted in which the Government approves a governing board, which appoints a rector, who appoints faculty deans, who appoint heads of department.
  4. A contract chain is set up between the appointed, strategic leaders. The government sets the aims and budget for the sector. The Ministry converts these aims into a contract with performance indicators, which it enters into with the Governing Board of each university. The governing board’s appointed rector is responsible for fulfilling these performance targets. The rector enters into a contract with each of the faculty deans, which outsources the performance requirements. The faculty deans then enter into a contract with each head of department and outsource the performance indicators to them. The government’s aims are thus outsourced over and over again through a contract chain to those at the periphery of the organisation (Wright and Ørberg 2008).

Not only is the university constructed like a network enterprise itself, it is also meant to make contracts with surrounding society (industry) so as to become a knowledge supplier to strategic cores other than just the Ministry. If the medical and life sciences might be expected to excel at this, other departments are also joining in. For example, the anthropology department at Copenhagen University has set up a unit for links with business life, specialising in the use of ethnography for consumer-led product development. In this way of thinking, the university is to become a flexible organisation, networked into many different sectors of the economy and society, acting as a supplier of employable graduates and usable research in subcontracting chains linked to many different strategic centres in the Danish share of the global knowledge economy.

The performing-public-sector university?
The features of this Danish university reform can also be considered in quite another way.  The new system for the state steering of universities that was brought in with the 2003 University Law was not especially designed for universities or geared primarily to their role in the knowledge economy, but was merely the application of an administrative reform aimed to improve the efficiency and accountability of the whole of the public sector.

In this context, the chain of contracts linking the Ministry, through every level of the organisation to the street-level service provider – or in our case the academic at the chalk face - is a new way of organising a hierarchy, so as to make the bottom of the hierarchy more responsive to the politicians’ aims for the sector. If politicians change their aims regarding the delivery of a service, these new aims can quickly be reflected in changes in the performance indicators of all the contracts down the chain. This system diminishes ‘interference’ from the alternative aims or values of middle managers or service professionals who, in the bureaucratic system, used to be able to impede government’s achievement of its political aims. Now at each level there is a leader who has no collegial accountability: he or she is only accountable upwards to the person who has appointed them, who gives them a personal contract, and who can fire them if they do not achieve the output from the academics in their unit that meets the performance indicators in that contract.

Although in some universities this system has been in place for only a year, in interviews we are already getting signs of ‘performance’ coming to mean ‘putting on an act’, similar to that which developed in the British audit culture (Shore and Wright 2001). One story was of a previously well-respected head of department being reduced under the new system to going round to each academic saying, I am committed in the department’s contract to holding 5 international conferences this year, but I can only list 3 so far, have you done anything that could count as an international conference? This detracts from the time and energy the head of department can use to encourage staff, find what fires up their academic interests, and help them create the kind of challenging yet supportive intellectual environment that, as Hastrup puts it, is based on the ‘dialogue across differences’ (Hastrup 2003) through which new ways of thinking emerge.

Clear signs are emerging that government steering is beginning to overwhelm the universities. The chain of contracts and its demand for upward accountability means that all levels of the organisation must be responsive to government policy and to its demands for accountability on behalf of society, rather than experimenting with diverse links for students and research with the surrounding society itself.  There is a strong outcry in Denmark that this form of government steering damages academic freedom; there could equally well be an argument that the New Public Management aspects of the reform undermine the government’s other agenda to create flexible organisations which can respond quickly to demands for students and research from many different enterprise networks and supply chains in the global economy.

Rewarding ‘pure’ research outputs
The government’s current plans for competitive allocation of at least part of universities’ research funding exposes further the contradiction between the government’s aim that universities should be responsive to the surrounding society, and its steering techniques which make universities perform in terms of the government’s own criteria. These criteria emphasise the ‘pure’ kinds of research that count in international rankings, rather than encouraging universities to experiment with developing other kinds of knowledge applicable to industry and to current issues in society.

