Ep. #16 The costs of efficiency: Cris Shore talks neoliberalism in the public sector

“Rather than always studying poor, peripheral peasants, pastoralists, and fishermen, let’s turn the critical gaze of our discipline, which we do so well, let’s pivot it round like a telescope lens and focus upwards at, [Laura Nader] coined the phrase, ‘the hidden hierarchies of power.’”iTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com)

Cris Shore, professor of social anthropology at the University of Auckland, talked to our own Jodie-Lee Trembath about what today’s politics Subscribe on Androidare doing to public institutions like universities, how to break down monolithic, shorthand concepts like “neoliberalism,” and the challenges of “studying up”: how to do research when your subjects understand your methods, dispute your goals, and even hold institutional power over you.

This interview was recorded at the 2017 AAS “Shifting States” conference at the University of Adelaide, which stands on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. Here is the university’s acknowledgement and reconciliation statement. Jodie recorded the intro and outro in Stockholm, Sweden, while temporarily based at the Stockholm Centre for Organizational Research. See some her own writing on the problems of the neoliberal university in two of her blog posts, “The neoliberal university is making us sick: who’s to blame?” and “In academia, all you need is love.”


2.03 “It’s very hard to disagree with, or challenge the idea that accountability is a bad thing. It’s one of those weasel words; no reasonable, self respecting, rational person could possibly be opposed to accountability or transparency, or quality. It’d be like saying, ‘I’m against community’ or ‘I think the family is a bad thing’…”

4.24 “[Neoliberalism is] the conservative idea that best government is small government, that the role of the state should be more like the night’s watchman, small, minimal, non-interventionist, and it’s based on what I think is a really spurious, flawed theory that if you roll back the state, and shrink it, you’re simply opening up space for private providers, civil society to move in there…”

5.20 “Trying to turn your hospital into a competitive, market driven enterprise, trying to turn your university into some simulacrum of a transnational business corporation – sorry, it doesn’t fulfil the mission of what our public institutions are and should be about.”

6.46 “[Universities are] about challenging received wisdom – one of the very few spaces in society where we give license to people – scholars – to question orthodoxy , and to act as critic and conscience of society, and the reason that’s important, and this is a really serious point, is, democracy needs those things.”

7.28 “Higher education is something that, I think, if we are wise, we would seek to protect it from commodification. Otherwise, once universities are captured by commercial interests, what’s left?”

11.20 “We’ve moved into an era where disillusionment with the established ways of doing things, coupled with a wave of populist politicians, has led to a crisis of trust in the establishment and a dangerous flirtation with people who promise to smash the establishment. So how do you explain this wave of populism,? And I think that, too, is possibly a reaction to the last 25, 30 years of a particular – let’s call it a paradigm, let’s use the word neoliberal – policies… people have got poorer as a result… and here is a fact. Economic inequality has gone through the roof in the last 20 years.”

15.15 “Anthropology’s a way of thinking, a way of seeing. It really does shape your disposition and how you perceive the world. It changes people’s lives – it certainly changed mine! I mean, you never see the world again in the same way. You get sensitive to the, in a sense, just the conditionality and the fluidity of your own culture, and the arbitrariness of your own culture becomes blatantly apparent to you.”

15.56 “I think that anthropology producing lots of PhD students who are not just going to go back into universities or colleges is a great thing, because actually, the world needs more anthropologists! We need them in diplomacy. We need them in government. We need them in planning departments. Anything. Any area where people interface with other people, the anthropological skillset is brilliantly useful.”

19.10 “For me, one of the most inspiring anthropologists, who certainly shaped my sense of what the discipline has to offer, is Laura Nader… she wrote an essay called ‘Up the Anthropologist’ and it was – she coined the phrase ‘studying up’ and she spoke about how, you know, this was at the time of the height of the Vietnam War, and she spoke about how we, you know, students should be rightfully indignant, and indignation and anger should be a good motive for deciding what you want to look at. Rather than always studying poor, peripheral peasants, pastoralists, and fishermen, let’s turn the critical gaze of our discipline, which we do so well, let’s pivot it round like a telescope lens and focus upwards at, she coined the phrase ‘the hidden hierarchies of power’… and that always excited me.”

24.44 “Policy enunciates, and creates, it doesn’t simply describe.”

26.25 “Let’s start with people on the ground, what do they say about the policy [denouncing bullying in the university], what’s their experience of it, are they, do they feel like they’re being bullied? And they might actually say, ‘well, yes, but I don’t feel bullied by colleagues or my head of department, I feel coerced and bullied by the institution telling me that I have to produce all this research and teach excellent courses, and administer this and don’t have any spare time to be a human being ‘cause I can’t get the work/life balance.’”

30.40 “The phrase ‘faculty land’ summed up the sense of disdain, and contempt and distance that these senior administrators were having for academics.”

33.50 “It’s quite hard and challenging to write critically about your own institution…I’m quite wary about what I write and how I write…I’m following a kind of Clifford Geertzian type idea that I’m going to focus on public culture, so if I am going to report on things they will be things that are in the public domain and I’m not breaching any confidentiality clause.”

35.20 “I do sometimes feel I’m sticking my neck out [by researching universities], but then, on the other hand, as someone said to me once, if the professoriate can’t do it, and don’t do it, then who the hell can, and will?”


Wright, S., & Shore, C., 2017. Death of the public university?  Uncertain futures for higher education in the knowledge economy. Berghahn Books. New York.

Pickett, K. and Wilkinson, R., 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin UK.

Hannerz, U., 1998. Other transnationals: Perspectives gained from studying sideways. Paideuma, pp.109-123.

Nader, L., 1969. ‘Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives gained from ‘studying up’’ pp. 284–311 in D. Hyms (ed) Reinventing Anthropology. Random House. New York.

Marcus, George E., 1995 Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95-117.

Shore, C., & Wright, S., 1997. Anthropology of policy: critical perspectives on governance and power. Routledge. New York.

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Feature image is titled “Picket line during USS Pensions strike 2018. UCU Ulster staff and students picketing outside the art college, Belfast campus, Ulster University”. Reproduced here with permission from the artist, Aisling O’Beirn. Find more of Aisling’s work here: aislingobeirn.com

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