My published work runs across several subfields of anthropology: educational anthropology, political anthropology, anthropology of time, and anthropology of work.
My new work is more interested in subjectivity theory and intersectional feminism. I’m not sure whether this will end up fitting into a different disciplinary box.
I try to read more broadly in French and European Studies, higher education and Critical University Studies, and intersectional/queer/feminist research. The Disappointed Utopia project especially aims at a broader audience in critical theory and the reflexive humanities.
I’ve generally worked on three major projects.
(1) I’ve tried to elaborate a “non-neoliberal” account of globalized higher education. A great deal of critical research on higher education since the Thatcher period has emphasized neoliberal policy and organization, and I’ve learned a lot from this work. But as I’ve written about academic conflicts, protests, and precarious labor, I’ve come to see higher education not as a zone of neoliberal doxa, but as a field of unfinished historical conflicts.
(2) I’ve tried to understand the position from which “critical” theory can emerge, not by studying “us” (Anglophone critical theory), but by exploring our significant Others. I’ve come to call this reflexivity by proxy: it’s not about trying to "be more reflexive" myself; it’s about grappling with the reflexivity of the Other. Thus my current book project, Disappointed Utopia: Radical Philosophy in Postcolonial France, is an ethnography of French radical philosophers that speaks more broadly to the global heritage of critical theory. What is the relationship between the utopian or liberatory potential of critical thought, and its historical entanglement with elitism, patriarchy, socioracial stratification, or coloniality? I’ve ended up thinking about utopian spaces that can only survive in a state of perpetual disappointment…
(3) In a more professional direction, I’ve taken up questions of labor and academic practice in my own institutional milieus. I previously edited a volume of essays on graduate student socialization in anthropology (2010), and am now editing a web forum, Academography, which aims to be a global forum for critical ethnography and higher education. This project is about educating, fostering collective consciousness, spreading the word about important new research, and, I hope, helping build better academic worlds.
neat vs. non-neat projects
The thing about my projects is that they don’t entirely fit into a neat disciplinary box. If I ask myself how my work fits into disciplinary boxes, my first thought is that we have to distinguish four ways of thinking about ethnographic research projects: in terms of their sites, their conceptual rubrics, their disciplinary locations, and their reflexive or political implications.
For some people, all four things line up neatly together into a single project. Some parts of the academic field end up developing unusually strong forms of internal coherence: for instance in anthropology of schools, or in some parts of Africanist anthropology. I’m not against that; there’s a lot to be said for working within a well-defined research space.
If there were genuinely a field called anthropology of universities, that would be convenient for me. But while there is a lot of new work on anthropology of universities, it is really not a field, in any institutional sense. So I have to narrate my work in a few different ways.
The story of my research sites is fairly straightforward. When I was an undergraduate student — I always remember it this way — I was really bothered by the way that they taught “theory,” mainly meaning French poststructuralism. “Theory” was supposed to be so emancipatory and radical, and yet it was taught with so much traditional authority and academic discipline. So my first ethnographic project, for my BA thesis, was a study of humanities theory classrooms. My MA project continued that line of work, investigating some public controversies around a “Bad Writing Contest” that had emerged, in the late 1990s, to critique post-structuralists’ prose. And for my PhD project, I wanted to go to France to explore where "French Theory" had originally come from.
By the time I got to France in 2009, I already understood that “French Theory” was basically an Anglo-American notion, not a French category. And my interests had expanded to include the politics of public universities, the history of Bologna Process university reforms in Europe, and the politics of philosophy in France. I began fieldwork planning to do a comparative ethnography of two philosophy departments, one more left-wing (near Paris) and one more conservative (in the provinces), and to connect these site studies to broader university politics in France.
It took a while to really get started at my first fieldsite, at the University of Paris 8, which is just north of Paris in Saint-Denis. And since a lot of French politics happens in Paris, which is also the heart of French academia, most of the national debates about higher education were there too. So I ended up staying two years in Paris, and only did a short visit to my proposed second fieldsite.
I’ve spent the past seven years writing about what I found in France.
This part of my work has evolved quite a bit, as I’ve read new things and learned more about theory’s politics.
Early on I was influenced, above all, by Pierre Bourdieu, whose aging work still remains an important starting place for anyone working critically on higher education. It brought together a number of useful things: a concern with power, hierarchy and symbolic violence; a methodological interest to ritual, discourse, and social strategy; and a sense of reflexivity, vulnerability, and critical passion that I really liked. In my early years in graduate school, I also liked linguistic anthropology, Marxian theories of ideology and fetishism, and by work on the “production of knowledge.” These various concerns came out mainly in my early papers on theory classrooms (2008, 2010), which were largely about hierarchy, mystification, and elitist fantasies.
There was something limiting about this whole rubric, though. It was very critical but not, in the end, very self-critical. It didn’t have a good sense of history or even of time. It noticed gender and racial disparities without having much real understanding of them, or of how they related to my interests in “power.” It didn’t account for subjectivity, experience or affect. It was insensitive to social struggle and to anything outside of hegemony, and it had no good theory of labor or political economy. It was, finally, a dark vision of a dominated world.
So I’ve gradually tried to expand my conceptual horizons. I turned to write directly about activism, and have taught about European, American and some South African politics. I’ve realized how very masculine my early intellectual influences were, and am repairing that pretty actively; I’m especially interested in a strand of queer and feminist theory that takes utopianism seriously (Kathi Weeks, José Muñoz, my teacher Lauren Berlant). Teaching in South Africa, I read much more about race and racialized politics, and taught some of that work. I started writing on my blog about space and the politics of space. Above all, I started writing about precarious academic labor — in France (2016), in the United States (2015), and in several shorter pieces.
I’m still trying to put these pieces together into a new rubric that fits me more neatly. Disappointed Utopia does a lot of that work, so I won’t repeat its arguments here. I’ve also become quite intrigued by ambivalence as a mediating concept in social theory, and am planning to write more about it once the book is done.
I tend to do fairly standard contemporary ethnography. Much of my work begins with in situ observation of social life; exact dialogue and a sense of atmosphere are invaluable in social analysis. Along the way it has, however, also become clearer to me that ethnographic data always needs to be situated historically, and that documentary evidence is also extremely useful. In working on large institutions like universities, this also entails investigating the relevant technical, organizational and statutory structures. I have also done some work on a web-based activist project (2018).
I’ve also done quite a bit of creative writing, had many diaries, blogged, and had thoughts that were too abstract to fit into an ethnographic analysis. Ethnography is great, but it’s not my only idiom.