From Everlasting to Everlasting: A Review of David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

Price, David. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

 “Who controls the past,” ran the party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.

— George Orwell, 1984

In the introduction of Weaponizing Anthropology, Price (2011) reminds us that WWI was the Chemist’s war, WWII was the Physicist’s war and the current era of war is “envisioned by many Pentagon strategists” (p. 2) as the Anthropologist’s war. Anthropologists and social scientists have increasingly been courted, both on and off of the academic campus, by the military and intelligence organizations. In particular, anthropological knowledge and expertise is desired to fix structural holes and assist in counterinsurgency operations with Human Terrain Teams (p. 2). Cultural expertise is highly regarded as a new form of weaponry in modern warfare; it will help to define who the enemy is and refine knowledge of how best to kill the enemy (p. 195). Many provocative questions arise from reading Price’s work. The questions which resonated most deeply with me regarding our anthropological responsibilities are: who is our research for? And how will it be used?

One need not look too far to see the potential ramifications of our research. If we were to go back to WWII, the Manhattan Project provides us with a perfect case study of the quandaries and dilemmas that face researchers in times of war. Nearing the end of the war many had feared that Germany would develop a bomb and that is, in large part, what drove scientists in the United States to feverishly pursue the prospect of the atomic bomb. Indeed, Einstein had even written to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility that Germany could develop the bomb (Rosen, 2011). However, Germany surrendered before the bomb was complete and, as we all know, the bomb was then used as the decisive factor in ending the war in the pacific theatre and forcing the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Oppenheimer, the former head of the Manhattan Project, firmly stood behind his research, at least initially (Cotkin, 2011). He later lamented, however, “[p]erhaps I was a fool, but I had thought that this ultimate violence would discourage the use of any more violence” (Beach, 1946). Of course, it is extremely unlikely that anthropologists would create a weapon equivalently capable of the devastation of the bomb. Nevertheless, it does not mean that weapons cannot be created, and that these weapons cannot be damaging. This is something Price is provoking us to contemplate when we consider who our research is for and how it will be used. Further, his work encourages us to evaluate the motivations which drive our research.

Feynman, another physicist who worked on the Manhattan project, was more ambivalent, or detached, about the dilemma which scientists face. Although he too struggled in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he ultimately concluded that our research “enabl[es] power to do either good or bad – but it does not carry instructions on how to use it” (Feynman, 1988). There is great truth to this comment, as no one is omnipotent. We cannot possibly conceive of all of the ways in which our research may be utilized, for good or bad. However, Feynman’s words also carry a disavowal of responsibility. When we say that we create tools but are not ultimately responsible for how the tools are used it raises the question of who is? Someone is responsible. Price admonishes us to accept responsibility, as researchers, for the work we produce.

In the latter part of the book, Price provides us with a detailed account of what is currently occurring with Human Terrain Systems (HTS) which, in effect, allows us to consider what will happen as well. He is, in a sense, warning us of the potential for things to come and encouraging us to consider how our work will be used. Even in 1945 the implications and applications of the bomb were not unforeseen. A petition  signed by almost 70 physicists working on the Manhattan Project (Dannen, 1945) as well as the Franck Report (Federation of American Scientists, 1945) both discouraged the use of the bomb and encouraged President Truman to consider the moral implications of its use against civilian populations in Japan. The scientists came to realize that they had weaponized physics in an intractable way. Once the bomb was completed it was out there for all to use, and it could not be taken back.

As HTS utilize anthropologists for their counterinsurgencies they are weaponizing anthropology. In spite of the fact that the ethical codes which guide our discipline seem irreconcilable with participating in these operations social scientists continue to enlist. Our class discussions revolving around this issue brought up a variety of opinions about the legitimacy and ethics of anthropologists participating in HTS. While the overwhelming majority of us would agree that, as anthropologists, we should not participate in this form of ‘research’ there was also acknowledgement of the realities and complexities of our daily lives. In Chapter 9 Price presents us with the case of John Allison who wound up working for HTS after losing his job. While there, he seemed to espouse a true belief that he could change the culture from the inside, but resigned from his position a year later after realizing military culture is not easily, or ready to be, changed. Allison represents an idealistic archetype, one who believes that they can change the system from within. However, he would later discover that this change does not come easily, if at all. The question was posed in our discussions as to whether change from the inside out is the only way, or even the best way, to effect change. Like many of the questions arising from this book, there are no easy answers.

