Richard Handler


“Over time, the selection (admissions) processes of elite institutions have come to be focused on keeping people out, since selecting only the very best people requires rejecting everyone else, the vast majority of applicants.  Contrariwise, for an unranked institution like Ravenwood, admissions processes are designed to take people in, in short, to find customers.”

“At this end of the market, there are many potential students, but most of them do not have the financial means, educational background and life circumstances that make a college education attainable.  Thus Posecznick focused his study on how the Ravenwood admissions office advertised the college, dealt with prospects and tried to ‘convert’ them into students.

“Much of Posecznick ‘s ethnography is concerned with the way in which admissions officers and other college administrators interact with various externally located systems of assessment and documentation as they do the work of conversion that will allow Ravenwood to continue to exist.  Anthropologists who have worked in educational administration will recognize the through-the-looking-glass world Posecznick describes, in which bureaucratic forms, assessment tools, self-studies and written reports create a kind of unreal reality that we not only have to deal with, but that can reward or punish us and the institutional spaces (departments, programs, colleges) in our care.  The profound theoretical question this book poses is the disjunction between actors’ explicit values (in this case, Ravenwood’s mission to educate a certain kind of student) and the work they must do (in pursuit of their mission) that furthers someone else’s agenda—which might well be ‘incompatible’ with their own (p. 185).  This is not a question about individuals’ sincerity or self-consciousness (people do not do what they say they are doing) but about institutional hegemony and the ways individuals adapt to it.”

Richard Handler, Professor & Director of Global Development Studies Program, author of Central Sites, Peripheral Visions: Cultural and Institutional Crossings in the History of Anthropology. (forthcoming). Book Review: Selling Hope and College. Anthropology and Education Quarterly.