Policy, power and appropriation: reflections on the ownership and governance of policy
Location B
Date and Time 9th December, 2008 at 08:30


Cris Shore (University of Auckland) c.shore@auckland.ac.nz
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Short Abstract

This panel brings anthropological analyses of power with debates over property to explore the relationship between policy and ideas of property. It asks, who 'owns' policy? How is policy implicated in the appropriation of knowledge? How do policy regimes produce subjects as objects of management?

Long Abstract

It has become a truism in Anthropology that 'power remains strong when it remains in the dark' and that the most effective forms of political control work by disguising the mechanisms of their own operation. When we translate these principles into a public policy context several contradictions are apparent. On the one hand, the power of policy - and the regimes of governance it sustains - lies in the relative invisibility of its operation. Effective hegemony, ('manufacturing consent') requires forms of power that cannot be easily identified or contested. On the other, policy is an exercise in legitimation requiring visibility, legitimacy and authority. Public policies are often claimed as exclusive property by particular groups or governments, yet often the ownership of a policy is denied or disguised, not least when it becomes expedient to distance oneself from policy outcomes. These contradictory uses and effects of policy raise interesting theoretical and empirical questions:

1. What exactly is 'policy' as a cultural category, and how do policies 'work'?

2. How is policy implicated in the ownership and appropriation of knowledge?

3. How do policy regimes produce subjects as objects of management?

4. Who 'owns' policy and how is that ownership manifest or contested?

In exploring these questions the panel reflects on how ideas of property (understood in both metaphorical and practical senses) might help us understand policy and, conversely, how an anthropological focus on policy might provide new perspectives to disciplinary debates over property.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


On the ownership of policy about property treated as property with properties; or, how Indigenous housing guidelines became contraband property

Author: Tess Lea (University of Sydney) tess.lea@sydney.edu.au

Short Abstract

Taking the highly contested arena of Australian Indigenous public housing as its focus, this paper explores the porosity of policy. Who ‘owns’ the problem of Indigenous housing, when questions of housing ownership are seen as part of the problem?


Taking the highly contested arena of Australian Indigenous public housing as its focus, this paper explores the porosity of policy: as a material artefact which acts; as a transient creation which embeds and exudes moral properties; as property which shapes ideas about the reverence of household property; and most pertinently, as a site where ideas about ownership, property and agency collude and collide. Who 'owns' the problem of Indigenous housing, when questions of housing ownership are seen as part of the problem? Why the tremendous effort to garner 'ownership' for policy words if such processes create conditions for upstream disavowal? With these questions as backdrop, this case study explores the social life of the National Indigenous Housing Guide (Vol III). The Guide is a collaboratively formed set of guidelines, drawing on the knowledge of advocates, professionals, industry, householders and bureaucrats, to describe ideal technical solutions for the extraordinary material strain typically suffered by Indigenous housing infrastructure (think overcrowding, rust, calcification). They are the Australian Government's agreed and recommended policy. But the guidelines do not sit passively on call, awaiting mobilisation into the world of practice, but are themselves dynamic - decaying some policy bonds, opening up new debates, and otherwise creating performances in the world. If implemented to their word, the Guide increases both the cost of building properties and the irritation of contractors. Such are the issues behind the transformation of bland policy guidelines about properly displayed forms of property ownership into a new form of controversial hot property.

'Policy Societies': policy, property, and owned persons.

Author: Simone Abram (Durham University) post@sabram.co.uk

Short Abstract

This paper considers the personhood of policy. In the context of policy on housing demolition, it examines why feelings of ownership of house-property might disrupt governmental ambitions that citizens should feel ownership over policy and explores the ambivalence around what that ownership entails.


In the pantheon of neo-liberal government (eg in the not-so 'New Public Management'), the idea of investing ownership in policies is central to creating legitimacy for governing strategies. When these policies involve the demolition of people's homes, feelings of 'owning policy' might be disrupted by feelings of ownership over the property that constitutes home. Whether or not a house is owned by the inhabitants, or whether it is rented from others, feelings of ownership often constitute the house as a person (as Levi-Strauss suggested in his definition of 'house society'). But can we equally understand policy as person? Does policy have properties or property-like aspects that correspond to house-property, or is it a different kind of person? This paper examines policy as person, property as person, and person as property through a study of urban regeneration policy and 'housing renewal' in the UK.

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Guaranteeing Employment to Rural India

Author: Nayanika Mathur (University of Cambridge) nm289@cam.ac.uk

Short Abstract

Looking at a policy that creates public property as a piece of property itself, this paper studies it by looking at three moments in its three year long life – its birth/authorship; its subsequent appropriation by different actors in its new avatar as a revolutionary, anti-poverty scheme; and the confusing and chaotic effects of the implementation of the scheme – in a bid to understand the operations of state power in India.


