Distraction Free Reading

Academography and Disciplinary Ethnocentrism

Donald Campbell (1969) famously blamed the “ethnocentrism of disciplines” for academics’ tendencies to spawn “a redundant piling up of highly similar specialties leaving interdisciplinary gaps”. While Campbell never gives an extended definition of his term, disciplinary ethnocentrism would seem to entail, for instance, that one views everything through the prism of one’s field; that one avidly defends the boundaries of one’s field; that one becomes blind to closely related work outside one’s field; and that one comes to apprehend disciplinary identities as quasi-natural kinds, just as “ethnicities” are often misconstrued as essences.

This disciplinary ethnocentrism is, of course, never total. Even in the academy, few social boundaries are entirely impermeable, which is why we can readily observe forms of tolerated interdisciplinarity, providing border crossings between fields. Yet often these are arranged to be as non-threatening to the “host” fields as possible. Everything happens as if interdisciplinarity was organized according to unspoken collective strategies. For instance, I find it telling that U.S. anthropologists have had a “historical turn” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992), but never a “sociological turn.” One might wonder if a turn “towards sociology” would tend to undermine the grounds for anthropology’s continued existence as a field…

In any case, in one of those predictable ironies of academic history, ethnocentrism can afflict not just the “traditional” disciplines, but also the more contemporary interdisciplinary fields that have emerged alongside them. One would think, for instance, that Science and Technology Studies and the more recently-inaugurated Critical University Studies would be closely linked together. I would certainly hope so, since that my own work focuses on the links between French university politics and the epistemic culture of a left-wing French philosophy department. And yet I find, to my considerable dismay, that these two little worlds are deeply segregated from each other, as if we faced an “ethnocentrism of interdisciplines.”

To make my point more concrete: How many science studies researchers have engaged deeply with Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class strategies or professorial power, to say nothing of more recent ethnographic work on university administration and politics, like that of Susan Wright (2005), Cris Shore (2010), Mariya Ivancheva (2016) or Gaye Tuchman (2009)? Conversely, how many of these scholars of contemporary university politics take seriously the form and content of intellectual technocultures, as in laboratory studies of the Karin Knorr Cetina variety (1999)? Or for that matter, how often do scholars of either stripe really investigate education and classroom processes, along the lines pioneered by educational anthropologists (e.g. Brandt 2008, Golden 2006)?

My point is not that these three little fields should become one or that we need some grand unifying project that would synthesize everything known about technoscientific knowledge production, educational reproduction, and university politics. Rather, I merely insist that even interdisciplinary fields can develop systematic blindnesses to their close competitors. Some of this happens because of actively enforced systems of recognition and specialization, as in hiring logics. (“Don’t expect much if you apply to that history of science job,” someone told me this year, “your work sounds too political for them.”) Other times these segregations are left implicit, as our citational and institutional networks push us in some directions and not others.

A wooden desk covered in graffiti drawn with blue ballpoint pen, including a face smoking a joint, a star, and writing in French.

Unclassifiable lecture hall art, Toulouse, France, July 2009 | Photo by Author, CC BY-NC 4.0.

One way to try to overcome these boundaries is just to ignore them and build new discourses that span the existing gaps. I recently started working on a web project, Academography, that aims to be an open forum for critical ethnography and higher education, broadly construed. So far I’ve mainly published two things: long-form interviews with ethnographers working on academic culture and politics, and medium-length critical takes on recent papers in the field. The interviews are inspired by Jeffrey Williams’ remarkable series of reflexive interviews with literary critics in the Minnesota Review, though I only have the resources to conduct my interviews by email. (This unfortunately makes the tone less conversational.) I’ve been delighted, on the other hand, with people’s reactions to the writeups of their articles. From what I can tell so far, it seems that many scholars don’t get any discussion of their published papers once they’re actually published, so it can be exciting for them to suddenly get some reactions to their work. Given that articles are a lot more digestible than books, and that we write more of them, I begin to wonder if this kind of short article review might not be a good genre for making the solitary world of scholarly discourse world a little more humane.

