ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Making anthropologists: education, training and disciplinary reproduction

Contact Convenor: David Mills

Centre for Learning and Teaching Sociology
Anthropology and Politics
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT

Tel: 0121 414 2994 or 01865 793328 

Co-Convenor: Jonathan Spencer

Panel abstract

This panel draws together recent ethnographic and historical research on the training and socialising of academic anthropologists. Papers will demonstrate the role of formal and informal mechanisms of disciplinary reproduction, and document links between the introduction of an explicit research training programme and changing employment patterns within and beyond the university sector. We will seek to develop a comparative perspective by exploring how new generations of anthropologists are being educated in Europe and in the United States.

The apprentice's tale: research training in British social anthropology

David Mills, University of Birmingham and Jonathan Spencer, University of Edinburgh

British anthropology's attitude towards both its application, and the training of its students, can be characterised as one of serial ambivalence. There have been a number of attempts at different periods over the last eighty years to position the discipline as practically relevant, whether in the context of solving colonial 'social problems' or addressing late-modern 'user needs'. Yet such strategies have usually marched in consort with an affirmation of anthropology as primarily an academic and university-based project. Part of the dynamic driving this strategic equivocation between 'pure' and 'applied' has been the disciplinary aspiration to both gain funding for its graduate students and their research projects, but also to ensure that the 'best' students are socialised as academic anthropologists and gain posts within UK universities.

The first part of the twentieth century saw repeated attempts by anthropologists and the Royal Anthropological Institute to convince the Imperial government that anthropology could serve a useful purpose and deserved funding. In more recent years, the discipline, like the other social sciences, has continued to show its flexibility in adapting to the changing rhetorics and funding priorities of the SSRC and, since 1983, the ESRC. Along with anxieties about anthropology's 'practical' commitments, the discipline has been conspicuously ambivalent towards the training of its research students. If participation in departmental research seminars is recounted as a key moment of socialisation and training, the lack of methodological training in anthropological fieldwork is the flip-side of this disciplinary autobiography. The modal example, told from one generation of students to the next, is that of the supervisor advising them to buy mosquito-proof trousers or an extra table on which to take field-notes. The truth is somewhat more variegated. At the RLI, Max Gluckman put new researchers through a period of training that involved working as a team on a field-site together to collect qualitative and quantitative data, and then jointly analysing the results. Audrey Richards encouraged a similarly hands-on approach at Makerere, and in her later life she ran, with Edmund Leach, a field-school in Elmdon for Cambridge postgraduates.

In this paper we combine these historical insights, with an account of recent anthropological responses to central dictates on training researchers, in order to throw comparative light on the contemporary situation of anthropological research training within the UK. Despite only 220 full-time academic posts existing in the UK, there are now almost a hundred PhDs produced in UK departments each year, a number that has doubled over the last ten years.  The scale and complexity of the higher education sector has changed significantly, and with it, the types and genres of training possible. In what has long been a craft-based discipline, sole recourse to informal methods of socialisation and apprenticeship is no longer possible. How can these earlier approaches be supplemented? We raise the question of the appropriate combination of 'explicit' training requirements with exposure to the more 'implicit' and informal research cultures that operate within the discipline.

Lineage and learning:  narratives of academic socialization in the UK

Sara Delamont, University of Cardiff

Two anthropologists and a sociologist studied supervisors and graduate students in a range of British anthropology departments.  The data, ethnographic interviews, revealed a discipline with strong boundaries around it, distinct from other social sciences.  Inside those boundaries, staff located themselves in intellectual lineages and stressed the indeterminate and unteachable nature of anthropological fieldwork along with its disciplinary uniqueness.  Students had been enculturated with this understanding of the central method of British social anthropology.  In the context of compulsory methods training for government funded research students, this conception of an indeterminate and unteachable method is explored.

Un-making anthropologists: flexible labour, institutional change and class reproduction

Robert Gibb, University of Edinburgh

This paper examines the implications of changing employment patterns within the university sector in the United Kingdom not only for the ‘making’ – and ‘un-making’ – of individual social anthropologists but also for the reproduction of the discipline more generally. It is suggested that disciplinary reproduction appears increasingly dependent on graduate teaching assistants and temporary lecturers (often employed on teaching only, or hourly / monthly contracts) as precarious, exploited and marginalized groups within the academic division of labour. The existence of what is effectively a reserve army of labour within the higher education sector performs valuable social and economic functions for universities as ever more commercialised institutions within late capitalist societies such as the UK while also making possible the contribution to the discipline’s intellectual development of permanent, full-time lecturing staff within social anthropology departments. The employment of a growing number of social anthropologists outside the discipline’s established centres, notably in inter- or pluri-disciplinary departments in the ‘new’ universities, is a related trend the wider significance of which the paper will attempt to assess. It is concluded that the contemporary reproduction of social anthropology as a discipline cannot be understood without taking account of hiring practices and patterns of institutional restructuring indicative (and constitutive) of an ongoing ‘flexibilisation’ of academic labour within UK institutions of higher education in the context of a more general reconfiguration of class relations.