The Ministry keeps delaying its competitive allocation of research funding, but Copenhagen University’s Humanities Faculty has already devised a points system similar to that the government intends. A book that is reviewed anonymously earns 60 points, a book where the reviewers are identified earns 48 points and a book that is not peer reviewed earns 36 points. A blind peer reviewed article in a top ranking international journal earns 15 points, a journal article where the peer reviewers are not anonymous earns 12 points, and a journal article that is not peer reviewed earns 9 points. In other words, this system prioritises ‘pure’ or ‘fundamental’ research – as few if any disciplines have ‘core’ journals that focus on application.

As we know from studies of academic audit in the UK, such technologies quickly teach academics ‘what counts’. They know that their department’s income, and hence their own working conditions, depend on their using their time to produce the kinds of books and articles that will be published by the most prestigious international publishers. Some interviewees are already telling us that their job prospects and promotion will rely on these kinds of publications. The ranking system is pushing the universities to focus on ‘pure’ research and is undervaluing initiatives to develop new ways of thinking about relations between pure and applied research.

Pure and Applied Anthropology
What, then, of applied work? What about the Danish government’s aim to have universities act as a knowledge supplier to industry and to improve their relations with the rest of surrounding society? The Rector of Copenhagen has on several occasions tried to assuage academics’ fears that the demands of government or of industry will dominate their research agenda. He has done this by emphasising that the university’s core activity continues to be pure, fundamental, blue skies research, and that research quality will be defined by fellow academics, through peer review systems. One of the presentations by the Rector of Copenhagen showed a diagram with a circle depicting pure research at the core of the university, and an arrow going down to applied as a derivative, subsidiary or marginalised activity.

This is reminiscent of the language from the 1970s to 1990s in UK anthropology. It is hard to overstate the strength of the imagery. Applied was represented as parasitical on pure anthropology for ideas, which practitioners then corrupted in the process of application. Applied was tainted by politics and practical action, whereas ‘pure’ was unaffected by real life. Applied did not contribute anything to the discipline, and indeed could not, as there was a firm boundary preventing applied anthropologists from polluting the purity of departments (Wright 1995).

The UK’s Association of Social Anthropologists was formed during the period of post-war decolonialisation to ensure the new departments of social anthropology preserved the discipline’s pure theoretical core by preventing out of work colonial administrators from getting academic jobs.  When I was a graduate student in the 1970s, during a downturn in academic employment, there was concern to slough off those excess postgraduates for whom there were not enough academic jobs. When I got my first job as an anthropologist in a multi-disciplinary team, researching the governance of rural communities in Britain, one of the dons that had encouraged my studies and for whom I had great respect, said, ‘What a shame you’ll no longer be an anthropologist’.

I and the other 100 anthropologists in my position during the early 1980s had every intention of continuing to be anthropologists. Many of us did not want academic jobs, or not only, or not yet. Many of us had a strong commitment to use anthropology to contribute to debates about the future of the welfare state and of international development. Some of us found project work, others were invited to reconceptualise a policy field – in my case rural governance (see also Donnan and McFarlane 1989). Anthropologists had always gone into applied work, but classified as ‘no longer’, they left us no tracks to follow. We had to cut our own paths into the employment jungle. As we got jobs in Britain in planning, housing, social services, community work, health, and internationally in development projects, we too disappeared from academic view and lost contact with each other. We also found, while we had some strengths as anthropologists, we were very badly equipped with other skills needed for such work.

This is where GAPP (later BASAPP, later AinA, see above) came in, as an organisation for PhD students and applied anthropologists excluded from the ASA.

The motto for this COPAA conference, emblazoned on our T-shirts is

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed people can change the world:
indeed it is the only thing that ever has
(Margaret Mead 1908-1978).

GAPP was certainly founded by a small group of thoughtful, committed people who both wanted to change the world of social anthropology, and to use social anthropology to have a beneficial impact on the wider world.

In practical terms, GAPP had three aims:

  1. To create a network among practicing anthropologists, and especially those working in similar sectors.
  2. To create a two-way relation between academic anthropology and anthropology in policy and practice – to use insights from policy and practice to development work on the core theoretical concerns of anthropology.
  3. To equip students with the networks and skills needed to work in policy and practice.

