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Monday, 24 June 2013

Anthropology and Public Policy



Anthropologists are long working on different aspects of policy. They have often witnessed the impact of policies on human life and culture. However, only relatively recently policy itself become an object and subject of anthropological enquiry.

Till 1990s most anthropological engagement with policy making was of an ‘applied’ and largely uncritical nature. The studies mostly were commissioned studies and consultancy researches that worked around the question “How can anthropology best serve policy makers in help solving policy problems?” (Cochrane, 1980; Wilner, 1980).

Applied anthropology and Policy anthropology: existing fissure

The assumption that anthropological knowledge is extremely helpful and relevant to policy makers and that anthropological knowledge should harness to service the needs of government (or industry/corporation/market) is quite an old notion. Even in the 1940s and 1950s Evans Pritchard (1951) had sought to promote applied anthropology as a kind of ‘managerial science of mankind’. In 1981 Raymond Firth along with other key figures of British Anthropology were advancing narrow definition of anthropology in terms of its perceived value for government or as now defined in terms of its relevance to the end-users.
However, it is important to note that in terms of its methodology and focus, the anthropology of policy is very different from applied anthropology. The difference comes from the question of utility and relevance that raises a wider debate over what exactly anthropologists seek to achieve by applying their knowledge or engaging with policy makers. Is it dialogue, influence over policy professionals, or a way for academics to shape the formation or implementation of public policy? Or is the goal to unpack policy as a cultural category and to analyse its uses in order to shed light on structures and processes that shape society? It is important to note Gregory Feldman (2007) should anthropology “follow the policy gaze, or seek to critique it”? Or can it do both? In recent years, anthropologists have increasingly shifted towards the latter position, i.e., developing analytical approaches that seek to problematise policy both as a concept or idea force and as a set of related practices (Shore and Wright 1997, Wedel et al. 2005). This is one of the areas which distinguishes anthropology of policy from applied anthropology. It also differentiates anthropology of policy from policy studies. The point of departure is that whereas most of the scholars see policy as something given and do not question its meaning or ontological status as a category, in anthropology of policy scholars see policy as itself a curious and problematic social and cultural construct that needs to unpacked and contextualised if its meanings are to be understood.

Why do we need anthropology of policy?

Anthropology of policy originates from the recognition that policy has become an increasingly central and dominant organising principle of contemporary society, perhaps even of modernity itself (Shore and Wright 1997). This is extremely relevant because of the fact that there are extremely complex ways in which policy as a concept work. Virtually every aspect of human life is now shaped by policies, whether these emanate from governments, public institutions or non-governmental organisations (NGO) and private sector bodies. Policies on international relations, trade, national security and public health to policies on building regulations, employment relations, taxation, education, citizenship rights and sexual conducts we are circled by regulatory policies that shapes us in more ways than we are aware about. Shore and Wright (1997) in their Anthropology of Policy: Critical Perspectives on Governance and Power put forward three arguments.
First policies are inherently anthropological phenomena and should be conceptualised as discursive formations through which larger-scale processes of social and historical change can be mapped. As they also noted, policies often occupy the same role as myth in traditional societies, providing ‘charters for action’, guide to behaviour and legimating narratives for leaders and would-be rulers.
Second, while policies can be conceptualised as a type of narrative or performance they are also political technologies that serve to create new categories of subjectivity, for example, citizens, taxpayers, criminals, immigrants, or pensioners. Insofar as they become internalised, policies also work as techniques of the self. As with most forms of powers, policies tend to disguises its mechanism of operation either by seeking to naturalise its arbitrariness or by concealing the particularism and hidden interests that often underlie its formulation.
Third, argument entailed the implications of a focus on policy for anthropological methods. If policies are instruments of power, they also provide instruments for analysing the operation of power.   
Therefore, in order to understand people’s life world it is important to have an anthropological understanding of policies. With an anthropological study of policy we can gain critical insight into the complex ways in which concepts, institutions and actors (policy assemblages) interact in different sites either to consolidate regimes of power/knowledge or to create new rationalities of governance.  
Furthermore with anthropological notions it is possible to provide a necessary corrections to rational choice models and unreflexive positivistic accounts that still dominate the way that policy processes are typically conceptualised among academics and policy professionals. More importantly policy provides anthropology with a lens to analyse wider political processes and systems of government.

Conventional policy studies and anthropological challenges:

Most academic research on policy premised on the idea of policy as a neat, hierarchical and seamless flow that follows a patterned pathway, also known as policy cycle (Figure 1).