On the other side of the coin, however, even if we choose not to participate in HTS or produce secret military/government reports it does not prevent our work from being utilized. Our research is freely available for all to access. We cannot stop our work from being used, from being misconstrued or simply taken for malevolent purposes. As was the case, as Price points out, for Georges Condominas whose work had been used by the military for quite some time without his knowledge or consent (p. 129). Additionally, even if we attempted to contemplate all of the ways that our work might be construed we could likely never conceive of every one of them. It does not mean that we should not try, just as the physicists tried to forewarn of the dangerous implications of the bomb in 1945. However, this reality leaves anthropologists in an ethical quandary. How can we protect our work, and our participants, from being misused? This was another question which evoked a great deal of debate within our class discussions, but here we found again that there are no easy answers.

Price’s work gives us the opportunity to examine our own past, present and future as anthropologists. The stakes are often raised in times of war, and the lines of morality become blurred. However, the Manhattan project should remind us that the past and the future are intrinsically linked and ‘everlasting,’ as Orwell had cautioned. Perhaps it should ultimately lead us to reflect upon who controls the present and what that means for our future?

Bibliography:

Beach, Clark. (1946, October 20). A-Bomb Jarred ‘Oppy’ Out of Pleasant Ways, and He Can’t Get Back. Washington Post, Pg. B3

Cotkin, George. (2011). Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Dannen, Gene. (1945, July 17). A Petition to the President of the United States. Retrieved from http://www.dannen.com/decision/45-07-17.html

Federation of American Scientists. (1945, June). The “Frank Report”: A Report to the Secretary of War, June 1945. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/franck.html

Feynman, Richard P. (1988). The Value of Science. Retrieved from http://www.phys.washington.edu/users/vladi/phys216/Feynman.html

Orwell, George. (1977). 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classic.

Rosen, Rebecca J. (2011, November 23). ‘I’ve Created a Monster!’ On the Regrets of Inventors. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/ive-created-a-monster-on-the-regrets-of-inventors/249044/

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Reflections on Chapter 7, “Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It”

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, 155-179]

The title of Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, may seem a bit confounding upon first glance. However, after reading the chapter it seems to perfectly encapsulate the ideas that Mathers presents. Africa is the suffering beauty. It is a wondrous landscape where the people prevail in spite of their suffering; they suffer with beauty (Pg 155, 161). Additionally, the movement to ‘save Africa’ accepts that this natural beauty, of the continent and its inhabitants, is an integral part of Africa’s identity. As such, it compels individuals to ‘save Africa’ in a way that will preserve this beauty (Pg 155). In this chapter these themes follow the American exchange students as they first arrive in Africa, all the way through to their return home to America. Mathers’ also strengthens these themes by providing additional examples from the media and excerpts from exchange students’ journal entries.

Poverty in media representations of Africa is the first major theme tackled by Mathers in this chapter. Celebrities, in particular, have made poverty the central issue in their campaign to ‘save Africa’ (Pg 155-157). As such, poverty “has become an entry point for an encounter with Africa” (Pg 157). The perceived ubiquity and severity of poverty in Africa, and the profound impact that it can have on a traveller, was reflected in the journal entries of several American exchange students in Cape Town. However, these students also noted that there was resilience and hopefulness in these people, in spite of their situation (Pg 160-162). The ability of the African people to be “happy despite having nothing” (Pg 161) is the second theme Mathers addresses. In particular, she emphasizes the way in which the resilience of the African people later informs both an American sense of identity and development agendas in Africa.

As Mathers moves further into her discussion on representations of Africa she comments on the way in which Africa is constructed as an “exotic space” and a “cultural landscape” (Pg 163). Although there are many urban landscapes, Africa is still perceived as being “primordial” and “primeval” (Pg 164). In this third theme, Mathers expresses concern over how these perceptions inform development agendas and also how they amount to an erasure of the multiple peoples and places which comprise the continent (Pg 175).

Development agendas seek to save the peoples of Africa from the problems which plague their continent, while also preserving the natural beauty there within. As the subtitle of this chapter articulates, people seek to save Africa without changing it. Mathers bundles all of these ideas up in her fourth theme: American identity. The writings of the exchange students reflect how they experienced poverty in Africa and how, through this, they also began to fully realize the privilege of being American. Many of the students felt that this privilege came with a duty to give back to Africa. The “African smiling in the face of terrible conditions” (Pg 162) helped to further construct the notions of how they could ‘save Africa.’

