What Anthropology Can and Should Do

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Paula K Clarke
W Ted Hamilton


The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor

Campbell’s Law, 1988, p. 360

We must educate people on what nobody knew yesterday and prepare people in our schools for what no one knows yet, but what some people must know tomorrow.

Margaret Mead

Notice and Witness Magic Counting

In this final part of our three part response to the December 2011 AN column, “The Value of Anthropology,” we offer suggestions for the contributions that anthropology could and should make to the dilemma at hand.

Laura Nader once urged anthropologists to study the powerful. Well, here is the chance to do so! If power means protection from scrutiny, higher education enjoys a good deal of it. In spite of the reams of data produced about this institution, it remains an enigma even to itself. As one emeritus observer recently noted, “the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing” (Levine, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, 2006).          

Ignore Implicit Rules

A first necessary step is to break with the unspoken but widely understood rules that define what can be studied and how. Such rules go a long way in explaining why researching home-turf, that is higher education, is conspicuously slim at this time of institutional and cultural strain. Senior anthropologists with established reputations, along with those choosing to take advantage of inevitable uncertainty, could help here by treading where others are understandably unlikely to do so. As will be pointed out further along, this is likely to be a demanding task.

A Pubic Perspective: Fearless Spectator x Witnessing

Anthropology can bring a public perspective. Leaving aside tensions between the “public” and the “applied,” the aim is to frame the speed and convenience values in higher education as a broad social issue of our time requiring a more public conversation than currently prevails. Part of this perspective should involve what Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Current Anthropology 36 [409-440]) describes as “witnessing,” positioning the anthropologist “inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally committed being.” The latter is important. Modern complex institutions like education have countless mechanisms for Orwellian-like doublethink, lying to themselves about themselves and then inducing unconsciousness about doing so. While the anti-institutional thread of US culture tends to treat such conditions as inevitable, those familiar with healthy institutions recognize that this is clearly not the case. Anthropologists are likely to be among those most adept at pulling back the curtain, demystifying how prevailing normative mechanisms are maintained and alternatives resisted and/or penalized.

In this situation, a public anthropology commitment means that the anthropologist likely functions in three positions that together are demanding. First, as a likely functioning member of the institutional setting the anthropologist is in the position of (1) participant (teacher, researcher, advisor). Next, a public anthropology commitment would also mean simultaneously occupying the position of (2) passive spectator—what Scheper-Hughes describes as “fearless spectator” and (3) active/responsive “witness.” The fearless spectator records conditions while the witness makes moral commentary about deeper layers of possible meaning and/or their implications.

Witnessing is noticing with a capital “N.” It means noticing that the demands of the magic counting system involve also noticing its contradictions; serving-the-dragon involves a commitment unintended though it may be to abandoning the mission of higher education. The contexts normalizing the creation of short term easy to measure success by removing the challenges most likely in the long term to authentically bring it about requires exposure (eg, in our institution we hear “keep them happy, keep them moving, and keep them graduating”). Accomplishing such a task requires occupying more than position of (1) participant and (2) fearless spectator.

Scheper-Hughes describes “witnessing” as an anthropology that can “think about social institutions and practices in moral or ethical terms.” Witnesses should be “the producers of politically complicated and morally demanding texts and images capable of sinking through layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith.” This form of anthropology notices places of silence. The mission is to create a body of knowledge about “undiscussables” (Zerubavel, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, 2006), things associated with fear, shame, and embarrassment, where deeply held values and commitments are in conflict and/or have perhaps even run their course. It should look at institutional resources committed to creating and maintaining ignorance (eg, meetings whose primary function is avoiding subjects most in need of attention).

Goals of Noticing and Witnessing

One goal of such a venture would be for anthropological insights to contribute to higher education in the way that they have contributed to health related matters. TM Luhrman’s Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry (2001) and the work of Didier Fassin, Richard Rechtman and Rachel Gomme entitled The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Culture of Victimhood (2009) represents two such examples. These works unpack layers of meaning in institutional rhetoric, routine rituals, power relationships, and gossip. In so doing, they expose the complexity and out of awareness drama behind the otherwise unremarkable.

Another goal would be to forge, or further, already initiated linkages between existing areas of overlapping investment and/or scholarship. For example, current destabilizing conditions have public health implications. In fact, an existing literature in public health in part alludes to such a relationship (Schoeni, Making Americans Healthier: Social and Economic Policy as Health Policy, 2008). Also pointing this direction is the “Educated Citizen and Public Health Initiative” of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as well as the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

Anthropology could also begin to assemble a body of alternative indicators about the relationship between exposure to anthropology and the development of the competencies in question. Much like uncertainty itself, anthropological knowledge can be disorienting. This is particularly the case when course performance requirements emphasize reasoning and application of anthropological knowledge and insight to complex essential questions. Such disorientation, though discouraged by the magic counting model (it neither expedites matriculation nor guarantees early success), is invariably an essential part of the road to competency acquisition. Student responses to anthropology may not only reveal something about how different individuals and/or circumstances weather the late modern transition, they may also reveal, in fact are very likely to reveal, an inverse relationship between success in the magic counting model and the development of collegiate competencies.

