Money Changes Everything

If I'm going to accept [the Sloan Foundation's] money in good faith, I have to minimally carry out their agenda.

--Bradd Shore, Professor of Anthropology


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Money Changes Everything
Commerce, philanthropy, and the culture of the academy


"We should be more creative in thinking about how we reward people for what they've done."
Rich Rothenberg, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine

"If I'm going to accept [the Sloan Foundation's] money in good faith, I have to minimally carry out their agenda."
Bradd Shore, Professor of Anthropology

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Shore directs the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (marial), supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program on Dual-Career Working Middle Class Families. The marial Center researches the functions and significance of ritual and myth in dual wage-earner middle class families in the American South.

Academic Exchange (AE): How did your relationship with the Sloan Foundation first develop?

Bradd Shore (BS): I got to know Sloan because they came to me. The program director called out of the blue and explained what they were interested in, and I said, “That’s interesting, but I do ritual and myth and psychological anthropology in the South Pacific.” But she told me they wanted to set up a research center in a major southern university, and the topic they were interested in was ritual and myth in American family life. Most people who worked in American family sociology or anthropology didn’t really know how to think about ritual and myth in an interesting way, so they decided to take a gamble and go to somebody who had worked in ritual and myth and have them reorient their work toward American families. I began to think how interesting this could be, so I wrote a grant proposal, and it was accepted..

AE: So the Sloan Foundation’s agenda became your agenda?

BS:
Actually, that’s been the biggest area of negotiation we’ve had. The issue is always what they call “staying on track.” They had a vision of what they wanted—who these families were and what the problems were—and they’re very policy-oriented. Anthropologists are often not policy-oriented. That’s been an interesting tension. I have to understand what their agenda is, and they have the responsibility to make it very clear to me at the beginning. And then if I’m going to accept their money in good faith, I have to minimally carry out their agenda. I think we’ve moved closer to the work-life issues they’re interested in, and they have given us breathing room to explore some areas where the direct connection with policy for working families may not be obvious.

There’s an intrinsic tension between the open-ended research mind of the anthropologist who goes in not sure what they’re going to find and wanting to go where the really interesting threads lead them, and the policy-driven research, which presumes that we already know; it just wants to collect data to support policy.

AE: How are you managing that tension?

BS: It’s a tightrope walk in which I am held responsible for making sure that the research we fund has a serious component that foregrounds the issues of work and home. The Sloan Foundation wants reviews, to see what you’re publishing, and periodically they’ll come and have everyone talk about their research. It took me about a year and a half to get the research on track. It’s the least pleasant part of my job. I had to recruit faculty whose work was already fully developed in a certain area, and I had to promise them funding and support if they would move their research slightly in one direction. The research had to be close, but very little of it was on target because issues of myth and ritual and routine in American middle-class working families are not normal research subjects. So for example, two of our researchers are studying family conversational patterns and storytelling, and they were interested in that for a long time, so that’s not a problem. But we’ve had to get them to make sure their sample had a certain percentage of working families versus non-working families, where there was a stay-at-home parent, and they were going to compare the styles. They were not going to originally do that.

AE: Have you ever had to cut someone’s funding off?

BS: Yes, we have. You begin to get research that goes into areas that are too far off. Scholars don’t like to be told what to research; we can’t breathe if we’re too tightly constrained. And we’re primarily scholars. We’re not servants of public policy. In most cases, we’ve been able to compromise. The research may go into areas that go beyond Sloan’s interests, but they know that. As long as we can focus on areas that are of potential use to them, we can do other stuff as well.


AE: Do you think philanthropy is becoming more like investment and demanding a return?

BS: I think it always was; I just think it didn’t want to acknowledge it. These are business models they’re applying. And there’s no question about it; Sloan is the same way. But they have been very open and direct with us. They do not pretend they’re just funding pure research. They are very big on influencing policy. They work with the labor department to get childcare laws changed. The trouble with anthropologists is they come up with insights that you couldn’t have predicted and that may actually go contrary to the policy goals