Mathers comments on how students reoriented their goals and career aspirations upon their return home. Africa had changed them, and many of them wanted to find ways to give back. Mathers, however, seems to suggest that these desires simply fit the ‘save Africa’ narrative that she has been developing throughout the course of this book. The author grants one exception to this narrative, however, Casey. Mathers attributes a genuineness to Casey’s desire to help Africa over that of her classmates. She writes that Casey chose to “make her contribution to East Africa not to the United States” (Pg 168). It is not clear, however, why the other students’ contributions were not also for Africa. Our class discussions regarding Chapter 5 noted the stronger relationships Mathers had forged with Corey, Maria and Megan than the rest of the group and how this may have affected her analysis of them. In this chapter, Mathers’ close relationship with Casey seems to emerge as a bias in her analysis of Casey’s intentions and motivations over the other exchange students who also participated in her project. This raises important questions for anthropologists and researchers alike. For one, how close of a relationship should an ethnographer/ researcher maintain with their participants? Additionally, can intimate relationships be forged between researcher and participant without impacting the researcher’s interpretation and analysis? This idea has come up several times throughout the course of our semester in class discussions. In general, it is agreed that intimate relationships can be formed with participants without affecting the final analysis of the researcher. However, it is incumbent upon the researcher to note this potential bias and keep it ever present in their minds when they do undertake analysis of their work.

Another issue which emerged for me in Mathers’ work was the occasional misinterpretation of ideas. The first clear example of this was in Chapter 2 where she analyzed a joke delivered on the improvisational comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? Mathers writes:

 The host Drew Carey described Madagascar as “the island off the coast of that country Africa.” The actors thought it was funny that he could not tell the difference between a continent and a country, but the joke falls flat given how common such a misconception is. (Pg 52)

The first time I read this I was surprised by her comments. I could not tell if she had purposefully misconstrued the joke or if she truly had not understood it. Drew Carey was making fun of American ignorance or, more kindly phrased, lack of knowledge. That was the joke. Had he actually thought Africa was a country this would not be a joke, it would simply be a fact. As a professional comedian his job is ta make jokes, not facts.

Similarly in this chapter, when speaking of how the exchange students perceived there to be a “richness [which] comes from poverty” (Pg 162) there seems to be a misattribution again on the author’s part. The exchange students were moved to see the way in which many of the Africans were able to handle their problems. Problems which they had never seen the like of in America. They could smile, be happy, and even generous in spite of their lack of material things. Mathers depicts this, however, as the students belief that “living without is somehow OK, even redeeming, at least for ‘others’” (Pg 162). I believe that the students were more reflexive about this issue. Many of the problems which we face in North America, and often complain about, seem so trivial. Additionally, our handling of these matters would seem somewhat shameful in light of what the students experienced in Africa. That is what the students were reflecting on. That is also why they experienced a degree of culture shock when they returned home (Pg 165- 167). Their experience had changed them, but their families and friends remained, more or less, the same.

Overall, this book has generated a great deal of discussion amongst our class, both good and bad. Many of us, my fellow classmates and myself, would agree that most of the ideas presented by Mathers are interesting and generally on point. However, as one of my classmates articulated, they never seem to fully develop. As such, most of the themes presented in this chapter have also been touched on in many of the other chapters. Mathers’ provides copious examples, whether from the media or from travel journals kept by participants, to support her claims but she never seems to delve more deeply into the issues she is presenting. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader expectantly awaiting a deeper analysis but never encountering one.

A Review of “Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa by Kathryn Mathers

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 2, Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America, 41-59]

In Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America, Kathryn Mathers uses the second chapter of her book, Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa, to further elaborate on, and explore, the ideas of the reversed gaze and African identity construction in American media and popular culture. The chapter is packed with information and examples as she begins to further develop the ‘fixed’ ideas Americans hold regarding Africans and the impact that travel to Africa has on these ideas (p. 49). Mathers links her home nation, South Africa, to America to develop her research interest on the negotiating of identity which occurs when Americans travel to Africa. What she is ultimately attempting to grapple with is the idea of how Africa, and its identity, is constructed in America. Further, she examines how this idea is formed, and how it is challenged and potentially reshaped through travel. As such, Mathers uses this chapter to develop and refine notions of the reversed gaze and African identity constructed in American media and popular culture.

