Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Virtual Moment

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Virtual Moment

Article excerpt

It is perhaps not surprising that anthropology is increasingly involved in the study of audit, partly, one imagines, as a reaction to the degree to which anthropologists find themselves increasingly subject to audit of their own teaching and research and respond by trying to objectify this relationship as an academic problem. Indeed, the core of the response has been a critique of the audit of academia itself (e.g. Strathern 2000). But within that same edited volume, there is another response that is characteristic of the core principles of anthropology This is to undertake fieldwork on the actual process of audit, thus engaging directly and empathetically with the language, perspectives, and structure that constitute such audits.

Such an ethnography now has the advantage of engaging with a developing anthropological literature found not only in Strathern (2000) but also in such exemplary texts as Riles (2001), as well as in earlier work on bureaucracy in anthropology (e.g. Herzfeld 1992). In particular, it puts the researcher in debt to the critical contribution of Power (1997) in his book, The audit society. The empathetic stance of ethnography also implicated an engagement with the recent work by du Gay (2000). His book, In praise of bureaucracy, makes the point that an engagement with audit has to confront the current contradictions within bureaucracy. In several respects, audit appears to be a form of bureaucracy, but one that has the effect of actually constraining the ability of existing forms of bureaucracy to fulfil the role for such institutions within society, as set out originally by Weber and reiterated by du Gay. So an empathetic encounter by no means implies an uncritical analysis. It is this anthropological trajectory that I wish to pursue here. Having been allowed to accompany and observe every detail of several inspections, what I present is an ethnographic account of the terminology, stated aims, and observed practice of audit. Its particular concern is the contradictions of structure that may lead to results which are quite antithetical to those stated aims.

In the article's conclusion, I link the study to a larger theoretical structure for which I have employed the term 'Virtualism' (Miller 1998). It was the desire to ground this theory and to develop a further study of the use of the concept of value in contemporary life that led to the choice of a specific example of audit, that of Best Value (Audit Commission 1999). Best Value (henceforth By), which was established in the United Kingdom in 1999, is a colossal operation, said by Martin (2001) to cost [pounds sterling]600 million a year. It is based on a new statutory requirement that every service provided by every unit of regional and municipal government ('council' in UK parlance) in England and Wales must provide a BV report and be subject to a BV inspection once every five years. At the time of writing about 1,600 of these reports have been published. The areas of local government activity which they cover include such diverse activities as the cleaning of buildings, the provision of information technology , and much more--ranging from maintaining playgrounds, highways, and libraries through to planning and environmental controls--in short, every aspect of what local government does (for reviews of By, see Boyne 1999; Martin 2000; 2002; Raine 2000; Snape 2000).

The inspections seem to follow the general sense of New Labour and Third Way politics in the UK. That is, it claims to have transcended any ideological preferences for either the state or the public sector in favour of a reorientation of all services to the user as the ultimate consumer of the service. It follows what has been termed the modernizing agenda (Du Gay 2000) of government with respect to all aspects of the civil service, and there are parallels to BV across the whole range of government. The system of audit in the UK has its own particular history and context (see Power 1997), but is parallel to movements in other countries and is certainly affected by the drive for European Union and international standards. …

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