Figure 1 the conventional policy cycle

This policy cycle model with its instrumental-rational assumptions is the received wisdom and starting point for most textbooks and continues to shape the way policy is taught in professional programmes.
The anthropology of policy brings much-needed perspectives to the influential field of public policy and the growing area of enquiry that falls under the broad heading of "policy studies." The problem with much of the latter is that it continues to operate within a positivistic paradigm that treats policy as a reified entity and an unanalyzed given, seldom questioning the conceptual or cultural bases of its own analytical assumptions. In other words, public policy is often thought of as an "assembly line" or "con veyor belt." But policy making and implementation hardly follow a linear process with a predetermined outcome. On the contrary, policy processes often encounter unforeseen variables, which are frequently combined in unforeseen ways and with unforeseen consequences. For example, as Wedel (2001,8-9) found in her study of Western assistance to eastern Europe, aid policies may appear more like a series of "chemical reactions" that begin with the donor's policies but are transformed by the agendas, interests, and interactions of the donor and recipient representatives at each stage of implementation and interface. Despite recent ethnographies illustrating the limitations of the rational choice model in "policy studies," anthropologists have yet to put forth a compelling, coherent critique of that model.
However in recent period spurred by dissatisfaction with the conventional positivistic approach which represents policy analysis as a kind of scientific endeavour, a number of scholars within political science and international relations have sought to develop alternative perspectives drawing on ethnography and other qualitative methods (Rhodes et al. 2007). In some instances, this ‘cultural turn in policy studies has been influenced by anthropology, particularly the work of Geertz, most notably in the development of Interpretative Policy Analysis (Yanow 1996, 2000). Others drawing on continental European philosophy have turned to linguistics, discourse analysis and rhetoric as a way of rethinking policy analysis (Fischer and Forester 1993, Fiscger 2003; Goittweis 2006; Peters and Pierre 2006; Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006).  These developments open up an important space for for dialogue between anthropology and more qualitatively oriented policy studies (ayanow 2011).
Anthropological approaches emphasise the contingency, fluidity and messiness of policy processes. They highlight that policies are not confined to texts; nor are they simply constraining, instrumental-rational rational forces imposed  from above by some authoritative entity, Rather policy is both productive and performative, a complex, creative process that produces new kinds of relationships, new spaces for exchange, and new kinds of subjectivity. But the process by which policies develop is often ambiguous and contested. What is anthropologically interesting about a particular policy is its genealogy and the contestations and negotiations involved in its formation. Anthropological accounts are also sensitive to the way people experience, interpret and engage with these policy processes and to what policies mean in different contexts. In Clifford Geertz’s term (1973) we take the analysis of policy to be ‘not an experimental science in search of a law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning.’ However, analysis of any policy requires more than thick descriptions; we also need to examine the contexts in which policies are embedded, the work they perform and their preconditions and gelealogies and their effects. Understanding why certain policies succeed or fail also entails knowing something about the way they are experienced and interpreted by people whose lives they effect.

The legacy of anthropology in policy:

Anthropologists of American, British, and other traditions have long recognized the intertwining of anthropological topics with policy. In the United States, for example, early debates among Franz Boas and other prominent anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries over evolutionary theory went to the core of public policies dealing with race and gender (Stocking 1968; Smedley 1993). At issue was whether "race" and "gender" are biological or social and whether they are fixed or changing. Some anthropologists, such as Louis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor, assumed in their comparative studies of kinship and other institutions that human cultures (often corresponding with nineteenth century Western notions of "biological races") developed through a series of evolutionary stages, from "savagery" to "civilization." Other scholars, such as Boas, challenged these assumptions. For example, Boas s studies of immigrants, conducted at the behest of the United States Immigration Commission, demonstrated that "race" is a changing, social construct and that physical differences between "races" are variable and depend on context.
Today, many anthropologists study contemporary global processes and how global, transnational entities interact with states, nations, and local groups. There are those who study militarism and national security policies in the United States (Lutz 2002, 2005), Europe (Feldman 2003), Latin America (Gill 2004), and the Middle East (Bornstein 2001). Others study donor politics, foreign and domestic aid (Wedel 2001), research funding (Brenneis 1999), and tensions between anthropologists and human rights lawyers and journalists (Merry 2003).
Nader (1974,1980) appealed to the discipline to "study up"?that is, to analyze powerful institutions and elites of complex societies?as an antidote to the traditional focus on poor, colonized, and marginalized peoples. "A reinvented anthropology," Nader wrote, "should study powerful institutions and bureaucratic organizations in the United States, for such institutions and their network systems affect our lives and also affect the lives of people that anthropologists have traditionally studied all around the world" (1974,292-93). Wolf (1974,261) similarly urged anthropologists to "spell out the processes of power which created the present-day cultural systems and the linkages between them." Other notable works heeding these calls include Marcus's (1992) study of dynastic-business families in late-twentieth-century America and Gusterson's (1996,1999) study of nuclear engineers in a weapons lab oratory at the end of the cold war. There are also those, like Marietta Baba (2000, 38-39), who argue anthropologists must begin studying professional institutions and organizations, such as medical, legal, industrial, and educational ones, which are "rapidly becoming the most powerful forces shaping the human condition now and the future.
While the "powerful institutions" about which Nader wrote are even more so today, anthropologists studying globalization and connected subjects have tended to focus on how global processes affect local communities. Appadurai's (1996) important treatment of globalization from the angle of actors who are profoundly affected by global processes is a case in point. Relatively little anthropological work has been done to explore how social organization and networks organize transnational players and policy processes, global elites, decision makers, and those who influence decisions. Two recent exceptions, however, are Catherine Lutz's (2005) and Lesley Gill's (2004) research on militarism. Lutz is currently conducting ethnographic research into the role of the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region and resulting responses to U.S. military bases by local and transnationally linked social movements. Her study includes interviews about military bases with local activists, base neighbors, and U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. Similarly, Gill's study of the School of Americas (SOA) included interviews of U.S. Army officers and the Latin Americanists who trained at the school, anti-SOA activists, and Andean coca-growing peasants who were often targeted by security forces during the "War on Drugs."

