Dr Cris Shore is a professor of Social Anthropology and Head of Department at Goldsmiths University. His work spans several fields including EU institutions and policies, the state, nationalism, elites, corruption, higher education, the rise of ‘audit culture’ and the anthropology of policy. Dr Shore’s work engages with issues in political anthropology, European ethnography and the study of organisations, particularly the governance and management of universities. His main research interests include power, ideology, the effects of systems of measurement and ranking on individuals and organisations, corruption, and the anthropology of policy.
Kaytrina and Ivana are talking to Cris in his office in the anthropology department of Goldsmiths University.
K: Hi Cris, can I ask you if you have changed your bookshelves for this interview, and if so why?
C: I wish. No, but I should have.
K: How do you organise your books?
C: Usually, I group them according to the things that I am working on, the things that are most or least relevant to me or certain past projects. Can I explain the organisation? I started unpacking my boxes in January and then one of my PhD New Zealand students who is here at Goldsmiths offered to hep and she took over. So, this is not actually my organisation (pointing to the bookshelves) [… ] These are the books that I have written or contributed chapters to (points to the middle shelf above the work desk). Death of the public university? – that was one of the most recent ones […]. Some of those over there are PhD theses that I have examined or by students that I have supervised. Some are files from past projects that I haven’t decided whether to throw out or keep. Some are readings for the courses I have taught before. Those books over there are all about Europe, the EU and European politics.
K: Where do your books come from and how do they leave if they leave?
C: Many have come from me buying them. I’m not one of those people who has to own every book that they read. Most of the time I get my books from the library or read them online, download the chapters that I want. Quite a few are books that I got in lieu of payment for reviewing manuscripts for publishers like Routledge, Berghahn and Sage, for example. The deal is you are either paid a hundred pounds in cash or two hundred pounds worth of books. You’re better off getting the books. The rest are just accumulated over the years, or some are given by publishers in payment for writing the blurb that is printed on the back – like this one by Ulf Hannerz: World Watching: Streetcorners And Newsbeats On A Journey Through Anthropology. Hannerz is a retired Swedish anthropologist, well known for his work on foreign correspondents and journalists and for pioneering the idea of cosmopolitan anthropology.
K: Do you ever give books away after you read them, to other anthropologists or students?
C: I do, but with lending books out I often think: ‘will I ever see that book again’? There is always the worrying thought with books you’ve read and finished with that you might need to read or refer to it again. Some books you find yourself constantly dipping in to, often years later, such as the ones by Raymond Williams (Marxist theorist and academic) or Foucault and Nik Rose. There are a lot of key anthropology texts that I find myself returning to. But I have also given away a lot of books too. When I moved to New Zealand in 2003 I got rid of loads of books. I gave a lot of them to colleagues and to the library. If you can’t take them with you, then you pass them on. Otherwise, I’m not a huge hoarder and I am quite good at chucking things out.
K: What was the first anthropology book that you have read?
C: The very first one hmm… I wonder if I have it here to show it to (looks for it). It was Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise To Civilisation. It is not a social anthropology book but, it is a book about early population movements and colonisation and how North America was peopled by indigenous peoples crossing the Bering Strait and moving southwards. I must have read that when I was 16 or 17, and I enjoyed this book so much […] Here it is! I found it fascinating. Here are some of the themes from the Contents page: The ‘evolution of complexity’, ‘cultural impoverishment’, ‘Eskimo environment adaptation’. These are kind of old-fashioned classical ideas now but they got me thinking and I found them really interesting.
I: Would you say that your father, Peter Shore, influenced the political side of anthropology you got into?
C: Yes, without a doubt, although he had no idea what anthropology was: his whole world was politics. He was a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party. My main area of interest in anthropology was always political anthropology. Growing up in a house where your dad is an MP had a big influence I guess. Politics was what we talked about all the time. I was very interested in and influenced by Labour Party politics and Leftist ideas in general. My PhD was an anthropological study of the Italian Communist Party. I went to Italy to study Italian culture and society through its political parties and local level activists. Researching left-wing politics opened up lots of conversations with my dad. I was constantly making comparisons with the British left. I discovered Gramsci’s writings and thought a lot about how you might construct a hegemony that would work in a British context. Doing fieldwork in Italy for me was partly about trying to figure out whether the Italian Communist Party had some of the answers; to explore whether the theory and practice of Italian communism had anything to offer to the British left. Before going to Italy, I wrote an MA thesis that explored factions within the Labour Party. That was my first ever fieldwork project. I was interested in understanding ideological divisions within my local constituency Labour Party and analysing how ideology affects organisation, identity and everyday behaviour.
