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

Transcript of Interview with Cris Shore

Jodie: 00:00

So you have a new book out, which is 'Death of the Public University'. Maybe we could start with an idea of what is neoliberalism. What does it mean? We hear it a lot, right?

Cris Shore: 00:09

I think we hear it too much. Too much is spoken about neoliberalism. Personally, I don't like the word. I'm sort of more comfortable with the, the term 'neo-liberalization', insofar as that refers to a set of processes and not a thing, not a, a static monolithic thing. I suppose from, from an analytical point of view that there are different strands that come together. Um, I, I like to think of neo-liberalization as a, it is an assemblage of different projects. They get sort of bundled up. I mean, one project was about the, you know, I grew up in Britain and was living there in the eighties when Mrs Thatcher and her government started to introduce a series of reforms that were really designed, the cost-cutting measures, but with a political project behind the economic one of actually shrinking the state, you know, rolling back the frontiers of the welfare state and that version of neo-liberalization involved outsourcing it, involve introducing I markets into areas of public life where markets didn't exist and actually couldn't really exist like, ah, health services and competitive tendering, but there's another dimension that often gets confused and conflated into neoliberalism and that's that in a sense, the whole assault on the, on the professions, and these are all attempts to make the workforce more accountable, more efficient and more productive.

Jodie: 01:44

Okay. So I mean, that's three amazing words there, right? More accountable, more efficient, more productive. So it's hard to question the idea that accountability is a bad thing, right? Like if we've got low-quality things, then shouldn't we be improving the quality of things and isn't accountability a way to do that?

Cris Shore: 02:03

Well, you're right, I mean you're right in the first part, that it's very hard to, to disagree or to challenge the claim, that accountability is a bad thing. It's just one of those weasel words that you just, you know, 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', so you can't oppose it, so you, therefore, have to align whatever you do in terms of the mantra and the mandate to be more accountable. But what happens when you try to put that word into practice? Again, it was all part and parcel of the assault on the public sector. How do we make these public sector employees, doctors, nurses, academics, teachers, firefighters, police officers - they're not subject to the rigorous disciplines of the competitive free market. Therefore, how do we guarantee that the taxpayer is getting value for money? So they're introduced as a technology to render these disciplines more efficient, effective and economical. You know, the 'Three Golden Es', and then they get attached to the value for money mantra and together this forms a managerial package that is really quite disciplining and quite coercive in the way it's metered out.

Jodie: 03:24

And assault implies a subject that is doing the assaulting, right, so with something like neo-liberalization or market forces or these big ideas, who is it that's doing the assaulting and, and you were asking who are we accountable, like who is the WHO in these big ideas?

Cris Shore: 03:45

That is a good question. In a way, then, we've now had 25, 30 years of a project that goes under that label of neo-liberalism, neo-liberalization, of marketization in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. I mean it sort of begins in the eighties with a repudiation of the, the, the social democratic model, a repudiation of the welfare state...

Jodie: 04:10 Because it was bad?

Cris Shore: 04:12

It's the conservative idea that best government is small government, that the role of the state should be more like the night watchman, small, minimal, non-interventionist. And it's based on a, I think, a really spurious, flawed theory that if you roll back the state and shrink it, then you're simply opening up space for private providers, civil society to move in there and that somehow that state is your, you're the obstacle to growth entrepreneurship. And it began, I remember I was living in the UK at the time and we used to sort of come almost like laugh at this label, uh, the, the idea that Mrs Thatcher and her government, we're going to introduce an enterprise culture into all these kind of institutions, but what the hell is an enterprise culture? It's the wholesale transference of the language and the idioms and the thinking of the business sector into the realm of the public sector. And actually they jar, they don't work that well. Trying to turn your hospital into a competitive market driven enterprise, trying to turn a, a university into some simulacrum of a Transnational Business Corporation. Sorry, it doesn't fulfil the mission of what the public institutions are, and should be, about.

Jodie: 05:27

So that's a really interesting point. What is the mission of the public sector? And let's, let's focus in on universities because that's the area of this new book of yours. What is the mission of a university? What? I mean that sounds like an obvious question I think, but from an anthropological perspective, what does a university do? What work does a university do?