We were in the midst of the Thatcher revolution. We were working in a public sector becoming subject to New Public Management, in local authorities being ‘rolled back’ by the central state. What was going on? How could we use anthropology to understand emerging concepts of governance and new forms of power? What strange things were happening to the meanings of words like participation, empowerment, accountability, quality? How did the new technologies associated with these words create their effects? How did these concepts and technologies work to shape and manage people as new kinds of subjects? In other words, we were studying the changing constitution of the state – its language, symbols and power – which, by anyone’s reckoning, are core concerns of anthropology.

GAPP’s activities - the networks of practitioners, workshops and conferences, annual training course for graduate students, journal Anthropology in Action and edited books – are described elsewhere (Wright 1995, 2005).

Here I wish to show how we confronted the pure/applied divide in anthropology,  first by using insights from practice to formulate a new field of political anthropology, the ‘anthropology of policy’. Second, we used this knowledge in teaching to equip students with the critical abilities to act in organisations in the midst of change - to become ‘politically reflexive practitioners’.

 Anthropology of Policy
Anthropologists working in policy and practice were not just in need of theoretical purchase on the processes on which they were acting. They were also generating new insights into contemporary social and political change, which could make important contributions towards ‘pure’ anthropological concerns, such as how to conceptualise and theorise processes of transformation.

A good example of this is the work on the ‘anthropology of policy’. GAPP/BASAPP/AinA convened meetings of anthropologists working in a particular field and invited them to exchange experiences of the processes of change of which they were a part. They often sensed an unfathomable shift in the meaning of the key concepts that described their work and that defined the people to whom their service was addressed. Sometime this was evident in the language of documents, sometimes embedded in top-down changes to their organisations and their daily practices. All these changes – to key words, organisations and everyday practices – they could label ‘policy’. Empirically, ‘policy’ appeared to be numerous fragments of language, texts, practices and organisational forms. Conceptually, policy seemed to be acquiring the same status as ‘family’ and ‘society’, as an important organising concept in western society, classifying populations and ordering whole swathes of relationships and activities. Yet unlike family and society, policy was not interrogated as an ideological and politicised concept. Much academic literature still tended to treat policy as an instrumental, administrative tool, whereas the insights of practicing anthropologists pointed to new forms of governance and power that were coming about in British society through just such ‘political technologies’, which, as Foucault pointed out, cloak their political effects with the appearance of neutrality (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982: 196).

It is important to remember that in the midst of the Thatcherite revolution, very few academics, practitioners or commentators - or even members of the Conservative party - could grasp what kind of change was underway. Words which we thought we knew, suddenly sounded uncomfortable and slightly unrecognisable. One was ‘individual’. Not only did anthropology practitioners query what was happening to this word, but some academic anthropologists and students pursued this as a research question. During my fieldwork in an ex-mining village in northeast England, in clips from Mrs Thatcher’s speeches on the television news, I heard her make frequent references to a Britain made up of ‘enterprising individuals’ where there would be ‘no such thing as society’. My landlady and I would turn to each other and say ‘What does she mean?’ Thatcher’s images of the individual as self-sufficient, self-managing, go-ahead, and as despising those dependent on ‘the nanny state’, acted as a mobilising metaphor, which many people in the village voted for. But then these same people deeply resented her government’s closing down heavy industry and bringing high unemployment to the area, and then making it more difficult for them to access welfare benefits, on which they became personally dependent.

Accepting as a heuristic device the idea that policy is a ‘thing’ which can travel across the political field, I followed various policies to see how forms of governance were reshaped in their path. I selected three sites for fieldwork - central government, a local authority, and the mining village – and followed the ways particular issues were discussed by Mrs Thatcher in terms of her ever-evolving ideas of the individual, and how these ideas were translated into different genres – political speeches, law proposals, parliamentary debates, newspaper articles, guidance to local government, and local government policies, services and systems – as they travelled across this political field, contested at every stage. One day a woman I knew well stopped me in the village street and said ‘I’ve become one of Mrs Thatcher’s enterprising individuals, at last I understand what she means’. Under a policy for local management of schools, she had become a parent governor of the school, trained to take over many of the tasks previously done by local government officials, and made responsible for a budget that was too small to keep the school running. As a governor, she was faced with holding an infinite number of jumble sales, which never yield much in a poor area, or sacking one of the teachers, the mother of her daughter’s friend.