I: You mentioned that you have some of your father’s books on the shelves here. Do you ever include any aspects from them into your work?
C: He wrote one called the Conviction earlier on in the 1950s. The other two books he wrote much later when Mrs Thatcher was in government and Labour were in opposition. One is called Leading the Left , which examines Labour party leaders from Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson to Neil Kinnock and John Smith. One of the interesting aspects of that book is that he actually knew and worked with most of them. I helped edit that book, and he helped me a lot with my PhD because he was interested in the things I was writing about, particularly communism and political history. He was a good person for bouncing ideas around but in return, he would share his draft chapters with me. He had no idea what anthropology was and I don’t think he even knew what subjects I was studying as an undergraduate. I remember him asking me why I wasn’t studying something practical that would lead to a job. But once I started doing PhD and he realised that it was all about politics, then I think anthropology began to make more sense to him.
I: Could you recommend any books that either positively influenced you or that you find outstanding?
C: I have a whole load of them at home. One of them that was definitely a game-changer for me is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I think everyone should read that. I was interested in nation states and nationalism. Anderson is not an anthropologist, but he brings an anthropological perspective onto nationalism also an anthropological definition of nations as socially and cultural-constructed historical artefacts. I mean, the greatest single most important force of the 20th century was without doubt nationalism. It changed the whole social and political landscape and left millions of people dead. Anderson reflects on the mass graves and the tombs of the so-called ‘unknown soldier’ and says that these are not so much monuments to ‘unknown’ soldiers but rather testimonies to enduring grip of the nation-state. This is a memorialisation of the people who died for their ‘nation’; those patriots who gave their lives in service to their country and its leaders. The question Anderson is asking is: why is nationalism such a powerful force in society? This whole idea of ‘imagined communities’ is really powerful and it makes you realise just how much the ‘nation’ is an invention – and a recent one at that. But, there was one anthropologist book that I read that really influenced me and left me thinking, ‘oh yeah this is the kind of thing that anthropology should be doing’. That book was Abner Cohen’s Two-Dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society. Cohen had done fieldwork in Africa but this was a collection of his essays on political anthropology in general where he applies his insights on urbanisation and ethnicity in central Africa and uses them to reflect on the problems of political organisations ‘at home’, so to speak. He has a whole chapter on City London brokers and how to study them as a type of ‘ethnic’ group, and other chapters on how informal groups solve the problems of organisation. When I read this, I thought it was bursting with useful ideas that could be used to study my own society. I knew anthropology was an interesting subject, but I could not understand why so much of it was so boring. Then I realised, that the interesting thing about anthropology for me is not studying exotic peoples in the remote peripheries or far-flung corners of former empires. Rather, it is about how anthropology’s methodologies and insights can be turned back onto our own culture and society. I am interested in the urban, bureaucratic Western world, the world that I grew up in. I’m interested in power and elites. In some respect, that has come to define my take on anthropology and the things I have written about: the anthropology of power, organisations and elites. I think Abner Cohen was my inspiration for that and I acknowledged my debt to him in a book I edited on anthropology of elites, which I dedicated to Abner: Elite Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives. Here are just some of the themes he tackles: (reads from Abner Cohen’s book) ‘The bizarre and the mystical in modern society’, ‘ the hidden dimension of organisations’… chapter 2 ‘ power relations and symbolic actions’, chapter 3 ‘ the dialectics of political symbolic independence’ and so on. That was a really influential book.
I: Are you writing anything at the moment or better yet what are you writing about at the moment?
C: Well, it is three years late. We have a contract for a book that is provisionally titled Audit Culture: How Indicators, Rankings and Metrics are Transforming the World. I am writing it with my colleague Susan Wright. We have written two or three books together on topics including ‘Anthropology of Policy’ and ‘University Reform and the Global Knowledge Economy’. We have been writing together for over 20 years and have developed quite a unique way of writing, one that entails being in the room together and bouncing off each other as we compose our drafts. The Audit Culture book is nearly there – just one more chapter to write, a couple to edit and a conclusion to complete. I am really excited by this book. We wanted it to be kind of a ‘big think’ book that goes beyond anthropology as the topic will be of interest and importance to a very wide audience, or so we hope. Everyone complains about the audit culture and having to respond to ever-more demanding regimes of accountability.
Interview by Kaytrina Falcini & Ivana Kulas-Reid