Struggling with Patterson Against Neoliberalism in Anthropology (Review of Chapter 5)

Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

(Chapter 5, p. 135-164)

Though the overall aim of Patterson’s book was to identify the effects of social conditions on the historical development of knowledge production in anthropology in the United States, this last chapter epitomizes a gradually increasing lack of explicit linkages between social conditions, the changes within anthropology, and the positions of anthropologists. As was said in class, Patterson initially presents the social conditions and history of a period. Then the theoretical developments follow, sometimes without sufficient effort to connect them. I was particularly disappointed by how clear this was in the last chapter, as I consider it extremely important for anthropology to not underestimate the extent to which (neo)liberal assumptions and norms reach into and influence our research and representations. I will go over the chapter to further develop some of its points, but I will also try to address the matter that Patterson (commendably, if only implicitly) struggles with in chapter 5: what is neoliberalism, and where can we find it in contemporary anthropology?

Patterson presents us with a critical history of the mid-1970s to 2000, but misses opportunities to connect it explicitly to shifts in the discipline later on. By 1974, the already initially tenuous labour-capital pact for material progress that had emerged out of the postwar period had begun to break down. Patterson notes that this period has also been characterized by continued intervention in the “Third World” by the IMF and other US-dominated institutions, if not more directly by NATO and the US military. This point about US and Bretton-Woods domination is an important part of the introduction to the context of the neoliberal era, and indeed this influence is hard to overstate. However, Bretton-Woods policies and US imperialism are relatively absent from the rest of this chapter.

Chapter 5 divides the neoliberal era into three broad periods that coincide with theoretical, methodological and empirical shifts in interest in American anthropology. These are the Marxist turn from 1974-1982; the postmodern turn or “restructuring” of the profession from 1982-1994 and the last section dealing with globalization, feminism and the future of anthropology from 1994-2000.

Patterson remarks that symbolic anthropology and ecologically-oriented neo-evolutionists had no means of accounting for the new labour conditions in the mid 70s, but the Marxist perspective did, which is largely why it had more success up until the early 80s. That said, if we look at the works of symbolic anthropologists like Schneider and the work of neo-evolutionists like Rappaport and Leslie White, both these schools were clearly influenced by Marxist thinking (even if the latter school in particular shed most of the ideas about class and dialectics in favour of technology, culture and energy). Patterson perhaps understates the shared roots of these three currents.

During this same period leading up to the 1980s, no-growth budgets meant that universities and departments could not hire as they previously had: full-time faculty were not replaced, and an increasing number of part-time faculty (mostly women) joined, leading in part to the current paradigms of full-time vs. part-time, tenured vs. non-tenured, and as discussed in class, gender inequalities in graduate studies as well as faculty hiring.

The period from the early 80s to the early 90s is described as the “restructuring” of the profession and the postmodern turn. The postmodern turn in anthropology was also a linguistic one, in which the Geertzian language of the text and hermeneutics dominated explorations of culture. Particularly, the author underlines the centrality of words to the way in which people negotiated meaning as intersubjective (there being no objective reality outside the text made up of what people say). Writing Culture authors Marcus and Clifford became the figureheads of a turn towards new ways of writing and auto-ethnography, but also demonstrated a strong concern (particularly from Clifford) for the ways in which anthropologists author-ize their claims about culture using “I was there” tropes, and refraining from referring to the influence they had by adopting the “objective observer” perspective. Postmodern anthropologists focused disproportionately on social and cultural change in a capitalist world as coming from the middle class and the elite. Identity politics took priority over acknowledged, but ultimately ignored, vectors of structural oppression.

What is missing here, to me, is that there is no in-depth commentary on why these anthropologists acted the way they did. Patterson shows us the conditions of emergence, and shows us how people acted, but in this last chapter, doesn’t make the move Bourdieu (1984) does of saying ‘academics were situated here, this is their history, and this is why they acted this way in these conditions’. For instance, there is a common narrative about the critical turn in anthropology that anthropologists were being criticized for their involvement in colonialism and so turned inward to create distance from these actions, as well as introspect on what anthropology should do in order to avoid reproducing its colonial representations and methods. The author mentions the influence of Marcus, Clifford, and to a lesser extent Said, but doesn’t really look at this as a moment of crisis (resulting not only from neoliberalism but of critique of the discipline and its ongoing relationship with colonialism and imperialism). Indeed, one of the guiding threads of this book had been the evolution of race and contestations around colonialism, which go undeveloped in chapter 5.

