Graduate Socialization
in Anthropology

Project Statement

Eli Thorkelson

Adapted from a 2007 presentation at the AAA annual meetings.

I want to start by saying a few words about how this project came into being. In Chicago where I'm in the graduate program, the first course you take when you go to grad school is an intensive theory seminar, locally known as "Systems." In other departments I guess this is often called "proseminar." Anyway, I found it to be a rather troubling course -- which doesn't mean that I thought it was bad, but just that it raised a bunch of ethical, sociological and existential questions. So I thought I would write an essay expressing my concerns, but someone suggested that it would be better if it were a collective project instead, a set of analytical essays about graduate school, quasi-anthropological analyses of anthropology, so to speak. It would seem too subjective if it was just my own theorization of my personal experience, he worried. And so, after fumbling a while to figure out the logistics, we eventually got a couple of dozen contributors, organized essay collections, and put together a AAA panel. The aim was, and still is, to give a more analytical edge to our understandings of ourselves. The aim is to sharpen our sense of the ethical and political contradictions and problems of our practices. The aim is to stir up discussion on how anthropology, and in particular graduate education, could be improved and reformed.

Social reproduction on the margins of the discipline

We can gain some initial analytical leverage by first thinking of ourselves - by which I mean "we graduate students," which describes most of these contributors - as participants in what Bourdieu called the academic field. In other words, we're social actors who are constantly renegotiating our relations to other actors, and we do so in terms of social strategies oriented towards the stakes and dominant values of the academic game. Put this way, it almost sounds simple: all we should have to do is to learn how to play the game and then "win" it. But the story gets more complicated when we consider two important facts. First, the game's stakes and values are murky and constantly swirling, twisting, as actors stumble and quarrel over them. Second, our position, as graduate students, is not one of full membership in academia; rather it's what Jean Lave (Lave and Wenger 1991) called "legitimate peripheral participation," a position where we learn by doing academic work and by watching other people doing it and imitating them. We're on the margins of the academic world, in a liminal position. And we are objectively vulnerable by virtue of our social position, our relative lack of intellectual or academic power.

There are social processes at work here extending beyond anyone's particular situation. First of all, it strikes me that these moments of professional marginality are often ones of social exclusion and stratification, in which the "better" members of the community are blessed with professional success and the "worse" members are screened out. This starts with the applications process but continues with course grades, evaluations from faculty, grant applications, and eventually job applications. And I want to emphasize that these competitive selection processes are generally substantially irrational, since the selection criteria are inevitably partial and arbitrary, information about people is indirect and insufficient, and the selection process itself tends to happen in profoundly bad conditions: it's pretty common knowledge that the faculty are usually overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications they have to plow through (see also Brenneis 1994, 1999; Plutzer 1991). In other words, professional selection is a partly arbitrary and unreasonable affair — necessary though it may be given the economic constraints that limit the size of the profession.

This selection is only a piece of two broader social processes that happen in graduate schools: first, the social reproduction of anthropology as a discipline; second, the reproduction of the professional and intellectual classes in the U.S. and around the world. Admittedly, not all anthropologists have identical class membership -- some are affluent members of elite institutions, some are ill-paid adjuncts, some just unemployed -- but in getting graduate degrees, anthropologists acquire a professional status and tend to accrue a lot of cultural capital, even if not equivalent economic capital. The point, anyway, is that as participants in anthropological socialization we're involved in social processes that extend across generations and throughout social orders, ones that may not be immediately apparent in our daily life because they move too slowly.

Trauma and reflexivity

Of course, we don't experience large-scale social processes directly. From an experiential point of view, our socialization as graduate students can be seen as a process of transformative trauma. I call it transformative, because crossing the margins of the academic field is not a smooth or linear process, not one where we're passively reconstituted as academic professionals, but rather a process that has structural boundaries, points of conflict and divergence and reversal. And it's trauma for two reasons. First, because it's full of negative psychological potential, the potential to feel awful, to be overwhelmed by anxiety, hesitation, ambivalence, sometimes anger or sadness. These emotional states, I would argue, are social products too: we could use a structural analysis of our emotional lives. But it's also trauma because something is inevitably lost in the socializing process as well as gained. Our academic jargon can cut us off from those who don't speak it, our professional commitments can threaten our social relationships, we have to give up many other things in the world we might have wanted to do, debts can mount up, we can become invested in our profession in a way that alienates us from others, as if our discipline were an inflexible suit of armor. Call it an objective, social trauma: like other rites of passage, graduate education involves separation and not just integration. And it may be that vulnerable actors like graduate students are able to analyze the wounds of socialization better than the faculty can, like the canary in the coal mine. Disciplinary norms, after all, are never as apparent as when we transgress them through unfamiliarity &em; a point which this project may illustrate itself if and when readers seize on its own internal gaps and weak points.

Ethics and democratizing reforms

But it seems to me that a project like this is worth doing, if nothing else because if we're going to make it our business to analyze and critique the social practices of others -- in terms of human rights, for instance -- then first we ought to make sure that we live up to our own standards. Indeed, we ought to ask whether our standards and values are coherent in the first place. For instance, we claim to value democratic equality, and yet we also believe in allotting money and prestige according to naturalized hierarchies of merit, smartness, rigor, novelty, and so on. In short, our norms for social distinction and recognition are often in conflict with our egalitarian commitments.

Even if everyone agreed that we wanted to democratize graduate education, that could mean many different things. It could mean a democracy of ends, where we would more collectively choose the outcomes of graduate education, on what ways of being and doing and knowing we should walk away with. Some clamor for greater employability as consultants, others long for better skills as teachers. Or it could mean a democracy of means: where we got more input into pedagogy, into the structure of our programs, into our relations with our professors, into how to make socialization an instrumentally effective process. Or it could mean a democracy of intellectual status, where students were treated as potentially equal intellectual workers: instead of seeing students as would-be professors, we could see professors as students who just happen to have a lot more experience.

I think for me personally, the project is an attempt to find a metalanguage in which students can speak authoritatively about institutional life, and thus a way of refusing our subordinate institutional role or even effecting a momentary inversion of hierarchy. In part, the aim is to make vulnerability into a source of power and a source of critical reform. But I should tell you about a colleague in the UK, Ingie Hovland, who edits a journal called Anthropology Matters that has published many articles on graduate education. She says:

"Anthropology Matters gives people a space to raise critical questions about the discipline, but precisely in doing so, it seems that at least some of them more firmly establish themselves within this discipline, and move closer toward 'becoming' anthropologists" (n.d.)
Hovland reminds us that, in the long term, a critical or reflexive project can easily end up working as a new instrument of professional reproduction. That, perhaps, reminds us what we need to guard against in a project like this: the situation where reflexivity becomes a kind of radical chic therapy, or worse yet a set of empty banalities, which would end up serving only to intellectualize our apathy. I can only hope that some of the work here will serve to warn us about the real problems and dilemmas of disciplinary life, which deserve something more than passive acknowledgement.

Works Cited

  • Brenneis, Donald. 1994. Discourse and Discipline at the National Research Council: A Bureaucratic Bildungsroman. Cultural Anthropology 9:23-36.
  • --. 1999. New Lexicon, Old Language: Negotiating the "Global" at the National Science Foundation. In Critical Anthropology Today. G. E. Marcus, ed. Pp. 123-146. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
  • Hovland, Ingie. n.d. Regulating emotions and aiming for a Ph.D.: Excerpts from Anthropology Matters. Forthcoming in Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, 2008.
  • Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Plutzer, Eric 1991 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Academia: An Essay on Graduate Education. Teaching Sociology 19(3):302-307.