Higher Education Workforce of the Future, revisited

The following is my updated paper on the Higher Education Workforce of the Future report, which was just presented at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne for #TASA2016.

 

On the eve of the 2015 Christmas holidays, it was announced that 100 academic positions and 200 professional positions at a sandstone university in Western Australia were to be cut. A statement issued by the Vice Chancellor (VC) explained that the cuts were in response to a “budget challenge” and the need to confront financial challenges head on by “changing how the university operates”. Now, as I write these words, a similar announcement has been released by another nearby university, where 100-150 academics are expected to lose their positions. These cuts are also attributed to budget pressures, though this VC also insists that their university “remains in a sound economic position”.

 

These events are linked by a joint statement, subtitled Embracing Future Opportunities, which was issued by four Western Australian VCs and, presumably, sent to all university staff in April 2016. Along with presenting an overview of the economic importance of the university sector to the state and the nation, the two page statement observed that: “While our past is something to be proud of… global competitiveness, changing environments and disruptive technology applies to our sector as much as any other. It’s not an individual university issue, it’s a global higher education issue”. In referring to these pressures and the responses that they call for, the VCs referred to a single report:

Recently, Pricewaterhouse Coopers [PwC] consulted with 340 stakeholders across the country and found that the University workforce of the future will need to be increasingly agile and flexible; that we will need to continuously and proactively develop the technical and professional capacity of our staff; and will need to enable greater role specialisation.

 

What they are referring to is The Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future (PwC 2016). This same report featured heavily at a summit of the Western Australian VCs, which was held a few months later and was organised by the Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA). The event (which I was lucky enough to receive free tickets to) was held in a beautiful hotel ballroom and included fine steaks and wine at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. While everyone I spoke to celebrated the event as an excellent networking opportunity, I met no other academics that day (aside from those in the managerial elite). This may have been because the event was extremely expensive ($160 for CEDA members and over $200 for none-members), received little advertising at the universities being represented (no academics I know were aware of it), and was held in the middle of a teaching week. The report has also featured heavily in the open forums[1] that are held by the VC at my own university, which tend to be attended by high numbers of academic staff – and one can assume that, as each of the W.A. VCs have endorsed the report, the same might be said of similar forums at other universities. I here present some analysis of this high-flying report.

 

The point of my analysis is twofold: first – and with a specific focus on academics – I want to give a sense of how the key players in Australian higher education view the present and future university system (at the very least, this is crucial for anyone considering a future in academe). Second, I want to consider the assumptions, omissions, and controversies of the report from a sociological perspective, in order to both explain and critique the report.

 

Of particular interest is the idea, which occurs throughout the report, that the “traditional and change averse culture” of universities (i.e. academe) is “to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39). This idea is contrasted with the insistence that universities must “foster a culture of continuous change and advancement”. According to the report, this proposed future culture of the workforce requires universities to “hardwire” the behaviour of their employees with skills and values that revolve around the “three key future workforce attributes” that PwC “believe all university workforces will need to exhibit”: agility and flexibility (which I call “flexigility”), professionalization, and specialisation (32).

 

The neoliberalism that suffuses the report is thus attended by the attempt to reimagine academe and its centrality within future universities – with the strategy being to preserve the symbolic clout of academe while gradually rewiring and replacing its innards with more flexigile bits. I contend that the PhD degree will likely be a primary target for effecting such changes, for it serves as a cultural rite of passage and means of boundary maintenance and gate keeping for academics; changing the PhD thus provides a way to, so to speak, “short circuit” and “rewire” academic culture.

 

Background and Reception

The Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future was released in February 2016 by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) in association with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Corporate (DVC) division of Universities Australia.[2] The AHEIA is the employer organisation for the nation’s higher education providers, and like any union its stated duty is to protect the interests of its members. As such, it is occasionally referred to as the “industrial arm of Universities Australia” by the National Tertiary Education Union of workers (NTEU). Universities Australia is the self-proclaimed “voice of Australian universities”, and their stated duty is to “represent Australian universities in the public interest”. While Universities Australia is not ostensibly designed to serve the interests of workers over employers or vice-versa, the fact that its membership is comprised of universities, which in turn are represented by VCs, makes it fair to say that Universities Australia is the voice for the organisational elite. As part of Universities Australia, the DVC supports the VCs in matters concerning administration, management and leadership. Thus, the report was commissioned by the corporate arm and so-called “industrial arm” of Universities Australia. Little wonder it was the only report mentioned in the VC joint statement described above.

 

The AHEIA and DVC group commissioned the report from Pricewaterhouse Coopers for A$350,000. The advertised purpose of PwC is to “help organisations and individuals create the values they’re looking for”, while also assisting in, as PwC say, “motivating and taking care of your key people”. This was reflected in the engagement process: PwC consulted with VCs, deputy-VCs and pro-VCs and their delegates, human resource directors and their delegates, and the heads of schools/Deans. PwC experts and “sector thought leaders” were also consulted, as were “broad sector stakeholders” such as ministerial and industry representatives. Students, targeted international universities, and employee representative groups like the NTEU were also included as university specific stakeholders. Notably, the NTEU (2016a) has been highly critical of PwC’s engagement process, with the national president publicly stating that: “PWC met once with the NTEU late last year, but our commentary and analysis based on, it must be agreed, considerable expertise is almost completely ignored”. Significantly, and without including their proxy representation by the NTEU and the unnamed employee representative groups, no academics outside of the organisational elite were consulted. This means that most of the academic workforce, and especially those most likely to be affected by the recommendations made by PwC to Australian universities, were excluded from the report. While PwC gave no explanation for this, the implication is that PwC (and, arguably, by extension, the AHEIA and Universities Australia) did not consider the namesake of the report to be “key people”.

 

The report was also rightly criticised for overlooking the growing body of research on the attitudes and experiences of academic staff. This oversight is surprising, as one of PwC’s (7) five “in-scope activities” was to “review of best practice and analysis of workforce data as well as researching of local and global workforce transformation trends”. If this review was undertaken in earnest, then there is no way that PwC could have missed the fact that the preeminent trends affecting the workforce pertain to the conditions and consequences of casualisation. Literature that accounts for these matters was cited throughout the report (e.g. Coates & Goedegebuure 2010; Grattan Institute 2014), with such literature in turn citing the more concerning research on precariatisation, which went unmentioned in the PwC report (e.g. Gottschalk & McEachern 2010; Kimber 2010; May et al 2013; Ryan et al 2013). While the NTEU claim to have pointed to all this during the engagement process, they were ignored. MoreoverAHEIA has commissioned reports on these very issues from other organisations (e.g. Andrews et al 2016) and many Universities Australia VCs have done the same (e.g. Percy et al 2008). Indeed, the PwC report was released with a statement from the AHEIA president and VC of Charles Stuart University, saying that the sector should ensure that “casual staff are not treated as a means to balance the budget but recognised as a core part of the academic community” – and yet the voices of this very core were not included and their well documented situations and concerns went unaddressed.

 

With all of these resources in mind, it is clear from the outset that PwC engaged in very selective reading during the review process and selective deafness during the consultation process. The result was a report that seemed to be, as an adjunct professor of higher education at RMIT claimed in The Australian (2016), “designed to feed back to university leaders just what they fed into it — that staffing policy was crucial to universities’ future and that staff had to be more flexible”. All this is to say that there is every indication that the report was not undertaken in good faith. While this feedback loop is unsurprising, given the partiality that PwC explicitly promises to its employers, it raises the question as to why the AHEIA and DVC saw fit to commission the report from PwC, rather than from any of the less explicitly partial experts that have been investigating the very same matters for years (of course, few experts have the brand power of PwC, which sits atop one of Victoria’s tallest towers). This is why the report, with its strategic top-down representations of reality and the ideal workforce of the future, provides an exemplary case study for sociological investigation into the university system.

 

The Higher Education Workforce of the Future

The purpose of the report, as stated by the AHEIA on their website, was to “put the spotlight on how to enable universities to compete in a globally competitive market”. With this goal in mind, the AHEIA put forward the following two questions to guide the research and analysis that PwC (2016: 6) would undertake: 1. “Which drivers of change will have the greatest impact on the Higher Education sector in the next 10-15 years?” 2. “What does this mean for how universities will need to structure their workforces in the future?” While the answers that are provided to these questions are both interesting, I am concerned with the proposals that are being made by PwC, and thus with question 2 and the second half of the report (PwC 2016: 30 – 41). In dealing with this question, PwC split the notion of “the workforce” into three dimensions (32):

  1. Capability, as in the “skills, capabilities, experience and behaviours required of university staff and leaders”, that is, what employees are expected to be able and willing to do.
  2. Structure, which pertains to the “design of new and existing roles”, that is, how they are to be employed.
  3. Engagement, which covers the “manner in which capability is matched to the workforce structure, through contract models, investment in development and the talent pipeline, as well as performance”, as in how they are to be managed. These three dimensions provide the framework for PwC’s three key workforce attributes.

 

The first attribute that PwC note as vital to the higher education workforce of the future is agility and flexibility. Given that PwC refer to these two qualities as a single attribute, and given that the distinction between them is not always clear, I refer to them using the portmanteau, flexigility. In respect to what they mean by themselves, “agility” presumably refers to the ability of a university or individual to quickly adapt to changes in the environment. The idea is that the supply of funding and the demand for services can shift suddenly, and universities need to be able to respond to this quickly. This speaks to the mitigation of risk, the maximisation of efficiency, and the pursuit of advantages. As we shall see, this translates to casualisation in practice: universities seek to reduce the limitations on hiring and firing, so that they can quickly shut down a position or replace a person with little notice. In a similar fashion, “flexibility” speaks to the ability for universities to alter the workload allocations and duties of their employees at short notice, such as by relocating someone who teaches unpopular units to another course or school, allocating them more administrative duties, or reducing their hours.

