Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I first encountered George Stocking’s (1979) historical sketch of the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. This simple exhibit catalog—its unadorned graphics already appearing dated—illuminated aspects of the discipline never covered in my initial core courses, including the political economy of its reproduction. On one page, a small hand-drawn chart detailed the drastic reduction of funds available for graduate student support between 1967 and 1972. As an accompanying memo observed, however, the program continued to admit the same number of students per year, maintaining a steady population of about 120. It became clear to me in that moment that any golden age in anthropology had ended long ago, and that I was not of the generation to enjoy it. The little chart also confirmed that graduate study was far from a rational pursuit, at least in the sense of bureaucratic efficiency.

I confess I was not terribly surprised. During our initial meeting, my graduate advisor at the University of California, Berkeley had handed me a copy of Max Weber’s essays and told me to be sure to consult “Science as a Vocation.” Like many entering students I had severely modernist sensibilities; I wanted the latest findings, the newest theory, thought in the present tense. To such an impatient mind, classic texts promised little novelty or surprise. Nonetheless, I dutifully carried out the assignment, and I found Weber’s (2007, 129) depiction of what he calls the “external conditions” of science unexpectedly arresting. His comparison between the early-twentieth-century systems of Germany and the United States felt eerily timeless; the bureaucratized capitalist norms that equated the acquisition of knowledge with that of cabbage at a greengrocer had only expanded since 1917. By the end of the twentieth century vocation largely translated into getting a job, even as Weber’s (2007, 132) cautionary note that “I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role” offered little comfort. Moreover, Weber warned that to survive this pursuit one had to be both inured to failure and hardened to perceived injustice. Selection proved capricious and the “laws of human co-operation” (Weber 2007, 132) favored mediocrity. An academic life carried few guarantees, holding out only the promise of methods for thinking and potential clarity about given conditions. Reading this essay was, needless to say, a bleak beginning to graduate school.

These are again lean times in academia, and questions about employment and job security now trouble even the most ivoried of towers, lurking at the edges of conversations and animating an ever-expanding array of stratagems and charms. I applaud David Platzer and Anne Allison for opening a collective anxiety closet and asking us all to discuss what it contains. Their observations are cogent and their list of proposals sensible. Although one might qualify some details from the vantage point of a public institution, where the centrality of undergraduate education and the role of graduate students as laborers are generally subject to fewer illusions, on the whole they have given us sober advice. Surely those who inhabit universities should pay attention to the fault lines and shifting ground on which their institutions are built, with those in the social sciences being the first to recognize the tenuous conditions of their own possibility.

At the same time, I am struck by the sense of generational loss and betrayal indexed by academic conceptions of precarity. As Platzer and Allison note, that term has been used in multiple ways and they intend a narrower definition, focusing on unrealizable norms of professional evaluation. They likewise recognize that many of the issues they raise about academic reproduction extend far beyond anthropology, affecting not just newly anachronistic humanities fields but even many favored STEM specialties. If we are serious about an effort to “investigate the university, interrogate ourselves,” then surely this includes considering why we are so anxious now and in this particular way—as well as why things might not have changed before, despite many lean times past. Along with Weber, I suspect the work of Pierre Bourdieu might come in handy when accounting for the many currencies at stake in academics’ more peculiar practices and resolute attachment to habits.

As a first step, it might help to distinguish between the profession of anthropology and the discipline (see Rabinow 1991). After all, the idea that one might earn a steady living as a scholar is a relatively recent one, and after all the work of inquiry has rarely been confined to the university. To widen our historical scope with a few more canonical European names, recall Charles Darwin’s “career” as a gentleman scientist of means, or Friedrich Engels’s role as patron as well as radical thinker, embedded in the very factory system he sought to critique. Or Karl Marx, for that matter, dependent on that very patronage, even as he was periodically reduced to pawning his coat (Stallybrass 1998). From this broader perspective, working for Adobe Design hardly seems like a major deviation. Indeed, it sounds like a good job in the current economy: relatively sustainable and yet open to curiosity, the direct constraint of a profit motive weighing no more heavily than the indirect pressures on university life. But as the popularity of the term precarity implies, such good jobs—academic and nonacademic alike—grow scarce, even in wealthy countries where middle-class residents once experienced relative stability. This would help explain why applications to graduate programs continue to flow in, despite bleak professional prospects. As Platzer and Allison recognize, for all of its failings graduate school offers potential escape from less appealing forms of alienation.

After all, anthropology’s unruly ethos has rarely fit institutional norms. For many of its practitioners, that is precisely part of the attraction. The problems Platzer and Allison identify run deep, resisting simple solutions. As they suggest, efforts at amelioration will involve struggle and may entail playing a double game. Yet pragmatic demands of the day should never entirely eclipse aspirations for something beyond them, something more transformative and open-ended than the dream of security.


Rabinow, Paul. 1991. “For Hire: Resolutely Late Modern.” In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox, 59–71. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press.

Stallybrass, Peter. 1998. “Marx’s Coat.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, edited by Patricia Spyer, 183–207. New York: Routledge.

Stocking, George. 1979. Anthropology at Chicago: Tradition, Discipline, Department. Chicago: Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

Weber, Max. 2007. “Science as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 129­–56. New York: Routledge. Originally published in 1919.