Anthropology lite benchmarking

The bureaucrats of academe have been busy, scheming up formulas to amuse themselves, to justify their tedious employment, to require still further employment of ever more and more of their own, and to reconstruct the world in the dull tones and mediocre lack of enthusiasm which governed their own choices of career. I admit that the following rant may seem slightly intemperate…

Far too late on a very humid and hot evening, I started reading the draft QAA [Quality Assurance Apparatus or some such] benchmark document that has been prepared for Anthropology as a university level discipline, but I am appalled. While I can see some convenience in having a bunch of bland statements to dump into programme specification documents that no-one ever reads and which do not govern good teaching or research in any discipline (as far as I can tell – though there may be some automatons out there who believe otherwise), the general tone and the idea that this should pass without censure is, erm, somewhat worrying… Where to start?

OK. A couple of pages in and absolutely no mention of politics, let alone of colonialism, imperialism etc. The constant refrain is “the social, cultural and biological diversity of humans”. This wouldn’t even cut it as New Labour rhetoric. I started reading 3.3 and wanted to gag – the list of subdivision there is traumatising – I can only hope that most anthropologists I know fall under the subdivision ‘and others’. Only by 3.5 does politics get a mention, and even then relegated to the nether end of a continuum that starts with kinship, and the rest of the paragraph is some waffle about the difference between North American and British anth. Is this really something anyone would want to benchpress (benchmark, whatever)? If Goldsmiths accedes to this version of anth, I think its a light-weight cop-out.

The following two clauses are outright lies: 3.10 & 3.11.

“3.10 Many anthropologists engage in applied and policy aspects of the subject and advise government and non-government organisations, health, social welfare and development agencies, the media and legal professions.
3.11 Relative to the size of the discipline, anthropology has had a disproportionate influence on many social, economic and political policies for much of the twentieth century, and can be expected to do so in the twenty-first century”

Which anthropologists have a disproportionate influence on policies, of which governments? At best they are ignored, not even commenting on big brother… Mostly harmless as the Hitchhikers Guide would have it.

3.16 Ethnomusicology sounds insipid. Whadayamean ‘as well as musical analysis’?? An afterthought?

I’m still looking for anything that might make it possible to include, say, Talal Asad’s great book ‘On Suicide Bombing’ as part of this versioning of anthro.

Far too many paragraphs on biological anthropology. Is this symptomatic of a certain anxiety? A brief mention of its relative insignificance in all but a couple of departments would suffice.

.. as I scroll down it just gets worse. I can barely read it…

No I can’t read any more, its utterly dire. Who on earth cobbled together this mish mash of halting postmodern undecidability and rampant unreconstructed empiricism? This does not describe a discipline for the twentieth century, let alone the 21st. Fifty years ago maybe this would be ok if it were a matter of offering up the ideological support (handmaiden) of colonialism argument for some sort of devil’s bargain deal that helped an embattled few survive, but in today’s context where culture has become industry, where clash of civilizations is the rhetoric of state, where murder-death-kill is played out on our screens every day, this version of anthro would not even do as absent-minded dimwitted complicity with (pimping for) imperialism; and I fully expect those in the know at Haliburton, the mining industry, the pharmaceutical companies, and the opportunists in charge of education funding – all of them will be doubled over laughing at this. I think its is the surest way to get anthro pensioned off to the pastures of irrelevance. Insipid compliance is not necessary, and need not be tolerated. Abolition/cancellation of programs loom as a consequence. Whatever whatever whatever happened to a critical anthropology that posed a challenge,that changed minds? Why can that not be articulated? Why was it buried so deep as to disappear? I don’t believe that fight is over, but this text makes me think it may now be.

OK, This deserves a more detailed treatment, especially where students of anthropology are recruited as participants in this versioning. I wonder which students were consulted. For mine, I welcome the opportunity to have a say, but it might be just some late night random whiskey fuelled rant – anyway, its something I wanted to share. Since this is a public document (here), I feel its existence is a threat to all who have a lasting commitment to a critical version of scholarship, and so silence and compliance are not an option.

Oh, and check out the web page of QAA where this doc appears – there’s a picture of some students working at – wait for it – a bench. From above. In response, I post Malinowski’s tent on the beach (see pic). Bits of this tent are now for sale on ebay.

Red Salute.


3 thoughts on “Anthropology lite benchmarking

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for bringing up this. I agree that it could be serious. But it is not enough to point out how most of us at Goldies would have written a different document. A critical anthropology should start with how the text was produced and for whom. One question is whether this increases the chance of anthropology as an academic discipline being written off by the bureaucracy or represents a way of securing its conformity to current standards, as most of the members of the committee that drafted it would surely argue. They could point out that much of what you want is in the document, but contained in anodyne phrases that strip them of their political content. One thing for sure, this version of anthropology sets itself resolutely against history and it is hard to imagine a critical approach that is ahistorical (hence no colonialism etc).

    Examination of the constitution of the committee may go some way towards explaining how it came out this way. Its chair, Alan Bilsborough presumably ensured that his minority interest in biological anthropology got the prominence it did. Or it may be part of an international standardization process based on American precedents. This outfit QAA bears closer inspection. But behind it all lies the issue of the corporatization of the universities and how or whether anthropology in any form is compatible with this. If it isn’t, what other models exist or might be developed for practising it? This may of course mean loss of secure bureaucratic employment, but it might be preferable to jump before being pushed.




  2. Good to read this response from within. And I’ve long wanted to see more done on the rampant corporatization of universities, at least more than including the worn out phrase ‘audit culture’ and leaving it at that. Such a (non) move strikes me as the ‘lets hide under a bland lampshade hoping that the elephant in the room doesn’t stomp us’ approach to benchmarking (or sitting on the fence). Perhaps someone would like run a discussion of this as process at the proposed Migrating University some of us are planning for Goldsmiths in September (as part of No Borders Gatwick action).

    For initial details on that please see Migrating University

    It strikes me that Derrida offers a whole lot of interesting angles on all this – not least in his final interview where he critiques Kant’s restriction of the freedom to be critical to within the walls of the University. More to come.


  3. gnnng – can’t ammend comments afte rthe fact, but wanted to add that the Keith who replied ‘from within’ was of course Keith Hart. Most readers already worked that out though.



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