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I published a piece last week in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, reprinted below, that has created a bit of a stir in Hong Kong; I suspect that the issue I describe applies to WCAA members at large. How much are anthropologists in different countries in thrall to Research Assessment Exercises? How much do these Exercises constrain what anthropologists do and publish? How much do these Exercises serve to make anthropologists irrelevant to larger concerns in the different societies belonging to WCAA, since anthropologists are forced to publish in distant Anglo-American journals?
Does your society have Research Assessment Exercises, and do they shape anthropology? How? Please speak up! Let us hear from you!
Academics denied their place in debate on Hong Kong
Hong Kong universities are now gearing up for the Research Assessment Exercise, imported from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Academics are required to choose their four “best” publications over the past six years; these will be evaluated by committees of experts, who will then rank different academic departments as to their research productivity. Highly ranked departments will get more money; poorly ranked departments will get less money, with implications for individuals’ jobs and futures.
At first glance, this may seem entirely reasonable. Academics in Hong Kong are well paid compared to many of their overseas counterparts. Why shouldn’t their performance be measured? Why shouldn’t the ivory tower be subject to the same kinds of performance reviews as any other profession?
It indeed should, but there are significant problems here. Because the committees of experts judging these exercises are more than half foreign, publications in Chinese don’t count. (This is denied in the guidance notes for the exercise, but is indeed the case, as many academics here can attest.)
In the sciences, academic writing is typically in English; in the arts and social sciences, it often is not. Thus, a historian or sociologist who writes a book about Hong Kong had better not write it in Chinese. Most people in Hong Kong read Chinese, not English. But for the assessment, this doesn’t matter.
Beyond this, if this historian or sociologist writes an article about Hong Kong, it had better not be published locally, but only by a prestigious Anglo-American journal, most of whose readers will care little about Hong Kong. Typically, the experts judge “best” publications on the basis of the publisher, since they haven’t time to actually read the massive amount of submitted work. Prestigious Anglo-American publishers count for much; Asian publishers, particularly Hong Kong ones, count for little.
Unlike the hard sciences, which are more or less universal, in the arts and social sciences Anglo-American publishers publish work of interest to Anglo-American audiences, and Asian publishers publish work of interest to Asian audiences. Thus, academics in the arts and social sciences here, needing to publish overseas, are pushed into writing articles dealing with Anglo-American theories rather than articles that are useful for understanding local issues.
This directly affects the role that academics can have in contributing to Hong Kong. The Research Assessment Exercise makes local research, local publication and local impact irrelevant. The learned men and women who comprise its expert committees do not have this intent, but the effect of their efforts is to render academics no more than mute technocrats instead of public intellectuals.
If I were a Chinese official in Beijing, I would be very happy that the exercise keeps Hong Kong academics publishing books and articles in distant places that few people read, rather than engaging in public debate through their research and publications on Hong Kong.
The solution to this problem is to take local research and publication much more seriously, and to have a far broader mode of making judgments as to research excellence. But this won’t happen, because Hong Kong higher education is so obsessed with international rankings.
This makes Hong Kong humanists and social scientists into technocrats and bureaucrats, and makes Hong Kong universities increasingly resemble those of Singapore and mainland China.
Given the increasing thrall of the Research Assessment Exercise, I despair at what the future may hold for my junior colleagues, for Hong Kong universities, and indeed for Hong Kong at large.
Gordon Mathews teaches anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and wrote Ghetto at the Centre of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong
This piece was printed on the Op-Ed page of the South China Morning Post, April 22, 2013
Add comment May 9, 2013
As anthropologists, who do we write for? Scholarly articles are typically written for one’s fellow academics. But what about books? Book-length ethnographies are the cornerstone of anthropology. These include books whose ethnography is theory-driven, books whose primary purpose is to make a contribution to anthropological theorizing. These also include books whose primary purpose is to ethnographically depict a slice of the world; these books too use theory, but the theory is servant to rather than master of the ethnography. Of course many books are in the middle between these two poles, but it is fair to say that anthropology today is defined by these two poles, and underlying that, by the question of who we write for. Theory-driven books are generally written for one’s fellow anthropologists and their graduate students. Ethnography-driven books are generally not just for anthropologists, but also for undergraduates, and the lay public. These are vast generalizations, but if one thinks of prominent ethnographies written over the past two decades, it is not hard to see this divide. Think, in an American context, of Bourgois’s In Search of Respect (ethnography-driven) as opposed to Ong’s Flexible Citizenship (theory-driven), to mention just two of a large number of ethnographies that could be mentioned.
I suspect that this division is true beyond the American anthropological world to an extent. But because the world of academic anthropology in most other societies, and particularly in most non-native-English-speaking societies, is smaller, there may be less possibility of publishing books written for an academic audience alone, simply because the market for them is small. It is the Anglo-American anthropological world that most privileges theoretically-driven books, because the English-speaking market is so big. To put it bluntly, in this large market, anthropologists can afford to talk to themselves alone, whereas in other large markets, they cannot, because anthropological solipsism can’t sell books.
