Prey into Hunter? Thinking (temporarily) Like a Neoliberal

Matt’s recent post about  the survival of disciplines like anthropology in the post neo liberal future was, like all the best sci- fi stories, simultaneously fun and scary with distinct elements of , if not truth exactly, possibility.  We recognise the narrative and see ourselves in it because of  how we are experiencing these kinds of changes in our respective locations. These are not merely geographic, although place becomes increasingly important, but encompass  our situation within the global political economy of knowledge  production and reception, and the global  education market place.

The extent to which the scorched earth scenarios will actually unfold is uncertain. The mass expansion in higher education globally over the past decade, not just in the global north,  is after all a combined product of private and public spending.  What the sector is experiencing is, as Matt shows,  increasing differentiation.

The niche occupied by anthropology is changing. Some of this is cataclysmic, as departments shrink and others are faced with closure. But anthropology  and ethnography are struggling to find  new territories outside the academy and at different sites within it.  This is of course leading to debates about what `real’ anthropology is – that is the extent to which anthropological knowledge should stay as inaction research constituted from a position of criticism.

Such refrains may be  muffled  in the longer term by the roar of rising water over the sinking ship.  One  established  version of  what we think of as social anthropology evolved in the nineteen thirties and forties and  was distributed widely through the expansion of academic posts and departments in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

The objects of study have changed  radically since then, of course, but  the ways in which the knowledge categorised as anthropological is organised and obtained hardly at all.  At the same time, cognate disciplines, human geography for example,  claim to use ethnography as one among many methodological possibilities while also being open to more explicit modalities for the  co-production of  disciplinary knowledge, not only with colleagues within the discipline but actively with informants.

Something is lost as well as gained through such endeavours.  The paradigmatic ethnographic research experience  of working through interpretive frames of emergent understanding is  not only unique to  a particular way of doing anthropology. It  yields unique insights.  It is also ethically problematic.  Debating its limitations as well as potentialities  is urgent, as is the rethinking of new approaches to  ethnographic practice and to anthropology.  If,  as we reiterate endlessly to our readers and students, culture and social practice are constituted relationally, we should pay more heed to how the relations within which we are embedded are changing and to our possible role in effecting their transformation. As, Matt suggests, resistance is  a strategy but it is not the only one.   In the game like scenario he outlines, some communities carve out new spaces for themselves and adopt new weapons and strategies for survival.

Whether the game of academic survival is more analogous to Pokémon, with its public private partnerships providing health resources to the battling creatures  under the supervision of titled professors,   or to  the blood and thunder of World of Warcraft,  probably depends where one is situated.  In the UK, teetering on the brink of economic crisis amid huge cuts in public spending and a government imposed value for money  agenda through which all spending is assessed, the pressing issue is not  simply the marketization of higher education, but what level of  public investment can be justified.  In this climate, it is not surprising that disciplines like ours feel extremely vulnerable.

At Manchester, we are exploring ways of addressing  the changed situation by actively engaging  it.   Instead of simply bemoaning neo-liberalisation, although we do that too, we  perceived it  as an opportunity. If neo-liberalisation has changed our universities and the kinds of students we attract, what could this mean for our discipline?   How could  we  generate demand and attract different kinds of students to our courses?    One experimental answer was to offer a different kind of course aimed at a different kind of student.

Our first year course in business anthropology is designed  to be accessible and relevant for  undergraduate students taking degrees in business and finance disciplines.  It attracted several hundred students in its first year of delivery, students who would not normally have selected an anthropology option.   Trying to think in market terms enabled us to situate ourselves differently but it also placed us in a  relation of competition with other departments from whom potential students were drawn.  Responding to markets may in practice mean shifting the burden of vulnerability.  We as a formerly protected species are being  forced out of the reserve. Is there an alternative to this world of Prey into Hunter?  What other options might we  have as anthropologists working in and outside the academy to  restructure this particular conjuncture?


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

5 thoughts on “Prey into Hunter? Thinking (temporarily) Like a Neoliberal

  1. Applied anthropology might be its saving grace (if it is endangered, I’ll take you people’s word for it) . So many fields like business, health, development, etc., benefits from anthropology. Is the dichotomy between “pure” and applied all that pertinent anymore? There are certainly a lot of fundementals that need to be studied, but they are located like everything else in the contemporary matrix of human activities.

    What is at stake in a neoliberal world is the continued existence of fundamental and disinterested research altogether (in any field). Markets are poor predictors of future needs and possibilities. As Graeber explains governance came before markets. It ought to be it’s shepherd, not it’s slave. Yet our view of academia is more or less attributed to thinkers out of the Enlightenment (correct me if I’m wrong), most of whom probably never needed to work a day in their lives.

  2. One of the signature innovations of neoliberalism is the “public-private partnership”. I’d be interested to hear from any anthropologists who have productively engaged with one of these. What might a public-private partnership in anthropology look like?

  3. Matt: How does Jim Kim work as an answer to your question? Partners in Health?
    Not snark, just seriously asking, especially since Kim (and Farmer) are anthrooligists, and I am wondering about where ‘development’ programs and ‘humanitarian aid’ (especially in relation to providing medical care, pharmaceuticals) might fit into answering your question.

  4. Matt: Also not snark, but by ‘public-private partnership’ in anthropology I also assume you’re not thinking about a private foundation funding an anthropology grad student at a state school, right? I’m asking because I’m wondering about how such funding sources relate to the history of neoliberalism and the corporatization of the university. Also wondering where and how we identify historical antecedents for terms, how we group kinds, how we define and circumscribe an object of analysis. Also denotation v. connotation of a term like ‘public-private partnership’. Anyway…

  5. In a market-oriented regime the implementation of governmental policy is carried out not by governmental agencies but businesses. Two classic examples of this are for-profit prisons and the provision of food and housing for the armed forces. As governments’ budgets shrink services are outsourced to cut costs — a lot of people think this is a good thing but its also been stringently critiqued. Surely we do not want all public services provided through funding businesses that are gear towards making a profit!

    Holland, Nonini, and Lutz et al write in “Local Democracy Under Siege” that the public-private partnership, paradoxically, also creates possibilities for directing public resources into community based non-profits. Interestingly, they write that this happens most on the margins, where profit making is difficult to achieve voluntary associations and non-profits can fill in the gaps left by businesses.

    So there is this inherent irony or dialectic in neoliberalism that is open for exploitation. By anthropology or whomever. In a world where this market based ideology is ascendant, can we chart a sensible and ethical compromise? Can we not simultaneously resist neoliberalism as we adapt to it?

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