Cris Shore: 05:50

The public sector is a sector that stands outside of the realm of the logic of the market, that it's... therefore it embodies the mission and the meaning, embodies a series of set of values that are about the public good. So you're asking what's a university for. Well, I think it's, it's an institution that in many respects should be free from market influence. We, otherwise - it's a place of higher learning and it's not simply there to fulfil commercial agendas or private interests, you know, it should be there as a, as a sort of resource for the nation, bit like our public art galleries and our museums and it's like, they should be free. The nation's paid for it and it's, it's about bringing on the next generation of, of leaders as well. But it's...Yeah, it's also 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 I think this is a really serious point, is democracy needs those things. So that, that's it. You know, I think that there is um, there's a role for a public university and it really is part and parcel of that ethos and that ethos has been under assault. Higher education is not something I think that, if we are sensible and wise, we would seek to protect it from the commodification. Otherwise, once universities are captured by commercial interests... what's left?

Jodie: 07:31

Well, yeah. What's left? I mean, that's, that's a good question, isn't it? Because, so I mean if universities are the final bastion of the source of knowledge production and also the place where, where knowledge can be nurtured and we take that away, what happens next? I mean, what do you see for the future given the current state of public universities?

Cris Shore: 07:55

I don't know. I think at the moment, um, higher education is going through a very rocky period at the moment, particularly in the countries where we have conservative neo-liberal inspired policy agendas. The UK is a good example. There are conflicting agendas at work. They're on, you know, on the one hand, if I take my, my own kind of country New Zealand, so we've got a, you know, incredibly neo liberalized context. We'd been going, going down a particular path for the last 30 years that says 'we live by a competition where trade is our foreign policy. Uh, everything has to be reconceptualized as an investment.' So this is actually an official government policy when they talk about the investment approach to higher education. So, and the problem is that investment is a very sort of short-term, this idea that if the government puts money into universities, it expects a return.

08:56 So, which is why we have a, a privileging of not just STEM subjects, you know, the science, technology, engineering and medicine, but STEM subjects that can deliver a return, a commercial return on investment. So there's this really rather a heavy stultifying emphasis now on trying to develop parts of the university that can be commercialized. But you're, you asked me the question, what's the future of, of the Public University? Um, I think if we, if we continue recklessly down this path and it's looking very precarious, you know, I can see the breakup of the university system as we know it. Put it this way. If it's something that we value as a, as a nation or even as a, as academics and as policymakers, then it should be something that we will be prepared to invest in. You can't have a public university system that is left to its own devices, a progressive disinvestment of state funding, told to find its own income streams or to, what, to increase student fees for the point where it becomes impossible for ordinary families to send their kids to university. So, you know, we, we regressed to a sort of pre-war situation where, you know, higher education universities that are only for the children of the elite. No, thank you.

Jodie: 10:30

I hate to bring the mood down even further, but how do you see the current climate of anti-, anti- experts post-fact not valuing expertise, not valuing intellectualism? How do you see that playing into that potential decline? The reason I ask is because you said IF we value these things, and I wonder whether we as a society still do (Cris laughs), and then we all cried. (both laugh).

Cris Shore: 11:00

Yeah. I, here, sometimes we have, we do have to draw a distinction between, you know, as a society and the quality and the calibre of the political leadership. Sure. People talk about, um, you know, 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, in the establishment and a dangerous flirtation with, um, people who promise to smash the establishment. And the, how do you explain the 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. Neoliberal policies have all been geared to this ideological claim that the market has the solutions that, that somehow that, you know, breaking up institutions of the state is going to be good, it's going to free up entrepreneurship. People have got poorer as a result. The small five, one per cent have gotten immeasurably wealthier and, and you know, and the, here is a fact, you know, economic inequality has gone through the roof in the last 20 years, even in some of the more left-leaning liberal countries. Even in Sweden. Who is it? That great book, the, um, The Spirit Level, it's written by two epidemiologists who, who've looked at the effects of inequality and they point to a whole raft of negative consequences of societies that are most unequal, have the most social and health and environmental problems. And you know, right up there is the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia.

Jodie: 12:53

So do you think anthropology offers something as both a method and a philosophy? I suppose, that helps us to try and unpack that better? Differently? Why anthropology, I suppose?

