Are You a Viking? University, Masculinity and the Language of Violence

by scottchan

Business life today is shaped by the language of war and conflict. In fact, descriptions of business in terms of violent conflict have become sedimented in common sense to such an extent that they are hardly even noticed. It is quite remarkable, for instance, that Sun Zi’s ‘The Art of War’, written more than 2000 years ago in ancient China, has become a major inspiration for contemporary books on management and business. Nonetheless, such odd associations are generally accepted without much questioning.

The academic world today is in the process of being colonised by the values, mindset, and operational principles of business. Henry Etzkowitz, a leading proponent of the ‘entrepreneurial university’, argues that, rather “than being suborned to either industry or government, the university is emerging as an influential actor and equal partner in an innovation regime, the ‘triple helix’ of university–industry–government relations”. The website of Etzkowitz’s Tripe Helix Association proclaims that the “Tripe Helix mission” is essential to overcoming global economic problems. Around this basic idea and its implications, Etzkowitz and other academic entrepreneurs have build an influential network of activities, from expensive talks and workshops to international conferences and publications. Entrepreneurs like Etzkowitz have obviously enjoyed tremendous success selling their ideas to universities and transforming them into educational policy. Nonetheless, there is little evidence of an ‘equal partnership’ between universities and the world of business. Rather, through a concerted effort of (in part externally imposed) organisational reforms, universities seem to have been re-rendered as simply another kind of business enterprise, selling a particular range of services based on the same general principles that also motivate, say, McDonald’s or Tesco.

This re-rendering of the university is evident in the language that academics use with increasing frequency when they discuss their profession. Consider this short piece on Euroscientist. Ostensibly simply a brief discussion of an event on doctoral training, the text invokes a very particular kind of language:

“Be brave and aggressive, be prepared and be a good merchant.  These so called ‘Viking Laws’ are, in a nutshell, the advice of Zsolt Kajocsos, Deputy Director of KFKI, for young researchers who want to be successful in science. In the ESOF session on ‘Structured doctoral training and postdoctoral mobility’ different approaches to university management of high quality academic education, research and innovation in Europe were discussed. Young researchers were encouraged to be strong and learn how to sell themselves and their research despite how their university manages doctoral training. […]Since no system is perfect and the road to a PhD is long and the pathways to the European Research Area are even longer, researchers are advised to stay strong and take on Viking principles in the face of rough waters.”

Here there is, of course, the notion that researchers ‘sell’ something – themselves, their ideas, and so forth. There is, most certainly, also the implicit assumption that researchers, rather than cooperating with each other, find themselves locked in fierce competition – hence the need to be ‘brave’, ‘aggressive’, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, the reference to ‘Viking Laws’ also suggests that this is the unchangeable way of things. Stay strong and be a Viking, because there is just no other way forward.

All these are standard features of the neoliberal narrative of higher education. Another central feature of this narrative – one that goes unquestioned far too often – is its hypermasculine inclination. Taken at face value, the suggestion that junior researchers should imagine themselves as Vikings braving fierce battles and stormy seas might seem simply like well-meant encouragement in a difficult situation. Beneath the image, however, lie problematic premises. Academia has long been a man’s world, shaped by patriarchal principles of organisation. In some countries, such as the UK, the successes of feminism in the late 20th century managed to change this to some extent. Will the entrepreneurial turn in academic life entail a full-scale reversal of these achievements? It is true that advocates of the entrepreneurial university have put lipstick on the pig and spoken in favour of greater gender equality in academic life (see, for example, a number of notable publications by Henry Etzkowitz). Nevertheless, the wedding of university and business all too clearly appears to be premised on masculinist organisational logics. The casual description of researchers as Vikings, matched by many similar accounts in current public debates, highlights this. Why should academic life be imagined as a struggle, when in fact scholarly achievements are most often and in many ways the outcome of cooperation and collaboration? To what end should young researchers be aggressive towards others and act like salesmen, when scholarly achievements are most easily facilitated by a free and generous exchange of knowledge and ideas? Why should scholars enter the battlefield, when intellectual exchange between equals is the most rewarding and enjoyable way of doing our work?

Moreover, the story that junior researchers should imagine themselves are rugged individuals, struggling with each other for success in the marketplace of ideas (and, of course, jobs, grants, articles in highly-ranked journals, citations, and so forth), misdirects attention away from the real issues they face today. These problems do not result from them not being man enough. Framing scholarly careers in terms of aggression and bravery is erroneous, in that it does not reflect the realities of intellectual achievement and threatens to take universities back to their patriarchal roots. When PhD graduates struggle to find a job and settle into a stable career, their difficulties are due to fundamental structural deficiencies in the way academia works – a mismatch between the number PhD students and the jobs available, a trend towards the casualisation of academic labour, unclear pathways from viva to lectureship, and so forth. These issues demand an open discussion and a collective response. By encouraging young scholars to simply toughen up in the face of adversity, their problems are wrongly turned into individual failures, and unnecessary frustration, disappointment and anguish result.


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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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