Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Susan Wright


How do people engage with large scale processes of social change and the emergence of new forms of power? What is the role of education in current developments of the so-called international knowledge economy and neo-liberal forms of governance? Can anthropologists better conceptualise how the detailed, every-day interactions they study ethnographically contribute towards, contest, or are shaped by, institutional, national or international shifts in discourses, processes and power?

Most recently I have asked these questions whilst studying university reform in Britain and Denmark. They also framed previous studies of changing concepts and forms of governance in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, and of tribes-people’s engagement with the ‘ modernisation’ of government in Iran in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. My two analytical focuses are on an ‘anthropology of policy’ (developed with Cris Shore) and on the ways key words work in processes of change.

I tried to answer these questions and set out this analytical approach in my inaugural lecture as Professor of Educational Anthropology at the Danish University of Education. I have revised this as an essay Processes of transformation: an anthropology of English higher education policy.

I have worked as a policy researcher and in community development. When I first became a lecturer, I was shocked by the gap between academic anthropology and anthropology in policy and practice. For seven years I convened and helped develop GAPP, later renamed Anthropology in Action  http://www.angelfire.com/rpg/anthropologyinaction/ an organisation of academics, students and practitioners. As well as networking, conferences and a journal we provided courses for students to acquire the additional skills needed to use anthropology in policy and practice.

From the late 1980s, amid government claims that universities had failed the economy and were inefficient and unaccountable, British universities experienced a steep intensification of teaching, research and administration. I was far from alone in working all hours and still hardly coping. I decided to explore what was going on, and especially what were the implications for teaching and learning.

Starting with a national review of anthropology education, I gained funding in 1994 for a programme which all the UK anthropology departments joined. We experimented with funding local initiatives and visits between departments to develop learning and teaching. The ideas underpinning the programme were for staff and students to set their own agendas; to do anthropological fieldwork and reflexive analyses of their own practice within their changing conditions of work and study; and to generate discussion about teaching and learning in the discipline.

This participatory and research based approach was transferred to C-SAP, the national Subject Centre for teaching and learning in sociology, anthropology and politics which I established and directed from 2000-2003. I carry on the project to analyse learning and teaching practices within the context of university reform through the journal I co-edit LATISS http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals.php?issn=17405866.

My own teaching highlights in anthropology and cultural studies at Sussex and Birmingham Universities include Observation and Explanation in which groups of first year anthropology students set up, carried out and reported on their own empirical projects. In Policy and Power, I experimented with third year anthropologists’ designing their own very stimulating seminars on contemporary neo-liberal reforms, with me in a supporting role, and they wrote some excellent dissertations. One thing that worked especially well was a framework I designed for Independent Study, within which students planned their own year-long projects and learning outcomes. In both universities I have encountered brilliantly stimulating students in Graduate Workshops and in PhD supervision from whom I gained much inspiration and enthusiasm. In Denmark I am enjoying teaching PhD short courses on Anthropology of Policy, What’ s happening to the culture concept, Field research methods and Academic writing and publishing.