Prominent anthropologists of generations past in the English-speaking world very often spoke to a large audience. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword certainly had their theoretical underpinnings, but were written so that any intelligent layperson could understand them. This is no longer the case with many of the ethnographies of recent decades, some of which cannot be understood by non-specialists because they are primarily theory-driven. There are certainly a number of exceptions to this, but it is fair to say that in general book-length ethnographies have become more difficult to understand in recent decades for those who aren’t trained anthropologists.
This situation is largely a product, I believe, of the tenure system in American anthropology, whereby each new generation of anthropologists must be seen to be doing something very different from its recent forebears in order to gain lifetime employment as professors. Ethnography-driven books are of less value in this pursuit than theory-driven books, since the latter can demonstrate an apparent advance over anthropological forebears, however fictitious this advance may be upon closer examination. This is also why, in a broader arena, music and art have also become progressively less comprehensible to the layperson: they have been increasingly confined to the academy, to departments of music and art in universities, where specialists produce work comprehensible only to fellow specialists. The Anglo-American academic world in the arts and soft social sciences seems, in its emphasis on specialists, to privilege incommunicability with the world beyond the academy.
There is nothing wrong with having anthropological theory in ethnography—its presence is essential. But if ethnography is primarily theory-driven, then its appeal beyond the small world of academic anthropology becomes greatly diminished. In a world that is today plagued all the more by cultural conflict, anthropology needs to have a public presence, as it largely does not in American anthropology. If a computer scientist or heart surgeon writes academic works, their findings will nonetheless help the layperson—I need not understand their academic writings to benefit from their expertise in operations on my computer or on my heart. But if an anthropologist writes academic works incomprehensible to the layperson, these anthropological findings may not be helpful, for they may have no lay use.
This, I sense, is a major problem today with much American anthropology—this is why it is in danger of becoming irrelevant beyond any world larger than itself. But I sense this is far less of a danger outside the Anglo-American world. In Japan, to take just one example, well-known anthropologists regularly write books for popular presses, read by laypeople; and this, I am told, is true in a number of other societies as well. Might world anthropology lead American anthropology back to public relevance? Perhaps, but given ongoing American hegemony, I fear the opposite. As goes America, so follows many other societies—in terms of anthropology, into public oblivion.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
2 comments February 10, 2013
In the coming months, WCAA will launch the on-line journal Déjà Lu (“Already read”). This will be an on-line multilingual e-journal that can represent the diversity of today’s anthropological communities. In Déjà Lu we will republish articles selected by the journals of the associations members of the WCAA and give them global visibility by means of our international networks.
Here how it works: Editors of different journals will select one article they have already published and send a pdf copy with the title and one abstract in English (mandatory) and in any other language (optional), and indicate that we have permission to republish it on the WCAA website. The article can be on any anthropological topic, and can be in English or any other language. If they wish, journals or authors may translate their texts into English (they must do this instead of us), and we will publish the translation. The editors of Déjà Lu are Gustavo Lins Ribeiro firstname.lastname@example.org (Universidade de Brasília), Gordon Mathews email@example.com (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), and David Shankland firstname.lastname@example.org (The Royal Anthropological Institute). For the first issue, the call for papers has been sent to the journals of all the member associations of the WCAA, asking for an article published in their journal in the year 2011. For later issues, we’ll send the call for papers out to all journals of anthropology in the world—all journals listed on the WCAA website.
This is an important initiative because each of us who edit journals around the world tend to be read only by audiences within our own regions; how can we break out, and get a larger, global anthropological audience? Of course, having a journal on-line helps a great deal, but still, it is easy to vanish on-line, to have a webpage for an on-line journal that few ever visit, a lonely side road on the massive information highway. A journal of reprints like Déjà Lu can perhaps overcome this—readers who like a certain article can then follow the link back to the journal it first appeared in, and we hope that this will happen for many journals. And this can help the longstanding aim of WCAA, to help create a truly global anthropology, beyond the hegemony of any nation or group of nations. This, anyway, is our hope.
So let’s go! The first issue will appear on the WCAA website in early spring—we’ll let you know as soon as it’s out.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
1 comment November 13, 2012
I helped organize a meeting earlier this month of the East Asian Anthropological Association here in Hong Kong, a group consisting of anthropologists from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We had long discussions about how we want to proceed with this organization in its future meetings, and some fascinating differences emerged. I don’t want to get into the specifics of who from what society argued what—this is not the place for that, and privacy should be protected—but I do want to discuss basic differences in organizational principles that may seem, at first glance, to be commonsensical but that in fact are culture-bound.