 

By making flexigility a value, precariousness is recast as the opportunity to develop human capital. Flexigile individuals are able to adapt and take advantage of new circumstances: to use their teaching skills from old courses to innovate new ones, to use their new found free-time to gain experience and establish links in other industries, to produce publications and become increasingly interdisciplinary. Taking this to its logical conclusion, the most excellently flexigile university would be one in which all employees can be relocated, casualised or simply removed from the pay role whenever they are not needed, with such needs and responses in turn being determined as quickly and efficiently as possible.

 

The next key attribute is professionalisation. The report (14) states that the “increased and continuous professionalisation of both staff and leadership as a lever to ensure the sustained relevance of capability and skill set of the university workforce is critical. This encompasses both continuous development of skills to deliver in current roles… as well as the acquisition of new domain expertise”. Someone who values professionalisation will be dedicated to keeping their skills up to date and to learning new things in anticipation of, and response to, new circumstances. This quality thus serves as the scaffolding for flexigility: the ideal employee will not only be willing to be relocated – they will ideally have the skills that are required for their new position or whole new job. While this can be cultivated through work-provided training, it can also be encouraged as a condition of precariousness and the imperative to be as competitive and flexigile as possible. It is worth noting that this implies a shift away the kind of academic excellence that comes from years of dedication to narrow scholarly pursuits. Rather, professionalisation encapsulates the old saying: “a Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”.

 

The third key attribute is specialisation. According to PwC (14), this involves “moving away from the 40/40/20 academic workload allocation model, and changing the ‘one size fits all’ expectation regarding research participation”. Significantly, this is tied to the moving away of universities from the role of being “‘the (paramount) custodians of knowledge’”. The idea here is that universities will need to differentiate themselves from other universities and higher education provides, and this move will require their employees to in turn become more specialised. For instance, along with being experts in their own academic field, a university teacher might also specialise in digital learning technologies and online education, or the gathering and analysis of data regarding learning outcomes.

 

The notions of “practitioner academics” and “para-academics” are also mentioned, with the idea here being that a teacher or researcher might only come in to teach or present at seminars a few times a year, spending most of their time in the field or working with external public or private organisations. On the one hand, this can go hand in hand with the organisational motivations behind flexigility, for it means that the employment relationship between staff and universities can be specified according to the requirement of such specialisations: a specialised teacher could be paid for a few hours to teach their own technical area of expertise, rather than for the whole semester, and the time that this frees up for professionalisation and the development of professional relations. On the other hand, this seems at odds with professionalisation, insofar that one notion requires the academic to develop a range of skills suited to a range of roles, while the other notion requires the academic to narrow down on a narrow skill set that can be used in a range of similar roles in a variety of contexts.

 

Without needing to overemphasise the point, for PwC make it clear that they are dealing in abstract guidelines that are open for interpretation, it is worth baring in mind that three attributes exist in a tension with each other, as well as with the established facts – which, to repeat, PwC overlooked and ignored. Still, just one example of how this tension is already playing out in Australian universities is provided by the fact that academics often teach in units that are outside of their own specialised academic area (e.g. a creative writer teaching advanced research methods, a tourism graduate teaching sociology). This is largely due to the informal casual employment processes that currently dominate most universities (May et al 2013).

 

Hence, seeing that:

  1. Increasing numbers of academics are casually employed for longer periods of time – which speaks to the emphasis on flexigility.
  2. Casual employees rarely receive skill reproduction security, vis-à-vis work-based training or compensation for external training – which speaks to (and undermines) professionalisation.
  3. The experience and expertise that academics already have are regularly overlooked – which speaks to (and undermines) specialisation.

It is clear that these attributes are already subject to significant issues within Australian universities. That they should be presented as the three necessary qualities that future academics will need to internalise, speaks to the neoliberal ethic of ongoing atomised competition that underpins the report (more on this soon).

 

PwC get around these tensions by emphasising that such attributes will be implemented and practiced in very different ways, depending on each university’s and university employee’s “value proposition”. As PwC state “we do not believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to workforce reform in the sector” (36), rather “each university will have a unique response to these external drivers of change as they seek to differentiate their value proposition in what will become an increasingly diverse market” (41). This emphasis on differentiation reflects the insights of systems theory, whereby social systems react to a complex and disruptive environment through fragmentation and specialisation, and thus become more complex in turn.

 

For instance, growing competition requires universities to differentiate themselves through specialisation and the pursuit of long-term plans (i.e. deliberate differentiation); while being able to adapt to an increasingly disruptive environment (i.e. contingent differentiation). Deliberate differentiation is articulated in the report in terms of the strategic development of value propositions on the part of the organisation and specialisation on the part of the individual workers. Contingent differentiation is articulated in the report in terms of professionalisation and flexigility. The idea here is that, once the direction of the university is ascertained by its leaders, such agendas should be greeted with “communication and behaviours that comes from the top and are instilled in every layer of the workforce to ensure that ‘all staff are taken on the journey’”, with the goal being to create a cohort of staff that will “‘benefit from disruption and not be victims of it” (40).

 

Taking a step back and putting the report’s aforementioned issues with partiality and rigor aside for a moment, this emphasis on organisational differentiation presents a potential explanation for why the workforce was not deemed “in-scope” by PwC. Contrary to what its title suggests, the PwC report is less concerned with the work force per se, and more with a system of semi-privatised organisations trying to survive in a disruptive environment. In contrast, the aforementioned critiques are essentially ethnocentric, in that they directly pertain to the views and experiences of human beings – that is, to the actual workers that make up the workforce. As I have shown elsewhere, this is but one way of formulating and analysing a social system, for some systems-theoretical approaches (e.g. Aakvaag 2015; Luhmann 1995; Rempel 1996) are not concerned with people per se, but with the abstract subjects of systems and their operative functions (e.g. the operative functions of the elite and students is as leaders and income/product respectively). From this perspective (which is abundantly clear throughout the report), people are the occupants of constituent parts of the greater apparatus, the primary and impersonal purpose of which is to survive. It is an unpleasant perspective, but it is not without its own ostensibly consistent logic and advocates. Of course, the fact that PwC make no explicit claim to such a disinterested theoretical perspectives means that this explanation no more than conjecture, while its contrast to the clearly partial ethos of PwC makes it an inadequate one at that. After all, even with its explicit concern for differentiation and complexity, the report and the future university that it presents is suffused with the homogenising spirit of neoliberalism (image 1):

 

pwc

Image 1: PwC (2016: 37): “Figure 4: Workforce interventions – An example university”

 

On Change and Tradition

To some, many of the recommendations made in this hypothetical university are at oddes with the values and vocational aspirations popularly associated with academe. For instance, in consulting their selected stakeholders, PwC identified three key themes as the “hurdles university leaders will need to overcome as they embark on implementation of these workforce reforms” (39). These were: industrial limitations, as in the existing enterprise agreements which, as the interviewees put it, “limit our flexibility and ‘protect’ our staff from change, no matter how inevitable it may be” and “limit our ability to articulate and enforce performance expectations” (i.e. employment securities that hinder flexigility). Lack of alignment between university and people priorities, which, while its meaning was far from clear in the report, seems to concern the segmentation and relative-autonomy of university departments (i.e. the internal conflicts of the “multiversity”). While report does little to clarify the hurdle to which I now turn, traditional and change averse culture, it describes it as follows (39):

University cultures have withstood the test of time, supported by the high degree of academic freedom inherent in the sector. However, a number of university leaders told us that cultural limitations are one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities. In some respects, many in the sector are comfortable and do not believe that a burning platform exists which necessitates change. Student union representatives also supported the view that a top heavy governance culture is detrimental to innovation in teaching and research.

The sector, of course, is the university system (rather than higher education in general) while the culture, broadly speaking, is academe. While the term is never used in the report, it is clear that, at least as many academics are concerned, the “elements of contemporary managerial practices” are neoliberal ones (Archer 2008; Ball 2012; Callinicos 2006; Connell 2015; Gill 2010; Ward 2012). Such resistance is therefore not surprising, for academic freedom and institutional autonomy are often popularly seen and cited as fundamental to modern Western universities (Bleiklie 1998; Collini 2012) including those in Australia (Connell 2015; Hill 2012). Put bluntly, universities and academics have long been like pods and peas: they are comparable to sportsmanship and the parameters of any given sport, or to religious dispositions and rituals and the organisation and continuity of the church. University campuses are the symbolic and literal home of the academic profession, which university managers and the media alike have in turn capitalised on as a popular and prestigious cultural icon. What these relations have in common are the link between the ideal and sacred and the profane and pragmatic. Little wonder that those neoliberal elements of contemporary managerial practices suggestions (which have been critiqued for holding nothing sacred – save perhaps for revenue) are so often resisted and received by academics as though they were profanities.

 

But the report presents no reflection on this front, and instead presents what are ostensibly deemed to be unavoidable facts. The ideological thrust of the report is to frame the drivers of change like economic and technological forces of nature, occurring within the nigh-uncontrollable external environment of global knowledge economies. In the face of such conditions change is not just critical to survival, but a moral imperative for anyone who cares about the future (and therefore present/pressing) needs of their society – which is in turn assessed-in/reduced-to economic terms of growth and the mitigation/exploitation of risks. Within this narrative, the agents of change, as in the university and industry leaders and stakeholders, are the sober stewards of the future, while those who question such narratives are the impediments to progress. Thus (still according to this narrative): it is not the changes proposed that are being resisted, nor is it the people proposing such changes or the reasons they give for doing so; nor is not a matter of the rejection of a particular ideology narrative, or of resistance to an increasingly pervasive and reductive ideology; it is especially not a matter of groups operating in their own interest, whereby the proposed changes have clear winners and losers. Rather, according to a number of VCs consulted in the report, it is a matter of overcoming a change-averse culture in the interest of a “historically change resistant sector,” with such “cultural limitations” being “one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).