Cris Shore: 13:07

I think it could. Yeah. I think the, the, the, the, just the simple fact that it's the most reflective discipline that either encountered, I mean it's to the point of neurosis, we're always analyzing and questioning our own sort of biases and assumptions, our positionality. But I think the fact that it's also comparative, you, you can't do work trying to figure out how another society operates and thinks without reflecting back on your own society. I mean there's always been somebody say, you know what? What is anthropology? Well, it's an exploration of the self through the vehicle of the other, or it could be the other way around. Yeah. We're interested in trying to think, use ourself and our own perspective to make sense of other cultures, other peoples, which in turn provides us with a window and a lens back onto all the ways in which our society and culture operates. I think anthropology, the knowledge it produces isn't easily commercializable. Although actually that said, I always think that, you know, you could always throw your lot in with the devil and we have a skillset that would be the envy of most marketeers, you know, PR companies, media firms, you know, if you can figure out how symbols work and anthropologists are pretty good at doing that, you know, you, you can market your, your knowledge to a salesman and PR companies and uh, yeah, it would be quite good at dark arts of advertising and commercializing.

Jodie: 14:38

Okay. So there are, there is an over proliferation of Phd students for academic jobs.

Cris Shore: 14:45


Jodie: 14:45

So, if not academia, then what's NOT the dark arts that you can go into as an anthropologist?

Cris Shore: 14:52

Oh, but I mean, look, it's always been the case that most disciplines, anthropology included produce... if I can use a horrible metaphor, this is not a factory conveyor belt, you know, with people wheeling off... produce more phds than can reasonably be expected to be absorbed back into the academy. And that's not a bad thing because it's not simply about reproducing academics for the academy and it shouldn't be. In fact, I mean, anthropology is a way of thinking, a way of seeing. It really does shape your, your disposition, how you perceive the world. It changes people's lives. It certainly changed mine. You never see the world again in the same way. You get sensitive to the, in a sense just the, the, the conditionality and the and the fluidity of your own culture and the...the arbitrariness of your own culture becomes blatantly apparent to you in the social constructiveness of so many things. So I think that the anthropology producing lots of PhD students who are not going to go into universities or colleges or teaching is a great thing because actually, the world needs more anthropologists. We need them in, in diplomacy. We need them in government, we need them in planning departments. Anything, any area where people interface with other people. Then the anthropological skill set is brilliantly useful. We struggle under this, of this, sort of, really rather naive and false argument that somehow employability lies not in the arts and the humanities or the social sciences, but in getting a serious, a skill, like marketing or business or computers or law, um. Technology I think will, will rapidly make many of those jobs redundant. Certainly in areas like accounting, they, these machines will be doing that far more efficiently than, than people. It is probably the case that a good liberal arts degree is going to stand you in much greater stead and much more possibilities of being employed than, than just training in some sort of area.

17:07 Plus you get the value of doing something that you're really interested in studying. You're studying art, culture, literature, social science. I think these areas are much more exciting and interesting and relevant and it probably creates more flexible, fluid, adaptable individuals. I mean the trick, surely it's got the be to not, not to go, why go to university just to be trained in a particular knowledge which is going to be redundant in, in five years time because the things that you learnt, you know, you learnt this software package. Far better to learn how to learn, to be articulate, to be literate, to know how to synthesize material and to recognize false news from, from, you know, fact from fiction and and fabrication.

Jodie: 18:11

I want to talk about practice for a bit and particularly because the kind of anthropology that you do and also that I do is not necessarily the traditional, Malinowskian kind of anthropology. Right? And in your book the Anthropology of Policy, you talk about that as a, not so much studying down or studying up or even studying sideways, which I think is an Ulf Hannerz phrase. Right? But you're talking about studying through and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that.

Cris Shore: 18:42

For me, one of one of the most inspiring anthropologists who I think certainly shaped, my kind of a sense of what the discipline has to offer, was Laura Nader, who back in the in the early 1970s, I think it was 1973? It was an an an edited book by Dell Himes and she wrote an essay called Up the Anthropologist and it was an... She coined the phrase 'studying up' and she spoke about how, you know, this was a time of the, the height of the Vietnam War. And she spoke about how, you know, we should, students should be rightfully indignant and indignation and anger should be a good motive for deciding what you want to look at. And rather than always studying, you know, poor, peripheral peasants, pastoralists and fishermen, the unit... 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 on the - she coined the phrase 'the hidden hierarchies of power'. And she actually specifically mentioned the banks, the insurance companies, the policy elites, the people who, who the makers and shakers. And that always kind of excited me and I think most of my anthropology, uh, this has always been actually on, on complex industrial, western type societies and organizations. That's been kind of my, my bailiwick of interest.

