Admitting otherwise: Diversity work, contextuality and the future of anthropology

  • David Mills


The difficult work of decolonizing UK anthropology teaches us important lessons about our field. Rethinking the curriculum may be the easy part. Making university admissions fairer is a harder task. The biggest challenge of all is transforming the institutional cultures and demographic profile of anthropology’s students and faculty. The Covid-19 pandemic showed that rapid change is possible: its aftermath is an opportunity for more radical rethinking of this diversity work in anthropology.

Many UK universities currently use ‘contextual’ information about undergraduate applicants to make admissions ‘fairer’. Would a more self-reflective understanding of ‘contextuality’ include the institutional contexts of universities themselves? Most social anthropology departments are found in ‘Russell group’ and ‘Sutton-30’ universities. Their student populations are more likely to be able-bodied, white, female and middle class than those in other universities: these students have a disproportionate opportunity to access PhD research funding. The growth in postgraduate education also exacerbates these differences. This paper combines institutional history and student data to reconceputalise and broaden debates around ‘contextual admissions’. Acknowledging the institutional racism within UK universities, a more encompassing definition of ‘contextuality’ would allow a critical attention to the academic cultures that create barriers to widening participation, retention and progression to postgraduate study.

Author Biography

David Mills

I studied anthropology at SOAS, and conducted fieldwork in a school and university in Uganda. As a doctoral student, I became interested in anthropological pedagogies and the teaching of ethnographic skills, and was involved in national debates about teaching and the work of C-SAP (Higher Education Academy Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) for almost a decade. I have held lectureships in Development Studies, Cultural Studies, Anthropology and now Education. As well as finishing an ethnographic textbook aimed at research students in Education, I write about the institutional history of the social sciences, their pedagogies and the politics of disciplinarity in the contemporary university.