Not What It Used to Be: Academic Capitalism and Sociological Futures in the UK

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As you fill it out, remember the secrets of octopus pudding …

Sociological enquiry today is conditioned by British universities’ enthusiastic endorsement of academic capitalism. In response to the escalating demands of successive governments’ education policy and in cooperation with a range of private interests, universities have refashioned their structures of governance and repositioned themselves vis-à-vis state and marketplace. At the same time, they have remodeled the language, modes of though and feeling and everyday labor practices of administrators, academics and students. (See Cantwell, Brendan and Kauppinen, Ilkka (2014) ‘Academic Capitalism in Theory and Research’, in Cantwell, Brendan and Kauppinen, Ilkka (eds.) Academic Capitalism in the Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp.3-9.)

Nehring Corporate bugIn terms of their structure and in terms of prevalent forms of behavior, British universities today seek to imitate the world of business. Vice chancellors may fashion themselves as CEOs, academics may feel pressure to demonstrate their productivity in ways previously better known by factory workers, and students may find themselves encouraged to fashion themselves as consumers, from the moment when they shop for a degree course on Unistats to the moment when they pass final judgement on their studies in the National Student Survey.

All this has become a matter of common sense. Once, the expansion of audits into ever farther corners of academics’ working lives was a subject of hot debate. However, the 1990s are long gone, and many academics now accept or perhaps do not even notice anymore the myriad ways in which administrators measure and scrutinize their labor. This incessant scrutiny, through surveys and audits and probation reports and promotion recommendations and quality assessments, has the potential to transform who sociologists are, what sociologists do and what sociology may mean. Writing during the late 1950s, C. Wright Mills notes that the “sociological imagination is becoming […] the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature.” (See Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, p.14.) Not anymore. Very few sociologists today can act in defining the denominators of our cultural life. Many more sociologists must react to performance criteria defined for them by business-minded auditors.

As far as the NSS is concerned, you might teach your sociology students the recipe for octopus pudding, as long as they will tick the right boxes in the questionnaire. If you are one of the few who do sociology at a, to use the standardized language of academic management, ‘research-intensive’ university, you may not mind that much. Your grant income targets and publication requirements may coincide to a large extent with what you expect of yourself as a scholar anyway.

Elsewhere, performance management hurts. I am surprised by the sheer number of colleagues I know at British universities who have been signed off work due to stress and stress-related illnesses. When much of their labor is directed at self-justification in this audit or that, how can sociologists still realize some sort of transformative impact on their students, on their colleagues, on the world? Is transformative sociological labor now truly the remit of a privileged few?

Of course, there are many who contest this state of affairs. Academic capitalism is the subject matter of numerous highly critical articles, monographs, collections, manifestos, and contributions to Times Higher Education or The Guardian. But do any of these really matter somehow? There appears to be much room for these critiques, as long as their significance remains confined to lunchtime chats among fellow sociologists. Once they become truly public and once they culminate in demands for changes to current labor practices, they are not so welcome anymore. Examples of swift and repressive responses are easily found (for example: 1, 2, 3). Sociology today thus comes to be defined by a fundamental contradiction between its everyday labor practices – reactive, driven by audits and performance targets – and its imaginary ethos – creative, critical, driven by the desire to look at the social world sideways and ask questions instead of acquiescing to premade answers.

An easy exit from this contradiction is now not easily visible. The ethos of the marketplace is too pervasive in academia, and the institutional structures that foment it are too entrenched. Sociologists are therefore left to fashion their own personal solutions to this contradiction, from growing obliviousness to inner exile to open resistance. Perhaps, though, this assessment is rather too optimistic. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the alignment of sociologists’ everyday labor practices with the everyday ethos of our discipline – perhaps the entrepreneurial instrumentalization of sociological enquiry for audits and performance targets is what makes a sociologist in 2017. In any case, sociology is not what it used to be.

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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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