So studying through just came about as a sort of thinking about, well we're not simply studying up because obviously you want to, you want to connect what is happening upstream and, and w with what takes place downstream. If I can switch from a, you know, kind of spatial metaphor to a sort of on behalf of my undergraduate degree was geography and I spent a lot of time standing in streams looking at the thing. But you can use that metaphor so that you know, the things that are happening upstream, obviously you're gonna affect. If you pollute the river right from the source, then it's all the gunk is going to wash out in the delta and the and the people living the banks down below are going to be affected. But, but then also it's not a one way flow either. So we were trying to problematize the notion of policy and trying to get away from the way that policy studies always treats it as a thing. To try and get them to rethink that and to treat it as a process and to, and to deconstruct it because there isn't such a coherent thing called 'a policy'. It's a messy set of processes and it involves tracking backwards and forth and the phrase 'studying through', actually that was one of Sue Wright's MA students who did a thesis on, on a, on a bill that how this piece of legislation was batted forwards. It's a bit like a sort of a piece of flotsam on the sea being buffeted forward and backwards. And she sort of came up with the idea that you, you have to follow,

I mean, part of the message for doing an anthropology of policy is like follow the policy, but then if the policy isn't linear and it starts with an idea that then trans mutates and gets translated into something else, that then gets pushed back there. And uh, you know, it's this messy, complicated tacking forward and backward process. So that was the, the kind of the source of that idea and then Sue [Wright] and Sue Reinhold tried to refine the idea. If you're thinking of the anthropology of policy it's not just a methodology but it's a method, then that's one way of thinking about how policy, how policies work as an anthropologist of policy. How do you follow a policy? I mean the idea of a 'follow that' approach and you know, that comes right out of the 1995 article by George Marcus, uh, on multisited ethnography and I think he came up with sort of, you know, his idea is uh, you know, nowadays we can't just make sense of the world by being located in the village or whatever it is, or the small community and that we should really locate ourselves in multiple sites. But also he, he advocated a 'follow that' approach, 'follow that metaphor', 'follow that conflict', 'follow that, whatever'.

So we kind of thought, well, okay, yeah. And 'follow that policy'. So how do you follow that policy? Well, you start by taking the policymakers at their own word and you say, well, what do they...? You mentioned Malinowski - Actually, Malinowski's still incredibly valid today. One of Malinowski's great lessons to us all is to treat seriously what people say about what they do, what they think they do, and what they actually do, and look at the discrepancies between those three levels. And so one of the things you say, well, so let's start with what are the policy maker's thinking? Or they if they say, this is our policy and this is how we're going to do it on, we're going to turn this into a piece of legislation and we're going to... Then once it's turned into a piece of legislation, then we're going to create agencies or institutions to enact them, we'll create street level bureaucrats to carry it out and we have mechanisms that fund, punish, reward or incentivize and so on.

And then of course down at the bottom end of the stream, you've got the, the objects or usually the subjects of the policy and how are they going to respond to them. So, so follow that is really looking at the different sites, the institutions, the ideas and the individuals and how they all get connected into this, this sort of framework. It's like policy enunciates and creates, it doesn't simply describe. So when somebody says, well, we're going to have a new policy on... take the United Kingdom, they've just introduced a new policy on higher education and it's, now it's basically a formula for opening up public universities to private providers. So it made it much more easier and it's trying to incentivize competition. It's created this thing called the office for students whose mandate is to ensure that universities provide value for money and to, and to go out of their way to marketize what they're doing. Um, yeah. So follow that and see how those ideas get translated into practice, how they get contested, uh, how they get subverted, which hopefully they will.

Jodie: 25:07

So how do you decide where to start? You said you generally start with the policy makers. No?

Cris Shore: 25:11

No, no, I actually, I don't mean in terms of, that's the question that often gets asked, you know, if you're trying to do a follow a policy and an anthropology policy, where do you begin? And I think the answer is you can locate yourself anywhere you find your entry point, your critical entry point, and that's where you begin and it doesn't really matter where it is. So you could start... Let's say I'm going to start by seeing what's actually happening down amongst the weeds in, in faculty land. I'm going to go look at what this is doing to the subjectivities and the morale of staff. I'm going to study this new policy on... 'We're an institution that won't tolerate bullying or harassment. We've got an anti bullying policy'. Well, where do you begin? You can begin with the script, but that's not going to get you very far is it, a declarative statement about 'we do not tolerate homophobia, bullying, harassment, sexism', all that stuff. And most universities now sign up to that. So you think, okay, well maybe if we start at the other end, let's start with people on the ground. Well, what do they say about the policy and what's their experience of it? Are they, do they feel that they're being bullied and they might actually say, well, yeah, it's not, but I don't feel bullied by colleagues or my head of department. I feel coerced and bullied by the, by the institution telling me that I have to produce all this research and teach excellent, uh, courses and administer this and I don't have any spare time to be a human being because I can't get the life work balance.