In 2005 an unlikely coalition of political parties won India's national elections. Estimating that they owed their shock win to the disgruntled 'rural unemployed', the newly formed government's first move was to enact what is retrospectively termed their flagship programme: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Hailed as a radical piece of legislation, the NREGA guarantees employment in public works programme at minimum wages for 100 days in a year to a member of any rural household in India. The assets created from this work are deemed the property of the village. Despite my 16 months of fieldwork, confusion over the origins and the authoring of the NREGA remains due to the conflicting claims of various actors. Who or what, then, authored it? Post-enactment, does ownership change hands from, say, the legislature who wrote it to the executive who implements it? A proprietorial attitude is evident from all the stakeholders when it comes to the avowed intent of the Act i.e. the extermination of rural poverty in India. This exists alongside a gentle disassociation from the NREGA's reportedly poor performance. On the subject of performance, it has been two years since its implementation and yet no agreement on its impact can be arrived upon. Is this inherent in the nature of development schemes in this gigantic country or is this, as I argue, publicly acknowledged lack of clarity and the raucous feuding over ownership of the Act, a mode through which power is, silently and invisibly on the side, exercised?

Universities as 'self-owning' subjects of governance?

Author: Susan Wright (Århus University) suwr@dpu.dk

Short Abstract

The Danish university reform in 2003 created ’self-owning’ universities, which did not actually own anything. This paper takes a historical ethnographic approach to explore how this concept is implicated in a new system of governance and the production of universities as a new kind of subject and object of management.


The Danish university reform in 2003 created 'self-owning' universities. This change of status went unremarked in the Rectors' conference and the parliamentary debates. The concept was central to the policy to change the governance and social role of Danish universities, yet was not clearly defined. Universities were no longer located within the state bureaucracy, and were placed in a contractual relation to the ministry instead. They gained the status of a legal person and could go bankrupt for the first time. But they did not actually come to own anything - the state continued to own the universities' land and buildings. Rectors, realising how tightly university finances are now tied to fulfilment of state priorities, have begin arguing for universities to own their assets to gain more independence.

This paper asks, how was 'self-ownership' implicated in a new system of governance and the production of universities as a new kind of subject and object of management? The paper draws on a four-year research project studying the debates leading to, and the actions following from, the Danish University Law of 2003. Clearly, the Danish reforms are part of what the literature calls neo-liberal governance, but the paper avoids assuming in advance what such a form of governance entails. Instead, taking a 'historical-ethnography' approach to the trajectory of a policy concept, the study makes a detailed analysis of the ways different actors, politicians, civil servants, and rectors have made sense of, contested and contributed to the emergence of a new form of governance.

Who Owns Government Schools? An Ethnographic Study

Author: Martin Forsey (University of Western Australia) mforsey@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Short Abstract

As this case study shows, government officials are willing to allow key players to act independently in the interests of creating a stronger school but will do so only so far as those entrusted with taking ownership of the major decisions made at a local level do not exceed the authority granted to them. Ultimately those who govern own government schools.


Is it true as some scholars argue that government institutions belong to all of us? My research, a fifteen month ethnographic study of neoliberal policy in practice in a Western Australian Government secondary school, suggests that claims to ownership of decision making in schools is situational. The gap between the ideals of a devolved model of governance and the lived realities was striking. While all tax-paying citizens can claim some stake in government schools, particularly those whose children attend these institutions, the fact is that very few choose to play an active role in the running of them. Teachers are often happy to hand responsibility for major decisions to the Executive and the bureaucrats tended to be "hands-off", until the Principal started to act too independently that is. The Principal was correct to point out that it was she who had to carry the burden of responsibility for decisions taken at the local level. However, this does not mean that she owned the school. As this case study shows, while government officials are often willing to allow key players to act independently in the interests of creating a stronger school, they will do so only so far as those entrusted with taking ownership of the major decisions made at a local level do not exceed the authority granted to them. Ultimately those who govern own government schools.

The invisible hand of the State: Does anyone know who owns this policy?

Author: Sarah Robinson (The University of Western Australia) sarah@sarahrobinson.dk

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic research within an Australian State Educational bureaucracy this paper explores the parameters of policy from within the bureaucracy. In the initial stages of this study there are indications that policy is formed and created by many hands. Who writes policy?


Based on ethnographic research within an Australian State Educational bureaucracy this paper explores the parameters of policy from within the bureaucracy. In the initial stages of this study there are indications that policy is formed and created by many hands. Who writes policy? There is no signature, no individual to whom fame or blame can be apportioned making the collective accountable and through which the rationality of the state emerges. Policy texts and directorates are the tools used by bureaucrats to communicate changes in practice, in this study changes in educational practices. With a political focus on classrooms and devolution of funding to the individual schools power and autonomy is supposedly placed in the hands of the educational institutions themselves. This study follows the process of writing a policy. It interrogates the ways in which the management strategies act on the policy-writers in their struggle to equate political ideology with educational vision. The process of writing and forming a policy can be long and tedious the result of many hours of discussion and decision making and compromises made by a range of people. To what extent does policy have an owner?

