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Marilyn Strathern, currently William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and Mistress of Girton College, is the author of various books and articles among which is "Audit Cultures" which she edited and to which she also contributed, (an anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy, published by Routledge, 2000). She received Janet Low and Pierre-Gilles Guéguen for LNA in her large and beautiful office in Girton College.
MS: I belong to a species of British Social Anthropologists. I grew up, intellectually speaking, at the time when Cambridge was really one of the centres of the flourishing of what became British Anthropology, and my interest was very much formed under that regime. I went to a very classical place to do field-work, which has always stood me in good stead. This was in Papua New Guinea.
New Guinea turned out to be an extremely interesting place. I first went there in 1964, before feminist anthropology even began. Thinking about the way these people organise themselves and their world posed problems for the way we [Euro-Americans] did things. For example the fact that relations have to be materialised in order to have substance - they're not given feelings but given objects: exchangeand transactions as material counterparts to relations are incredibly important. And there are a number of ways that they confound some our own fundamental assumptions: they don't have ideas of nature and culture, for instance. I found that material extremely provocative to work through whilst thinking about some of our foundational assumptions. They stood me in good stead intellectually. I guess my first loyalty is to them.
There was time spent in New Guinea at the university; I was married at that point and my husband held one of the first chairs in anthropology in Papua New Guinea. Then coming back to this country in the mid 1970s, where I was lodged at Girton briefly, I found myself becoming occupied with a study of a local village [in Essex]. I should explain, this was when the family was very young; I didn't have a departmental position, and down the road lived a famous anthropologist who had spent a lot of time in this particular village, and had a lot of material that she and her students had collected. I became quite interested in aspects of English society at that point, and relied quite heavily on the work of David Schneider, from the States, to think about English Society in a rather different way perhaps from the orthodoxy as laid down by Raymond Firth and other people.
And that really was a warm up to what was to happen in the 1980s when what became the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act went through parliament in 1990. In 1984 Mary Warnock (who was in fact Mistress at Girton, my predecessor here in this college), began getting a discussion off the ground about the ethics of the new reproductive technologies. This really keyed me into a whole other arena. Suddenly I was among English folk who were talking about kinship, and they were questioning the basis of parenthood, they were questioning what was nature, what was culture; they were questioning issues to do with socialisation, questioning genetic parenthood, and worrying about ethics. This was quite a remarkable anthropological moment.
I remember very clearly I was at the University of Manchester, it was my first university job, I was chair and head of department at Manchester, on the 5th floor of the Roscoe Building, a huge modern building with panoramic windows, and I remember being involved in a discussion with somebody - who later became a colleague - from the King's Fund who said: what would be the anthropological view on gamete donation between sisters? The point being that sharing reproductive material between kinsfolk quite clearly has some advantages but also raises all kinds of issues as to the kind of obligation, the kind of pressure that a sister might feel under if she felt that she had to donate.
That really started me off on what became a research project. And you won't believe this, but out of my interest in reproductive technologies came an interest in intellectual property. This might sound as if there is no connection, but there was a famous court case in the States. One of the arguments in relation to a dispute over a child born to a surrogate mother was the pleading on behalf of the parents who had commissioned the birth. Those who had conceived of the child mentally were as much parents of the child as those who had conceived of the child physically. The allusion was to intellectual property, the authorship of ideas. That sent me off in two directions. One was this fascinating conflation between two meanings of conception, which I think are quite foundational to our views about kinship and the way we deal with things, and on the other hand it actually opened my eyes to intellectual property and that then became a subsidiary research interest.
Now, you have to realise, I went to Manchester as head of department, and then came to Cambridge in 1993 initially as head of department. I was slowly turning into an administrator! I was at Manchester at the time when the first major cuts were biting the university system: 1985. Out of that came the government's resolve to find some way of differentially financing universities, given the fact that finance isn't unlimited.
Quite clearly there needs to be a mechanism for distributing finance, and the first Research Assessment Exercise got off the ground in 1986 when I'd just arrived at Manchester. It went with Teaching Quality Assessment and the third one: administrative audit (although that developed more slowly) in which the organisation itself was scrutinised as to the way in which it carried out its own aims and objectives. But it was over the RAE that I felt that all this was in some ways so antithetical to the ways in which we thought about the pursuit of learning and knowledge. As head of department I had to administer it. So I split myself! I thought the simplest thing was to split myself into two. One part was Head of Department, administering this and subsequent issues, and on the other side was somebody who said 'in order to make this even tolerable or palatable I must turn it into a research project'. It was a personal solution to an existential moment.
PGG: In the Lacanian psychoanalysis we call this the divided subject.
