Policy as a Looking Glass

Earlier this year, Kristina Hook examined the emergent relationship between “big data” and policy process, highlighting the ways that predictive analytics are being applied to issues ranging from warfare to genocide prevention. Here, I complement Hook’s examination of an area for future anthropological focusby looking back on the ways that the anthropological analysis of policy presaged current areas of research in the discipline, and how these themes manifested during the 2017 AAA meeting.

The anthropological study of policy necessitates putting people first and allowing the complexity of human interaction to highlight the ways that lived social practice produces divergences from policies as documents.
Anthropology of policy takes policy not as a given but as a complex set of social and political processes that need to be problematized to be properly understood. Policies are rife with normative assumptions and contradictory claims about the way individuals, institutions, organizations, and states should be governed, and how society should be arranged. Indeed, the anthropological study of policy necessitates putting people first and allowing the complexity of human interaction to highlight the ways that lived social practice produces divergences from policies as documents. As the sub-discipline has grown, the approaches used and conceptual insights derived from policy process have multiplied, underscoring the significance of early contributions and emerging trends in policy-focused anthropological research.

As many have observed, policies move; they transgress the containerized notions of space associated with modern states, circulating as disembedded principles and practices that are “translated” into local contexts through human-directed processes of assemblage. Policies thus move transnationally, are reassembled in different places and times, and inform future social dynamics through their circulation and amalgamation. Research on the ways that transnational processes have influenced policy processes, institutions, and social inequality underscores how the anthropological analysis of policy can identify emergent trends that can go on to have global effects.

The development of auditing capabilities as part and parcel of neoliberalism’s rise has been a significant area for anthropological research on policy. While this research has primarily focused on the development of institutions and policy norms within the European Union, it has also analyzed how forms of surveillance have infiltrated higher education and the non-profit sector. However, tracing the emergence and development of audit cultures requires a longer history, one that is tethered to the rise of the development paradigm and international aid regime.

Indeed, while the dissemination of donor capital in the aftermath of the Second World War was typically informed by Rostow’s conceptions of development as following a series of economic stages, it was the unraveling of these interventions that precipitated a rise in transnational audit practices. Alongside the implementation of the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs, post-colonial states saw their finances overseen and controlled by the international financial institutions to facilitate debt repayment to Northern financial interests. Here, the forcible implementation of market-friendly neoliberal reforms was accompanied by other political and institutional practices: audit cultures. Tethered to the implementation of neoliberal policies, the emergence of audit cultures as a transnational socio-political practice has transcended traditional conceptual boundaries between North and South, East and West. No sector seems to be immune from the increased surveillance capacities enabled by audit cultures, as many an academic will attest.

As policies move and inform social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the societies where they are adopted, they bring with them observable social effects that can be traced and analyzed in tandem with similar policy dynamics in other societies. Some, such as audit cultures, carry the capacity to become widely implemented policies that inform social practices around the world. Two panels sponsored by the Association for the Anthropology of Policy at the 2017 AAA meetings point to similarly emergent trends in the domains of quantitative scenario-modeling and the suppression of academic dissent.

The circulation of policy principles combined with rising political forces points to new and troubling areas for future research, and to challenges to the academic survival of those carrying out research with marginalized populations, such as immigrants.
A 2017 AAA Annual Meeting panel titled “Future Matters: : Anticipatory Knowledge and Scenario-Modeling” organized by Christina Garsten focused on the increasingly central role that anticipatory knowledge plays in scenario modeling across various sectors. Focusing on the performative dimension of these knowledge forms, panel contributors underscored how the imagining of global problems, and the solutions to them, serve as a powerful tool for framing future social action and constructing the very futures they purport to describe. As quantitative modeling and mathematical prognostications grow in predictive power and accuracy, the assumptions that undergird these human-designed systems loom as fertile terrain for critical intervention by anthropologists of policy, as discussed by Hook. Concepts such as “foresight,” “insight,” “forecasting,” and “anticipation,” inherently subjective in their definition, also appear as ripe areas for critical inquiry. In short, those who imagine and frame the future may prove to be significant subjects for anthropological research on policy as their power to influence societies expands over time.

The second 2017 AAA Annual Meeting to address themes from the future was a roundtable discussion titled “The Academy and the Future of Freedom to Dissent,” which outlined emerging threats to freedom of speech in higher education. The panelists highlighted the rising tide of nationalism and populism on both sides of the Atlantic, pointing to the anti-elite bias that permeates these movements and has precipitated attacks on freethinking academic researchers. The combination of populism and neoliberalism was a particular point of discussion, as this combination of policy and sentiment appears poised to produce cuts to academic programs and funding tranches to public research universities. Here again, the circulation of policy principles combined with rising political forces points to new and troubling areas for future research, and to challenges to the academic survival of those carrying out research with marginalized populations, such as immigrants.

As policies move across space and time, they produce moments of inflection that make visible the social relations underpinning their translation and reconstitution, highlighting the role of elites, institutions, and power in producing observed outcomes. The current political tide and rising power of quantitative scenario modeling show no signs of receding. If we are to gain insight into the possible futures enabled by these tendencies, analyzing emergent policy trends and their associated social effects may prove to be a useful looking glass. One can only hope that the future that these policy process point to is bright, rather than dark.

Theodore Powers is assistant professor at the University of Iowa and a Research Associate with the Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria.

If you would like to contribute to this column, please contact either of the contributing co-editors: Judi Pajo at [email protected] or Theodore Powers at [email protected]

Cite as: Powers, Theodore. 2018. “Policy as a Looking Glass.” Anthropology News website, October 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1003

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