Who owns state universities? Policy and appropriation in a New Zealand context

Authors: Cris Shore (University of Auckland) c.shore@auckland.ac.nz
Mira Taitz (University of Auckland) mirataitz@hotmail.com

Short Abstract

This paper explores ownership in the context of New Zealand neo-liberal university reforms. We ask: How are these reforms affecting academic culture and practice? Who owns the university? What can a policy perspective reveal about regimes of governance?


Over the past two decades universities in New Zealand have been subject to an almost continuous process of transformation and 'neo-liberalization' as government has sought to harness academic research and teaching to meet its own strategic priorities and commercial goals. Despite claims that universities should be 'learning communities' and not 'businesses', government increasingly demands that universities lead its 'economic transformation agenda' through the commercialization of research, and the marketing of its teaching and intellectual property. Policies introduced since the 1980s have been accompanied by measures commonly associated with New Public Management. These have dramatically changed the structure of university governance as well as the character of the university as a public institution.

This paper uses ideas of ownership and appropriation to examine how these reforms affect universities. Drawing on recent fieldwork in one of New Zealand's leading universities and using an ethnographic analysis of conflicts over the direction of university reform, we ask: who 'owns' or the university ? Who speaks for it? What does 'ownership' mean in a university context? Have these reforms protected institutional autonomy and academic freedom or have they led to greater centralization and control - and the 'governmentalization' of university practice?

Explorations of policy as text and context; or, what the notion of 'ownership' tends to silence

Author: Gritt B. Nielsen (Århus University) gbn@dpu.dk

Short Abstract

Taking a Danish university policy as its focus this paper explores the benefits and pitfalls of conceptualising policy in terms of ‘ownership’. A heuristic division between policy-as-text and policy-as-context is introduced in order to explore the anthropological criticism of ‘implementation’ studies and current move towards notions of ‘appropriation’.


In spring 2005, an amendment was passed by the Danish Parliament. With the amendment Danish universities for the first time were required to charge tuition fees from certain non-European students. However, a particular university had charged fees from a group of mainly Chinese students since 2004 and a legal investigation of the fees was put into place. Some of the Chinese students heard about the investigation and wrote directly to the Minister of Science to provide him with 'related information'. They publicly complained about the 'low quality' of their programme and claimed that the university had accepted unqualified students in order to make more money.

The stories of illegal fees and students' complaints were the first public testing or negotiation of the amendment. The incidents make evident different ways of relating to, negotiating and exploring policy. On the one hand the anthropologist can explore policy as a text: as a reified substance that different actors consciously attempt to define in different ways. In this perspective, the notions of policy 'implementation' and 'appropriation' place the 'ownership' in different ends of the process. On the other hand, policy can be seen as much more diffuse constellations of governmental logics or technologies that are evoked as a context for explanation by different actors (the anthropologist incl.). This notion of policy as context brackets the quest for ownership and includes as part of the policy process actors and situations that are silenced when policy is conceived of as a reified entity or text to be owned, implemented or appropriated.

Mediating Indigenous knowledges with bureaucratic imperatives: Constituting Australian Indigenous health policy

Author: Daniela Heil (University of Newcastle) Daniela.Heil@newcastle.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper explores the mediation processes Australian health policy planners work with to integrate Indigenous understandings of what it means to be healthy and their requirements for being well with the bureaucratic imperatives and constraints which predominate federal Indigenous health policy contexts.


Drawing on my work as a consultant for the federal Australian health department, I examine the mediation processes inherent in the production of Indigenous health policy. I explore both previously and newly established institutional relationships designed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous health policy makers to negotiate the politics inherent in federal Indigenous health policy design. The project I focus on is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advocacy Brief. This was an attempt by the Federal Health Department to review previous health and well-being projects, which either included or focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The project aimed to elaborate features that worked and those that didn't and, in response, to formulate more constructive and `culturally appropriate´ federal Indigenous health policies. A key focus of the project was ensuring the inclusion of Indigenous people's understandings with input from local, and state and territory levels, as well as national committees, all of which contribute to the health and well-being of Indigenous Australians in one way or another. My analysis shows that socio-cultural inadequacies that are assumed within this process contribute to the reproduction and escalation of Indigenous health problems rather than enabling constructive and sustainable policies for Indigenous people, their well-being and health. I demonstrate how Indigenous ownership and input into Indigenous health policy is hindered by bureaucratic imperatives constituted and maintained within the Federal Health Department.