Sue Hyatt (1997) explored public housing policy. She saw women turned into self-managing tenants of public housing, trained in empowerment, with a certificate on their wall of their bedroom, next to the filing cabinet, full of documents previously administered by a paid local authority official. In their case, women found themselves having to police their neighbours, and withdrew from the policy for fear that self-management would bring social chaos.

In both these examples the policy acted as a technology to shape the kind of subject these women were expected to become. In both cases they were deeply involved in implementing the policy, feeling partly empowered but also tricked, before they fully understood the new forms of power involved. ‘Enterprising individuals’ found themselves ‘freely’ managing their own conduct and ‘voluntarily’ steering their neighbour in ways that implemented the government’s image of morality and order.

By gathering together such ethnographies in an AinA session at the 1995 biennial conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, and in a subsequent book (Shore and Wright 1997), we proposed the anthropology of policy as a new field of anthropology. We argued that, while policy can be seen as a tool of government and studied to see how concepts and technologies are used in the art of government, policy can also be used as an analytical tool to study processes of political transformation and the emergence of new systems of governance and forms of power.

Politically reflexive practitioners
Our purpose was not just to gain insights from practitioners to analyse contemporary processes of political transformation but also to respond to questions they and students were discussing about how they could act, as practitioners and researchers, to contribute critically and effectively to policy processes. In particular, what skills did students need if they were to become policy practitioners or community activists who were trying to make policy recommendations in a language that was shifting and who were trying to influence emerging agendas they did not quite always understand.

At the same time I found myself being bombarded, as a lecturer, with government speak about students’ becoming flexible learners and reflexive learners, and having transferable skills. I found myself subject to shifting policy demands in a language that I did not fully understand. Just as women in my fieldwork village had felt themselves drawn to words like empowerment, only to realise later that the meaning was not as they expected, so I felt drawn to teaching initiatives described with words I felt I owned as an anthropologist. A good example was the call to make our students ‘reflexive learners’, but my critical analysis of policy made a warning bell ring. What is meant by reflexivity here? Is it the same as I would mean - or I would want it to mean – as an anthropologist?

My School asked me to design an independent study programme in which students could propose their own programme of study for a semester, and their own forms of assessment (Wright 2004). They could do anything, write a dissertation, make a film, work for an organisation, or hold a lecture, as long as they made a good proposal setting out what they wanted to do and learn, and how and why. The aim was to put students in the driving seat of their own learning, to encourage them to think carefully about the educational process they were engaged in.

I ran a seminar for students to exchange experiences, and find ways of talking about being independent learners. This seminar soon revealed the way the university context limited students’ abilities to be in the driving seat of their own learning. For example, one student was inspired by a course she had taken in the previous year to study one topic in much more detail. For her assessment, she wanted to turn her research into a lecture to the next cohort of students on the course. It would be an enormous challenge for her to speak in public and engage an audience. The course tutor welcomed the idea of her giving a lecture, but gave her a date 2 months earlier than she had proposed. She came to see me in panic because her work would not be ready by then.

We reviewed the idea that if she was really a self-directed independent learner, then she should be able to explain to the lecturer what she was trying to achieve, and he should respect that. Why hadn’t he? How was he seeing her – what ideas of ‘the student’ may have informed the interchange? What practical constraints could there be, from the way courses were run at the university? She had not considered before, how the organisation worked from a lecturer’s point of view. We found space for negotiation and how to put across what she wanted to do. She went back to see the lecturer and he agreed right away.