But I digress. In hopes of combating the ethnocentrism of interdisciplines, I’ve tried to give Academography a broad scope. The initial project definition focuses broadly on “ethnography of higher education,” because that particular research niche seems to have exceptionally poor visibility (both inside and outside the academy). Thus I’ve seen many — plainly redundant — calls for “inventing a new reflexive anthropology of universities,” which are all increasingly out of touch with the large body of work that does exist. I can understand why these proposals recur, though, because many of the relevant scholars work in different institutional contexts, aren’t in touch with each other, and don’t publish in the same venues. As a sort of antidote to this obscurity, I’ve started building a Zotero bibliography that newcomers can consult, and I’ve tried to look across national, disciplinary and even linguistic boundaries in my coverage. For instance, the most recent publication is about a historical sociology of administrative and service workers that recently came out in French.

There’s a bit of a new-media, open-access component here as well. Many senior scholars prefer to publish their reflections on this sort of work in traditional journals and edited volumes, which are rarely open-access, and often printed in expensive books that only come out in hardcover. My sense is that the web is a more natural home now for this sort of meta writing and organizing, and it also lends itself well to web-based open collaborations. Thus Ian Lowrie, from CASTAC, recently wrote an Academography guest post, and he reciprocally invited this post over here.

In my view, any good antidote to interdisciplinary ethnocentrism (and its close cousin, the narcissism of small differences) has to be non-directive. It should be more about creating new fora, new research objects, new boundary objects and zones of encounter than about trying to negate interdisciplinary boundaries by fiat. So with that in mind, I’ll close here with a further invitation to CASTAC readers: if you find your work touching on questions of academic institutions more broadly, drop us a line.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. P. Collier, transl. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Brandt, Carol B. 2008. Discursive Geographies in Science: Space, Identity, and Scientific Discourse among Indigenous Women in Higher Education. Cultural Studies of Science Education 3(3):703–30. doi:10.1007/s11422-007-9075-8.

Campbell, Donald T. 1969. Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the Fish-Scale Model of Omniscience. In Interdisciplinary Relations in the Social Sciences. M. Sherif and C. Sherif, eds. Pp. 328-348. Chicago: Aldine.

Comaroff, John, and Jean Comaroff. 1992. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Golden, Deborah. 2006. Structured Looseness: Everyday Social Order at an Israeli Kindergarten. Ethos 34(3):367-390.

Ivancheva, Mariya. 2016 The Discreet Charm of University Autonomy: Conflicting Legacies in the Venezuelan Student Movements. Bulletin of Latin American Research 36(2):177-191.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Shore, Cris. 2010. Beyond the multiversity: neoliberalism and the rise of the schizophrenic university. Social Anthropology 18(1):15-29.

Tuchman, Gaye. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the corporate university. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, Susan. 2005 Processes of Social Transformation: An anthropology of English higher education policy. In Pædagogisk Antropologi – et Fag I Tilblivelse. J. Krejsler, N. Kryger, and J. Milner, eds. Copenhagen: Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitets Forlag.

1 Comment

  • This is not a reply to the broad scope of the post but focuses more specifically on the question of discipline and interdiscipline. I would like to propose we distinguish discipline (which can be an academic arena with particular questions, methods, and procedures) and departments which are units in a formal organizational structure.

    As a veteran of 44 years of both departmental identity and the founding and management of a variety of interdisciplinary programs and centers, I find conflating discipline and department a dead-end.

    The underlying struggle in universities is how to combine the development and control of deep expertise with the analysis of complex, multidimensional problems. Departments are great at deep expertise and awful at multidimensional problems. Indeed, the low level of intellectual communication I experienced within a department seems pretty typical and so even deep expertise does not make a department solidary.

    Taylorism has been the dominant mode of organization of universities and each Tayloristic unit supposedly has its turf and boundaries. And it is managed and budgeted in those terms. Cooperation, resource allocation, and academic rewards for crossing boundaries are minimal on most campuses.

    But Taylorism and is neoliberal version in universities has all the weaknesses of the fordist factory system that brought most of the US auto industry to the verge (or beyond the verge) of bankruptcy. By contract, successful and creative firms operate without these neat Tayloristic bunkers. A close look at the well-documented examples of matrix organizations in the “industrial democracy” or team-based matrix organizations shows that deep expertise and cross-expertise cooperating in a collaborative team environment is not only possible but is key to success.

    If universities were converted into such organizations, a number of consequences would flow from this including the demolition of huge and highly paid central administrations, neat colleges with neat departmental bunkers, and the disconnection between experts working on complex, multi-dimensional problems.

    Of course, this would unseat those who profit most from the current system and so I suspect the onward momentum of university fordism will take our neo-19th century universities over the cliff.

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