Jodie: 26:40

Okay. Can I ask you about faculty land? So this is a phrase that I saw in the book. Is it from previous to that though?

Cris Shore: 26:48

No, this was coined by a friend and a colleague of mine, Nick Lewis, who, his story begins like this, that we increasingly have the separation of functions in our university. And I think this is happening elsewhere. Most of the Australian universities in United States universities where previously you would have had sort of a kind of integration of professional or what used to be called a support staff. Administrative staff would be embedded in departments with the academics. And so there was a kind of easy, a cross pollination and sharing of knowledge, you know, that most departments and universities used to be organized into departments. They would do their own teaching, but you'd have an administrator, a secretary, uh, maybe a couple of secretaries and different gradations. They can cut costs and, and, and economize by basically cutting out all the administrative staff from the, from the faculties, relocating them in centers like the, you know, the, the ethos is a bit like the call center and my own university. They did this and it was all predicated on, on a calculation that they would save $4.11 per transaction. It was calculated in a dollar and dime or you know, um, but this is how public institutions are being run these days by really by accountants who were basically, you know, they look, the bottom line is usually the justification. They said, 'oh budgets are tight. We have to make savings. You know, we're a public institution, therefore we're responsible to the tax payer. The government is year on year and their funding us, we have to make cost savings'. And this is a way to do it, so you embark on major overhauls and restructuring.

And so the phrase faculty land, so one of my colleagues is, he's under enormous pressure to submit his research grant application. Gone are the days where you could just, you know, write it, you know, you spend all your time doing it and then hand it to the departmental administrator or secretary who would then do the paperwork. No, because there are no more departmental secretaries or administrators. So he literally physically has to carry it up the street, you know, 500 meters away is a separate building and that's where the research offices with all the professional administrators who run the research function, so they're physically, geographically and conceptually removed from the rest of the faculty. And while he's waiting there, having, you know, submitted his thing and waiting to get the stamp, he overhears this conversation and three people going on a gossiping about a... and the phrase he hears this phrase, he says, yeah, he came back and that, you know, that evening as we were sitting over a cup of coffee, he said, you will not believe it. I just overheard a conversation with two administrators referring to how eccentric they are in faculty land. And I think for him, and this is really, I think we included it in the chapter we had in the book because it just summed it up, the kind of the the, the, the way in which the reforms have created such an absurd 'them and us' dualism where administrators whose look, let's be honest about it in a university, why do students come to university? It's to be taught in it and to get their qualifications, the people who do, who deliver the, um, the things that the university has to offer are the teaching staff and sure, and there are support staff around that. But we've now created this sort of system where the, the kind of the teaching lecturing staff have to report to the senior administrators. And I think that the phrase 'faculty land' sort of summed up the mixture of sort of disdain and contempt and distance that the senior administrators, were having to experience from their academics. We are just sort of eccentrics in a different world...

Jodie: 30:51

La La Land, right?

Cris Shore: 30:52

That's right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It has that kind of sense.

Jodie: 30:56

I mean, you, you work in this 'faculty land', right? And I mean - if we're going to call it that - but you also do research about academics and I wonder if you're familiar with the interview between Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, after Homoacademicus was published, where Bourdieu talks about how he lost some of his best friends by publishing Homoacademicus and how people, uh, in the academy really just reviled him for shining a light on academic practices and things like that. So as an academic of academics in some ways, how do you, how do you study your own people and how do you not lose all your best friends doing it?

Cris Shore: 31:40

Yeah. No, I thought, well that's an interesting question, but I mean he has a as a passport- holding citizen of faculty land, I mean, I think most of my friends and colleagues are warmly appreciative of kind of my efforts to hold a, uh, a light up to what's going on. On the whole, a lot of people, in faculty land feel a little bit intimidated. They feel a little bit scared about criticizing their, their own employer and rightly so because you know, technically that, the reforms that took place in New Zealand, I don't know about Australia, but they changed the status of vice chancellors to literally a CEO. So all vice chancellors now, all universities have chief executive officers. They are literally termed 'the employer'.