Excerpts from four journal entries of students who embarked on a student exchange to South Africa are provided as epigraphs for this chapter. These writings highlight assumptions and misconceptions that are held by the American students, or their associates, about Africa prior to the students’ departure. More specifically, Mathers mentions, they point to the vexed ties that exist between the nations. The term ‘vexed ties’ is a borrowed concept from the work of Rob Nixon and it refers to a “sense of half-shared histories” between South Africa and America which can lead to “an illusory sense of mutual intelligibility” (p. 41). The shared history mentioned here is one which was established through the Anti-apartheid movement (p. 42). In spite of the shared history between the two nations, however, Mathers notes that South Africa can be, and often easily is, exchanged conceptually by Americans with a generic, homogenous and singular understanding of Africa as a whole.

The concept of gaze plays a large role in the ideas presented in this chapter. Mathers provides several examples of how the colonial gaze has constructed and contributed to the dominant perception that Americans continue to hold about Africa. Many texts from the 17th Century onwards have produced, and perpetuated, unequal power structures where the colonial gaze was used to construct the dominant narrative about the continent while also suppressing the gaze of the colonized (p. 43). Drawing upon these historical constructions, Mathers argues that they continue to inform the perceptions of American travelers to Africa who continue to perpetuate structures of inequality.

The “objects of the tourist gaze gazing back” (p. 43) is another aspect explored by Mathers in this chapter. This reversed gaze confounds the notions that tourists hold, their intentions for travel and their encounters. While power relations may still be unequal, it is through the reversed gaze that expectations can be challenged and more agency can be gained by the objects of the tourist gaze; that is, by Africans themselves. Mathers uses examples of sex tourism in Ghana and Gambia to highlight the nature of relations between the two individuals in an encounter. For the predominantly white European and North American women the encounter is the playing out of a fantasy, the desire to have a romantic encounter abroad. For the men of Gambia and Ghana it is an opportunity to better their social and economic circumstances (p. 44- 45). In this relationship power structures may still be unequal but the reversed gaze of the men helps to “disturb the hegemony of the [tourist] gaze” (p. 45).

The Aids epidemic, famine and civil conflict are images that are recurrent in the news when it comes to Africa. As these issues frequently appear in media representations for many African nations they tend to become conflated with the continent as a whole and thus become interchangeable. The newspaper sources, television programs and exhibitions Mathers draws upon in this chapter all contribute to the image of a broken continent and help to elaborate on the constructed identity of Africa in America. Further, Mathers notes, Americans are driven by a desire to fix these problems and that is part of what compels them to travel to the continent. The author comments that focusing on the problems of Africa often became a dominant theme in the conferences she attended while undertaking her research as well. The notion of a broken continent in need of mending generated a great deal of discussion amongst our class. Several students commented on how we are almost trained to look for misery in Africa because so much of what we see regarding Africa, in the media in particular, pertains to this misery. It has (sadly) become normalized in our understanding of Africa.

As Mathers attempts to take on the enormous task of pinning down what the American construction of African identity is she draws upon evidence provided in major American newspapers and television programs, as well as, materials and subject matter from conferences and exhibitions to make her case. In the introduction to this book the author mentioned that she had failed to determine what her participants’ views on Africa were prior to travelling there and, subsequently, seems to be using the vast amount of information presented in this chapter as the sources, or baseline, for American ideas about Africa (p. 6). The one problem with this, however, is that it is difficult to draw a link between predominant ideas in culture and society and an individual’s beliefs. It is possible that the American travellers who were her participants were highly informed by media representations of Africa, but it is difficult to say what other influences in their life may have also shaped their perceptions on Africa and its nations. As such, a definitive link cannot be assumed. As a child I had likely thought of Africa in much the same way as Mathers has discussed; as a homogenous continent plagued by strife. However, when I was 10 years old there was an exchange student who rode the school bus with me from South Africa. I was surprised to see that he was well-to-do, white and spoke English. This event was one of many in my life which helped to nuance my understanding of the nations of Africa. Similarly, many of the exchange students likely had similar events which informed their perceptions too. As such, Mathers is not wrong in suggesting that the media informs our perceptions, because it does, but she neglects to acknowledge the impact that other life experiences may have as well. This, unfortunately, results in a simplified analysis of  the ‘ideas’ about Africa, and how they may change.

Mathers work in this chapter is quite dense and covers numerous topics throughout its course. Her work is an interesting blend of a post-structural critique of the pervasive media construction of ‘Africa.’ As well as, an ethnographic study of the impact of the travel experience on American beliefs and identity. Although, in Chapter One Mathers asserts that her work is not an ethnography, a portion of her work centers around observing travellers and attempting to understand their experiences and, therefore, appears to be ethnographic (p. 11).