MS: Absolutely, yes, indeed. Divided persona - it was a public act. That's where my interest in audit began. For an anthropologist of course, it's part of a general interest in institutions, organisations. I would put the whole auditing package under the rubric of self-description. It's rather like the project that infants do now in our infants' schools. From very early years little children have to learn how to describe themselves and to describe their progress. And in each of three departments, research, teaching or the organisation itself, basically they were asking subjects to re-present themselves and describe themselves in certain ways. And of course only certain ways are acceptable. In the RAE, you couldn't for example turn in a hand written self-assessment. It had to be machine written. There are technical constraints as well. And that of course is very interesting for anthropologists, because anthropologists are interested in how people perceive themselves and present themselves. And anthropologists are also doing acts of description.
LNA: -In the last pages of your book on Audit culture there are substantial developments of your thoughts about reflexivity.
MS: yes. There's an independent scholarly interest, particularly in watching organisations describe themselves.
LNA: Michael Power's work is also in the field.
MS: He was one of the first Girtonians - one of the very first men Girtonians! Well it was his book of course that really started me off. My title is an imitation of his. I took off from what he was doing.
LNA: Can we start asking you how you have evolved, having split yourself in two with this injunction from the government, have you now moved to another position? How would you see the university 10 years on?
MS: You know advertising and other companies that want social science research because they want to gobble up and consume what the social scientists have to say in order to transform it into better management and better advertising.
JL: when I first heard of you I was an ethnographer of computer systems designers - they called it quick and dirty ethnography.
MS: absolutely, yes… What happened was that the government came in as a regulatory body at the outset and was aware of the criticism it generated. In a way it was constantly absorbing that criticism in order to refine management practices. So the main evolutionary pattern has been from external regulation to internal regulation. The universities were at the end of the line of what was already happening in health, legal systems, police, and all the rest of it. So the government said 'we'll be hands off if you do it yourself'. So in effect audit went from being visible as an external entity then became embedded in the institution. I'm chair of our Faculty Board at the moment and we're undergoing a review from the central university. Internally the university replicated what was happening externally.
I have to qualify that because each of the three things happened differently, and what I'm now referring to is the administrative audit. The government has not wanted to appear to be a further governing body in relation to universities. What is required is that universities demonstrate to themselves that they are following up their own procedures, and of course it looks so simple, all you are asking is: please, just please clarify how you work.
The teaching assessment has sort of fallen - well, the first exercise proved so expensive in terms of manpower and input, that it then evolved into a much more simple operation. The Research Assessment is really the driver for the distribution of funds and remains external and as powerful as ever. So in this evolution I'm referring to the evolution of governance.
When I came to Cambridge in 1993 there was a report done by what was then the funding agency of the universities, and the report said, 'well, you know, by and large, Cambridge is doing all right (of course it's top of the research tables!) but we don't see how it works'. Now instead of asking, 'what is the relationship between not knowing how you work and your obvious achievements?' (which is an interesting ethnographic question), everybody went around saying 'we don't know how we work! We'd better lay it all out', and then of course you start making explicit your mechanisms and you always produce a less than complete description which needs more and more elaboration. And you produce a description on paper, which is partial to say the least, and then you press people to act according to the description that you've produced.
LNA: this is your work on the tyranny of transparency. Do you see it strongly anchored now in Cambridge?
MS: Cambridge is a very interesting place. It's many epochs at the same time. It's monastic cloisters, it's 18th century coffee shops, 19th century lobbies, it's 20th century organisation, it's 21st century computer systems. Because it's a complex place there are still one or two niches and roads and pathways that are not susceptible to description, and for as long as it remains complex enough, no description can encompass it and it therefore has a chance of life.
In fact I remember coming from Manchester to Cambridge, I sort of wailed! I didn't know my route to the VC! In Manchester it was very clear if one needed the route, but in Cambridge it was totally obscure. So if you add to that the sheer scale of its research activities and scholastic enterprise - too many people just interested in what they're doing, or interested in particular networks - all over the university there are networks of scholars and people acting in unexpected ways, and there is life there as well. But, on the other side Cambridge has completely swallowed the rhetoric of transparency. For example, just this last term I said our Faculty was undergoing a review and this is a review of teaching and learning and we have to set out what our protocols are for examinations. We have to set out our procedures for complaints. We have to set out the way we monitor. We then have to do things such as - how do you demonstrate that there has been progress across the year; how do you demonstrate that your techniques are effective.
LNA: is there a strategy of resistance to that rhetoric?
MS: there's no strategy for resistance either on behalf of the university or on behalf of the subordinate units. The reasons are the same. Cambridge is in a very vulnerable position because the British don't like elites. It's all tied up with our problems with class. Oxford and Cambridge are tarred with the brush of being elitist. The one thing we cannot do is appear not to go along with anyone else. It is politically impossible to resist publicly because we are constantly being told that we are privileged, elitist.
LNA: Your departments are going to be judged on a new set of norms that don't recognise the prestige and the intellectual capabilities of Cambridge professors. This is what happens to psychoanalysis in France - we are to be judged by people in CBT who know nothing about psychoanalysis.
LNA: we are caught in a double bind that seems to prevent people from speaking the truth about the differences.
