Disciplinary Adaptation and Undergraduate Desire: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

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Like most disciplinary scholars, anthropologists have been reluctant to reorganize their undergraduate programs to speak directly to student concerns.  Yet, students are oriented, both intellectually and proto-professionally, to issues like global development, about which anthropologists have much to teach.  This paper examines student assumptions about development and about the interdisciplinary knowledge they think they need to understand it.  I outline a critical pedagogy to respond to student ideas about development.  I then sketch the cultural assumptions and bureaucratic structures that work to marginalize interdisciplinary programs.  I conclude by suggesting ways anthropologists could adapt their undergraduate programs to “colonize” new curricular territories frequently defined in interdisciplinary terms.  Key words:  interdisciplinarity, development, globalization, liberal arts curriculum. 

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several articles on education including Tom Looser’s “The Global University, Area Studies, and the World Citizen: Neoliberal Geography’s Redistribution of the "World",” Eitan Wilf’s “Sincerity versus Self-Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms,” and Sonia E. Alvarez, Arturo Arias, and Charles R. Hale’s, “Revisioning Latin American Studies.”  

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on global development including Ami Samsky’s “Scientific Sovereignty: How International Drug Donation Programs Reshape Health, Disease, and the State,” Erica Caple James’s “Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of US(AID) in Haiti,” and Victoria Bernal’s “Colonial Moral Economy and the Discipline of Development: The Gezira Scheme and “Modern” Sudan,”  

About the Author

Richard Handler is a cultural anthropologist who studies modern western societies. His initial fieldwork was in Quebec (1976-1984) where he studied the Québécois nationalist movement. This led to an enduring interest in nationalism, ethnicity, and the politics of culture. Upon coming to Virginia in 1986, he pursued the latter topic by looking at history museums. Beginning in 1990, he worked with Eric Gable (Ph.D. Virginia 1990) and Anna Lawson (Ph.D. Virginia 1995) on an ethnographic study of Colonial Williamsburg, which is both an outdoor museum and a mid-sized nonprofit corporation. In addition to examining the invention of history and tradition, the study focuses on corporate culture, class, race and gender.

He also holds a different interest in the intersection of anthropology and literature. He has written on Jane Austen's novels, on the literary bent of such noted anthropologists as Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir, and on the difficulties of writing the ethnography of nationalist movements.

Finally, Handler has had an ongoing interest in the history of American anthropology – in particular, in anthropologists as critics of modernity, and the relationship of the discipline's critical discourse to other intellectual trends. Most recently he has been writing about the American sociologist Erving Goffman.

Between 2000 and 2010, Handler served as dean of the undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. From 2009 on, he has been Director of the Program in Global Development Studies, an interdisciplinary social science major in the College.  

Selected Publications  

2009 – “Erving Goffman and the Gestural Dynamics of Modern Selfhood.” Past and Present, supplement, 280-300.

2006 - (edited) Central Sites, Peripheral Visions: Cultural and Institutional Crossings in the History of Anthropology (History of Anthropology, vol. 11). University of Wisconsin Press.

2005 - Critics Against Culture: Anthropological Observers of Mass Society. University of Wisconsin Press.

2004 - (edited) Significant Others: Interpersonal and Professional Commitments in Anthropology (History of Anthropology, vol. 10). University of Wisconsin Press.

2000 - (edited) Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology (History of Anthropology, vol. 9). University of Wisconsin Press.

1997 - (with Eric Gable). The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg. Duke University Press.

1995 - Schneider on Schneider: The Conversion of the Jews and Other Anthropological Stories. Interviews with David M. Schneider, transcribed, edited and with an introduction by Richard Handler. Duke University Press.

1990 - (with Daniel Segal). The Fiction of Culture: Jane Austen and the Narration of Social Realities. University of Arizona Press.

1988 - Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec. University of Wisconsin Press.

Interview with Richard Handler

Lindsay Poirier: In your essay, you describe how “doing good” and “giving back” seem to represent the universal ethical principles and moral impulses that motivate students to work in development.  At the same time, students repel the notion of “imposing” on culture.  Are these principles and impulses characteristic of the current generation of undergraduates?  In your opinion, how did these inclinations come to inhabit such a prominent space in the minds of undergraduate students?   

RH: The idea that the public good should come from service that is generated by individuals instead of government is specific to the neoliberal moment.  The idea that American-style philanthropy (“doing good” and “giving back”) is underpinned by a universal morality is a more general feature of modern, socio-evolutionary ideology, which has been a dominant strain in American culture (but not only in American culture) since the mid-19th century.   

LP: In your essay you mention that the Global Development Studies program has become a “soft discipline," which draws in more female than male students.  What other sorts of demographic trends characterize this discipline?  Have you noticed variances in understanding or opinion amongst particular demographics?    

RH: Well, impressionistically, GDS students, who are 80 percent female, can be ranged on a crude left-to-right axis.  Of course, the “right” of this axis is probably closer to the American “center.”  Truly right-wing students are not attracted to this major.  But furthest left among my students are those who want to work as labor or neighborhood organizers, on the front lines, as it were, of progressive political action “at home.”  On the other end of the spectrum are students who want to work within business to bring about change, either through “corporate social responsibility” or “social entrepreneurship.”  In the middle are the students who want to work for NGOs, or in the Peace Corps or Teach for America.  I don’t think this left-to-right axis can be easily correlated with familial wealth.  Most of these students are upper-middle-class or better—typical, I suppose, of any elite American research university.    