The constructed identity of Africa in American media belies the enormous amount of power that America holds globally, particularly in relation to the nations that comprise Africa. As the power structure between America and African nations are not symmetrical, politically or economically, Mathers adeptly uses media portrayals to expose the nature of these relations. Moreover, this examination points to a larger issue: that Americans wield a great deal of power in determining what Africa is, who Africans are, and ultimately what Africa’s purpose is. The historical inequality of power relations are perpetuated as Americans continue to look for what Africa can do for them. In the modern context, Mathers argues, there is a desire to develop a sense of purpose and charity as they try to fix the problems which they perceive plague the continent; an endeavour which touches on aspects of post-colonialism in addition to post-structuralism.

Mathers’ attempt in her research to articulate the formulation and transformation of an idea is a very interesting one; and a formidable undertaking. She questions what happens when travelers, tourists and students embark on a journey to Africa and find that their ideas about the continent, and their intended experiences there, are being challenged and contested by the reality of life in these places. Further, she asks how this challenge might shape, or reshape, the individual’s identity. This is a big research question, and these are big ideas to take on. As a result, Mathers work can come across, at times, as somewhat convoluted. Nevertheless, I am curious to see how the ideas of individual participants will be transformed. I look forward to seeing how Mathers’ research will develop in subsequent chapters, and how challenges to constructed identities will potentially shape and affect the individual holder of the belief.

 Bibliography

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.[Introduction, 1-10]

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 1, Moving fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa, 11-41]

A Review of Team Diversity: An Ethnography of Institutional Values by Bonnie Urciuoli

Urciuoli, Bonnie. (2005). “Chapter 10: Team Diversity: An Ethnography of Institutional Values.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (159-172). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In this chapter Bonnie Urciuoli invites us to critically examine the institutional values of the university. She argues that universities are becoming increasingly corporate in nature and uses her own institution as the foundation upon which she builds her case. Drawing upon publications from several organizations directly involved or affiliated with the University Urciuoli provides ample evidence to support her claim that corporate culture, as demonstrated through language, has become a dominant feature in the academic institution. Publications and literature increasingly ground language in terms of tangible and transferable skills, of particular importance to Urciuoli is the use of the term diversity. From here the author then points to the significance of this corporate shift on student identity and student participation in university life.

Urciuoli begins by explaining how her interest in this particular subject was borne out of a larger project. The project was set at her own university, a small private liberal arts college located in upstate New York. Here she was examining the ways in which notions of diversity and multiculturalism were created in student life. In the course of this project she became interested in the larger institutional structure in which student life was situated. As her focus shifted from student identity to the broader academic milieu she comments that there were three salient points which emerged. The first was the role that college recruiting and publicity play in establishing this corporate tone with its emphasis on skills. Secondly, that increasing the diversity profile at the university had become a mandated initiative. Thirdly, Urciuoli comments on the implications of the use of diversity over multicultural, the former being corporate in nature and increasingly appearing in the academic sphere. The increased usage of diversity, she argues, represents an imposition of external corporate values in university life.

This shift in the usage of terminology has significant implications in terms of value creation and the student identity. Urciuoli describes the use of diversity in university parlance, over that of multiculturalism, as a strategically deployable shifter (SDS). Shifter is a term drawn from grammatical theory and it refers to how words can direct our thinking. SDS builds on this notion by acknowledging how words may appear to be synonymous on the surface but that each word holds a deeper embedded meaning. As such, when we employ a specific term we can create or control the context in which we are speaking, while also subtly directing what the other, or others, think. The replacement of multicultural with diversity will conjure up a different notion in a student’s mind, and will represent a different type of association. Urciuoli argues that diversity is a corporate value and its permeation throughout the institution represents a “hegemonic entrenchment of what learning should be” (p. 162).

To support this assertion of the corporatization of university language the author draws upon several examples from her own university. Urciuoli begins with an examination of the Resident Advisor manual. She notes that the language is grounded both in the acquisition of transferable skills and the fostering community. Diversity emerges here as a skill employed by the Resident Advisor to foster an inclusive environment. Urciuoli links this notion of diversity to works in human relations literature on workplace organization. She draws upon a specific example in the work of Loden which emphasizes the benefits of shifting “company culture towards valuing diversity” (author’s emphasis, p. 165).

Urciuoli  then proceeds to compare the stated purpose of several of the multicultural organizations on campus against that of the fraternity-sorority council. She finds that multicultural organizations propose to educate others about their culture whereas the fraternity-sorority council emphasizes skills and leadership. While seemingly divergent, both organizations draw upon a notional “diversity-as-a-contribution-to-the-whole” (p. 166) and further establish corporate values within the university.

