Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Published (as Chapter 27) in A Companion to the Anthropology of Education, First Edition, edited by Bradley A. U. Levinson and Mica Pollock (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 461–477. Copyright © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Used by permission.


Many of the roots of interdisciplinary educational policy implementation studies are anthropological. It follows that what constitutes an anthropology of educational policy implementation should be articulated. This chapter draws on the works of Bronislaw Malinowski, Frederick Erickson, and Joseph Maxwell, among many others to identity the anthropological contributions and prospective contributions to inquiry into the study of the interface between educational policy and practice.

As sociocultural theorists (e.g., Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003; Orellana, 2009) have recently asserted, “culture” is something one does, rather than something one has. That is, human beings produce, perform, and reproduce culture every day. Policy implementation — or what Milbrey McLaughlin (1987: 175) has called “muddling through” — is deeply implicated in these processes of cultural production and thus invites anthropological inquiry. Indeed, it is possible to link the study of policy implementation to some of the foundational efforts of anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology (Wedel et al., 2005). Our discussion in this chapter thus borrows explicitly and centrally from an early, classic cultural anthropology work (Malinowski, 1922), while also drawing on more recent research, to explain the distinctive characteristics of the anthropological study of policy implementation and its foundational analytic categories and concerns.

In 1984, Frederick Erickson updated and republished an essay titled, “What Makes School Ethnography ‘Ethnographic?,” which was initially published in 1973. Both versions built centrally from Malinowski. Although “anthropological” and “ethnographic” are overlapping rather than synonymous terms, as are “school” and “educational policy implementation,” Erickson’s (1984) essay provides a highly useful template for our current endeavor. Its usefulness derives not only from his demonstration of how classical anthropological concepts can be applied to the study of education, but also because its very structure can be imitated here with the same questions posed about educational policy implementation that Erickson posed about the ethnography of schools. Erickson’s chapter, however, is not as explicit about another concern — validity — so for consideration of that we also turn later in the paper to other sources, particularly Maxwell (1992).

Like Erickson (1984), we are writing at a time when the subfield we are describing — in our case, educational policy implementation studies — is becoming increasingly well-established (see Datnow and Park, 2009; Honig, 2006; McLaughlin, 1987) and drawing many of its core methods and assumptions from anthropology, but not always acknowledging those roots explicitly (e.g.. Stein, 2004). Whether its anthropological components are overtly recognized or not, the subfield of educational policy implementation studies differs from the traditionally dominant field of educational policy studies. Thus, a modest purpose of this chapter is to clarify the anthropological components of educational policy implementation studies, but a larger one is to clarify how such inquiry differs more substantially from the dominant strains of educational policy research. Recently, Erickson and Gutierrez wrote, “A logically and empirically prior question to ‘Did it work?’ is ‘What was the “it”?’ — ‘What was the “treatment” as actually delivered?’“ (2002: 21). Studying the “it” as well as the outcomes (instead of outcomes only) is not the only distinction between anthropological education policy implementation studies and traditional educational policy studies, but it is an important one, and one that we return to throughout this chapter.

Like Erickson (1984), we face the task of adapting the original impulses of our discipline — to document cultures — for different purposes. However, unlike that historic (and subsequently critiqued) impulse of documenting a people who supposedly existed in a bounded, coherent, and relatively homogeneous collective, anthropological studies of education policy implementation cannot presume a single people or type as their target. Instead, they necessarily include explaining the heterogeneous bases for the interaction of diverse peoples through policy implementation. Policy implementation links people who often are obviously quite different from each other in terms of age, formal preparation, expected agency (as subject or object of implementation), location, and formal position, but who nonetheless are connected to one another as part of a web or network of social activity focused on: (1) defining (or contesting others’ definitions of) what is problematic in education; (2) promoting or resisting particular strategies for responding to such purported problems; and (3) determining to what vision of the future change efforts should be directed.

As with the 1970s and 1980s (the two dates of Erickson’s publication), ours is also a rime when anthropologists of education are far more likely to be housed in faculties of education than in anthropology. Peripheral then to its disciplinary home in anthropology (although consistent with the anthropology of policy more generally (e.g., Shore and Wright, 1997; Wedel et al., 2005)), the anthropology of educational policy implementation must compete with the dominant paradigm for policy research in education. As Levinson and Sutton assert (2001), this dominant paradigm, which we refer to as the “technical-rational approach,” takes a narrower, more formal, and primarily instrumental view of policy; it assumes a neat distinction between policy and practice and often a linear, unidirectional relationship between them; it attempts to apply positivistic principles and methods from the natural sciences to explain and predict educational policy processes; it takes for granted received categories (such as “academic achievement” or “English language learner”); and it seeks certain actionable truths embodied in purportedly value-free scientific studies.

As we shall see, anthropological studies of educational policy implementation, by contrast, define policy itself much more broadly, and consequently include a broader range of social actors in their analyses; they problematize clean distinctions between policy formation and implementation, or appropriation; they aim for interpretation rather than explanation and prediction; they question received categories; and they attempt to persuade with clear and compelling arguments while critiquing other fields’ promises to deliver “objective” truths (for further discussion of this contrast, see Rosen, 2009). Erickson’s central argument is “that ethnography should be considered a deliberate inquiry process guided by a point of view, rather than a reporting process guided by a standard technique or set of techniques, or a totally intuitive process that does not involve reflection” (1984: 51). Likewise, there is no single way to conduct the anthropology of educational policy implementation, but such work does entail a particular lens or perspective on policy processes. As we elaborate below, this starts with questioning the conventional definitions of both policy and practice and broadening the unit of analysis for policy implementation studies.