As part of my ‘impact editor’ role for Anthropology in Action I approached Professor Marilyn Strathern to seek her personal reflections on the impact agenda related to her own experiences working as head of department, at Manchester and Cambridge Universities, as member and then chair of two Research Assessment Exercise panels, her anthropological research in Papua New Guinea and her work on audit culture. I wanted to find out how Professor Strathern’s work has been engaged with policy and practice or has influenced it. I also discussed my own PhD research with Professor Strathern, including the challenges of being an early career researcher, as well as seeking advice about the best way to disseminate research findings to inform policy and to have ‘impact’.
The backdrop to the discussion was the U.K.’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), which included for the first time assessment of the impact of research beyond academia. The REF defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ (REF 2014: 48). The criteria for assessing impact were ‘reach’ and ‘significance’.
Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern is a social anthropologist. Her wide international acclaim is founded on her extensive field research that began in Papua New Guinea on, among other topics, issues of gender and exchange. In the U.K., she has focused her studies on kinship, reproductive technologies, biomedical ethics, audit culture and on cross-cultural concepts of intellectual property. While her ethnographic focus is divided between the Pacific and the U.K. and Europe, her theoretical interests comprise a body of ideas that challenge a number of the most fundamental concepts in popular and analytical discourse: for example, the concepts of individual and society, of the person, and of the social relation, the method of comparison, and the notions of nature and culture, male and female. She was William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge from 1993 to 2008, and Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1998 to 2009.
The result is a whole proliferation of [activities because of] the need to show what you are doing, and needing to show what are you doing simply means less time and less thought to do what you are actually doing. Teachers overburden students with [requesting] comments on the courses they have taken – not ‘go away and think about it and learn and read something else’, but ‘please tell us how well we’ve done’, like a student appraisal for every course that they take.
With thanks to Professor Strathern for giving up her time. However she has asked me to add that this is a record of a conversation; now she is no longer an active (liable, responsible) member of an academic institution she would not herself publish critical views of audit and impact in the abstract. They are best coming from the inside, and in the context of concrete issues.
Hirsch, E. and M. Strathern (2004). Transactions and creations: property debates and the stimulus of Melanesia (Vol. 11). (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books).
Page, S. (2014), ‘“Narratives of Blame” – HIV/AIDS and Harmful Cultural Practices in Malawi: Implications for Policies and Programmes’ (PhD thesis, School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth unpublished).
Page, S. (2015), ‘“Narratives of Blame” Surrounding HIV and AIDS Eradication Policies and Sexual Cultural Practices in Malawi’, in Interrogating Harmful Cultural Practices, (eds.) C. Longman and T. Bradley (Hampshire, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing), 67-80.
Page, S. (2015), ‘Is Linking “Fisi” with HIV Detracting Attention?’, Malawi Nation http://mwnation.com/is-linking-fisi-with-hiv-detracting-attention/ (accessed 01 July 2015).
Strathern, M. (ed.) (2000), Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy (London: Routledge).
Strathern, M. (1980), ‘No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case’, in Nature, Culture and Gender, (eds.) C. MacCormack and M. Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 174-222.