Lastly, Urciuoli examines the embedded structure of the Posse Program, an organization separate from the university but which the university is a member. The Posse Foundation’s operational premise contends that students of colour would be most successful in predominantly white colleges if they were to go through college in a cohort. The literature of the Posse Program is what is of most interest to the author as it provides the best depiction of the SDSs mobilized to align with corporate values. The author contends that this essentially multicultural organization focuses primarily on leadership and team skills which are more representative of the corporate diversity model. Through these examples Urciuoli develops a common thread of how these works seek to imbue students with the corporate skills of the ideal employee.

Through our discussions in class it was highlighted that what Urciuoli is really commenting on is the politico-economic context in which academics function. The increasingly corporate nature of the university demands that disciplines ‘prove’ their worth through economic outcomes. Our discussions centered upon what this ultimately means for professors and students. The corporate model of the university has many ramifications, including impacting what we learn, what we know and how we think. It has the potential to create an environment where education is an industry, and the university is essentially an assembly line for constructing the ideal student and, ultimately, the ideal employee.

Urciuoli paints a convincing picture of the corporatization of the University. She provides substantial evidence to support her argument that the language which pervades the academic institution aligns with corporate ‘speak.’ However, less evidence is provided to convincingly support the claim that academic institutions are being corporatized. Corporatized here referring to an outside force pushing inward, and/or as a dissemination of values from the top down. She states that the usage of terms such as leadership and diversity are “not simply borrowings” but that they “indicate a hegemonic entrenchment of corporate notions” (p. 162). I am not convinced that this adoption of corporate language represents, de facto, the corporatization of the institution in the manner in which she suggests. Urciuoli has proved that corporate language exists but correlation is not causation.

Urciuoli’s University, a private liberal arts college in upstate New York where almost 40 percent of the students come from private schools, does not represent a typical North American university—which is not private, and where a far lower percentage of the population comes from private schools. Private schools are expensive. Private universities are also expensive. Students who attend these institutions tend to come from families who can afford the tuition. While not all may come from corporate households a larger portion likely do. Thus, corporate language may well be a common part of their lexicon, it is simply what they grew up with. In this scenario the ubiquity of corporate language may be an organic, bottom-up creation where students and alumni contributed to the dominate language of the institution. Further, this corporate language dominated environment may be confined solely to her institution or to a few other institutions of similar constitution.

Should Urciuoli’s assertion of corporate dominated language have a broader application across many or all universities in the United States, or even North America, a second alternative explanation may exist. In this model it represents Keynesian supply and demand. Certainly, attending a University is an opportunity to learn and grow, but most students attend University to prepare themselves for the working world; rather than pursuing a career in academia. In this scenario the marketing of transferable skills represents the University responding to the demands of the market: the students. The job market is competitive and capitalizing on, and re-framing, experiences in terms of the skills that can be applied later in life simply makes sense. Here the University is providing the students with what they want, or ultimately, what they need. To not do so may mean that the University is a less viable option for students in a competitive market. For better or for worse academia is an industry and if you cannot meet the market demand the consumer will go somewhere else, that is, to another university.

Corporate and corporatization, as concepts, have taken on increasingly negative connotations over the years. The well-known mainstream work No Logo by Naomi Klein and the documentary The Corporation are two examples of works which highlight the less savory aspects of corporate culture. This side of the discussion is fair, but it seems to promote the same sort of reductive associative thinking that the author discusses in this chapter. That is, diversity equals corporate, and corporate equals bad.  Some aspects of corporate culture can be, and are, bad. Not all aspects necessarily are, though. The corporate model is also remarkably efficient and effective in cost-saving measures. This is why many public sector institutions attempt to mirror these models. Additionally, to suggest that corporatization is an external force seeking to permeate the sanctity of the academic sphere removes agency from the individuals who actually comprise this sphere; the students, professors and staff. These individuals are not completely powerless in determining their own fate.

Ultimately, Urciuoli provides a solid work establishing the existence of corporate language and values at her University. However, there are several possible alternate explanations as to the origins of this phenomenon. It may be, as the author argues, an imposition from corporations on what constitutes desirable skills and the ideal employee. However, the explanation may equally lie elsewhere.