 

In reality, the notion of academic autonomy and the self-determination of the disciplines engenders the potential for continuity as well as change, and thereby covers both the preservation of traditions and the pursuit of innovation. Indeed, the literature on neoliberalism that I have cited – literature that have been penned by academics who critique both tradition and change – makes it abundantly clear that the issue is not some general aversion to change itself, but rather a particular aversion (or rather, resistance) to reforms that undermine autonomy through managerialism and culture through economic rationalism. Evidently, this aversion extends to the reforms that are presented in the report, as well as the strategies used by PwC in its production. It is thus an oversimplification for PwC to reduce the issue to some generalised and non-descript form of cultural conservatism, especially when the significant conditions and consequences of the changes proposed and the ongoing discussions that surround them are not addressed. To be sure, there may well be culturally distinctive conservative elements in Australian universities: there is most certainly a historically rich culture that distinguishes universities and academics from other institutions and professions. However, the literature on the prevailing trends in higher education and the academic workforce gives good reason to suppose that the hurdle noted by PwC is less a technical issue pertaining to reform (i.e. “how can we get academics to be reasonable?”), but the reflection of differing narratives and interests within the multiversity.

 

In saying all this, my point is simply that, along with being far from impartial in its research and engagement process, the report is also embedded in a constellation of narratives and rationales that are heavily pregnant with economic and moral prerogatives – as Forsyth (2014: 2 emphasis in original) observes in her history of the Australian university system: “Shifts in ideas about universities in Australia have not been achieved in a disinterested or objective manner: every new idea about tertiary education represents someone’s interest”. In this respect, it can be helpful to consider an excerpt from the report pertaining to flexigility alongside another response issued by the NTEU:

While universities are still responsive to both government and the public, they are forced to run more like a business. This includes achieving efficiencies, higher productivity, competitiveness, flexibility and agility. Like business, they need to respond faster, minimise overheads and change strategy and direction in response to markets, trends and opportunities. (PWC 2016: 22)

The dangerous subtext of the report for casual and sessional academics is that the report normalises casual employment through the coded language of ‘contract diversity’… The report wilfully side steps a decade of discrete and recurrent academic research into university staffing attitudes, which has persistently highlighted insecurity of employment as the leading issue amongst university staff… (NTEU 2016b).

 

Considering the Hypothetical

If we put all this aside, however, and take seriously the narrative presented by PwC, then the question arises: what to do about this troublesome traditional and change averse culture? The answer depends on how we conceptualise and locate this culture. If we keep in mind the contemporary obsession with being strategic in all things, it seems that the changers are not concerned with “academe” per se (for the notion is a marketable treasure chest of symbolic capital), but rather with troublesome academic dispositions. Here we can take a cue from PwC and focus first on the thought-leaders, as in those seasoned academics of the professoriate, who have enough status and are secure enough in their employment to be of consequence to management. However, much of this Old Guard of the Ivory Tower are due to retire or accept redundancy within the 10-15 year timeline presented by the report, and so, at least in terms of employment, cannot really be counted amongst the future workforce with which PwC is concerned. Another possibility is to focus on the younger generation of current and aspiring academic, for the report’s focus on structure and engagement indicates an interest in how the academic workforce develops and transmits it norms and values. In other words, if the universities of today are to successfully transition into the future university envisioned by PwC, then they must address intergenerational transmission, and thus the institutional links between the old and the new. The Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is one such link.

 

The PhD became the conventional academic qualification and “rite of passage” in Australian universities throughout the second-half of the 20th century (Dobson 2012; Fanghanel 2012). PhD candidates works under the supervision of more senior academic, and this involves developing an understanding pertaining to very narrow (and not necessarily flexigile) knowledge and skillsets. This period has been identified as a primary site of academic socialisation, as the candidate is encouraged to become more engaged with and develop networks within the broader academic community, which involves learning to “fit-in” (Austin 2002; Bess 1978; Gardner 2008; Gerholm 1990; Raineri 2013). The degree is also a primary entry point into university teaching, and thus into a position of academic employment and relative authority and prestige (Probert 2014). It is due to this functionality and attractiveness that the PhD has been identified as being central to drawing and preparing the future “stewards of the discipline”, as in people who will maintain and refine the knowledge of their discipline as well as the values and expectations of academic rigour and integrity (Golde & Walker 2006; Parry 2007). In this admittedly idealistic respect, an academic’s duty is not just to their organisation or career, but also to academe and their discipline – things that cannot be wholly accounted for or easily defended when reduced to matters of economic measurement and viability.

 

And so there is good reason that the degree is widely viewed as an apprenticeship for an academic career and important step toward “becoming an academic” (Hughes & Tight 2013; Leonard et al 2007; McAlpine 2012; Parry 2007) – even when that very career and the ideas that underpin it are becoming out-dated (Coates & Goedegebuure 2010; Taylor 2011). More importantly to the current discussion, the PhD degree is widely considered to be central to the production of future academics and, by extension, the reproduction of the academic workforce. It is here worth quoting Collini (2012: 8) at length, for he describes the degree as a “peculiar characteristic” that makes it hard for “other forces in society” to exert control over universities (on this point Collini and PwC are in agreement):

 

Universities are among the very few institutions whose rationale includes selecting and shaping their own future staff. Schools educate everyone: it is not a distinctive part of their remit to form and prepare future school-teachers. Companies recruit new staff and train them in the appropriate techniques, but this is a secondary task, not part of their primary rationale, which is to produce goods and services and make a profit. By contrast, the forming of future scholars and scientists is not just an instrumental necessity for universities, but intrinsic to their character. Educating someone to pursue the open-ended search for deeper understanding has to be a kind of preparation for autonomy. This makes it unusually difficult for those outside universities to specify how this professional preparation should be carried out, and so the academic profession – by its very nature rather than as a pathological form of self-interest – will be bound to appear self-absorbed as well as self-recruiting in a way in which most other social organizations will not.

 

The emphasis here is thus on distinctions, with the university being a distinctive system insofar that it maintains a way of recruiting and preparing its own distinctive workforce. Indeed, owing both to its famous difficulty and infamous rates of attrition, the PhD can be described as the means of institutionalised “boundary maintenance” for academe vis-à-vis the “gatekeeping” of academics.

 

To be fair, the PwC report does not explicitly identify this institutional rite of passage as a cultural limitation, save for questioning its necessity, vis-à-vis the “academic pipeline” (PwC 2016: 35):

Academic pipeline: in a faster, more responsive university where industry practice is valued, traditional academic pre-service (e.g. the decade required to prepare an individual for an academic career) risks becoming less relevant. Universities may change the role requirements of academics and will begin to consider whether the PhD is necessary (noting the current requirements for PhDs, or equivalent, teaching Masters and above students) and what might be suitable for academics of the future.

The example university foreshadows conditions that do not bode well for the degree. For instance, while academic autonomy is the cornerstone of the degree (particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences, in which candidates are more likely to develop their own thesis and work alone), this may have to take a back seat depending on how great an emphasis is placed on collaboration with external stakeholders, as well as future prevalence and structure of alternative PhDs, such as the industrial/professional PhD (Fink 2006; Harman 2010; Mangematin 2000). Perhaps more pressingly, there is a clear tension at play between, on the one hand, the emphasis Collini places on both the PhD and the university being presided over by academics (with the university seeming self-absorbed and self-recruiting as a result), and, on the other hand, the call in the report for universities to employ non-academic leaders, partners from industry, and greater numbers of non-academic professional staff.

 

What I am implying here is that one solution to the resistance of academics to the restructuring of higher education and the rewiring of the workforce is to reform and decentralise the PhD: make it more industry focussed and less restricted to university campuses, make candidates and supervisors more accountable to management and stakeholders, make it even less of an expected credential for entry into the organisational elite (which can include the management of schools and research departments), and so on. While the voicing of such a strategy may to some seem tantamount to heresy, The Higher Education Workforce of the Future gives good reason to believe that such strategies are already on the table.

 

*I will add a reference list, further links and clean up the bottom-end of the analysis when I return to Perth*

#Sociyolo.

 

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On Meth

On Meth.

Instead of the usual kind of Sociyology post, this one will be quite personal and entirely serious. To be honest, I’m still not sure if I should be writing this, much less post it.  But I think it’s important. And it seems that I can no longer talk about the topic without becoming too sad to proceed. So a post on meth it is.

Before we begin please note the following things:

  1. This is not a post against drugs in general – just the evil one: for meth has proven to be a definitive resident evil in my relatively sheltered life.
  2. (Seeing as I mentioned generality) I am fully aware that some people can indulge both regularly and inconspicuously and still function just fine. After all, your “tired” co-worker may have secretly been awake for three days and still be a more decent and thoughtful person compared to the sober stiff next door.
  3. This is not a scholarly or statistical or  scientific post. It’s merely anecdotal.
  4. I have never done meth, and never ever will.

So here we go. I’ll try to keep it short.

Meth has ruined the lives and life chances of too many people that I care about. I’ve watched it happen to friends who were once promised and promised in turn the honour of grooms-mate and best-man: guys with whom the word “bro” took on a truly heartfelt meaning, but who have now disappeared.

It was before hitting year 10 that kids at my high school started to smoke crystal methamphetamine. Kids not yet 15 years old would arrive at school midway through the week and tell each other that they “still haven’t slept yet”. Many more people that I know have taken it up since, and many of these people have since struggled to put it down.