Anti-structure at home: pedagogy and performance in Victor Turner’s midnight seminar

Matthew Engelke, LSE

In its heyday, the Manchester School was a vibrant centre of intellectual exchange. The seminars run by Max Gluckman often spilled over into local pubs and, even, the living-rooms of its various attendees. This kind of pedagogy—informal and intimate—has been remembered by some Mancunians as a key to the School’s success in fermenting new ideas. Victor Turner, one of Gluckman’s most well-known students, certainly thought so, and as his own career developed Turner tried to capture the feeling of the Manchester seminars in his own teaching. In close collaboration with his wife Edith, Victor Turner developed what came to be known, by the early 1970s, as "the midnight seminar," an unusual collection of students, colleagues and, even, some neighbours who gathered each Thursday evening at the Turners’ home. Teaching in the seminar (a term with which the Turners were, in fact, uncomfortable) was purposefully modeled on the theoretical precepts that defined Victor Turner’s writings: liminality, anti-structure, and the anthropology of performance. This paper examines the intersection of Victor Turner’s pedagogy with his scholarship, showing how he worked to reproduce each in the other. In doing so, the author hopes to suggest how these kinds of dynamics might be relevant to broader themes of teaching within the history of anthropology.

Standardised doctors – educational reform in Scandinavian universities

Gudrun Dahl, Stockholm University

The Post-graduate teaching of Swedish Anthropologists have during the two last decades changed in response to two major changes. The first is the general emphasis in the discipline when it comes to its content and object away from the traditional anthropological exclusive concern with non-European, non-industrial social forms. It has become far more common to do fieldwork in contemporary, western(ized) societies than in the traditional archetypical field. The second change relates to the structure of funding and of the temporal constraints of Ph D Studies. The Swedish government issued in 1998 new rules that were intended to mould all post-graduate studies in the country (regardless of discipline) into a 4-year module, and only allow departments to admit people who at the admittal could prove that their studies were financed by a salary or a grant for at least 4 full-time years.  A department such as the Stockholm department, which is the largest in the country, can on its own regular budget admit only one student per year. Individual senior researchers have however been able include some students in their fund applications and a few students have been sponsored by rural university colleges, so that the effect in terms of numbers has been somewhat milder than expected. It is however impossible for the students to ask for funding on their own, particularly before being already admitted, which creates something which resembles a Catch 22 situation. A small breathing hole is provided by the SAREC doctorate programme, which means that it is far easier to finance somebody who has a clear development-related topic, than a person who wishes to do urban studies in Europe for example. The overall effect of the reform on the choice of research problems has been contradictory, since one of its effects is to efficiently rule out deep language training. It also rules out any chance for the student to think over or remake the choice of topic once made, because the four year constraint in conjunction with the rules for financing, make it essential to steer steadily ahead. This also works in favour or preset, non-individualized course readings. A third expected effect, is that there will be less innovation in the system and a larger dependence on the tutors than was the case before, if the postgrad researchers´ projects normally will have to be subsumed under their teachers projects. The paper aims at evaluating some of these changes more closely, and also include some information on similar changes in the other Scandinavian countries. 

Reformism, self-improvement, and the Vietnam-war cohort in American anthropology

Richard G. Fox, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Reformism and self-improvement are strong currents throughout the history of American anthropology, reflecting, no doubt, their importance in the society of the United States.  By “reformism” I mean the desire to use scholarship or, anyway, scholarly opinion, to uncover the failings of modern, or American, society.  By “self-improvement,” I mean the common American belief that it is both possible and necessary “to take control of one’s destiny.”  In anthropology, “self-improvement” ignores the power of external circumstances (for example, competition from other disciplines) over us, in favour of the idea that if we only try hard enough, we ourselves can fix up anthropology. 

Reformism and self-improvement became even stronger components of American anthropology during the Vietnam-war period, roughly, the 1970s.  This cohort of anthropologists grew up with a strong commitment to make anthropology “relevant” in public life, with a profound distrust of the anthropological “establishment,” and with a willingness to dismiss concepts like “objectivity” and “detachment” and even “science” as false consciousness.

In its early days, this cohort exerted a profound and revisionist influence on American anthropology.  Political-economic and Marxist approaches, feminist critiques, and reflexive or postmodern deconstructions—all these viewpoints blossomed in American anthropology—not only in cultural anthropology but in archaeology, bioanthropology, and linguistics—as this cohort gained professional status.  They certainly differed or even disagreed among themselves, but underlying each, I believe, was the commitment to reformism and the belief in self-improvement.

What has happened in American anthropology as this cohort reached its majority?  This paper discusses the following consequences:

As a consequence of yesterday’s; “reformism,” the breakdown of the American “four-field approach” in graduate training and professional identity; but as a result of “self-improvement,” the fervid defense of this four-field approach as an ideology chartering American anthropology.

As a consequence of today’s “reformism,” an anxious espousal of the need for an “engaged anthropology” in the United States without much clarity about what that should be; and as a result of “self-improvement,” an unwillingness to take on external challenges from the cognitive and evolutionary sciences that now lay claim to American anthropology’s stake in the study of the interface between biology/culture and nature/nurture.

Reproductive rights and wrongs in the humanities and sciences: comparative perspectives from US graduate education

Mary Taylor Huber, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Changes in the academic profession over the last fifteen to twenty years are influencing graduate education in different disciplines in different ways. During this period, higher education institutions in the US have become more managed and responsive to markets, at some expense to the status, security, and autonomy of academic staff. But there has also been a countervailing move to make the academic profession more professional, i.e. to better fulfill higher education s traditional missions by recognizing and rewarding staff who approach work across fields, in the classroom, and in the community with the same care and curiosity that they bring to basic disciplinary research. Not surprisingly, reformers of graduate education the source of future academic staff are shaping their efforts with both changing markets and a broader sense of professionalism in mind. This paper will offer a comparative perspective by presenting early findings from the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, a reform program that is working with scholars in English Studies, History, Chemistry, and Mathematics, to interpret and respond to contemporary challenges to disciplinary reproduction. What does it mean to train stewards of the discipline in conditions that put traditional disciplinary practice in question?