Reflections on “Gatekeeper or Helpful Counsel? Practices and Perceptions in Academic Peer Review” by Stephen Bocking

Bocking, Stephen. (2005). “Chapter 4: Gatekeeper or Helpful Counsel? Practices and Perceptions in Academic Peer Review.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (67-79). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In his article on the academic practice of peer review author Stephen Bocking dispels any preconceived notions one may have regarding this process: namely that the brightest and the best do not always get published. Drawing upon his previous experience as editor for the Journal of Canadian Studies, Bocking provides several reasons as to why this is the case. Elaborating on the endemic shortcomings of peer review, which can result in inconsistent outcomes for aspiring authors, he also addresses many of the criticisms lobbied against the peer review process while optimistically providing an alternative for forging ahead within the system.

In the publish-or-perish world of academia peer review has become the preeminent system for legitimizing scholars. The intention, or belief, is that peer review will illuminate the best research and, subsequently, funding can be allocated to the authors of this research. However, lack of consensus regarding what qualifies as appropriate “methods, evidence and forms of reasoning”[i] within any given discipline tends to emerge as a seemingly arbitrary and subjective review process. Furthermore, as peer review has increasingly become the main source for determining who receives academic jobs and funding the process– which was widely adopted by academia in the 1950’s with the intention of fostering community– has become somewhat antagonistic.

Bocking spends several pages describing the process of peer review and its historical development, using the space to expand upon several of the problems which have emerged within the practice.[ii] Reviews play a large role in informing an editor’s decision whether or not to publish. As it was mentioned in our class discussion, the prestige of the reviewer can be very persuasive in ultimately determining whether or not a work will be published. Even here, however, Bocking notes that this is not the sole deciding factor. In some cases, the relation of the work to the theme of the publication, the topic of the research, or even the regional distribution of authors may also determine which articles, no matter how good, ultimately make the final cut.

The question of anonymity for both authors and reviewers is another important issue raised in this work. Maintaining reviewer anonymity may allow for a more forthcoming commentary on the work, however, it may also allow reviewers to hide behind their veil of mystery. Perhaps much like the internet individuals may be emboldened by their anonymity and make statements which they would not normally make were their identity to be known, as they ultimately do not have to be accountable for them. As such, some have argued that reviewers should stand behind their responses and therefore be willing to put their name to them. In contrast, however, anonymizing an author may help to prevent any forms of bias which may emerge by reviewers based on name recognition. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that removing authors’ names, and their institution, may help to prevent a perceived prestige bias in the review process.[iii]

Mid-way through his work Bocking addresses his titular question, “gatekeeper or helpful counsel?”[iv] As a former editor he establishes that essentially two categories of reviewers exist: the ‘gatekeeper’ and the ‘helpful counsel.’ The ‘gatekeeper’ sees it as his or her duty to parse out flaws in the work, and subsequently provide two general types of review. The first is a terse affirmative or negative commentary regarding the quality of the paper and whether or not it should be published. The second type of ‘gatekeeper’ provides a negative and densely methodical criticism of the paper as a whole, which may even be aggressive towards the author. Bocking notes that the one benefit to this form of critique is that, while negative, these reviews can be invaluable in pointing out errors in the research.

Before turning to discuss ‘helpful counsel’ reviewers Bocking reflects on whether the practice is “more trouble than it is worth.”[v] Reviewers are not remunerated for their assistance in the peer review practice. It is a way for scholars to give back to the process and promote the independence of the academic discipline. A criticism on this point is that it encourages the isolation and separation of academia from society-at-large, making it less able to discern research which may be of interest to the general public. This last point emerged in our class discussions as it was mentioned by some that this process of peer review tends to further contribute to the ‘ivory tower’ of academia where academic literature is produced solely for academics. While there was general agreement on this point it was also countered that peer-review publication is not the sole means of disseminating ideas and information; authors are able to submit to popular journals, newspapers, maintain blogs, etc.

Another problem which Bocking reflects upon in the peer review process is that it rests on the assumption that reviewers are motivated by benevolent or philanthropic agendas. In some cases, the reviewers may have more nefarious goals in mind, such as, to delay the publications of their competitors or even to plagiarize another’s work.

While peer review can help to validate quality research it cannot always detect fraudulent works or research funded from external sources which may have an embedded agenda. As well, reviewers also tend to shy away from innovative research and works which deviate from accepted disciplinary methods and theories. Finally, as reviews vary markedly and most works tend to generate mixed responses authors are led to believe that the process is arbitrary and subjective.

At the end of the chapter Bocking addresses the ‘helpful counsel’ reviewer. This type of reviewer seeks to foster a cooperative and collaborative environment. The process is more akin to a community where the review of the paper is not the end goal but rather a part of the writing process, and reviewers comments are intended to improve the quality of the work. This idea draws upon the founding notions of the peer review practice where it linked the academic community, shared ideas, and promoted academic growth. ‘Helpful counsel’ appears to be envisioned as more of an aspiratory role for the reviewer rather than a comment on the current practices of reviewers.