Accountable to History and to Science

Though Scheper-Hughes describes the “fearless spectator” and “witnessing” anthropology in different almost non-overlapping categories, in this instance we believe they would overlap a good deal. We believe this type of anthropology would be (could be) accountable to history as well as to science. In her model the “fearless spectator” is aligned with the natural sciences and is a “passive act that positions the anthropologist above and outside human events as a “neutral” and “objective” (ie, uncommitted) seeing I/eye.” She describes this type of anthropology as “accountable to science.” In contrast, the “witnessing” anthropology is aligned with moral philosophy and is an “active voice,” positioning the anthropologist inside human events responsively and reflexively, one who will “take sides” and make judgments. However, we offer the following alternative.

In an historical era of scientific inquiry that often confuses statistical significance with “the end of an argument” (Ziliak and McCloskey, The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. 2008), the historical and the scientific converge; the statistically insignificant may be highly significant scientifically and conversely what is statistically significant may simply be an accurate description of a nonetheless hidden but powerful prevailing bias (Ioannidis, PLos 8[e124]). Thus, if science in the current historical era is marked by ending arguments at points (of statistical significance or insignificance) where arguments should begin, then the contexts that produce and maintain such activity (higher education) require both “spectator neutrality” as well as “reflexive witnessing.”

Where Should “Fearless Spectator” x “Witnessing” Anthropology Focus?

Most of higher education is in need of demystifying attention, including highly selective institutions. Former Harvard president Derek Bok has written both about the dilemmas of higher education (Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More, 2006) and market values (Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, 2003) . Other presidents of prestigious colleges and universities (Donald Kennedy of Stanford, Harold Shapiro of the University of Michigan and Princeton, Frank Rhodes of Cornell) have also written (after leaving office), albeit often in veiled terms, of similar concerns.

Also in need of demystifying attention is the other end of what might be described as the privilege spectrum, America’s conspicuously ignored public community colleges where almost half of all US undergraduates receive some part of their early post-secondary education. In spite of their many strengths and advantages, community colleges have been described as in need of “fundamental internal reforms and a new vision of their role in higher education” (Bailey and Jacobs, The American Prospect, October 29, 2009). Although fragile under prepared students and students in socioeconomic distress are no longer isolated in community colleges, no other institution is marked by the contradictory mission of offering quasi-political equality on the one hand and preparation for economic inequality on the other. Furthermore, no other institution is as likely to “serve” a population as uncritically accepting of such a contradiction. As this entanglement takes on increasingly troubling dimensions in the midst of growing inequality, the 21st century community college student is essentially a foot soldier of late modernity. When institutions “serving” such populations direct efforts toward accommodating rather than challenging the magic counting model, it is much like the band playing on as the Titanic went down. While “playing on” was perhaps the only thing that could be done on the Titanic, such an attitude from institutions that produce cultural knowledge, educate citizens, and prepare professionals for institutional stewardship suggests at the very least a shortage of imagination.

The value of anthropology to 21st century adulthood and citizenship, including whatever shape work may take, lies in its unique capacity to rescue the goal of competency acquisition from the magic counting dragon. To do this requires exposing the limitations of what is counted and therefore presumed to matter along with the strengths of what is not counted, and presumed not to matter. When this knowledge is lacking or ignored, the world that we think we know is likely to be a neat and tidy illusion (Blastland and Dilnot, The Numbers Game, 2009).

To demonstrate the contributions of anthropology to the development of the competencies described in the December 2011 AN essay will involve more than simply providing “American citizens with anthropological knowledge and perspective.” It will be also be necessary to expose and challenge the magic counting values that function to marginalize it. Marginalizing anthropology offerings is undoubtedly the result of consulting small numbers in terms of enrollments and/or persistence. This is where analytical work should begin rather than end. Numbers that stand out offer good clues, for better and for worse. On their own, however, numbers don’t tell us much until we investigate the “magic” behind them.

Paula K Clarke (clarkep@yosemite.edu) received the AAA/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology in 2008. W Ted Hamilton (hamiltont@yosemite.edu) was named Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2004.

This is the third of the three-part essay “The Value of Anthropology” by Paula K Clarke and W Ted Hamilton. To read the previous two installments, “Less Than Disinterested Observers: Noticing and Challenging the Magic Counting Dragon” and  “The Value of Anthropology: Notice and Challenging the Magic Counting Dragon” visit the Academic Affairs section of anthropology-news.org. AAA members are invited to post comments to continue Clarke and Hamilton’s discussion online, and anyone can rate, share, or just read the series through April.

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