The Intersections of Anthropology and Policy

Posted on May 31, 2012 by


Shore, Cris and Susan Wright.  “Conceptualising Policy:  Technologies of Governance and the Politics of Visibility”Shore, Cris, Susan Wright, and Davide Però. 2011. Policy Worlds: Anthropology and Analysis of Contemporary Power. Berghahn Books.  Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas.

Shore and Wright’s book introduction, “Conceptualising Policy:  Technologies of Governance and the Politics of Visibility”  is a response against the idea frame that policy is an instrument of actors’ ambition and rational choices.  In this frame, actors pursue purposeful goals, decision-makers make fully informed strategic choices, and analysts measuring policy effects in terms of calculable costs and benefits.  Shore and Wright argue that policy-making is a lot messier than this, and Anthropological methods and interpretive focii are the best at capturing this messiness.

Typically, the policy practicioner perspective casts policy in terms of “authoritative instrumentalism”, which assumes that there are objective policies as the result of rational authority that organizes bureaucratic action to solve ‘problems’, which suggests a linear mechanical model of policy.  The best example of this mode of thinking is in the work produced by Moran, Rein, Goodin in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy (2006), who suggest that policy is an instrument of ambition. Shore and Wright suggest that they do not deny that policy is an instrument, but that this narrow vision of what policy is should not define the object of analysis or research agendas.   This linear, mechanical view of policy is limited in explaining how policy moves from context to context.

Anthropologists and their use of anthropological methods pose challenges to the exuding professionalism, apoliticality, and self-evidence as a result of understanding the meanings and understandings of policy makers.  The interpretive approach to policy aligns with Anthropological lenses to challenge the authoritarian concept of policy as process that is linear, logical, and hierarchical.  Whereas the authoritarian view believes that policy starts with text in legislation that trickles down to various levels of government, anthropologists start at the ground level, never assuming that policy solves anything, but simply observing the effects of the policy.  The observation of the effects is started by tracking genealogies and flows, which makes anthropological methods adept at capturing complexity.  An example is in Barbara Cruickshank’s book “The Will to Empower:  Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects.”  Garbage bins in Minnesota suddenly appear with locks on garbage bins;  this means that those who rely on dumpster diving were unable to continue their way of life.  Cruickshank tries locating those who originate the policy, but finds after interviews with various stakeholders from charity workers, to students, to homeless people, that she is unable to locate them.  This inability to locate actors was in her view was indicative of a pervading ‘authoritative instrumentalism’ in which everyone simply assumed that a ‘higher power’ decided that there was a problem to be solved.  As a consequence of this higher power’s invisibilty, subjects were unable to direct a resistance.

The discipline of anthropology is equipped to address what a policy means for people.  Anthropological research studies policies as they develop and then enacted in everyday practice.  This perspective sheds light on the way that a policy might be imagined by everyday people.  For example, Kugelberg’s study of African Women in Sweden indicates that subjects are not always able to engage successfully with a regime of power.  The women believed they had to form an association to access international development funding to support families back home, but found out that government policy was only to support ethnic minorities within Sweden.  Policies are not merely “transferred”, but they are re-interpreted through different cultural boundaries. A policy can be studied as a contested narrative, which either condones or condemns the past and projects only one pathway to resolution.

Anthropologists can study policy through multiple sites and perspectives, mostly through the tracing of connections.  Hugh Gusterson (2005) suggests tilting the field to study a system from the perspective of a particular site, and then to trace connections.  George Marcus (1995) proposes tracing connections through multiple sites by ‘following’ something as it moved across a field.   We could follow:  a thing, a conflict, a people, a biography, a story, a metaphor.  Shore and Wright suggest in this that, we could also follow a policy.  An example of following a policy is a study by Reinhold and Wright (1994), who showed how multiple conflicts arose from a policy of promoting positive images of homosexuality.

In Shore and Wright’s view, policies are acting agents that classify, organize, and find expression through sequences of events.  Policies are windows into political processes in which actors, agents, concepts, technologies interact in a way that produces new rationalities of government and regimes of power and knowledge.  These new rationalities of government and regimes can then take a “life of their own” in public discourse.  For example, the Beveridge report of 1942 proposed a network of hospitals, family doctors, public health, support for elderly, disabled, allowances for food and clothing financed by social insurance.  It faced initial resistance from doctors and was compared to national Socialism.  Despite initial resistance, its popularity has survived.  This set in motion the idea in Western political discourses that membership into a society meant that the state would care about your welfare and well-being.  In the veins of Appadurai (1986), Shore and Wright suggest that it is Anthropological methods that do the best at tracing and making visible this “social life.”

Discussion Questions

1)  Nyquist and Schwegler document the dismantling of the way of governmental thinking, that membership in a society, or a group equals a concern for their welfare.  Taking its place in governmental thinking, and particularly in workplace are ideas of “accountability” and “auditing”, based on the calculating, self-reliant, responsibilized individual.  What is our role as Anthropologist/Evaluators/Applied Anthropologists in ensuring that our reports do not serve to merely reproduce hegemonic or structures that operate on inequality?

2)  Shore and Wright suggest that a policy can lose its authoritative and hegemonic power in three phases:  a)  Intended subjects come to realize processes of subjection  b)  They refuse to accept image or subject and take it as their own  c)  become aware of the sharedness of critique.  The first phase tends to occur when events de-stabilize taken-for-grantedness of established orders.  What events in our experiences de-stabilize the taken-for-grantedness of established orders?  And how did they proceed on to the second phase?