Transforming Academia

A book review by Margaret Taylor.

BASCH, L., L. SAUNDERS, J. SHARP & J. PEACOCK (eds). Transforming academia: challenges and opportunities for an engaged anthropology. viii, 312 pp., tables, bibliogr. Arlington, Va: American Anthropological Association, 1999.

Transforming academia is the outcome of the 1996 conference ‘Restructuring academia’, held at the New York Academy of Sciences, and of discussions on the future of anthropology originating from the general meetings of the American Anthropological Association in 1993 and 1995. The twenty-seven contributors include well-known figures such as Sydel Silverman, June Nash, and the late Eric Wolf, as well as those referred to below. Worth reading for its sharp comments and clear insights, its four main sections consist of analyses of existing trends from academics and administrators, describing effort to preserve anthropology’s standing within the social sciences and to find opportunities for applied anthropology in the outside world.

Despite its brave title, Transforming Academia will sadden all but those of an indomitably optimistic spirit. Its realistic analyses ask what place there is for anthropology in a corporate world, where anthropology’s best ideas have been stolen by other disciplines to be peddled round the educational market-place (Paredes). A few desperate suggestions appear as Pollyanna-like reframings of the inevitable. Employment within corporations as work system designers and change consultants (Ritter)? Recast ourselves as organizational analysts within NASA or other agencies (Johnsrud)? Sure! Take up a sacrificial life of service directed towards students and the community, encouraging personal growth and multiculturalism (Arvizu)? Admirable for those who are willing to do so.

Eric Wolf and others, such as James Peacock and Cris Johnsrud, point out that anthropology’s innate romanticism works against its own interests. Anthropologists are not trained to be policy-makers but to mistrust the system, and can be maladaptive outside the academic community. The rise of the Soviet Union, and the need to outstrip the Communist bloc with an educated, scientifically literate, workforce, enabled previously disregarded anthropology to flourish during the Second World War and the 1960s. Today, American hegemony no longer requires many publicly funded anthropological interpreters of other cultures, nor are there many takers for the theoretical niceties by which anthropology exposes weaknesses in arguments put forth by other disciplines.

All this may change, for this book was published in 1999, before the events of 11 September 2001 and the continuing crises in the Middle East. Even so, too many disciplines publicly contribute their understandings of other cultures for anthropologists to be heard above the babel of competing voices. Two seemingly unpalatable options remain. In Britain, as in the United States, anthropologists can choose to become public intellectuals, engaging in populist policy debates, through newspaper articles and other media outlets (Peacock, Paredes). Or they can emphasize what they prefer to keep hidden (the elitist assumptions and socio-economic backgrounds of many practitioners) and become a ‘luxury’ subject for elite institutions, helping to form the ’rounded’ product of a liberal arts education catering for a wealthy minority. None of the contributors is cold-blooded enough to suggest this, although Richard Ford hints at the model’s viability without advocating it. Such an approach would mean ignoring those clamouring for greater inclusion within higher education, such as women, ethnic minorities, and groups traditionally excluded from higher education (Brodkin), including African-Americans (Harrison, Sudarkasa).

The question is, how can anthropology preserve its mystique, while at the same time engendering enough public awareness to make it thrive as an applied and academic discipline? Anthropologists, like other academics, and some health-care workers (Tramm), find it difficult to confront the impact of Taylorism, the fragmentation and depersonalization of their research and teaching skills, particularly the implication that anyone with minimal experience can teach anything to anybody.

Instead, they foster unrealistic expectations of academic careers among their graduate students (Greaves), clinging to their professional status in the hope that this will make up for their increasing economic exploitation, insecurity, and fears of redundancy (Sharif and Lessinger). A better tactic might be for anthropologists both inside and outside the academy to forget their local differences, and institutional loyalties, so as to combine with a specific agenda. They could then fight as scholar-activists alongside unionized labour forces (Nash, Peacock, Sharff and Lessinger, Tramm), rather than let themselves be picked off piecemeal in interminable faculty wars (Saunders).

This is an American book, and it may be that it is more difficult for anthropologists to be heard within the insularities of American culture than within multicultural Europe. Nevertheless, it describes processes which are depressingly familiar to British academics and a warning of things to come.