By Farhad Mukhtarov. As we reported earlier, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is currently hosting its 2012 annual session in San-Francisco. Within this session there is a roundtable arranged for the discussion of the dialogue between public policy and anthropology. Our colleague Paul Stubbs has given a short talk in which he emphasized the recent development sin this field as well as what each of the discipline can learn from each other. Below is the script of the talk and in a few days we will provide a full analysis of the roundtable.
“I am here as a rather hybrid self commited to a post-disciplinary approach to policy. In Jessop and Nielsen’s terms „post-disciplinary approaches reject the legitimacy of established disciplinary boundaries and adopt a more problem-oriented approach. They therefore tend to be more open-textured, more eclectic, and more interested in political and ethical issues”. I usually describe myself as “a sociologist with anthropological tendencies”. I work primarily, thankfully not exclusively, on the topic of social policy, a field where, as John Clarke has remarked, there is a sense that “complex concepts are best left to others and, hence, arrive late, if at all, and invariably in highly simplified form”. In Croatia, which has been my home since 1993, I work in an Institute of Economics and, recently, have begun to teach a module on a doctoral programme in Comparative Politics.
As I have been drawn ever more into the anthropology of policy, my work has explicitly set itself up against the orthodoxies of particular kinds of political science approaches. Of course, there is a certain irony in using the discipline which has explored ‘othering’ most thoroughly for my own ‘othering’ of political science scholarship, without seeing that the kinds of approaches I am advocating for can also be found there too, albeit on the margins. I want to capture here something of the current situation, akin to a ‘contact zone’, in which instead of dialogue there is more, in James Clifford’s terms, a “power-charged set of exchanges”4 when scholars who rarely meet find themselves in a state of co-presence. It is not all one way, and disciplines have their closed minds and their open ones, of course. I recall being assailed once by an anthropologist for using ‘ethnography’ in my work: “for you it is a luxury, Paul; for me, I have no choice” was the gist of the argument. And even I cannot resist retelling that, as I agreed to speak at this event, the controversy over the American Political Science Association (APSA) holding its conference in New Orleans despite the State of Louisiana’s non-recognition of gay marriage loomed large in my mind (did not the AAA also hold its own convention in New Orleans a couple of years back?). Two quotes struck me as pertinent. One APSA member said that, unlike sociology or anthropology, gender and gay themes were not of great concern to political scientists. My favourite however, was an APSA member who said “on the whole, political scientists aren’t very political”.
Two areas where I have explicitly confronted orthodox political science analyses, approaches, and concepts are in terms of ‘multi-level governance’ and ‘policy transfer’. In my 2005 critique of the ‘multi-level governance’ literature which I was recently asked to revisit in a Regional Studies Association event in Brussels, my concern initially was how the work, mainly by UK and US political scientists studying the European Union, really did not fit from a vantage point of South East Europe. But, as I dug deeper, it was the idea of a world of neat, anchored ‘levels’ moving from the ‘local’ to the ‘regional’, to the ‘national’, ‘regional’ (again) and ‘global’ which worried me. Where were the understandings of fluidity, of processes of scaling and re-scaling, of what Doreen Massey terms co-presence, and of the power of networks, which were so much a part of my lived reality? I think it got worse when some leading theorists of multi-level governance started being asked to advise the European Union on, guess what?, its multi-level governance. Neat anchored levels and competences now dovetailed into fixed policy sectors (have they not read Chris Shore and Susan Wright on re-domaining8?) which could be ranked, over time, as ‘mainly national’, ‘mainly EU’, or ‘shared competences’. I also have to say that political scientists of policy in general, and those of multi-level governance in particular, do seem to love typologies (which always seem to be 2 x 2 for some reason) and abstract modelling of the policy process. As heuristic devices, of course, both can be incredibly useful but the danger, I think, is that the really interesting things about policy are increasingly in the lines, cracks, edges and missing elements of the typologies and models. Political science students, even very good ones, do have a habit of picking up these models and making them central to their work without, it seems, reading the small print of the danger of transferring them to very different conjunctures and contexts. This really matters in a small country like Croatia where only a very few books on ‘policy’ get translated so that the models of Hal Colebatch, Hill and Hupe and Hoppe, get reproduced in rather uncritical ways.
Probably the best known of my critiques of political science approaches to policy is work I have done with Noémi Lendvai, and in a forthcoming book also with David Bainton and John Clarke, on the way that the transnational dimension of policy can better be considered in terms of the concept of policy translation than the more orthodox approach in terms of policy transfer. We are hardly alone in this enterprise and, indeed IGAPP Panels on 2009 and 2011 were arranged, precisely, around this idea. The idea of ‘policy as translation’ questions, above all, the concept of ‘policy transfer’ as a linear process of policy diffusion or transplantation, challenging assumptions of an objectified or commodified knowledge, to quote Dvora Yanow, “extrapolated from its context”. ‘Translation’ is a crucial concept within an anthropology of policy which emphasises what Chris Shore and Susan Wright have termed the “messiness and complexity of policy processes”, as a set of imaginaries or narratives “moving through time and space” non-linearly, with attempts to embed policies as authoritative, normative, forms. The time seems ripe, here, for some rapprochement and synthesis, precisely because the policy transfer literature has adapted and developed and, in any case, was never as one-dimensional as we stated. Indeed, a recent text by Diane Stone, in attempting exactly this, argues that the literature on policy translation, mobilities and learning needs to form the basis of an increasing focus within policy studies on the ‘soft’ transfer of knowledge, ideas and information via networks.
As Siniša Zrinšèak and I concluded in a recent text on ‘clientelism’ in Croatia, more political ethnography is certainly needed, although this needs to move away from only studying formal power and elite agency and delve much more into the ‘shadow elite’ of what Janine Wedel terms ‘flexians’ and the more mundane networked brokers, intermediaries and consultants increasingly important in transnational policy arenas. For me, it has always been ethnography’s capacity to ‘surprise’, as Paul Willis and Max Trondman once framed it, which is part of its attraction. Cross-disciplinarity, framed in terms of open research questions, rigorously theorised through an interrogation of scales, sites, agency, and discourses (the list is not exhaustive), might lead to new understandings of the ‘work’ which policy does, as it moves, sensing and even, maybe, capturing, the paradox of both its fluidity and radical unfinished-ness and its capacity to produce and reproduce relations of domination and control. If we agree on this at least, we may move out of the contact zone and emerge into a space for engagement and dialogue”.