Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy

By Marilyn Strathern | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Coercive accountability

The rise of audit culture in higher education

Cris Shore and Susan Wright

One of the questions raised in the introduction to this volume is how one recognizes epochal change, particularly when one is in the midst of it. The rise of what some authors have termed 'audit culture', and the rapid and relentless spread of coercive technologies of accountability into higher education is a case in point. Few processes have had such a profound impact in re-shaping academics' conditions of work and conditions of thought since the post-war expansion of the university sector in Britain, yet this major transformation remains curiously under-researched and un-theorized. If, as anthropologists argue, culture is constantly being invented and re-invented, nowhere is this becoming more evident than in the milieu in which most anthropologists themselves operate: the university sector.

This chapter focuses on the rise of technologies of audit and accountability and their transfer from the financial domain to the public sector, particularly higher education. But why does something as seemingly mundane as a 'technology transfer' merit the grand term 'epochal cultural change'? The French philosopher Foucault provides ample evidence of ways in which seemingly dull, routine and bureaucratic practices often have profound effects on social life. Our analysis underlines the fact that audit technologies being introduced into higher education and elsewhere are not simply innocuously neutral, legal-rational practices: rather, they are instruments for new forms of governance and power. They embody a new rationality and morality and are designed to engender amongst academic staff new norms of conduct and professional behaviour. In short, they are agents for the creation of new kinds of subjectivity: self-managing individuals who render themselves auditable.

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