However, the author does emphasize that this was a period of increasing state repression under Cold War dictatorships and a period of neoliberal policies that allowed corporations to suck the life out of workers, peasants and tribal peoples. Patterson intimates that anthropologists concerns seem rather quaint, and even complicit, in retrospect. Even more so when we consider the administrative changes at the AAA that paralyzed attempts to take public positions against CIA recruitment, apartheid, and other issues.

The last period, from 1994-2000, covers ongoing changes in the structure of the discipline and the anthropology classroom. Anthropologists are apparently more integrated into applied projects, particularly oriented towards improving health in the global south. The author uses this as evidence of the fact that anthropology isn’t at risk of going away, without really talking about what anthropology is becoming as a result. Simultaneously, he notes that less emphasis is placed on the four field approach, and students are becoming increasingly specialized but unable to relate to things outside their field. This last claim is particularly specious to me. I think that, for better or for worse, many social scientists are now all the more interested in similar topics, and even using similar methods and theories.

I want to end by addressing a question that we did not have time to explore in the seminar: what is Patterson’s view of neoliberalism and where does he locate it in anthropology? Patterson claims that postmodern anthropology adopted the ahistorical central tenet of neoliberalism: that identities were not created in social relations but rather in the exchange of words and ideas between peoples occupying different places in the hierarchy of power (Patterson, 2001: 155). I want to set aside potential confusion around terms of “social relationships” and “peoples” here. Patterson does not spend enough time developing this point for me to explain what is meant, but it is clear enough that he is calling out as neoliberal the kind of agency and identity work done by the likes of Marcus and others. Instead of trying to counter this perspective, I want to briefly present a complementary one in light of the recent success of actor-network theory across the social sciences.

Rather than claiming that neoliberalism has some kind of consistency anchored in a central tenet, I would focus on the potential for the theories we use to uphold and support existing orders of oppression. Network or system theory’s focus on decentralized networks and its purported inspiration in either nature or machines (or both in the form of cybernetics) tends to represent reality as flattened of power relations, or even relations bearing any form of quality. At its worst, by making the basic unit of analysis this vague idea of “the relationship”, actor-network theory often amounts to assembling these relationships that suggest infinitely diffuse power and responsibility. For all the potential that thinking with networks might have for problematizing notions of “the human” and “the individual” that are too often assumed to have no connection to gendered or racial oppression, this theoretical orientation meshes quite well with the historical practices of neoliberalism (and they indeed share roots in cybernetics). It may be that no matter how we cut the network to emphasize hierarchies or conflict, its assumptions are so deeply entangled with those of network thinking that it is unlikely to provide significant challenge to the main means by which power is exerted today.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

The Foundations of Colonial Anthropology

Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jack Goody sets out to do a personal historiography on the emergence and expansion of British social anthropology. His accompanying thesis is that early anthropologists working from Britain were not nearly as involved in the colonial projects of the British Empire as critics have recently made them out to be. The very need for this kind of argument, given the wealth of productive analysis that has emerged from anti-colonial critique of anthropology was not clear to me by the time I had finished the book. It was only during the seminar discussions that I came to realize that perhaps the stated argument mostly serves to support Goody’s other underlying argument: that the best work in anthropology was done at the height of this “expansive moment” by people who were supposedly self-made and free from government approval as well as capitalists’ agendas (which nonetheless constituted the research conditions for many of them) (Goody, 1995: 3, 145). In both the seminar and in official reviews of the book, Goody’s argument was found to have been sloppily defended, and his engagement with colonialism and imperialism was seen as superficial, if not dismissive. Goody’s discussion of the influence of the private foundations that were part of extremely powerful economic empires is also uninspiring.

