Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Published in A Companion to the Anthropology of Education, First Edition. Edited by Bradley A. U. Levinson and Mica Pollock (Blackwell Publishing, 2011), pp 461–477.


Copyright © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


As sociocultural theorists (e.g., Gutierrez 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 at., 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. ...

Traditional educational policy studies too readily ignore important dynamics that can broadly explain both how educational systems operate and why they yield the outcomes they do. By contrast, sociocultural approaches capture and highlight important data that these traditional studies miss. Fortunately, it is steadily becoming more widely recognized that anthropological approaches have a keen role to play in the study of educational policy implementation (whether the anthropological approach is overtly noted or not). And only through more nuanced and thorough understandings of what is happening can we make informed choices about how to generate more favorable practices and outcomes.