MS: yes, absolutely, and in this country the double bind is particularly tight because the new norms (they aren't actually new, they are old norms dressed up) come from the business sector. They come from commerce. And the imagination of commerce has the capacity to render everybody speechless because you can't argue against money. Now money isn't the issue, but what is the issue is the way corporate bodies run themselves; with their trusts and with their external referees, and with their practices of accountability they introduce a very different language into educational institutions. But what creates homogeneity is drawing on what has become universal good practice.
LNA: like evidence-based medicine. As a matter of fact this is a sort of a de-vitalising process. To us, we say that the symptom is where life is; where there is dysfunction there is life. The little pockets of life are found in exactly what is obscure. It's not that we advocate obscurity.
MS: I would advocate obscurity. Because what is borrowed from finance - visibility and clarity - when that then becomes translated into demand for clarity of the operation of the institution, I think that we are on very dangerous grounds. The mantra of clarity is a problem, the language is hi-jacked, you can't actually say you are not for clarity, but my interest is in the way that research, and teaching and learning progress, and it is a very complicated process. It involves internalisation, it involves struggling with problems, it involves perhaps not understanding at the beginning. Because actually the whole point is that you don't understand, you are in doubt, you are uncertain, and it is in fact by working through your uncertainties that is the learning process. The teacher who actually leaves the class puzzled may be doing as much as the one who leaves them with a clear agenda. But the problem comes when the class must assess the teacher and you might find that students say that it wasn't clear. In fact I think it is insidious.
MS Now, tell me about psychoanalysis, what is happening, what has brought you here?
LNA: psychoanalysis has spread throughout the universities from the 50s, and many departments of psychology (who have since turned into clinical psychology) use Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan founded a department of psychoanalysis in the University of Paris VIII. But, what was called behavioural psychology - experimental psychology, which has been out of fashion for the last 30 or 40 years - is now coming back strongly under the heading of cognitive therapy and of course it is pushing for evaluation.
Since they did not have many students for many years, they devoted their time to insinuating themselves into the mechanisms of the organisation of universities, and now they come strongly as experts for management and government. They are openly against psychoanalysis and clinical psychology.
MS: that is very similar to what is happening to anthropology. Social Anthropology is split into regional centres … but certainly the notion of there being a core discipline is under threat.
LNA: there is a passage in your book about the invention of customers and its relation to this massive reframing of university. Do you foresee any way out?
MS: I'm not quite sure what to say. Being aware, and observant, and critical is one thing, but suggesting solutions is another. I can certainly see in pedagogy how one can formulate other models of learning that people obviously recognise, because it resonates with people's experience. But when it comes to thinking about whole institutions or disciplines or academia, I am no more equipped than anyone to say.
Though I do have one little devil up my sleeve. That is, I would like to see the question of failure tackled: failure of organisations, failure of institutions, failure of aims and objectives. It comes out of a belief that research requires as much throwing away as keeping. One of the initial problems of the Research Assessment Exercise is that it encouraged everybody to publish everything, whereas actually 75% needs to be thrown out. Recognising failure in research is a scholarly activity, but I'm talking about something more strategic. One of the problems of modern institutions is that they morph, so there never is a failure - something else always comes in its place. I'm thinking of the genetic knowledge parks that were set up by the government, the DTI and the Department of Health; their funding all terminated but the actual institutions have somehow become other institutions. But if one somehow infected the academic world with an injection of failure, not in measuring how one succeeds, but in acknowledging failure as an ethical act, and getting people to recognise that failure is integral to the process…
When I was getting my book together … some people recognised immediately what I was talking about (New Zealand, Greece). I went to Brazil, and I thought I'd give them something really arcane - audit - but they all knew what I was talking about too. France however, has been blessedly free.
LNA: up to now. It began four years ago and now it is widespread all over the university. It has got to the point where our Prime Minister announced three weeks ago that our Ministers will be audited. There is a link between ethics and audit practice which is supposed to be done for the good.
MS: Yes, that is one of the problems with this kind of critique - I call it the critique of good practice: of course we subscribe to accountability and responsibility, and of course in relation to our students we monitor and evaluate, and examinations are a form of audit. It was the development of written examinations in the 18th century that started off commercial accountability that now comes back into the universities like this. Hoskin, an accountant, has traced this connection back to the development in the late 18th century of written examinations instead of verbal examinations, where you had something you could score. For the first time numerical scores were being put against individual performance. It wasn't just anywhere - it was Paris, it was Heidelberg, and it was Cambridge.
In Cambridge, one of the reasons it got off the ground was that colleges were very competitive, they wanted to see which of their students did best. This apparently is the basis of what then became the beginning of contemporary commercial accounting systems. Not just measuring the numbers of barrels of beer, but also measuring the production of beer against the performance of people and what they are costing. This is management accounting - not just two columns in the book. And then in the late 20th century it comes back into university!
LNA: what are you researching now?
MS: I remain interested in audit, although it was never research but was writing on the side. There is another mantra that has been on the agenda of research councils etc, that's interdisciplinarity, the impetus to make everything interdisciplinary and kill off disciplines. It also needs to be addressed in a particular way.
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