In the seminar discussions, Goody’s limited conceptualization of colonialism became a marked focus. Much of the problem seems to stem from the fact that Goody’s discussion of the influence of colonialism on anthropology is tied to the idea of colonialism as an administrative affair limited to the actions and effects of certain institutions (and the extent to which actors knowingly complied with them) (Goody, 1995: 154). Paraphrasing what was mentioned in class, the deep, long-lasting or epistemological configurations of colonialism and imperialism receive virtually no attention from Goody, despite the importance this kind of thinking has taken on in anthropology.

Reviewer Joan Vincent, in comparing Goody’s work to that of a related book by George Stocking, found that both books on the development of British social anthropology lacked serious engagement with the pervasive influence of colonialism. Whereas she finds Stocking’s reinterpretation rigorous, she finds Goody’s “revisionism” lacking “and, to put it mildly, sloppy” (Vincent, 2007: 320). Another reviewer of both books also found Stocking’s to be “clearly the most comprehensive and valuable of the two” (Heyck, 1997: 1486). My own appreciation for this book would likely have been much greater if it had seemed to me that Goody had tried to be comprehensive, rather than provide what reads as a nostalgic and reactionary argument to many of the changes that anthropology has undergone in recent decades.

For Goody, it would seem, any “new” directions in anthropology should attempt to build on the work of the key figures of the expansive moment, and take its inspiration from the group dynamic that it emerged out of: constantly-corresponding post-graduate researchers with shared intellectual interests, free from control and freely disagreeing. At times, this feels like the kind of defence of the academic old boy’s club that Bourdieu (1984) finds responsible for the lack of scientific thinking in universities. My greatest disappointment is that Goody did not take this book, and his position within academia, as a starting point to seriously evaluate the influence of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rhodes Livingstone Institute. In a time where corporate influence over universities seems to be increasing, or at least is becoming more overt, such a historiography would have been much more in keeping with creating new directions from anthropology by reinterpreting the past. I present here a couple of counter-interpretations of the role of private foundations using Goody’s text.

In our seminar, it emerged that the Rockefeller empire was well-poised to begin taking influence away from Britain and other European empires over their colonies in Africa. Rockefeller interest in the current existence, ongoing change, and functioning of societies in Africa can be productively interpreted within the geo-politics of the time as imperialistic (Goody, 1995: 20). Goody claims that the Rockefeller’s interests were “reformist” rather than “imperial” as if these two terms had oppositional meanings in the history of Euro-American colonialism and imperialism (Goody, 1995: 9). We can then think of Malinowski’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation as a partnership emerging from the same geo-political and historical conditions of the time, rather than as relationship between an irreverent artist and a quaint patron which Goody projects despite the evidence he presents. This counter-narrative, though seriously underdeveloped here, is at least more thought-provoking than the easy interpretation that the Rockefeller Foundation was just being charitable, and that Malinowski barely responded to their interests (Goody, 1995: 57).

Goody also argues that many British anthropologists in Africa held relatively radical views and refused to conform with the interests of colonial governments in various ways. Evans-Pritchard is the most discussed example of this anti-establishment attitude, taking on almost heroic status in Goody’s descriptions. Perhaps because of an undue focus on colonial administration, Goody fails to properly investigate the influence of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute and its sponsors in Africa. The most critical commentary of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in the book comes not from Goody, but from Evans-Pritchard, who rebukes then-director of the institute, Max Gluckman, for being an administrator more than a scientist. Despite the fact that Evans-Pritchard had supported Gluckman’s promotion as director, Evans-Pritchard disliked the institute for the way it cheapened anthropology (Goody, 1995: 69). Goody calls Evans-Pritchard’s commentary “harsh” (Goody, 1995: 73). But Goody only gives us half the story: he says Max Gluckman was only able to become director by virtue of the fact that Godfrey Wilson, the previous director, committed suicide. But in fact, Godfrey Wilson had resigned only after prolonged conflict with the institute’s sponsors, being vocally critical of the actions of mining companies in the area, and their role in violent conflict and labour disputes. It was two years after his resignation, after a bout as an “information officer” in North Africa for the South African Medical Corps, that he took his own life (Gaillard, 2004: 150). Amidst Goody’s description of Evans-Pritchard’s anti-establishment views, Godfrey Wilson’s story has no place. Though both were opposed to the institute, Evans-Pritchard comments about it cheapening anthropology seem misplaced given Wilson’s active protest of the Rhodes empire, giving another interesting case for discussing the relationship between anthropology and imperialism as well as colonialism.