The Two-Way Appropriation of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge in Conservation Policies: the World Heritage sites of Tongariro in New Zealand and Laponia in Sweden

Authors: Asa Nilsson Dahlstrom (Social Anthropology, Linkoping University) asa.nilsson.dahlstrom@liu.se
Carina Green (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) carina.green@antro.uu.se

Short Abstract

The use of traditional knowledge in conservation is part of indigenous empowerment, but the knowledge also risks being misused by other actors. The Maori in New Zealand and the Saami in Sweden are therefore now engaging in the development of joint management schemes of their World Heritage sites.


Conservation management systems that include indigenous traditional knowledge have increasingly been recognized by international conservation authorities as complementary or even superior to the more conventional conservation approaches. Many indigenous peoples, including the Maori in New Zealand and the Saami in Sweden, have actively promoted their traditional knowledge as pivotal for sustainable development, and are now gaining more control over the management of their traditional areas and natural and cultural resources. However the appropriation of indigenous traditional knowledge in conservation can be seen as a two-way process, in which traditional knowledge is part of an indigenous empowerment process, while conservation authorities gain access to and more control over the use of traditional knowledge. The use of traditional knowledge in conservation is therefore a risky business for indigenous people because it poses a potential threat to the integrity of traditional knowledge, and the way it is used. With the promotion of traditional knowledge also follows a need for indigenous peoples to protect their intellectual property rights and their tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage by ensuring that there is sufficient indigenous influence on conservation boards and in joint management structures to avoid misuse of their knowledge. This paper will illustrate this process by analysing the current development of formal joint management schemes, including the use of indigenous traditional knowledge, between local Maori iwi and DOC in the Tongariro World Heritage site in New Zealand, and between local Saami and conservation authorities in the Laponian World Heritage site in Sweden.

The contradictory nature and outcomes of stakeholder models of urban policy ownership in Salvador, Bahia

Author: John Gledhill (Manchester University) john.gledhill@manchester.ac.uk

Short Abstract

This paper considers the contradictions between the treatment of the poor as stakeholders in Brazilian urban policy and the class-biased definitions of public interest that shape such policy in practice. What looks like a successful exercise in neoliberal governmentality does not produce docile objects of management but new political subjects.


This paper examines an urban area in which rich and poor now live in close proximity as condominiums have grown up around slums established on invaded lands on what was once the periphery of the city. Land values continue to rise not only because of high-income residential development but also due to the area's suitability as a location for "new economy" firms and a state-sponsored technology park. Their prospects for spatial expansion increasingly circumscribed by such developments, poor residents and their organisations nevertheless find themselves invited to the party of participation in the urban planning process as stakeholders whose rights to the city are recognized by government. Yet spokespersons of this same government have argued that the densely occupied slum areas have created major environmental problems best avoided by a policy of non-interference in private property relations, given that the condominium developers and their clients can be relied on to maximise the preservation of the Atlantic forest. Everyone, it seems, now deserves a stake in the city, but their rights are limited by the way ownership over resources relates to ownership of policy, as expression of a transcendent public interest that in practice reproduces a strong class bias. Yet the paper shows that whilst it is easy to dismiss much of what is happening here as a successful exercise in neoliberal governmentality, the outcome is not the production of docile objects of management but a proliferating range of new political subjects.

Selling collective policy ownership: Bolivarian propaganda and Venezuelan media wars

Author: Robin Rodd (James Cook University) robin.rodd@jcu.edu.au

Short Abstract

In state propaganda, Venezuela's 'Bolivarian revolution' is described as 'a revolution in consciousness', and as a process that results in the country 'now belonging to everyone'. Drawing on ethnographic vignettes from a range of media industry contexts, I assess how a sense of collective policy ownership is sold and unsold in contemporary Venezuela.


In state television, newspaper and billboard propaganda, Venezuela's 'Bolivarian revolution' is described as 'a revolution in consciousness', and as a process that results in the country 'now belonging to everyone'. If bringing about '21st century socialism' is the administration's intent, then media policy and programming have become the front line in the fight to maintain popular support amidst ongoing capital flight, stalled social programs and institutional corruption. The government has emphasised a need to democratise access to and representation in radio, television and the press, and there has been a concomitant explosion of community media providers. Nonetheless, many continue to feel excluded from the inclusionary intent of the media democratisation, and of social programs more broadly.

This paper examines the relationship between Venezuelan media policy and the behaviour of media protagonists engaged in a war for access to and influence over the Venezuelan mind. I draw on ethnographic vignettes from a range of media industry contexts, including a pro-revolutionary urban television station, the film set of a nationalist romantic comedy and a series of forums on press freedoms and media terrorism to assess how a sense of collective policy ownership is being sold and unsold in contemporary Venezuela. Analysis of the process of selling collective policy ownership leads to the presentation of metaphors for understanding tensions at the heart of the Bolivarian revolution.