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Being awake for a five day bender has a way of making some people “become psychotic”.
I’ve seen the vanilla psychotic, whereby every neutral face becomes a scowl and every passing word in the shopping aisle or on the radio becomes a secret threat. I’ve also seen the more serious kind, which reduces a whole person to a flickering brain struggling to pilot a twitching and unpredictable body that it’s scary to be around. Like watching someone you care about getting glassed in the face or slipping into an unprecedented fit, it’s one of those super real things that you have to be a part of to fully appreciate (and which no government advertisements ever seem to capture the humanity of).

And I continue to see this drug in fresh hands all over town.

I respect the fact that people are (for the most part) adults and thus supposedly able to make their own decisions – though I have also seen how the ability to make responsible decisions can deteriorate and leave in its place the conditions and consequences of a wretched life.

Thankfully, I continue to hear about it too.

Twice in the last month I have heard that “drug addicts have to want to quit”. While I am grateful for the distance from the drug that such a belief indicates, such views often depend on a privileged position that is far removed from this world and its inhabitants: No one wants to come to terms with a level of self-control that is “indescribably shameful”. No one sets out desiring the strange sort of self-inflicted (“shameful, so shameful”) Stockholm syndrome that makes it easier to accept this sense of self and say “fuck it” right before a relapse. No one wants to no longer be allowed in the family home.

I’ll conclude with these few thoughts:

  1. If you are a moderate user then more power to you, but don’t assume that other fresh users will have the same constitution.
  2. “There but for the grace of God go I” is one of the most beautiful misquotes I know off.
  3. I want my bros back. I’m sorry for not intervening. I hope you do better.
    ernst_europe after the rain II_1940

    (Ernst – 1941)

    Sociyolo.

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Academe, Flexgility, and Social Engineering

“… it helps us to recognize neoliberalism as not just an economic or political philosophy or “ideological doctrine” but as a broad and multifaceted social movement with widespread implications for all aspects of politics, society and culture. It also helps us recognize these outcomes as the result of human intentionality created through political and social action rather than being abstractions of something called ‘the economy’ or ‘globalization'”
– Steven C. Ward, on the concept of neoliberalism (2012:10)

 

The changes in the structure and culture of universities are observable in the reformulation of the academic profession and in the reorganisation of academics. As a part of these changes, the meaning of the academic career is being strategically (and, depending on what one cares for, carelessly) reimagined. The internal changers are university managers, who are responding to the perceived pressures of a rapidly changing environment by attempting to maximise organisational (and thus financial) flexibility and efficiency. In this post I explore this state of affairs and present some personal reflections and predictions through the analysis of a report paper that has caused quite a stir. I hope that the thoughts to come will be of interest to anyone who finds the notion of “social engineering” remotely stimulating. If not, then perhaps the focus on academe, neoliberalism, or a hidden bit of toilet humour will do the job instead.

 

Earlier this year, The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA), in conjunction with the multinational professional service, PwC, released publicly available the report, Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future (PWC & AHEIA 2016). The report was developed in consultation with university specific stakeholders (i.e. university leaders) and broad sector stakeholders (i.e. industry bodies and “thought leaders”). Its purpose was to: 1. identify the primary drivers of change; and 2. present “options of what universities can do to shape their future workforce by implementing reforms to the dimensions of workforce capability, engagement and structure” (5). While both of these points are of interest, my focus is primarily on the matter of reform, which may lightly be described as the shaping of institutions and practice, or, more heavily, as structural and cultural (i.e. social) engineering. Of particular concern is the idea that the “traditional and change averse culture” of universities (i.e. academe) is an impediment that must be overcome, lest it be “to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).

 

According to the report, universities should endeavour to “foster a culture of continuous change and advancement,” and “hardwire” the behaviour of workers with skills and values that revolve around three key attributes: professionalization, specialisation, and agility and flexibility (which I just call “flexgility”). Significantly, he neoliberal ideology that suffuses the report is attended by the goal of reimagining the notion and centrality of academe within universities – with the strategy being to preserve the symbolic clout of the notion, even as its innards are rewired and eventually replaced with more flexgile bits. I contend that the Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) degree will likely be a primary target for effecting such change, as the degree is widely considered to be an apprenticeship and cultural rite of passage for academics, as well as an institutionalised means of academic “boundary maintenance” and “gate keeping.”

 

The key “external environmental drivers” of change are identified as: industry expectations, technology, competition, funding and policy, and student expectations. If these aspects of the external environment (which includes the juggernaut of competition within the university sector itself) are the drivers of change, then the agents of change are those stakeholders with enough clout to shape structures and workforces. The changes themselves revolve around the pursuit of professionalization, through which “knowledge and expertise is continuously reframed or built upon through adjacent disciplines – and by which technical and professional capacity is renewed” (14); greater role specialisation, which means moving away from the teach/research/engage roles commonly associated with academic workloads; and the flexgility of never getting too comfortable or complacent and always being ready to adapt and move on.

 

The spirit of these pursuits infuse the example university presented in the PwC & AHEIA report, which I have included bellow:

PwC

– PwC & AHEIA, “Workforce interventions – An example university” (2016: 37)

 

For the purposes of the current discussion, the more notable of the reforms depicted above are those to doe with leadership, roles, and behaviours, which involve: recruiting “new leaders with strong backgrounds in leading change from outside of the sector”; redesigning “academic roles to reflect a consistent, generic set of responsibilities, with actual responsibilities changing year to year subject to demand”; and the aforementioned hardwiring of “values of collaboration, agility and innovation into the employee lifecycle to ensure adoption into actions and decisions.” It is worth noting that, in regard to implementation, the report concludes by acknowledging that, as there is no one-size-fits-all answer to external pressures, “each university will have a unique response to these external drivers of change as they seek to differentiate their value proposition in what will become an increasingly diverse market” (41). This is a fair point on two counts, for competition requires universities to strategically differentiate themselves from one another through specialisation and the pursuit of long-term plans (i.e. deliberate differentiation), while also responding to external developments as a matter of ongoing adaptation (i.e. contingent differentiation).

 

However, overemphasising such heterogeneity belies the homogenising effects of the neoliberal rationality, for if we assume that the future university imagined by PwC & AHEIA is anything to go by, then the Australian academic workforce of the future will be led by corporate executives and managers, who need not have any background in academe and will therefore be more likely to view the sector “objectively” (in an economic sense), rather than “sentimentally” (in a vocational or traditional/academic sense). Academic teachers and researchers will be increasingly subject to the changing/perceived demands of students and industry, and thus operate more along the lines of service-providers and facilitators, rather than as stewards and scholars. Insofar that flexgility is tied to specialisation (and thus differentiation) and professionalization (and thus accountability), the situations experienced by such a workforce will be increasingly precarious and individualised. This amounts to a university in which the values and aspirations popularly associated with academe take a back seat to the organisational priorities of industry.

 

In a roundabout way, PwC & AHEIA are forthright about this vision and are aware of its contentiousness, vis-à-vis the difficulty in reconciling academics with their reformed roles and organisational structures. This can be observed in the statement that “in a sector that has traditionally valued academic autonomy, there has been some cultural resistance to adopting elements of contemporary management practice” (36). The sector, of course, is the university system (rather than higher education in general), the culture is academe, and the elements of contemporary managerial practices are those that have been widely and critically identified as neoliberal (Archer 2008; Ball 2012; Callinicos 2006; Connell 2015; Gill 2010; Ward 2012). Such resistance is therefore not surprising, for academic freedom and institutional autonomy are often seen and cited as a fundamental part of the modern Western university (Bleiklie 1998: 299). For instance, the German concept of Lernfreiheir (freedom to choose what, how and where to learn) was adopted by the US early on, and has gone on to influence the UK, Northern Europe, and Australia (Fanghanel 2012: 9). In saying this, I cannot stress enough that I mean for “influence” to apply not just to policy and governance, but also to popular perceptions among the public. After all, at some point in the process of becoming an undergrad, then postgrad, then aspiring and fully fledged academic a person will develop an idea of “what a university and academe is about.”

 

In this respect, the link drawn between values and tradition is well placed, for it is simply a matter of fact that the university and academe have long been like peas and pods; with the university being the base of operations for academics and the spiritual home of the academic profession, while academe has long represented the constellation of aspirations and communities that universities have long sought to cultivate and capitalise on. Anecdotally, the two are comparable to what sportsmanship is to the parameters and conditions of any given sport, or to what religious dispositions are to the continuity of the church. Without meaning to overemphasise the semantics of the terms, what these relations have in common is the link between the sacred and the profane. And so it is little wonder that suggestions born of the neoliberal agenda (which has been critiqued for holding nothing sacred – save perhaps the sanctity of the market) are so often received by academics as though they were (and responded to with) profanities.

 

In spite of the fact that this relationship between universities and academe has proven to be an idiosyncratic and dynamic one, the report equates the emphasis on autonomy to a “traditional and change averse culture” (39). Semantically this is a strange move, for the notion of “autonomy” engenders the potential for continuity as well as for change, and thereby covers both the preservation of traditions and the pursuit of innovation. Indeed, the literature on neoliberalism cited above makes it abundantly clear that the issue is not that academics are averse to change in general, but rather that they have demonstrated a particular aversion to the neoliberal rationale – which is widely believed to undermine both autonomy and culture. Evidently, this aversion extends (or at least at the time of the report’s production, was expected to extend) to the reforms presented by PwC & AHEIA.

 

With all this in mind, it seems to me that the conflict is not over the technicalities of what to change and what to preserve, but rather between the differing ideological priorities of cultural stewards on the one hand, and economic stakeholders on the other. The ideological thrust of the report is to frame the drivers of change like economic and technological forces of nature, occurring within the nigh-uncontrollable external environment of global knowledge economies. In the face of such conditions change is not just critical to survival, but a moral imperative for anyone who cares about the future (and therefore present/pressing) needs of their society – which is in turn assessed-in/reduced-to economic terms of growth and the mitigation/exploitation of risks. Within this narrative, the agents of change, as in the university and industry leaders and stakeholders, are the sober stewards of the future, while those who question such narratives are the impediments to progress.