LP: Your essay outlines an undergraduate’s typical initial understanding of development.  Is there value to addressing how pre-college education approaches the notion of development?  What could be improved in K-12 education to better prepare students for understanding global development?   

RH: The issue, treated by Daniel Segal in “’Western Civ’ and the Staging of History in American Higher Education” (American Historical Review 105:770-805, 2000), is that the socio-evolutionary narrative of history is built into not just the content but the structure of the American curriculum at all levels.  So K-12 education may aspire to multicultural inclusion, but it does so without having critical awareness of the fact that Western notions of “world history” always presume a time-line in which non-whites are “behind” the modern West. 

LP: Your essay makes several references to the undergraduate perception that an interdisciplinary education is key to becoming desirable in the job market.  Could you describe some of your own perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks to offering an interdisciplinary education to undergraduate students – both in terms of skill development and wisdom development – as opposed to a focused disciplinary education?  In your opinion, how might the global development industry change as universities produce more students with interdisciplinary backgrounds?   

RH: I tried to argue that the very idea of “a” discipline has been hopelessly confused with the idea of an institutionalized organizational unit, which we usually call, at the local level, a “department.”  Disciplines are in fact inter-disciplinary.  To create a successful program at the undergraduate level outside a discipline means that you need to find a coherent intellectual focus around which to structure your curriculum.  Anthropology, which draws its theory from a wide array of sources, is in a good position to do this:  we understand the relationship of such varied authors as Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Du Bois to the contemporary work we do.  Our theoretical roots are deeply interdisciplinary.  We can create coherent interdisciplinary undergraduate majors for our students.  Now, selling this to employers is another matter altogether.  There we probably have to borrow the “skills” rhetoric that they want.  And of course it helps if our curricula can include some courses in methods, research, language training, and area studies—all of which can be presented to employers as “skills.”   

LP: Through observation of student views, critical analysis of the role of social-cultural anthropology in global development studies, and a reflection on the politics and culture of university structures, your paper is very clearly oriented towards improving undergraduate education.  Could you speak, more generally, on the value of analyzing these political and cultural structures in university settings, along with the value of conducting ethnography in one’s own academic department?  

RH: The university is one of the few domains in American society where critical thought can flourish.  But like most other major institutions, universities thrive on promotional discourses.  Universities are in the business of credentialing the upper-middle classes.  They derive much of their funding from people who have only a vague idea, and are highly suspicious of, “critical” thought.  University administrators and faculty can easily succumb to their own promotional discourses.  It becomes easy to use terms like “skills” and “global” as we protect our turf and justify our mission.   We lose the ability to reflect critically on our own discourses.  Yet, unthinking acceptance of commonsense discourse is the enemy (as it were) of critical thought.  And anthropologists are in a better position to know this than scholars in many other disciplines.  But the task of uncovering the hidden assumptions of university discourses and routines is not an easy one:  like all institutions, universities need to be able to mystify their own workings so that the natives we absorb will become good citizens, only minimally disruptive.  So it’s a real struggle, even for faculty who value “critical” thinking, to get students to think critically not merely about the books and subjects they are studying, but the structure of universities as institutions and curricula as cultural artifacts.   

LP: Would you advise undergraduate students studying global development to read this essay?  What do you think they could learn from it?  

RH: Actually, I use a short version of the essay in my own teaching.  It’s the first reading assignment in the first GDS core course.  I tell students to read it and to refer to it throughout the semester, and their final assignment of that semester is to write a paper discussing, first, whether I was correct about their worldview, and second, how their worldview may have changed as they proceeded through the course readings and discussions.  

Related Readings  

Ferguson, James              

2006  Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order.  Durham:  Duke University Press.   

Levi-Strauss, Claude              

1969  The Raw and the Cooked.  John and Doreen Weightman, trans.  New York:Harper and Row.   

Nidiffer, Jana and Jeffrey Bouman               

2004  “The University of the Poor:  The University of Michigan’s Transition from Admitting Impoverished Students to Studying Poverty, 1870-1910.  American Educational Research Journal 41:35-67.   

Rockefeller, Stuart              

2011  Flow.  Current Anthropology 52[4]:557-78.    

Segal, Daniel              

2000  “Western Civ” and the Staging of History in American Higher Education. American Historical Review 105:770-805.   

Segal, Daniel and Syliva Yanagisako, eds.               

2005  Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle:  Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Durham:  Duke University Press.   

Stocking, George              

2001  Delimiting Anthropology:  Occasional Inquiries and Reflections.  University of Wisconsin Press.   

Tocqueville, Alexis de              

1945 [1840]  Democracy in America, vol. 2.  Henry Reeve, trans.  New York:  Alfred Knopf.   

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph.               

1991  Anthropology and the Savage Slot:  The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.  In Recapturing Anthropology:  Working in the Present.  Richard Fox, ed.  Pp. 17-44. Santa Fe:  School of American Research Press.   

Urciuoli, Bonnie               

2003  Excellence, Leadership, Skills, Diversity:  Marketing Liberal Arts Education. Language and Communication 23:385-408.   

Veblen, Thorstein              

1965 [1918]  The Higher Learning in America:  A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men.  New York: Augustus Kelley. 

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