This is just one tiny incident, but there were many like this. I realised I was using my fieldwork skills to help students analyse concepts – being a student, independent, reflexive - to understand the daily detail of the institution in which they were located, and to find out how to act on it to achieve their well thought out and well reasoned learning aims.

In the policy and educational literature ‘reflexive learning’ tends to mean instrumental reflection or self-monitoring, so as adjust the self to fulfil the demands of the modern world for flexibility and adaptability (Barnett 1997). In contrast, anthropological reflexivity uses the self to reflect critically on society. Using the self as a tool of research, the anthropologist sees the self in the discourse of others, and uses this to expose own and other rationalities and how they work in the construction of persons, social relations and institutions. The anthropologist sees her/himself as a positioned actor, and uses reflexive analysis continually to negotiate that positioning. That is, reflexivity is inherently political. In fieldwork we use reflexive analysis to minimise our impact. At home we can use it to work out how to act on the prevailing economic and political order in order to maximise change.

I tried to engender in my students an ability to analyse daily encounters and their reactions to them, to read signs of how others expected them to act, and to discover the detailed ways boundaries, hierarchies and power relations worked in the university. I encouraged them to use this reflexive knowledge actively to negotiate a more constructive environment for their learning. My hope was that they would take this ability to act as politically reflexive practitioners into their working careers.

West Point
As a model of what I mean about transferring reflexive knowledge from the academy into the world of work, let me leave Europe for a moment and come to West Point Military Academy in 1817. In that year, Sylvanus Thayer was appointed principal. He instituted an education system, borrowed from the Ecole Polytechnique in France, based on an arithmetic grading system.

Thayer set up a hierarchy, down which rules and regulations passed to the students, and up which flowed regular and systematised reports. Every student’s subject knowledge was tested daily, weekly and half-yearly and marked according to a standardised, 7-point numerical scale. In weekly, monthly and half-yearly reports, students’ aptitude, study habits, and whether their conduct was sufficiently ‘military’ were graded on a seven point scale from ‘excellent’ to ‘indifferent’. Both sets of reports went up the hierarchy. The marks were used to divide each year into 4 graded classes. Each student knew his place and what he had to do to move up the ranking. In Foucault’s terms, this one system of governance controlled the whole population and every individual within it. It was simultaneously totalising and individualising.

The authors of this study conclude:

This is a total accountability system, where all aspects of performance, academic and behavioural, are constantly measured, evaluated and recorded in a joint numerical-linguistic language which is also a currency (Hoskin and Macve 1988: 49).

This was

An exhaustive, hierarchical, reflexive system of command and communication, which ideally made every individual in the institution constantly visible and accountable for his behaviour (Hoskin and Macve 1988: 59).

The west Point students were made into calculative and accountable selves. They knew what they had to do to improve their grades. Their final mark determined how prestigious was their first appointment, and their record accompanied them throughout their military career and beyond.

This system produced the best civil engineers in the country. It also produced some of the best managers of the armouries and the railroads, and the newly forming industrial corporations. They imported into these organisations a hierarchy down which passed meticulous regulations and up which passed written reports with number-based, normalising judgements. These reports graded each employee’s performance, and were the currency for comparing units, so that ‘every employee felt the eyes of the corporation upon him (sic) through the books’ (ibid.). In short, the organisation of corporate America relied heavily on the West Point graduates’ reflexive knowledge about how to create a system of organisation and discipline that turned workers into calculative, accountable selves.

This example suggests that students do not just learn a subject at university, but also reflexively, systems of organisation. If so, then what are the systems of performance measurement, self-monitoring and governance that students are learning at universities in Europe, and that they will take into the world of work? Such questions make the university into a site of applied research into changing systems of governance in western society, just as much as they are sites of education.

As Strathern shows (1997), systems for grading performance, which started as a currency for individual examination at universities, have travelled into business accountancy systems and now returned to universities as a way to examine and grade their performance as organisations and hold them publicly to account. Whereas the original system concerned subject knowledge, aptitude and behaviour, the current system concerns performance – the ability to produce outputs (or the appearance of outputs) that count as measures of efficiency and accountability, with little regard for the social attitudes or deportment of the individual or the method of managing the organisation that produces them.