Anthropological issues:

The starting point of an anthropological approach to public policy is to examine the assumptions and framing of policy debates. Policies arise out of particular contexts and in many ways "encapsulate the entire history and culture of the society that generated them," as Shore and Wright (1997, 7) expressed it. While policies may be clothed in neutral language? their ostensible purpose merely to promote efficiency or effectiveness? they are fundamentally political. In fact, "a key feature of modern power, "Shore and Wright contended, is the "masking of the political under the cloak of neutrality" (pp. 8-9). The anthropology of policy takes public policy itself as an object of analysis, rather than as the unquestioned premise of a research agenda. Anthropology is well suited to explore the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of policy? its enabling discourses, mobilizing metaphors, and underlying ideologies and uses. Anthropologists can explain how taken-for-granted assumptions channel policy debates in certain directions, inform the dominant ways policy problems are identified, enable particular classifications of target groups, and legitimize certain policy solutions while marginalizing others.
Anthropology of policy is not simply concerned with representing local, indigenous, or marginalized "cultures" to policy makers, government agencies, or concerned NGOs. Its focus instead is simultaneously wider and narrower: wider insofar as its aim is to explore how the state (or to be more exact, those policy makers and professionals who are authorized to act in the state's name) relates to local populations; and narrower to the extent that its ethnographic focus tends to privilege the goal of understanding how state policies and government processes are experienced and interpreted by people at the local level, keeping in mind that anthropologists are recasting the "local" or the "community" to capture changing realities. Comaroff and Comaroff (1999, 294), for example, stressed that" 'Local ity' is not everywhere, nor for every purpose, the same thing; sometimes it is a family, sometimes a town, a nation, sometimes a flow or a field, sometimes a continent or even the world; often it lies at the point of articulation among two or more of these things." An anthropology of policy, however, is equally interested in understanding the cultures and worldviews of those policy professionals and decision makers who seek to implement and maintain their particular vision of the world through their policies and decisions. From an anthropological perspective, what happens in the executive boardroom, the cabinet meeting, or the shareholders' annual general meeting is no less important than that which occurs at the level of the factory floor or locality. Thus, an anthropological approach to the study of policy incorporates the full realm of processes and relations involved in the production of policy: from the policy makers and their strategic initiatives to the locals who invariably shape and mediate policy while translating and implementing it into action.

Methodological issues of anthropology of policy:

Shore and Wright (1997, 13) suggested, anthropologists are uniquely positioned "to understand the workings of multiple, intersect ing and conflicting power structures that are local but tied to non-local systems." An anthropological approach attempts to uncover the constellations of actors, activities, and influences that shape policy decisions and their implementation, effects, and how they play out. Anthropology therefore gives particular emphasis to the idea that the study of policy decisions and their implementation must be situated in an empirical or ethnographic context: They cannot be adequately mapped using variables whose values and correlations are prespecified by an abstract model.

