To be continued

My recent interest/experience with organizing at the university against neoliberalization processes is what led me to start blogging here. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to do this. The struggle of the employees and students of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam on which I have based my thoughts and reflections in these posts, is still ongoing. So, too, is my interest and openness when it comes to hearing about others’ parallel experiences and/or analyses, particularly in creative ways that don’t necessarily stick to classic union formats or student organizing and appeal to broader participation.

Of course, I’m also curious to see whether and where links are made between the initiatives that focus on taking back control over the products of our work (through open access and other proposals concerning publishing) and initiatives that focus on gaining more control over the relations/conditions under which this work is produced at our universities (temporary contracts and overtime hours). I wonder what making these links would mean for our proposed solutions and alternatives, especially as public university funding shortages become increasingly related to governance problems.

My sense is that anthropologists are in a valuable position to be writing about, and sharing analytical reflections on, struggle in our midst. I attribute this to our discipline’s attunement to how structural inequalities work, but also ethnography’s aptness for attending to exactly how policy/management discourses can contrast with practices that make up people’s everyday lives, as well as the tendency among many of us to push for ways of writing that carve out the relevance of these issues for wider publics.

Writing here about the “doing” of struggle at/for the university and the contemporary shape(s) it might take has left me with many of my questions unanswered. Nevertheless, the conversation continues on from here, including with relation to policy at larger scales. In the Netherlands, as in Europe more broadly, as the urgency of questions about how budgetary crises are exposing and exacerbating democratic crises continues to press on the public sector in particular, I trust there will be much to follow.


Donya Alinejad is a PhD candidate at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She does research on the role of internet media in the formation of selves among the children of immigrants from Iran in Los Angeles, California.

11 thoughts on “To be continued

  1. Donya,

    It is, I am afraid, sadly indicative of the state of the field, or at least the sample gathered here, that we enjoy venting about things that make us angry—but take no interest in examples of collective action that produced a positive result. As you know, I have written over on OAC that we should get over it, anthropology will never be politically effective. In the response to your post I see confirmation of my basic thesis. People whose training should encourage a broad, holistic view that includes people besides themselves turn out at the end of the day to be another petty tribe whose members worry about their own interests but seem indifferent to all of the others with whom they share a common predicament and with whom alliances might be formed.

    P.S. Did Francine every get in touch with you.

  2. Donya, thanks for the posts and sorry you didn’t get the feedback you were hoping for.

    I think John’s comment on ‘venting’ is interesting (for at least two reasons I’d like to address) and can be related to your analytic in an earlier post of “voice as process” and “voice as value”. (To the extent that John’s comment is directed at me, I’d like to clarify that my comments are not in fact about petty personal grievances and the ‘venting’ such produces, but an attempt to enact voice in both the aforementioned ways of which you wrote, in direct response (as pointed out by Ryan’s recent race/racism post) to the ways in which US anthropology is one of the least integrated academic fields, using my own experiences with the intersections of racism/sexism/colorism to counter institutional and individual claims of non-racism which don’t hold up under actual scrutiny, and are made to provide a counternarrative to white-dominant/dominsted experiences–especially of those who rarely interact with people like me on something approaching the proverbial equal footing.)

    I did not comment earlier, though interested in your posts (including because of my own experiences traveling to the Netherlands, both with and without a Dutch-speaking partner) because I did not feel I had something useful and constructive to contribute. But John’s comment on venting, and the way in which it spurred me to think about my own desires for and attempts at the ‘voice’ of which you speak, was a reminder to me of one of the things I kept thinking and wondering about as I was reading your posts: the relationship between neoliberal’s historical/temporal origins and academic self-interest as linked to (US) anthropology’s lack of racial integration, the ways in which neoliberalism has coincided with attacks on the welfare state concurrent with backlashes on 60s and 70s civil rights gains.

    I think John has correctly identified an issue of self-interest working against what should be solidarity, and I do think this is worth thinking about more broadly, in relation to your posts and anthropology more broadly. And given what you wrote about tenured professors at your university not having been among the first groups to speak out, I do think it raises provocative questions as to what the origins of this self-interest are and how they might be overcome.

  3. A final post about how to respond to neoliberal pressures on the academy, followed by a post about careers and professionalization.

    From various anthro blogs one click away from this one:

    “Our objective is to introduce entrepreneurship students to Analytic Induction in search of opportunities to “add value“. We will be in a lecture hall of entrepreneurship students at Fresno State. Incidentally, the name of the lecture hall is, “Pete P Peters”. As I often tell students of ethnography, reality is usually far more interesting than fiction once you start actually noticing it.
    Ethnographers and entrepreneurs share a reliance on inductive skills to accomplish their goals. Once this is understood, we can learn a great deal from each other.”

    “In 2007-2008 he was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication and Cultural Management at Zeppelin University in southern Germany. Zeppelin is a new private university (four years old) seeking to create a name for training entrepreneurs, and cultural management.”

    “he was formerly a senior strategist with Jump Associates, a new opportunity and strategy development firm in San Mateo, California. He has an MA and MS in Anthropology and Instructional Systems Design respectively, the majority of his work since graduate school has been focused on using ethnographic methods for product design and development, design strategy and new opportunity development”

    Anthropology Inc.
    Forget online surveys and dinnertime robo-calls. A consulting firm called ReD is at the forefront of a new trend in market research, treating the everyday lives of consumers as a subject worthy of social-science scrutiny. On behalf of its corporate clients, ReD will uncover your deepest needs, fears, and desires.”

