Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

The Myriad Measures of Achievement

Achievement is commonly defined as a successful completion of a given undertaking, but what it means to “achieve” is not a static idea the world over. Contributors to The Social Life of Achievement, published last month, examine meanings of achievement in countries and cultures throughout the world. Below, co-editor Nicholas J. Long addresses the term and provides insight into the background of the volume, from its inception to its subjects to its methodology.




Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of achievement? And what inspired you to research and write about it?


Nicholas J. Long: Fieldwork! In the Riau Islands – the region of Indonesia where I’ve conducted most my research – people talk and think about achievement all the time. It’s become an integral component of the citizenship syllabus: students are taught that a good Indonesian should try to seize any opportunities for ‘achievement’ that they can. And it’s an incredibly widespread trope in public culture. I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be able to write a good ethnography of the region without engaging in some way with this achievement discourse and how it was shaping people’s lives.

As I got to know Riau Islanders better over time, I found that the lived reality of being ‘an achiever’ was often different from what they had anticipated. It was also different from what might have been predicted by the psychological models that were informing Indonesian policy-making and encouraging the government to make ‘achievement’ such a buzzword. When I got back to the UK, I began to see a similar pattern. A lot of my friends and students were people who would normally be classified as ‘high achievers’. But while that seemed to empower some people to be incredibly confident and live ever-more successful lives, others seemed to find it paralyzing. I was sure that this couldn’t just be reduced to the psychology of individual personalities, but that the consequences of achieving needed to be linked to the particular cultural and political-economic context within which it was taking place. So a comparative investigation of how achievement plays out in different settings seemed to be a really important and timely endeavour.



BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?



NL: I think I became much more reflexive regarding my own practice as a teacher. There’s a lot of very compelling literature out there which shows that telling a student they’re ‘brilliant’ or ‘a first-class mind’ might actually inculcate notions of ability and personhood that can prove very disabling further down the line. I began to see how deeply those kinds of discourses had affected some of my students, and that I should try to position my own assessment and feedback practices in ways that didn’t repeat those same kinds of mistakes.

And of course I learned a huge amount from the other contributors. Some were identifying factors that were relevant to the study of achievement that I’d never even thought of. Rebecca Cassidy, for example, has a wonderful chapter where she shows how the material and technological changes in the way that people gamble can completely transform their experiences of winning. Others were offering ethnography that really challenges conventional notions of achievement. Normally we think of achievement as being attained by a subject, or a self — but Joanna Cook’s ethnography of a Thai meditation monastery asks us how we can think about achievement in a setting where the thing to be achieved is ‘non-self’. It’s really provocative material. Others still were offering new strategies for writing about achievement – Kathleen Stewart, for instance, who’s developed a distinctive but very effective ‘compositional approach’ to reveal the intricacies of how ‘achievement’ emerges and operates within the contexts of densely lived worlds. So I really like to think of this volume as a ‘handbook’ for studying achievement: each of the essays offers the reader a new way or thinking about achievement as an ethnographic object, and what approaches might be useful for studying and writing about it.



BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?


NL: One of the most important things that the volume does is to put ethnographic methods and cultural theory approaches into a direct dialogue with recent developments in social and developmental psychology, which has mainly relied on experimental methods. Our introduction is very much devoted to developing an integrated framework through which achievement could be studied, that pulls together everything good that these diverse approaches have to offer. Psychology is the discipline that has tended to dominate in accounts of achievement – and the experiments that scholars in the field are developing have revealed extraordinarily compelling insights into many of the micro-level processes that surround achievement. These are things that the average ethnographer would overlook, or never be in a position to see in the first place. But the lab setting is of necessity detached from the complex situational dynamics of everyday life – and this is where ethnographic research has an important role to play. I think an integrated framework is a major contribution. Hopefully it will set the stage for innovative mixed-methods research in the years to come.



BB: How might this volume change the way the average person views “achievement”?


NL: I’m not sure that’s quite the right question. We’re not, for example, trying to push an ‘anti-achievement’ agenda, even though we do recognize that achieving can sometimes be very harmful for people and are concerned that this is often overlooked in both policy and everyday life. Instead, I hope that readers might be able to view their own relationship to their achievements in new ways . If ‘achieving’ doesn’t have the consequences that they want it to, this isn’t because achieving is bad per se, or because of some internal character flaw on their part. It’s the outcome of a range of material and discursive circumstances, some of which they might even be able to change. Hopefully that realisation might also prompt readers to be more attentive to the often complex and difficult experiences of high-achieving people that they know.



BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


NL: Hopefully not. The chapters are quite theoretically eclectic, so readers might be more naturally disposed to some approaches than others. Affect theory and cognitive science are not exactly renowned for being natural bedfellows! But I hope readers will approach the volume with open minds, and recognize that all the different approaches do have something to offer each other.



BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


NL: For me, it’s the question of how and why achievement affects different people in particular ways. There have been some great studies addressing this question over the years. So for example, we’re really lucky to have an essay by Signithia Fordham in the volume because her Blacked Out (1996) is an absolute classic in that regard. And I can think of others – the Suarez-Orozcos’ Transformations (1995), and some more recent papers by sociologists of education. But the issue has never developed much theoretical traction in anthropology as a whole. I think anthropologists have been so busy deconstructing the imperative to achieve within their critiques of neoliberalism that they’ve forgotten that they also need to think about achievement as a real event that transforms lives. This book should be a first step towards redressing the balance.




Nicholas J. Long is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the co-editor of Southeast Asian Perspectives on Power (Routledge, 2012) and Sociality: New Directions (Berghahn Books, 2013), and author of the monograph Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago (NUS/NIAS/University of Hawai’i Press, forthcoming).


Henrietta L. Moore is the William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is the co-editor of Understanding Global Sexualities (Routledge, 2012) and Sociality: New Directions (Berghahn Books, 2013). Her most recent monograph is Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions (Polity Press, 2011).


The Social Life of Achievement is Volume 2, WYSE Series in Social Anthropology