Reconstructing the field:

Studying policy requires rethinking an anthropological pillar?the discipline's traditional concept of "the field"?as a single and (relatively) geographically bounded place (Gupta and Ferguson 1997,37). Today, "the field" often consists of loosely connected actors with varying degrees of institutional leverage located in multiple "sites" that are not always even geographically fixed. With the post-cold war world s increased delegation of authority by states and international organizations to private organizations, companies, and actors, the architects and agents of a policy may be elusive, varied, and diffused. Policies are no longer formulated primarily by governments, but additionally by a plethora of supranational entities, businesses, NGOs, private actors, or some combination of these. Anthropology offers a social organizational approach that illuminates the structures and processes that ground, order, and give direction to policies. An ethnographer explores how individuals, organizations, and institutions are interconnected and asks how policy discourses help to sustain those connections even if the actors involved are never in face-to-face (or even direct) contact. "Studying through" (Reinhold 1994, 477-79; Shore and Wright 1997), the process of following the source of a policy? its discourses, prescriptions, and programs? through to those affected by the policies does just that. For example, Shore and Wright (1999,2000) have used this approach to examine the cultural consequences and implications of British government reforms of higher education since the 1980s. Similarly, Wedel (2001) has studied "through" the interactions of donors and recipients to explore the social organization linking the overlapping arenas of activity navigated by actors.

Social network analysis:

Social network analysis, which unites both theory and method, can help illuminate sites of articulation and interaction and thereby provide a snapshot of the workings of transnational policy processes. Network analysis, which focuses on social relations rather than the characteristics of actors, is powerful not only as a method but also as "an orienting idea," as Scott (1991, 37) proposed. By linking actors, network analysis can show how the local or regional level is connected with the national level or the local, regional, or national level with the international. Employing network analysis, an ethnographer can examine relationships between individuals, groups, and organizations and the changing, overlapping, and multiple roles that actors within them may play. Social analysts have linked network structures to collective processes. Dezalay and Garth (2002, 10), for example, showed that "tracing the careers of particular individuals makes it obvious ... that the world of foundations and that of human rights NGOs have always been very closely related; how through concrete networks and careers the World Bank inter acts with local situations; and how corporate law firms or advocacy organizations modeled on those in the United States are brought to new terrains." Such analysis can serve as a persuasive basis for explaining policy decisions. Wedels (2004) social network study of a core group of "neoconservatives," first published in The Washington Post, highlighted a dozen or so long-connected players, a "flex group," whose skill at maneuvering between government and private roles, at relaxing both the government's rules of accountability and businesses' codes of competition, and at conflating state and private interests, proved essential to the group's influence on American public policy. The group's "flex organizing" enabled it to play a pivotal role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East and taking the United States to war in Iraq. Network analysis?and the social organizational framework that it implies?is a useful way to conceptualize the mixes of "state" and "private," of "macro" and "micro," of "local" or "national" and "global," of "top down" versus "bottom up," and of "centralized" versus "decentralized" that today configure many transnational policy processes. Anthropologists are thus well positioned to track the interactions between public policy and private interests and the mixing of state, nongovernmental, and business networks that is becoming increasingly prevalent around the globe.

Informants and case studies:

Anthropology takes as a given that much of its most useful information can only be obtained through trusted "informants." The "extended case method" (Van Velsen 1967, 145), in which the ethnographer follows interconnected actors around a particular series of events, lends itself to the study of ongoing policy processes. The actors' responses to the same questions (regarding, for example, their own and others' activities, perspectives, and networks) are then compared and assessed over time. Although actors involved in a particular "case" sometimes are located in different sites, they always are connected by the policy process and/or by actual social networks. However, in as many sites as possible, anthropologists strive to conduct participant observation or at least some long-term association with actors in their own territories (Agar 1996, 58). When this is impossible or impractical, however, they employ alternative methods. In "studying up," conducting interviews is often the only means of gathering firsthand information and gaining entre to difficult-to access "fields," such as individuals in powerful institutions. For example, it was only because the U.S. Army's School of Americas suffered from a moment of public vulnerability after pressures from human rights groups that Gill (2004) was providedan opportunity to interview graduates of the school. When interviews are the primary source of information from a particular site, cross-checking critical information and corroborating key points with multiple sources is crucial (Wedel 2003). Anthropologists employ additional methods as well. "Talking to and living with the members of a community," Gupta and Ferguson (1997, 37) reported, "are increasingly taking their place alongside reading newspapers, analyzing government documents, observing the activities of governing elites, and tracking the internal logic of transnational development agencies and corporations." 

This article is prepared by taking materials from

Shore, Cris (2012) Anthropology and Public Policy. In Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Janine R. Wedel, Cris Shore, Gregory Feldman, Stacy Lathrop (2005). Toward an Anthropology of Public Policy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 600, pp. 30 - 51

Anne Francis Okongwu and Joan P. Mencher (2000). THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF PUBLIC POLICY:
Shifting Terrains. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 29, pp. 107 - 124


  1. Thank you very much for this fantastic article. It helped me a lot to understand this issue.