    The LRB blog has two recent amusing posts about neoliberal culture: “In Hackney” and “Corporate Poetry” The LRB is not an academic journal

  4. John, no Francine didn’t get in touch with me (yet?). I agree with your OAC post to the extent that I have no expectation of anthropology defining an independent political project (that then may go on to be effective/ineffective). I do think that discipline matters in how/how much critique is waged. It didnt surprise me that at the VU the faculty of social sciences was most active, both in the central meetings with the unions and in terms of organizing internally, with anthro and soc with the most radical voices. And the few professors who did sign the open letter that got press attention were social scientists, too. Not a coincidence, I’d say. And based on that, I think we’re well-positioned and perhaps even have a responsibility to lead the application of critical thought and action at the university.

    The self-interest point is one that keeps recurring in what I hear. I think there are slightly different kinds of it. First there’s the temporary contract holder who’s worried about repercussions. I understand that. I see it as an illustration of the point i made in the previous post about how university governance moves towards both cutting out voice and making labor more flexible in a single move. Then there’s the tenured prof – if things get bad enough at one institution/dept perhaps she can move to another, or perhaps she’s resigned to the developments for other reasons, or has other pressures like time (?). I don’t know enough about what’s behind this second kind to really have an explanaiton for it, and maybe that’s why it still surprises me.

    The Anthropology Inc. piece from the Atlantic was an amazing read. Read in this political/economic context it’s like reading another version of a (i think misguided but) repeated argument in defense of publically funding anthropology: anthropology has private profit-making potential. The value of publicly funded research and education shouldn’t be appraised via the market (alone). I don’t think we lack cases to demonstrate athro’s market value. What we lack is people who are willing to prevent the quality of research and education from being hollowed out at the university. The most interesting part of the Atlantic piece to me was the fact that you don’t actually need anthropologists to do the work that advertizers and the human terrain system need. You just need intelligent people who have some basic ethnographic skills. That’s where an academy that relies primarily on its market value is headed.

    But anyway, you all know that. The point is to change it. And in that respect, as you all rightly observed, this attempt at fuelling that bit of a fire i thought might already be burning within anthropology didn’t work at all. On to other experiments…

  5. @donya

    ” You just need intelligent people who have some basic ethnographic skills. That’s where an academy that relies primarily on its market value is headed.”

    That isn’t quite enough. It is people with endless curiosity, a broad range of perspectives, and the courage to seize the initiative and take responsibility that the market for knowledge workers really needs now. What Evans-Pritchard, in another context, once labeled “the dead hand of competence” is no longer enough.

    Re the engagement or lack thereof of tenured faculty, I see two things in play besides vested interest per se. Just guessing because I have never been tenured, but aging is often a neglected factor in these discussions. You reach a point in your forties or fifties where you have mortgages and children to worry about and, unless you are a superstar, opportunities to change jobs or careers are limited. By the time you reach your sixties, where I am now, the fire in the belly is pretty much out, unless you are one of those rare individuals like Keith Hart, the founder of OAC. You may be willing to lend moral support or donate some money, but manning the barricades? Been there, done that, too long ago. All this plays into the second factor, you have your particular interests and hobbies and realize how little time you may have to do the things that you have procrastinated about too long. In my own case I have the project I have described in another thread, a spurt of academic opportunities in China because people think I have something to say about Business Anthropology (which, in my case, is anthropology of business, not anthropology in or with business as a money-making proposition), and a small mountain of field notes and photographs from my original research in Taiwan that I would like to get back to someday. A small business that stays busy and grandkids, too. These are all things omitted by the flattening of the conceptual landscape that both scientific analysis and ideological commitment demand.

  6. John and Donya, thank you both for your thought-provoking comments/exchange.

    John, your latest comments reminded me of how much I appreciate your long duree’ perspective. From where I sit, you have quite a lot of fire in the belly–and I do appreciated your willingness to engage.

  7. @Seth:
    You quoted a bit from in your post critiquing neo-liberalism.. Why shouldn’t ethnographical techniques be applied to business circumstances? I don’t quite get your point. What is wrong with engaging with the world as it is? In my view, both critique and engagement have their place, and do not exclude each other.

    Having said that, I’m also surprised to be reduced to the category “neo-liberal.” That is a first which I think would surprise my colleagues in the business schools here in Germany (where I am currently in the Culture Studies program of Leuphana University), or at my home university Chico State. I also wrote a book The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath the Level of the Marketplace which is an explicit critique of neo-liberialism.

  8. “Why shouldn’t ethnographical techniques be applied to business circumstances?”

    There’s no reason not to apply ethnographical techniques to business or to war, but instrumentalism is the opposite of disinterest: business schools are trade schools; economics is the academic subject.

    “Science says everyone is greedy” Then science endorses greed as “truth” and you end up as we have with an increasing number of greedy scientists. I want to understand greed, and to do that it helps not to be greedy. So it more scientific to be greedy, or not to be?
    Does science tell us to embrace mediocrity?

    Science is amoral. it’s a tool, and I’m not interested in following the teleology of a tool. Action and reflection are distinct. Their unification by way of ideology reduces action to reflex and we’re back in the 12th century, with the market as the Universal Church.

  9. Seth: I think that you are pointing to the inherent tension between the sciences and humanities the prusuit of the good, and the pursuit of truth. This tension is and should be in anthropology. Likewise it is often not found the big budget fields like physics and biochemistry are often compromised due to greed.

    While I agree with you it is important to acknowledge this tension, it is also true that our students must navigate a world which is, as you put it, full of disciplines that are amoral tools. For that matter, every anthropology department in the world is embedded in an amoral bureaucracy.

    These are of course great philosophical questions which should be discussed with businesspeople the military, our students, and others. Unlike other disciplines, Anthropology can effectively make points about the diversity of human culture when discussing such questions. But just like any other “tool” Anthropology cannot guarantee that the discipline will always be used in a fashion that meets the approval of the teachers–nor should it.

  10. P.S. I will update my biography at so you can get a broader sense of what I do. I haven’t been at the Business School for five years!

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