 

So the story goes: it is not the changes proposed that are being resisted, nor is it the people proposing such changes or the reasons they give for doing so. Nor is not a matter of the rejection of a particular ideology narrative, or of resistance to an increasingly pervasive and reductive ideology. It is especially not a matter of class or more localised conflicts of interests, whereby the proposed changes have clear winners and losers. Rather, according to a number of university leaders consulted by PwC & AHEIA, it is a matter of overcoming a change-averse culture in both the context and interest of a “historically change resistant sector,” with such “cultural limitations” being “one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).

 

 

If this narrative is taken seriously, then the question arises as to what to do about these cultural limitations. The answer depends on how we conceptualise and locate academic culture. Here we can take a cue from PwC & AHEIA and focus first on the thought-leaders, as in those senior academics who represent what many highly influential people now evidently consider to be an out-dated era. Many of these older academics (who I once heard referred to as the “Old-Guard of the Ivory Tower”) are professors, and thus have enough organisational clout and capital to be of consequence to management, and are secure enough in their employment to do so in relative safety (so long as they are cautious in their use of social media). However, many of them are also due to retire or accept redundancy within the 10-15 year timeline presented by the report, and so, at least in terms of employment, cannot really be counted amongst the future workforce with which we are here concerned. (In saying this I do not want to reduce people to incumbent university employees that are on the way out. Indeed, I argue elsewhere that participation in an intellectual community and critical engagement with public issues are often seen as central to academe, and it would be wrong to assume that such preoccupations cease after retirement.)

 

Another obvious possibility is to focus on the younger generation of current and aspiring academics. However, if we keep in mind the contemporary obsession with being strategic in all things, it seems to me that the changers are not concerned with “academe” per se (for the notion is a treasure chest of symbolic capital that is still widely popular,  attractive, and thus marketable). Rather, the focus on structure and engagement indicates an interest in how the academic workforce develops and transmits those values and dispositions that have been identified as cultural limitations. In other words, if the university of today is to successfully transition into the university of tomorrow in terms of culture as well structure, then the agents of change must address the matter of intergenerational transmission, and thus the institutional links between the old and the new.

 

The Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is one such link. It became the conventional academic qualification and “rite of passage” in Western universities throughout the second-half of the century (Fanghanel 2012: 4). In order to make an original contribution to knowledge, a PhD candidate will work under the supervision of a more senior academic, and insodoing develop an understanding pertaining to very narrow (and not necessarily flexgile) field and disciplinary skillset. It is a primary means of socialisation and enculturation, for as the candidate becomes more engaged with the broader academic community they develop academic networks and internalise the dispositions required to “fit-in” (Austin 2002; Bess 1978; Gerholm 1990; Raineri 2013). Along with academic research, the degree is also a primary entry point into university teaching, and thus into a position of academic authority and (at least so far as people other than more senior academics are concerned) relative prestige (Probert 2012).

 

It is due to this functionality and attractiveness that the PhD has been identified as being central to drawing and preparing the future “stewards of the discipline,” and thus crucial the preservation of academic knowledge and values (Golde & Walker 2006). Simply put, the PhD degree is widely considered to be central to the cultivation, preparation and production of future academics and, by extension, the academic workforce of universities. Cambridge Professor of Intellectual History, Stefan Collini, describes the degree as a “peculiar characteristic” that makes it hard for “other forces in society” to exert control over universities (on this point Collini and the PwC & AHEIA report are in agreement). It is  worth quoting Collini at length:

 

“Universities are among the very few institutions whose rationale includes selecting and shaping their own future staff. Schools educate everyone: it is not a distinctive part of their remit to form and prepare future school-teachers. Companies recruit new staff and train them in the appropriate techniques, but this is a secondary task, not part of their primary rationale, which is to produce goods and services and make a profit. By contrast, the forming of future scholars and scientists is not just an instrumental necessity for universities, but intrinsic to their character. Educating someone to pursue the open-ended search for deeper understanding has to be a kind of preparation for autonomy. This makes it unusually difficult for those outside universities to specify how this professional preparation should be carried out, and so the academic profession – by its very nature rather than as a pathological form of self-interest – will be bound to appear self-absorbed as well as self-recruiting in a way in which most other social organizations will not.”
– Stefan Collini, on the peculiar characteristic of the Doctorate (2012:8)

 

The emphasis here is thus on distinctions, with the university being a distinctive system insofar that it maintains a distinctive way of recruiting and preparing its own distinctive workforce and communities. Indeed, owing both to its famous difficulty and infamous rates of attrition, the PhD can be described as the means of institutionalised “boundary maintenance” for academe vis-à-vis the “gatekeeping” of academics. This is certainly the case in Australia, where the status of university is restricted to institutions which conduct research and offer research masters and doctorates in at least three broad fields of study.

 

To be fair, the PwC & AHEIA report does not explicitly identify this institutional rite of passage as a cultural limitation (indeed, it does not identify any cultural limitations beyond the mention of autonomy). Nevertheless, the example university clearly foreshadows conditions that do not bode well for the degree. For instance, while academic autonomy is the cornerstone of the degree (particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences, in which candidates are more likely to develop their own thesis questions and work alone), this may again have to take a back seat depending on how great an emphasis is placed on collaboration with external stakeholders, as well as future prevalence and structure of alternative PhDs, such as the industrial/professional PhD (Fink 2006; Harman 2010; Mangematin 2000).

 

Perhaps more pressingly, there is a clear tension at play between, on the one hand, the emphasis Collini places on both the PhD and the university being presided over by academics (with the university seeming self-absorbed and self-recruiting as a result), and, on the other hand, the call in the report for universities to employ non-academic leaders, partners from industry, and greater numbers of non-academic professional staff. However, the fact that the environmental drivers of change listed by PwC & AHEIA, as well as many of the stakeholders that contributed to the development of their report, represent (or, more precisely, are represented as) externalities to both the university system and academe, undermines the likelihood that such boundary maintenance will be considered tenable by the influential agents of change.

 

What I am implying here is that one solution to the resistance of academics to the restructuring of higher education and the rewiring of the workforce is to reform and decentralise the PhD. While the voicing of such a strategy may to some seem tantamount to heresy, there is good reason to believe that such strategies are already on the table. So far as the report that I have dealt with here is concerned, one indication that what I have said here is more than just conjecture is the recommendation that universities should seek to develop an “academic pipeline”:

 

“Academic pipeline: in a faster, more responsive university where industry practice is valued, traditional academic pre-service (e.g. the decade required to prepare an individual for an academic career) risks becoming less relevant. Universities may change the role requirements of academics and will begin to consider whether the PhD is necessary (noting the current requirements for PhDs, or equivalent, teaching Masters and above students) and what might be suitable for academics of the future.” – PwC & AHEIA (2016: 36)

 

I’ll leave it there for now, save to appreciate the rather visceral link between this recent fascination with academic pipelines and flexgility and Marc Bousquet’s essay on The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible, which is worth quoting at length:

 

“… it has to be acknowledged that increasingly the holders of the doctoral degree are not so much the products of the graduate employee labor system as its by-products, insofar as that that labor system exists primarily to recruit, train, supervise, and legitimate the employment of nondegreed rather than degreed teachers. This is not to say that the system doesn’t produce and employ holders of the Ph.D., only that this operation has become secondary to its extraction of teaching labor from nondegreed persons, primarily graduate employees and former graduate employees now working as adjunct labor—as parttimers, full-time lecturers, postdocs, and so on.”
– Marc Bousquet, on the linkage between graduate education and the system of academic labor (2002: 86)

 

philosoraptor-t2

I wonder if the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association or their ilk would ever consult such a thought-leader?

Sociyolo.

References
Bousquet, M. (2002). “The waste product of graduate education: toward a dictatorship of the flexible.” Social Text 20(1): 81-104.

Callinicos, A. (2006). Universities in a neoliberal world. London, Bookmarks.

Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? London, Penguin.

Connell, R. (2015). “The knowledge economy and university workers.” Australian Universities Review 57(2): 91-95.

Fanghanel, J. (2012). Being an academic. New York, Routledge.

Fink, D. (2006). “The Professional Doctorate: Its Relativity to the Ph.D. and Relevance for the Knowledge Economy.” International Journal of Doctoral Studies 1.

Gerholm, T. (1990). “On Tacit Knowledge in Academia.” European Journal of Education 25(3): 263-271.

Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of the neoliberal university. Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. R. G. Flood, R. London, Routledge: 228-244.

Golde, C. W., G, Ed. (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. San Francisco, Jossey-Brass.

Harman, G. (2010). “Producing PhD Graduates in Australia for the Knowledge Economy.” Higher Education Research and Development 21(2): 179-190.

Mangematin, V. (2000). “PhD job market: professional trajectories and incentives during the PhD.” Research Policy 29(6): 741-756.

Probert, B. (2014). Becoming a university teacher: the role of the PhD, Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.

Raineri, N. (2013). “The PhD program: between conformity and reflexivity.” Journal of Organisational Ethnography 2(1): 37-56.

Ward, S. (2012). Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Higher Education. New York, Routledge.

 

 

 

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Thoughts and thanks, TASA2015

I just arrived back home in Perth, smelling like a week in the tropics topped off by a plane ride in dirty bamboo socks. My last day in Cairns was spent on a hostel couch, where I slept and stewed in a climate which a bunch of people were right to call oppressive. Now that I’m back I feel refreshed and refurnished, renewed by the tropical weather. I was in Queensland for the annual conference of The Australian Sociology Association (TASA). Though I’ve been to sociology conferences before, I can safely say that this one, my first with TASA, was the best one. What follows are some of the thoughts I saw drifting above yesterday’s couch.

