From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum
One theme shared by many of the contributions to this forum is a call to attend more closely to statistics. Yet, as this proposal is made in the name of understanding our collective plight more clearly and perhaps even finding ways out of it, I find myself wondering why it is that cultural anthropologists are turning to statistical analysis as one of the privileged ways to understand and address the issue of academic precarity. I do not mean to write off this suggestion altogether. But I do want to examine the conditions of possibility for this dissonance between a turn to quantification in understanding the labor market that we face and an otherwise deep suspicion of quantification in much of our scholarship.
How, even in the case of academic precarity, might we take seriously the basic anthropological insight that statistics are not simply objective representations of the truth but are constructed through specific onto-epistemological presuppositions that may not be universally valid? For example, a frame shared by many of the contributions to this forum is that of the U.S. labor market, with other geographies mentioned mostly as spaces of opportunity to be exploited by those with PhDs from American universities. Now, if a World Bank economist were to adopt such a framing, many of us would be quick to criticize them for engaging in a logic of ethnocentrism.
Let us assume, for a moment, that statistics do provide some objective truth about academic precarity, a problem that often gets framed in terms of supply and demand. While it is an open question as to whether demand for anthropology instruction has decreased or has just been repackaged, the supply of graduates looking for tenure-track positions does seem to have increased. Thus, some contributors to this forum have suggested sober-minded statistical analyses of graduate outcomes as one way of regulating student intake and helping to ensure that those in the pipeline will find a job sooner than later. In principle, we could undertake such an analysis. But would we, if confronted with these data and reasonable guarantees of their reliability, really use them to make decisions? After all, it is not as though no such numbers are available. But it seems that we are disinclined to act on them, perhaps because most cultural anthropologists understand that ultimately the job market is not solely guided by a quantitative logic of supply and demand. We also know that many factors affecting supply and demand might themselves be unquantifiable.
A colleague once told me that as an academic, I would not need to worry about jobs in the same way that a software engineer would. This colleague suggested that the academy does not always work like a market; instead, it was said to work a little bit like a mafia, or like Hollywood. If some powerful group within the academy “likes” my work, the reasoning goes, then I will be OK regardless of the numerical picture. While this might smack of magical thinking, it is sometimes the case: just last week, I heard through the grapevine that a friend of a friend is being flown around the United States as departments vie to try and offer this person a job. Thus, while we certainly need to take into consideration the absolute imbalance between the number of students we are training for academic careers and the number of academic jobs available, the framing of the problem in terms of sheer quantity simultaneously obfuscates how academic capital is unevenly reproduced in the university system and reduces the training that students receive during graduate study to something that either pays off, in an economic sense, or does not.
How might we better emplace these quantities, so as to clarify whether we understand precarity as a problem of securing jobs in the United States or of securing jobs globally? I am reminded of a conference session that I attended last year, which aimed to “alert American scholars to the presence of many new private universities” in another country and “to present information on the new opportunities for teaching and service they are creating.” At this session, representatives of these institutions conceded that some brand-new universities are dubious bets but underscored that others are reliable and that American graduates should consider working at them.
For many decades now, worldwide, the hegemony of U.S. institutions has helped many U.S. PhDs to find jobs at universities in other countries such as India and Singapore. But how does this influx of graduates from American institutions compound the precarity of academics in other countries? Such an export-oriented approach might solve certain problems for American anthropology but end up exacerbating problems elsewhere. Thus if, against our basic instincts, we are going to argue from statistics, then we might do well to at least be aware of this self-contradictory move to numbers and then to frame the problem of precarity as always already global from the start.