If you seek to organize an anthropological meeting on a broad topic with 60-80 or so slots open for paper-givers, is it better to have an open registration process, whereby every interested anthropologist in these five societies can submit an abstract to be evaluated by referees, and then be accepted or rejected? This is the American and European pattern for all but very small meetings, and ensures that even those whom the organizers have never heard of can attend the meeting if they can write a good abstract that passes the referees’ gaze.
But given the different anthropological traditions in these five societies, can the organizers serve as referees? Could a Taiwanese fairly judge Chinese abstracts, or Chinese fairly judge Japanese abstracts? For that matter, can American referees at AAA fairly judge abstracts from any of these different anthropological traditions?
Perhaps they can be, but if there is any doubt, then this may not be the best approach. Would it better to invite only the anthropologists who are known to the organizers in various of these national circles, and invite them to participate? This would severely limit the influx of fresh participants, but would also prevent what might potentially be the widespread rejection of papers in an open conference, and the ensuing bad feelings that would then result. This is a style that is often practiced in China and Japan and Korea.
After all, refereeing can only work if you have a more or less large and anonymous pool of referees—but what if your pool is small, and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else? And what if you are also from a hierarchical society, where seniors are to be respected? And what, on top of this, you are from a society where English continues to be a troubling foreign language, fully mastered only by those junior scholars who went to graduate school overseas? The complexities seem to make objective refereeing not merely daunting, but all but impossible, a fantasy.
On top of all this, what if you have limited financial aid for these participants—perhaps only 20 can have their accommodations paid for. Is it better to provide it for younger scholars, or even more, for graduate students, who may truly need it, or for their elders, who have proven, unlike their juniors, that they are worthy anthropologists, and who as eminent scholars should be rewarded—despite the fact that they are no doubt financially better off than their juniors? How does Confucianism, the dominant conviction of East Asia, play out against egalitarianism, or what some might consider basic fairness? There are no right answers here.
I had assumed that open registration is best, and that financial aid based on need is best, focusing particularly on graduate students. But I also realize, after this meeting in Hong Kong, that my own assumptions have been shaped by my American experiences at AAA, and other such meetings. There are multiple ways to organize meetings, and it may be cultural imperialism to insist on one way over another. I feel that particularly as a white person in an East Asian context—“our token Caucasian” as I was once jokingly referred to—and as the only native English speaker in a group for whom English is for many, a distinctly second or third language.
In fact, the East Asian Anthropological Association is indeed dedicated to eventually having full open registration processes and refereeing—its members have agreed to that—but the issue is how, and how quickly, to get there, given the necessary progression towards growth of the association versus the unfortunate necessity of English-language usage and, perhaps, American organizational-style hegemony. I have asserted my own opinion in all this, but am increasingly learning so sit back and watch and listen. As a cultural anthropologist for two decades, I am ceaselessly amazed at how hard it is for me to do this. I also realize, though, that culture can sometimes be used as a rationale for other motivations, whether on my part or others’ part. I would have thought that as an anthropologist, I would be better than I am at understanding these complexities, but although I can do this intellectually, in day-to-day life, I am, to my ongoing chagrin, as stupid as anyone else I’ve ever met.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Add comment July 30, 2012
The WCAA webpage now provides the websites of some 400 anthropological journals from around the world, some of which offer limited access to readers, and others full access. This, we think, is the only site in the world that provides, with a few mouseclicks, a glimpse of all the world’s anthropology. We think we have on this website every anthropological publication in the world that has a presence on the internet; if we have missed any, please let me know, at email@example.com.
Surveying the state of anthropology in the world today, what we see is an unwitting domination by the Anglo-American core of anthropology; anthropologists throughout much of the world pay attention to the Anglo-American core, but it pays little attention to anthropologies beyond its bounds, and those other anthropologies pay little attention to one another. A website like this can, we hope, eventually enable anthropologists the world over to read anthropologies the world over. This is its aim: to take a step, however small, towards the creation of a global anthropology. Only if anthropology becomes truly global can it ever hope to fully overcome its colonial legacy of the rich studying the poor, the North studying the South. Maybe this site can help do that in a small way.
This site puts all the world’s anthropologies on a common platform, although of course language barriers remain. From this array of different journals, if we can gather an array of anthropological readers, perhaps discussions can start. Typically, Chinese anthropologists never discuss with sub-Saharan African anthropologists and Eastern European anthropologists and Indonesian anthropologists and Brazilian anthropologists and American anthropologists about the nature of culture and globalization, or anthropological ethics, or cultural and ethnic identity, or the nature of heritage, and so on, because there has been no place for such a debate. Maybe this site and this blog can serve as such a place. That’s why we begin this blog.
I will be adding commentary every week: my views are not those of WCAA, but simply my own, as an individual anthropologist. The more we can hear from all of you, the better: I don’t own this! Please send me your own commentary, at the address I’ve provided above, of no more than 500 words, on any topic relating to global anthropology, and I will put it on. Let’s get a conversation started!
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
6 comments April 6, 2011