 

Lessons from #TASA2015

Settling into your discipline without meeting its community is like living alone in the city. Ever since I discovered that the sociological imagination was the best fit for my own ‘ness, I’ve been wandering around the various fields like a tourist. I frequent the hot spots and attractions, read the plaques and know the history. I’m up to date with the latest developments and know how to spend my evenings with them. But I’ve been so lonely. Lying in bed or bath or wherever else with a book written by dead thinkers can be like a night in with the cat or a night out that you’d prefer to have spent in.

 

At last year’s International Sociological Association (ISA) congress I met so many lovely people, though made friends with them in the same way one would a backpacker in a hostel, knowing that it would be a brief engagement followed by an email here-and-there. While it will be a similar deal with many of the people I met at TASA, it didn’t feel that way. I felt no nerves in meeting them, and no desire to network uncoupled by a genuine appreciation for not just who, but how they were.

 

I decided in my sweaty spot and bamboo socks that TASA seemed more real than I expected because it was a community rather than a congress. A hub coupled with a conference. Now there are faces that move in my mind when I read familiar names at the top of the material – and they move according to the reactions they had to my very own presence in real time. More than any key-term or visibility-measure, that makes me want to read what they have to say.

 

For anyone who has a passion for their discipline, though have not yet entered its community, let me say this: there are people out there whose collective effervescence may well do the same for you. Give it a go. Meet the locals. Take fresh socks.

 

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Post-grad drinks. Photographer: The Goateed Glassy

 

Future employers and important contacts are vigilant. So wear a shirt and tie, don’t conga line, and criteria, criteria, criteria. I think I can do all these things, though I resist those structures that would discourage a conga line among friends.

 

Wait until after the opening night to meet new people. Waiting on the outside of a circle for your chance to shake a hand isn’t fun, so chill: you’ve got a whole week to meet and greet.  

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However, I can’t in good faith recommend attempting to spark up a conversation with someone you admire while waiting in line for coffee number 6-7…

coffee-dog-be-trippin_o_2933735

 

The “dead white guy” thing needs to cool its jets. I heard senior academics and young ones alike refer to the giants who once roamed the fields as “dead white guys” numerous times. I have also taught classes on these greats under the same heading, though have no intention of doing so again. It generally seems to be used jokingly, though occasional comes across in a way that somehow seems dismissive of the intellectual stature of these men and the contribution that they made to our discipline.

 

I often want to ask those who use this trope exactly what it is that they’re implying. One reason for not making such a request might be that I’m expected to know what is being implied (I find it doubly concerning when it is taken for granted that some things are expected to be taken for granted). Another is that there are simply more interesting and less touchy things to discuss when these thinkers are mentioned, and I’ve little interest in derailing chats headed in exciting directions. Nevertheless, I think the prevalence and acceptance of the “dead white guy” trope that I witnessed at TASA has made it worth addressing here.

 

My main concern is that it should not be taken for granted that these “dead white guys” were “white” in the same way that the label is often used today. While this is of course a complex matter, I understand the popular use of the notion as communicating a preconception based in pseudo-racial language, that denotes broad-brush privilege and relative freedom from marginalised social status, while working around the actual lived experiences or observations of the individual, their economic situation, and personal troubles and successes. Sometimes this is well placed, particularly in discussions that are aware of the limitations and dangers of using such language willy-nilly.

 

In sociology, the “dead white guy” thing is usually used to refer to the three fathers who still feature in university text-books. Of this pantheon, a full third is Durkheim, who was a French Jew when it wasn’t such a great time to be so in Europe. If we accept the implication that “whiteness” ignores the individual in order to speak to the group they are supposedly a part of vis-a-vis social structures to do with race, then the fact that Durkheim himself was dedicated to secularism and would become hugely successful is not reason enough to question Durkheim’s status as yet another “dead white guy”, comparable to Marx or Weber. So why do we lump him in using this language, the use of which is problematic at best, especially when considered in the purview of its commonly accepted conditions vis-a-vis the relation between the individual and the group?

 

I won’t dwell on this longer here, other than to say that: 1. I believe the reasoning behind the “dead white guy” thing to be questionable, and 2. if we are not willing to at the very least question what it is that we are implying when we use such language, then the ready acceptance of the “dead white guy” thing by sociologists is irresponsible. Anyways, if you have to talk about whiteness, there’s always Lord Giddens.

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I mean, look at this guy. (source: huangansheng.wordpress.com)

 

Interesting research and neat presentations from #TASA2015

I attended so many fascinating presentations, and no doubt missed many more. Here are four of the former that come to mind – if you’re interested in learning more than stay up to date with the researcher:

 

“Neoliberalism and psychiatric power: a case study of the DSM” – Bruce Cohen.

The diagnostic and statistical manual is the Main Man(ual) for the psycho-sciences. It’s full of every neurosis, disorder, dilly-dally and deviation that what some imagine to be the mind can possibly succumb to or construct. This study was a simple one: how often do the words “work” and “education” appear in the DSMs 1 through 5? It turns out both of these terms increased exponentially from the DSM 3 to 5. Interestingly, references to mental disorders occurring vis-à-vis community events external to the market will have to wait until the science finds itself in a different society (but I jest).

 

*excerpt from correspondence with Bruce: “My argument, however, is that psychiatry is increasingly policing (e.g.) the work and school environments on behalf of capital. In that way it makes itself useful in spreading and enforcing neoliberal values and norms, in encouraging self-surveillance for pathology, etc. Hence DSM-III (pub. in 1980) signals the start of this change.”*

 

“The gendered smart home: outsourcing domestic labour to home automation devices” – Yolande Strengers & Larissa Nicholls

The smart home will dim the lights, adjust the temperature and turn on your favourite song when you get home. Its ambience is seen and heard, but it lacks the presence of a spouse. What do you think about that? Improvements in domestic technologies are supposed to make our life easier, right? This is where Strengers and Nicholls excellent sociological insight comes into play. Did the entry of such technologies free up time for (mainly) women back in the day, or did it work to raise expectations for cleanliness? What if the fridge meant an expectation for better meals? Did the vacuum cleaner mean more time spent on mopping and dusting? In some places, at some times, apparently so, suggests this area of study. On a personal note I see parallels with “smart-technology”, such as my iPad, whose time saving apps and scheduling devices take up a lot of time and deplete excuses for my tardiness. I’ll definitely be staying up to date with these two in the future.

 

“Putting the Social back in the social sciences!” – Eva Cox

This was the keynote address that had people talking all week. The point of the talk seemed to be that neoliberalism has done so well in part because it involves a grand narrative which, confounding as it is, can be captured by rhetorical language which speaks to the trajectory and agendas of nations and markets: The politicians and people might not be clear on what it is but, like pornography, they can get behind it. In this way neoliberalism is an ethic or doxa conducive to sound-bites: risk, growth and innovation, flexibility, competition and excellence. According to Cox, to challenge neoliberalism we need to get back to the job of developing an alternative “grand theory” that can guide our discipline. This involves a comprehensive conceptualisation not just of what “Society” now means, but what we ought to make of this, how, and for what purposes. The inspiration lies in the idea that if it’s happened before it can happen again.

 

In 2002, Philip Smith described the “the rescue narrative in social theory”, like this: “We need to confront this reality through an act of rescue … intellectual renewal as well as critique as we step boldly into the next century. Sound familiar? It should do. This is the template for the thousand and one keynote speeches that we have all sat through with sometimes grater and sometimes lesser interest as we wait for afternoon tea.”

 

I think this fits well with Cox’s reception. On the one hand, she is a wonderful speaker (e.g.: “if you have to bang your head against a brick wall, at least figure out where the loose bricks are”). Moreover, no one can deliver a grand theory in one opening address, and so her decision to gesture and inspire rather than outline and touch base is understandable.

 

On the other hand, her move straight from Mills (who was a famous opponent to grand theory, and whom just about everyone in the room would have read) to a call grand theory in the space of a moment left many in the audience vexed. On top of this, it’s not like people haven’t been working on grand narratives, Bauman has been speaking of Liquid Modernity for years, and Beck (who sadly passed away this year) captured the imagination of students and power players around the world with his Risk Society. Nevertheless, these developments were ignored in favour of a message reminiscent of those lyrics by Bright Eyes: “We are nowhere, and it’s now”. On top of this, failure to account for contemporary works was coupled with what some considered a misrepresentation of the classics, vis-à-vis the old “two sociologies” narrative.

 

In regard to my own thoughts and feelings, I understand both the fans and the critics, and find myself sat between them. I do not appreciate people talking about the state of the discipline while portraying a lack of attention to it, especially when the speaker is someone so influential as Cox. Moreover, I don’t enjoy taking the wind out of peoples’ sails – and, to be sure, there was a lot of wind in a lot of sails following the speech. That said, it was no doubt an effective and admirable talk, given what it was designed to do in the bracket it was given. With all that said, I think we need people like Cox not just because of their gravitas and charisma, but for their willingness to spin a yarn and inspire, even if it means loose ends and cut corners. In this way I am contemporary and vulgar – but so are the times, apparently.

 

In the question time that followed I stood up and asked Cox to elaborate on what she actually means and what kind of project she is gesturing toward. I can’t remember what I said precisely, so I’ll try to reproduce my concern here verbatim and at greater length: Part of the reason neoliberalism has been so successful is not because it exists as some cohesive grand narrative that can be applied to the world, but because it can frame small-scale problems across sectors using rhetoric that seems intelligible and conducive to development. It’s a nebulous ethic that somehow seems to all add up to what we now loosely call a grand narrative. In other words, people do not always know that they are “doing neoliberalism” until they are already embedded in it. How do you suppose we respond to this? Do we develop an alternative narrative and then mobilise it across the sectors and our discussions in a similar way, given that such a method seems at least on the face of it to be successful? Or do we just try to stick to a general alternative ethic and see what emerges from it?

