Arbitrary Choices and the Politics of Sociological Enquiry

Camouflage choices
We all know that arbitrary standards for what matters in career-enhancing publication are out there, even if they are camouflaged. Wouldn’t it be better if they were explicit, universal and easy to see?

One of my most exciting academics projects at the moment is a handbook on global therapeutic cultures. I am co-editing this handbook together with a group of colleagues from universities in Europe and the Americas. Our collaboration has been very constructive, we have obtained a contract with a big international publishing house, and a large group of well-known scholars from around the world will contribute chapters. I feel that this handbook will make an important contribution to scholarship, as it will highlight thematic, conceptual and methodological trends in a burgeoning but still rather dispersed area of enquiry. In my view, it would be hard to criticise the merit of this book project on intellectual grounds.

Nehring Corporate bugSome of the scholars my colleagues and I approached for contributions turned us down. Some did so because of a lack of time, or because their work had moved away from therapeutic cultures in recent years. Others, however, declined to write a chapter because they found it necessary to work towards publications that would count towards performance audits of their work.

On the one hand, this seems to be an entirely valid reason to reject participation in a publication project, at a time when academics around the world find themselves under great pressure to justify the value of their work in a seemingly incessant array of audits and performance assessments.

On the other hand, these decisions not to contribute point to a larger problem in the contemporary organisation of academic labour in sociology and related disciplines.

By this larger problem, I mean the role which arbitrary choices play in the organisation of our scholarship and the normative standards by which this scholarship is assessed. Scholarship, as a form of labour, consists of a set of theoretical, methodological, practical, and ethical processes and attendant decisions. Scholarship is fundamentally intellectual in nature, its sometimes equally important political and practical implications notwithstanding. With the term “arbitrary choices,” I refer to considerations that do not form part of the intellectual process of scholarship, but that nevertheless play a significant role in structuring it and its outcomes. Arbitrary choices are all those political considerations that twist and constrain scholarship without adding to it in intellectually meaningful ways.

The way in which publication preferences have come to be reorganised in recent years is one example of such arbitrary choices that have sprung from the politics of academic labour. Performance management systems at universities around the world, from Europe to East Asia, stipulate a clear hierarchy of publications in which articles in highly ranked journals count for a lot, monographs count sometimes and under specific conditions, and edited volumes and chapters therein count for little or nothing. By “count,” I mean scores and ranks in audits that have the capacity to determine individual scholars’ career prospects and the future of entire academic departments. Performance management systems thus provide academics with a clear set of incentives to pursue one type of publication over another – usually, today, this means going for articles in highly ranked and indexed journals while avoiding book chapters and the like.

The problem with this set of preferences is, of course, that there is no intellectual basis for it at all. It is simply the outcome of administrative choices on the part of academic managers, audit committees, and policy makers who may have little or no understanding of academic sociology at all. While journal articles are the predominant form of publications in, for example, some natural sciences, edited volumes have played an important role in the sociology and the humanities and social sciences at large. There is no intellectual reason for this to change.

Arbitrary choices of this sort play an important role in contemporary sociology, from the determination of the success or failure of sociologists’ careers by “grant capture rate” to academic managers’ and higher education policy makers’ preference for quantitative research. These arbitrary choices arguably have become part of contemporary sociology’s common sense: Who would question the value of an SSCI article, who would seriously contest the unarguable fact that sociologists do research to win research grants, and who would be irrational enough to flout these standards and potentially endanger their career? In so far as these arbitrary choices have become part of academic sociology’s common sense, their political implications and their consequences for the structure of sociological labour become invisible. For this reason, it seems important to render them explicit, to critically interrogate them, and to re-imagine alternative ways of doing sociology, both past and future.

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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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