As these audit systems cross back into the domain of higher education and percolate into academics’ and students’ reckoning of what counts – for the success both of their own career and of their institution (and hence their own working conditions), what effects will this have on concepts and practices of education? What will students learn reflexively about running networked organisations through contract chains and performance indicators, and the kinds of person such systems of governance imply? How can we encourage students to be critically reflexive, to work out how they want to position themselves and act on such forms of organising?

This means asking how to equip students to analyse and make interventions in a supercomplex and fast-changing world. How to act on the political order of which we and they are a part? In the 1980s, anthropologists found ‘safe’ spaces in the public sector to analyse embedded inequalities and disempowering systems, and contribute to the policy process. Now, the state is transformed. Many functions have been privatised or run on a quasi commercial basis. The service sector, creative industries, and marketing agencies seek employees who will criticise their organisation’s social constructions and operations, within limits. Employees are not invited to question the basic rationalities of governance (O'Shea 2004) but that is what anthropologists should do. Students will need to be reflective learners, accountable selves who know what counts and how to succeed. But, I would argue, it is more important than ever for them to be reflexive, with a political sensitivity to their positioning within an organisation and how to act on it.

How do courses equip graduates to be critical citizens in such a corporate world? When the relations of flexible firms, networked organisations and chain links are so complex, the language so full of ‘weasel words’ and the blind spots so difficult to find.

Surely one answer is to start at home. We need applied anthropology, which builds on the insights and analysis of anthropologists working in policy and practice to try and understand current processes of transformation. Then we need to build such analyses into our teaching. Not least, we can use our anthropology to critique how our own universities operate from the perspectives of students and academics. The pressure for universities to be drivers of the global knowledge economy presents an opportunity to challenge current notions of application. Rather than being derivative or polluting, insights and analyses from applied work can generate new approaches to theoretical issues central to the discipline. To do so, we have to make a more theoretically informed notion of application, as an integral part of anthropology, count.

Barnett, Ron (1997), Higher Education. A Critical Business (Milton Keynes: Open University Press/Society for Research into Higher Education).

Brown, Phillip, Lauder, Hugh, and Ashton, David (2008), 'Towards a High Skills Economy: Higher Education and the New Realities of Global Capitalism', in Deborah Epstein, et al. (eds.), Geographies of Knowledge, Geometries of Power: Higher Education in the 21st Century. World Yearbook of Education (London: Routledge).

Denmark, Government of (2003), 'Nye veje mellem forskning of erhverv - fra tanke til faktura'.

--- (2006), 'Progress, Innovation and Cohesion. Strategy for Denmark in the Global Economy – Summary', (Copenhagen: Government of Denmark).

Donnan, Hastings and McFarlane, Graham (eds.) (1989), Social Anthropology and Public Policy in Northern Ireland (Aldershot: Avebury).

Dreyfus, Huert and Rabinow, Paul (1982), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Brighton: Harvester Press).

Godin, Benoît (n.d.), 'The Knowledge-Based Economy: Conceptual Framework or Buzzword?' (Canadian Science and Innovation Indicators Consortium).

Harvey, David (1989), The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell).

Hastrup, Kirsten (2003), 'Desire and deception. A discussion of gender, knowledge and university education', Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 2 (3), 231-48.

Hoskin, K W and Macve, R H (1988), 'The genesis of accountability: the West Point connection', Accounting, Organisations and Society, 13 (1), 37-73.

Hyatt, Susan Brin (1997), 'Poverty in a 'post-welfare' landscape: Tenant management policies, self-governance and the democratisation of knowledge in Great Britain ', in Cris Shore and Susan Wright (eds.), Anthropology of Policy. Critical Persepctives on Governance and Power (London: Routledge).

O'Shea, Alan (2004), 'Teaching 'critical citizenship' in an age of hedonistic vocationalism', LATISS. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences, 1 (2), 95-106.

Reich, Robert (1991), The Work of Nations (New York: Vintage Books).