 

I know many people remembered this question, as many people thanked me for asking it throughout the week. I ask those who were in attendance to try their hand at remembering Cox’s answer.

 

“Using hegemony as a sociological tool for the analysis of ideology within popular culture” – John McGuire

The most humorous moment of the conference: during the theory moment of this talk (which was in the media bracket) a phone switched on to Siri and called out: “sorry, I didn’t understand that”.

 

Well, that’s it for now. There’s work to do.

Thank you so much to everyone who helped organise #TASA2015 and make it what it was. It was such a pleasure to meet you all, and get to hear your thoughts on all those old and new matters which make me proud to be a part of your community and the discipline we share.

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Until #TASA2016

Sociyolo.

 

 

 

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Propaganda and Patriarchy

A few weeks ago I was stirred by the following image, which has been doing the rounds on Facebook:

I have seen two very different people share this image, and countless other similar examples shared. Sourced from Facebook, apparently attributable to Nirmkuta.com

I have seen two very different people share this image, and countless other similar examples shared.
Sourced from Facebook, apparently attributable to Nirmkuta.com

For some audiences the message presented by the above image will strike a chord. To others it will seem very questionable. Personally, it got me thinking about the amount of politically loaded truth claims we share and observe on social media daily.

Messages such as the one presented above assign the good to one camp and the bad to the Other in an attempt to reduce complexity into a binary, which may then be identified with politically. In this sense such messages represent a political technique which may fairly be called propaganda, that is: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” (thanks Google dictionary).

The proliferation of such propaganda is justified by an appeal to the simplicity of the message, and thus to a perceived (or projected, or internalised) lack of thoughtfulness (or time to think) on the part of the audience. Such simplicity plays a double role: 1) It provides the audience with easily memorable sound-bites which may be consumed and then regurgitated with minimal effort, thereby helping to spread the message; 2) If need be, it allows for a shifting of the goal-posts, whereby the shortcomings of the message can be shifted onto the simplicities of the sound-bite (which may then be defended on grounds of being a sound-bite).

For instance, in the above image patriarchy is presented as the common-enemy, which is to blame for all the bad things. The nature of patriarchy is not touched on, other than in terms of its badness. Likewise, just how the patriarchy goes about “saying” the things that it supposedly “says” is left to the imagination. In either case, what the patriarchy is saying is definitive and direct: “men are stupid”, etc. Feminism is presented in opposition to the common-enemy, as a potential solution for the bad things and promoter of good things. An interesting note with this example is that, while the image is most certainly saying something, the message is distanced from feminism itself, which (unlike patriarchy) merely “holds” rather ambiguous and positive beliefs and expectations (this distancing can also be observed in the image bellow).

At this point it is worth stressing that a message will generally only appear as blatant propaganda to the eyes of its critics, wily developers, and less-partial-much-more-cautious readers. The rest of us are more forgiving. On this count one need only replace the nouns in the message with alternatives to see whether the same effects listed above are achieved. For instance, it is easy to imagine the word patriarchy being replaced with other words: “It is religion which says men are stupid…” “It’s Darwinism that says men have animalistic instincts…”  “It’s capitalism that says men can only be attracted to certain qualities…” Likewise, feminism can be replaced with other words, be they to do with some other religion, political organisation, or figurehead: “Shia LeBeouf holds that men are capable of more – are more than that”. In every case and no matter the content, I (perhaps naïvely) hope that thoughtfulness and discussion will be encouraged, and the reactionary responses which would curb such engagement discouraged. In other words, I want to stress that the endorsement and sharing of such propaganda is not limited to any particular group – I’m sure that those of you with a wide social network on Facebook will see many other examples of such material before the week is through.

However, I do think an empirical point can be made for some groups operating across different mediums, regions, and domains making more use of such techniques at different times than others. In regard to my own experiences as a Western Australian academic with a social network comprised mainly of working class and educated people located in the U.K and Australia, the examples which I have been seeing the most are to do with Islam as the common-enemy and Australian values as the potential solution (see below), and (to a much greater extent) material such as that presented in image included at the top of this post.

Unfortunately, nosebleed material like this is presented to me weekly. This is a relatively mild example, and thus only implies the perceived common-enemy. Please note that I do not support this message. Indeed, anyone who does should have a chat with me some time, as I'd love to try to change you.

Unfortunately, nosebleed material like this is presented to me weekly. This is a relatively mild example, and thus only implies the perceived common-enemy. Please note that: 1) I do not support this message. Indeed, anyone who does should have a chat with me some time, as I’d love to try to change you. 2) I am not comparing the groups behind the images included.

For those living in different contexts I’d be interested to hear of your own exposure to and observations of such social artifacts!

Now! With all this talk of engagement, I thought I’d share my contribution to a discussion on patriarchy, which took place around the time that I first came across the image featured at the top of this post. The discussion followed a provocative episode of Triple J’s radio show “Hack”, and was to do with the perceived unwillingness for both feminists and victims to talk about domestic violence perpetrated against men. What follows is my response to the following question, in which I try to wrap my head around and express my thoughts on the notion of patriarchy as it is so often used by the community I am embedded in:

Q. “But wait, don’t you think it’s part of patriarchal discourse not to talk about violence against men, not just part of feminist discourse?

A. “That’s a good question! I’m going to number this, as it might be a few blocks:

  1. I don’t think of either the words ‘discourse’ or ‘patriarchy’ as being adjectives that can be applied to everything. In other words, I don’t think that any and every event can be looked at and convincingly brought under the heading of a single discourse or ‘patriarchy’. (I understand that ‘patriarchy’ can be used to talk about less grand things, like the oldest son inheriting the land and so on, though this anthropological point is clearly not what many of those who now use the term are getting at).
  1. This is because discourses are (among other things) about distinctions (that is, distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘that’). If there were: 1) no limits to its application, or 2) no limit on how it could be reconceptualised in order to apply to any situation, then it would no longer mean anything to me, other than perhaps being a grand narrative that I’ll never ever be able to get my head around (though I understand that in such instances people can be encouraged or pressured into acting as if such notions were meaningful nonetheless – though this in itself is not enough to imbue something with meaning)
  1. That said I understand that ‘patriarchy’ is generally used to describe a ‘social structure’/’system’ – however I often think that these words are rarely understood as I understand it (though I’ll continue treating them as interchangeable in order to avoid going too far down the lane of Systems Theory). For instance, if, on the one hand, the intention is to refer to patriarchy as being ‘structural’ then this would describe a quality of a structure, rather than a whole social structure. For instance, if I refer to theocracy as a social structure, then particular traditions or religious attitudes within that theocracy would be structural, rather than the whole social structure. To refer to the structural components as the whole social structure would be akin to referring to a cog as a machine, a tree as an ecosystem, or a part as an apparatus (granted, such comparisons are here only intended to engage the imagination).
  1. With this in mind, even if ‘patriarchy’ was seen as the ‘whole social structure’ it must still have limits. For instance, there are elements of the economy or the legal system or the scientific enterprise that are distinct from religion. Thus even in a theocratic system ‘theocracy’ wouldn’t be the ‘whole social structure’, but rather one particularly influential (and indeed, in respect to itself, ‘whole’) social structure among many. In a similar fashion, to see the notion of patriarchy as referring to a ‘whole social structure’ that can be applied without limit as a grand account for every other ‘whole social structure’ would lead us back to points 1 and 2.
  1. That said if, instead being a structure, ‘patriarchy’ is meant to refer to a discourse, then I can understand why both the feminist and patriarchy discourse, as well as many other discourses, can frame and reveal and omit and render the same event in different ways. Thus talking about/not talking about violence can be ‘a part of’ these two discourses, plus a religious one, plus a psychological one, and so on. However, I think there should be limits to this too, because otherwise you could have replaced the word ‘patriarchy’ with any of these other discourse in order to answer the question “is violence a part of the patriarchy discourse?” with an honest though unsophisticated “yes”.
  1. However (and this would probably make a few people go red in the face), I don’t really recognise ‘patriarchy’ as a discourse. This is because, so far as I know, I don’t frame etc. all the things I come across or think or do in terms of patriarchy, nor can I try to in a meaningful way. In contrast, the feminist discourse has an intellectual history and set of coherent assumptions, accompanied by concepts and notions which feminists have worked at, or which have developed over time out of wider contingencies. The same goes for the biomedical discourse, or a religious discourse, or scientific discourse, and so on.
  1. Even with all their mysteries in toe, the none-deliberate and contingent parts of discourses can work to frame, reveal and hide aspects of the world in a way that doesn’t violate the points I’ve so far raised. For instance, particular understandings of, say, masculinity weren’t all penned out deliberately, but developed over time and across a range of events. Yet it is still very clear that these contingencies have become part of a wider and coherent discourse to do with masculinity. In this sense many of the distinct parts of ‘the masculine’ may come into the purview of ‘patriarchy’. However, without an ample capacity for charisma on the part of the speaker, attempts to ascribe ‘masculine characteristics’ to whole social systems (as patriarchy often supposedly does) are often far from convincing.
  1. (This is more of an anecdotal point, and is almost certainly misplaced.) If anything, the only time I see the term patriarchy being use in any of the senses mentioned from points 1-7 is in the feminist discourse. Just the other day I saw a photo posted saying something along the lines of “it’s the patriarchy which tells boys that they’re useless, feminism tells them that they’re worth something”. This sounds like an extreme example, but I see such things every week posted by dozens of people. I see it too in feminist literature and lectures and so on, though rarely elsewhere. At times it’s as if what patriarchy is to feminism is comparable to what sin is to religion, the Other is to nationalism, or madness is to the psychosciences. In other words, I only ever experience patriarchy as it is revealed to me by the feminist discourse. In this sense, it often seems to me that patriarchy is a part of the feminist discourse. Please note! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! For instance, alienation (which is a bad thing, though awesome concept) can be said to be a part of Marxist discourse, much to its merit.
  1. (last one!) If the response to all of this is that I cannot ‘see’ patriarchy as it is often meant by some of the terms users, or that I’m otherwise incapable of ‘understanding’ it because I am too deeply embedded in it, then my response could be even longer than this one.”