Jodie: 32:36

And are paid accordingly. Right?

Cris Shore: 32:38

Well, yeah, we'll leave aside the fact that yeah, they, they are very high remuneration, boardroom-like, eye-watering salaries, but they are, they are the employer and the people to whom, you know, you have two accounts. So I think if you're a junior lecturer or are, you're somebody who is seeking promotion, you don't want to make so much noise. I mean, I may have lost a few friends from, from the administration, and the focus of my criticism, although I, I, I'd like to think that the, uh, the people who are, who appear, in my analysis, that some of them actually bothered to read what I'm saying. It's quite hard and challenging and difficult to, to write critically about your own institution and the, you, you tread a very delicate path and I'm very conscious of the situation I'm in and I'm quite wary about what I write and how I write. I try to make sure that I'm not saying things and writing things that will really land me in deep trouble. Um, I'm sort of following a kind of Clifford Geertzian type idea that I'm going to focus on public culture, sort of thing, so that if I am going to report on things, they will be things that are out there in the public domain. And I'm not breaching any confidentiality clause.

When I first started to do this, I apparently, I tied up the ethics committee for an entire day, uh, just around my, my research application. And it's partly because one of the forms it says, will you use consent forms? And I said 'No'. To his credit, the, the research ethics committee chair and vice chair came and talked to me and they said, 'Well we want to understand here. We're not gonna dismiss it outright. We want to take your application seriously, but why are you not going to issue consent forms?' I explained to them, I said, 'well, you know, anthropologists, we don't usually do that, you know, we were observing, participating and observing'. And I said, 'so if I'm in a meeting, a meeting, a general meeting has been called and it's a budget meeting and the vice chancellor is explaining to the university or to Senate or something, what's going on, it's a public meeting. 400 people there. Am I supposed to hand out consent forms and the participant information sheet and get their permission'? And in a bureaucratic culture that you know, most, most times, you know, if somebody puts a sheet of paper saying, can you sign this in front of you? They back off and say, 'well, not without my lawyer present!'

So no, I haven't lost friends doing this. I, I do sometimes feel I'm, I'm sticking my neck out. But then on the other hand, if somebody said to me, you know, well, if, if the professoriate can't do it and don't do it, then who the hell can and will?

Jodie: 35:22

What advice would you have for other anthropologists studying people who are also researchers, who know what the process is, who are likely to theorize along with you, um, and also are very conscious of the potential consequences of research?

Cris Shore: 35:42

Studying people who are researchers is good. And that the, the, the researchers themselves, yeah, they do research, but often, people are not that reflective about what they do and the process of, say, you studying these researchers, often, you're actually quite welcome and invited by those people because it provides them with a platform and a space to reflect on what they're doing. And they love it when, you know, they love the fact that you're interested in their world. So I've always found that when I do research on, on on officials and people who work in organizations who, who often feel neglected and ignored and they feel that they're, their own work and their own, sort of, contribution is undervalued. So having a, a researcher who's genuinely interested in their worlds and how they make sense of them, it's, it's a mutually beneficial kind of arrangement and it's often treated as quite therapeutic and cathartic for the people who you're asking questions of, and they say, 'Oh, at last, I've got an interested person who, who really wants to know about my world and this is what it's like.'

Um, secondly, you know, what advice? Well, yeah, do it! I mean, you know, we're academics and not journalists. This, this isn't about, you know, finding dirt and it's more longterm. And the fact that, you know, you're investing in this if you're an ethnographer doing work on research, is that it's much more important to try and really understand how these organizations and institutions operate, particularly as they're going through such major transformations. And surprisingly, not that many people are doing it. And thirdly, I think it would increase your employability because you, you master, not only do you master sort of certain skillsets of how you do this kind of research, but you, you gain really good knowledge on, on a sector, on an area. So, I mean, if you're studying higher education as an ethnography, it would set you up ideally to be, um, you know, a really good head, the department administrator, research support liaison person, communications person because you know, you know, the institution, you know where the bodies are buried and you know how, how, how to navigate through this often of category risk, a labyrinthine edifice.

Jodie: 38:04

What an excellent image to end with. I love that. Thank you so much for that. That was a fantastic interview.

Cris Shore: 38:09

Thank you!

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

  1. Pingback: The neoliberal university is making us sick: Who’s to blame? | The Familiar Strange

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