Shore, Cris and Wright, Susan (2001), 'Audit culture and anthropology', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7 (4), 759-63.

--- (eds.) (1997), Anthropology of Policy: Critical Perspectives on Governance and Power (London: Routledge).

Strathern, Marilyn (1997), ''Improving ratings': audit in the British university system', European Review: Interdisciplinary Journal of the Academia Europaea, 5 (3), 305-21.

Trow, Martin (1973), 'Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education', (Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education).

Tsing, Anna (2006), 'Figures of capitalist globalization: firm models and chain links', paper given at "Holism in Anthropological and Ethnographic Research" at the Danish Research School of Anthropology and Ethnography, Megaseminar 2006, Hindsgavl Castle, 22-24 May.

Wolf, Alison (2002), Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth (London: Penguin).

Wright, Susan (1995), 'Anthropology: still the "uncomfortable" discipline?' in Cris Shore and A. Ahmed (ed.), The Future of Anthropology: Its Relevance to the Contemporary World (London: Athlone Press), 65-93.

--- (2004), 'Politically reflexive practitioners', in Dorle Drackle and Iain Edgar (eds.), Current Policies and Practices in European Social Anthropology Education (EASA series) (Oxford: Berghahn).

--- (2005), 'Machetes into a jungle? A history of anthropology in policy and practice, 1981-2000', in Sarah Pink (ed.), Applications of Anthropology, (ASA series) (Oxford: Berghahn).

--- (2008), 'Measurements and Distortions. A Review of the British System of Research Assessment', Working Papers on University Reform (Copenhagen: Danish School of Education, University of Århus).

Wright, Susan and Ørberg, Jakob Williams (2008), 'Autonomy and control: Danish university reform in the context of modern governance', Learning and Teaching: International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 1 (1).

Ørberg, Jakob Williams (2008), 'Fra ideelle studerende til ideelle medarbejdere - En ny diskurs i uddannelsessystemet', Det nye arbejdsliv (Copenhagen: Danish School of Education, University of Århus).

iAnother debt of gratitude is to the Wenner-Gren Foundation which provided a grant to enable a number of applied anthropology organisations to come together in BASAPP and to establish a common membership, administration and journal. The latter continues under the title Anthropology in Action.

iiBrown et al. (Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, 'Towards a High Skills Economy: Higher Education and the New Realities of Global Capitalism', in Deborah Epstein et al. (eds.), Geographies of Knowledge, Geometries of Power: Higher Education in the 21st Century. World Yearbook of Education (London: Routledge, 2008). also found that the western assumption that higher education leads to higher salaries, and hence secures the prosperity of the west, is likely to be flawed. In India and China graduates are just as good as their western counterparts, and cheaper. Western corporations are not just standardising and outsourcing manufacturing work round the world, but they are doing the same with professional work such as personnel, accounts and design. In other words, western corporations are themselves undermining ‘the west = head, rest = hands’ global division of labour on which assumption western governments are basing their policies.

iiiThe Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development is a club of the 30 richest economies in the world.

ivHere I am drawing on a current research project ’New Management, New Identities? Danish University Reform in an International Perspective’ funded by the Danish Research Council. In particular, I am drawing on the part of the research that Jakob Williams Ørberg and I have been conducting into the policy debates.

vA draft amendment to this law in 2006 proposed to revise this to ‘growth, prosperity and development’ but this provoked an outcry.

vi only available in Danish

viiThere is a Danish phrase, ‘to burn for something’, i.e. put all your energy and commitment into doing something.

viiiFor example the best-regarded world ranking, produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is 90 percent based on research outputs. But the Jiao Tong system mainly only uses science subjects to calculate research output, as it uses commercial citations indexes that are not accurate for the Humanities and Social Sciences  (Susan Wright, 'Measurements and Distortions. A Review of the British System of Research Assessment', Working Papers on University Reform (Copenhagen: Danish School of Education, University of Århus, 2008).

Top of the page

Lisa Henry
Co-Chair, COPAA
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of North Texas
1155 Union Circle #310409
Denton, TX 76203