Other productive counter-narratives could be levelled against Goody’s claims that colonial subjects were never merely the subjects of anthropology, but also always used anthropology for their own purposes (Goody, 1995: 85); or that studies of lineage were of no particular interest to colonial administrations (Goody, 1995: 154). This is possible in part because Goody presents, if only piece by piece, so many interesting nuggets of history. However, the need to do an alternative reading becomes necessary because he often fails to develop them and deal with them critically.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gaillard, Gérald (ed.). (2004). The Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. London: Routledge.

Heyck, Thomas William. (1997). Review of After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951 by George W. Stocking; The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970 by Jack Goody. The American Historical Review, 102(5), 1486-1488.

Vincent, Joan. (1997). Schism and Continuity in British “Colonial” Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 38(2), 320-321.

Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Commentary on Chapter 4

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. [Chapter 4, The Defense of the Corps and the Break in Equilibrium, pp.128-158]

Up until chapter 4, Homo Academicus largely deals with the internal relationships within the university and affiliate organizations that participate in the perpetuation of academic power. This chapter sets out to examine what happened to this status quo in 1968 once a growth in the numbers of students prompted increased hiring that, in turn, forced the habitus of hiring practices and the order of succession to break down, dividing academic generations along lines of power.

The main argument of this chapter is that professors defended against the effects of the growth in the number of students and dissent from within the faculties without coordinating with each other. Professors’ practical decisions for hiring were guided, without any coordination between themselves, by a set of implicit criteria, which were more or less hierarchical, to defend the social constants of the professorial body. Bourdieu warns against assuming coordination either in the form of individuals pursuing a universalized self-interest or in the form of a collectivity of individuals perfectly in tune to a shared will. Instead, Bourdieu proposes that individuals are socialized and build up a habitus or intuition according to their position in the field of power, and thus the results should not be misconstrued as the result of merely individual or structural factors (150-153).

The fundamental principles of social hierarchy in the academy have not changed significantly since the 1968 movement (he later explains that what it did change in that moment is the mode of behaviour of professors when the elite were threatened). Previously, the behaviour of professors was oriented towards preserving a status quo, but in this time of relative crisis, a spontaneous solidarity towards the elite emerged as the conflict cut across lines that were previously drawn and policed, but not made explicit. In all this, Bourdieu says, it is hard to see any way of creating an order where recruitment and promotion would operate on the basis of efficiency and pedagogical or scientific merit (158). As I mentioned in class, we might create parallels between this anti-intellectualism of the university and an anti-efficiency habitus we could attribute to large corporations.

Many general lines of questioning are opened up by this chapter. The language of objectivity is clearly used as a means to criticize academia on its own terms, but what is its potential for creating a radically different anthropology, given its association to Euro-American hegemony and colonial ideology? This line of questioning seems to resonate strongly with debates in postcolonial/anti-colonial theory: can the mimetic adaptation of the colonizer’s tools uproot the deeply embedded relationships of colonialism? This said, Bourdieu does deserve some credit for providing an interesting case study of criticizing the institutions of which he was a part of, if only from a somewhat marginal position.

Another interesting line of questioning is to ask what kind of ethics are produced by turning the epistemological weapons of science against itself, and the powerful people and institutions that control its production? Or alternatively, who should we be studying if it inevitably means objectifying them (even as we objectify ourselves)?

Some important criticisms emerged from the discussion of this chapter. In making this move against academic power inside academia, many aspects of the story are seemingly left by the way side, and many swathes of actors marginalized. Even a generous reading of Bourdieu creates a struggle to situate common people, the effects of increased demand for university degrees in the broader market, and the actions of the French government as well as the bureaucracy in producing the increase of students and the events of May 1968. These are a bit beyond what Bourdieu’s methodology suggests his main goal was, but are nonetheless key points in building an objective narrative of the (dys)functioning of the French university field in the 1960s.