A cursory review of academic literature and the internet yields numerous articles lamenting the peer review process. The general consensus is that the process is indeed flawed, but there is no sign that it is going away. It has been famously “compared with democracy: a system full of problems but the least worst we have.”[vi] Of the current problems which plague the peer review process the most important may well be its consensus building nature. This may seem counterintuitive given the fact that disciplines have been oft criticized for their lack of agreement regarding appropriate methods, concepts and theories. However, Bocking and others comment on its ability to entrench ideas and maintain the status quo.[vii] As such, it is generally dismissive of new and innovative research which does not conform with perceived institutional rigours or ideas. Francis Bacon referred to this as the “confirmatory bias.”[viii]  In academia it represents the tendency to accept or reject ideas based on the degree in which they accord with our own beliefs. This bias in the peer review practice can result in a relative degree of epistemic stagnation.

Bocking’s work captures multiple facets of the the peer review process. Despite the vast array of topics which the author covers the idea was brought forth in our class discussions that ultimately this work addresses knowledge and collaboration. Peer review can determine what we know and ultimately what ideas are perpetuated or given credence. As such, Bocking’s distinction between gatekeepers and helpful counsel were seen by many of us to be a question of ‘who decides?’  Certainly, Bocking seems to have a preference for the more collaboratory and encouraging role of the helpful counsel.

Bocking’s visionary thinking regarding the role that `helpful counsel’ can play in the review process is commendable. Seeking to foster community through peer review may reduce the separating-the-wheat-from-the-chaff way of thinking which currently pervades the academic practice. A more cooperative and collaborative process may overcome confirmatory bias and encourage more innovation within academic disciplines. Additionally, this may also reduce the burden which the disciplinary lack of consensus may play in the process. A study performed by Dunbar found that a substantial part of the scientific process of discovery occurred while collaborating and discussing with peers, a process he termed “distributed reasoning.”[ix] Simply put, ideas do not occur in a vacuum. Notions of an academic toiling away in solitude before their ‘eureka’ moment is a relative fiction. As academics we can use our respective areas of expertise to help others formalize and codify their own ideas, as they too can help us. Viewing one’s role as ‘helpful counsel’ in the peer review process, rather than ‘gate keeper’, may ultimately help to address many of the systemic problems currently hindering the peer review process.


[i] Bocking, 2005, 70.

[ii] For a more detailed explanation of the peer review process see, Bocking 68-70.

[iii]  One study, undertaken by Peters and Ceci, resubmitted already published articles under new authors, titles and academic institutions. The study found that an overwhelming majority of the articles were rejected and only a few journals recognized that the works had already been published. For more on this study see, Peters, D., & Ceci, S. (1982 ). Peer-review Practices of Psychological Journals: the Fate of Submitted Articles, Submitted Again. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 5, 187– 255.

[iv] Bocking, 72-79.

[v] Bocking, 75

[vi] Smith, Richard. (2006). Peer Review: a Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journals. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99: 178.

[vii] Bocking, 76. See also, Mahoney, Michael J.(1977). Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(2), 161 – 175, and also, Lee, Carole, & Schunn, Christian D. (2011). Social Biases and Solutions for Procedural Objectivity. Hypatia, 26(2), 352 – 373.

[viii] Mahoney, 162

[ix] Dunbar, K. (1999). How Scientists Build Models: In vivo Science as a Window on the Scientific Mind. In C. Magnani, N. J. Nersessian, and P. Thagard (Eds.), Model-based Reasoning in Scientific Discovery (pp. 85–99). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum; 92.

Bibliography:

Dunbar, K. (1999). How Scientists Build Models: In vivo Science as a Window on the Scientific Mind. In C. Magnani, N. J. Nersessian, and P. Thagard (Eds.), Model-based Reasoning in Scientific Discovery (pp. 85–99). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Lee, Carole, & Schunn, Christian D. (2011). Social Biases and Solutions for Procedural Objectivity. Hypatia, 26(2), 352 – 373.

Mahoney, Michael J.(1977). Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(2), 161 – 175.

Peters, D., & Ceci, S. ( 1982 ). Peer-review Practices of Psychological Journals: the Fate of Submitted Articles, Submitted Again. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 5, 187– 255.

Smith, Richard. (2006). Peer Review: a Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journals. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99, 178 – 182.