I know there will be many problems with my reasoning, so please feel free to engage. Ideas for sound-bites are especially welcome.

Sociyolo.

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Real World 2: Responses to the Real World spiel

In the last Sociyology post, I referred to the “Real World” spiel in order to illustrate one technique that might effectively be used to degrade another person in the eyes of an audience. In this post I move away from the typical sociological angle in order to personally address this spiel, detailing why I believe it to be poorly placed at the best, sinister at the worst, and worth challenging all the way through. To better illustrate my points, I provide the Real World with an opponent: the Ivory Tower. In its modern usage the term basically refers to the university, evoking a place disconnected from the everyday world, where privileged people indulge in useless(/pointless) research and sophisticated (/wanky) discussions. Urban dictionary describes the Ivory Tower like this: “A disparaging term that refers to elitist detachment from, and especially criticism of the everyday world, or of common sense and beliefs – Let those scholars criticize our beliefs from their ivory tower; we all know how the world really works”. If it helps, you can imagine the Real World as a land of industrial worksites, clubs and pubs, and white collar businesses, where real people, alike in consumer dignity, have to work to pay bills and save up for holidays. You can imagine the ivory tower like this:

NES Ivory Tower in space Or this:

mariotowerdefense

Before we jump in, I want it to be clear that I’m not proposing something as vulgar as cutting the Real World spiel from the public domain in an attempt at censorship. Such a thing is far beyond my powers, and if I had such powers and used them I’d have to consider myself a super villain… or at least irresponsible. As always, I’m simply endorsing that special something that occurs when taken-for-granted grey social sludge is transmuted into sociological strange-alicious. Nevertheless, it remains that certain assumptions are often at play in the Real World spiel which trivialise certain life choices, values, and career path while championing others… which is rude.

“Those working in the Ivory Tower do not know what it’s like in the Real World; they don’t operate within it, and are consequently less equipped to deal with it”

The above statement encapsulates the many varieties of the Real World spiel that I’ve experienced personally or observed sneakily. While there is of course much more to the spiel than this straw man in terms of context, there is rarely more by way of complexity. The assumptions at play seem to remain the same whether the person is getting at the value of the target’s job, the scope and worth of their experiences, how this reflects on their capabilities, or how this all reflects on their character and the character of the system they operate within (that is, the University system, not the molten capitalist core at the heart of the Real World). What follows are a number of points that I think are fair to raise in response to the above statement and its variants. The responses start off dealing with the individual being targeted, before leading into more general points regarding the Ivory Tower, the Real World, work, and hypocrisy.

It’s narrow minded to use a person’s job to account for everything they do, have done, or will do. In spite of this, the assumption is often made that an academic’s job constitutes the entirety of their life – to the point that, with some measure or sincerity, someone can actually imply that an academic never left the Ivory Tower. While it is tempting to imagine an academic this way (especially the cliché genius who stays in his books even when he’s away from them), trying to find such a specimen in the social wilderness would be a fool’s errand.

The reason for this is that academics aren’t workers who just happen to be human, but humans who happen to work, just like brick layers, bar staff, and lawyers. Along with being an academic a person may be a parent, facing the challenges that parents are likely to face. They may have worked previous jobs outside of the Ivory Tower, or even be doing so while in the Ivory Tower. They may have traveled, experimented, or struggled with the same issues that pop up regardless of a person’s job title. Nevertheless, in order to hold Real World hardships over such a person, these human elements must be ignored, so that their job can more easily be treated as the sum total of their being. But, humanising techniques aside, what of those institution loving individuals who went straight from school into university and the Ivory Tower workforce?

When I was in high school, I witnessed a fair proportion of my classmates leave school early to pursue a trade. Many of these people are still in their trade, and probably will be for the majority of their life. Their job might involve financial hardships, and most certainly painstaking labor. It will also involve opportunities to hone their craft and make the money required to do whatever they do when not working (this is sounding quite familiar). These people went straight from high school to training to the workforce, just like young academics such as myself. Many of my laboring classmates and I are at similar stages of our respective careers, though our training and work differ. Yet they seem to avoid the criticism of over incubation, which seems to be reserved for those career paths that take place in institutional workplaces, rather than rafters. I’m yet to see the same spiels directed at those who have spent the last few years in an office on a mine site, in the aisles of a shopping complex, or the classrooms of an education institution that isn’t marked by ivory.

So far the Real World spiel has been responded to by pointing out its tendency to ignore or trivialise the biographies of actual people in the actual world according to a selective bias that, when fairly addressed, stays afloat like a Swiss cheese paddle boat. But what about the bigger issue of contributing to society? (We won’t linger on the beastly assumptions that such an attitude implies; suffice to say that such bullying is socially acceptable when it’s done in the name of society.) Experience has shown me that those who endorse the Real World spiel would consider all those workers mentioned thus far as doing their part to some extent – the programmer, clerk, and factory worker all make a contribution that has an actual presence in the real world – while the Ivory Tower and the academics that operate within it do not.

This can be dealt with by pointing to what goes on in universities both in terms of work and GDP contribution. In regard to work, an academic is generally expected to take up a teaching workload (and if they are not expected to, poor pay will likely leave them seeking it out anyway). This can involve coordinating units and teaching hundreds of students, many of which will take what they’ve learned out into the Real World. When it comes to GDP contribution this is a significant dimension, given that Australian tertiary education for international students alone is expected to grow to a $19 billion industry by the end of the decade (I intend to build on this in a future post, which will deal with the changing role of production in a consumer based society where everyone is expected to “share the load”).

Regrettably, even these points are likely to miss the mark when dealing with a devoted proponent of the Real World. So far as I can tell from the conversations that I’ve had, this is because the conflict between the Real World spiel and its Ivory Tower opponent is just a black head on the oily face of a bigger problem: The strange conflict between those who value practice and those who value theory/ those who deal with the Real World of real issues, and those who stand accused of conjuring up issues through ceremonial circle jerks. Such a discussion will have to wait until the another Sociyology post, which will conclude this series by addressing the trauma of trying to justify theory and the sinister threat that the speals such as the Real World pose to such efforts.

Creating things like this has nothing to do with my job or yours, or this post or your reception of the ideas held within. But feel free to disagree.

Creating things like this has nothing to do with my job or yours, or this post or your reception of the ideas held within. But feel free to disagree. Much can be made from little.

I’ll tie up this post with a sentiment that I have used numerous times in response to the Real World spiel – one that has been quite successful in spite of its failure to address the more responsible reflections given thus far:

The rat race sucks. Criticising people who chose an academic career because they seem to have avoided some of the rat race’s hardships is like saying that the runner who chose the path through the meadow rather than the woods didn’t participate in the race. Academics (whatever variety) certainly have it easier in some regards to some workers and harder to other workers in other regards. Why ignore this reality in order to criticise someone for making a life choice, seeing it through, and enjoying the comfortable living that may (or may not) eventuate from it? We all want a comfortable life, and while most people accept that we all deserve one, this won’t stop a lot of people from implying that you don’t.

Sociyolo.

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Real World 1: Degradation Ceremonies

In 1956 Harold Garfinkel published a paper called Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies, which provides eight hypothetical steps for achieving what the title suggests. It’s a fascinating paper that provides an interesting perspective for making sense of something we often witness but give little deliberate thought to. Unfortunately, Garfinkel seemed to think it necessary to place restrictions on what he meant by “degradation ceremony”, putting conditions on the conditions, and thereby limiting the imagination. In this post I’ve tinkered slightly with the original formulation, applying it to a more subtle everyday example which I call: the “Real World” spiel. I’ll start with an overview of this approach, and then consider it using Garfinkel. This post will be followed with a critique of the Real World spiel as being too unrealistic to take seriously in most circumstances. *For some extra thought, rather than being limited to the following example, feel free to apply what follows to a variety of issues – such as the treatment of certain ethnic, intellectual, or moral minorities in your community, country, or the media*

“Well that’s all well and good, but in the real world“.

The Real World refers to a realm of authenticity in which lived experiences take on a quality of legitimacy that the ordinary and thus less exclusive real world has failed to provide. At its best, appealing to this Real World provides a quick and easy way of sorting experiences and opinions in terms of truth and falsity, triviality and importance, privileged and actual, while simultaneously adopting the role of the “everyman”. The target who has been face with and excluded from the Real World (and there is always a target in some manner, as the Real World is an Othering technique) becomes strange to the many, with each reproach to follow bringing with it the risk of further exclusion and accusations of dickheadery. To say the least, the Real World spiel is an effective way for a person to be condescending in a generally acceptable manner that requires very little effort, while its rejection requires quite a bit of thought and care from an already disadvantaged target (imagine: a social ceremony that could ruin the sociologist may seem just as elegant as the viper that could kill the zoologist).

While this technique probably pops up all over the shop, my context means that I’ve seen it used most regularly on those involved in the higher education system. For instance, in the Murdoch university debates a young man successfully squashed a senior academic’s argument regarding the job market, asking the audience just how a man who has spent his life in the “ivory tower” could dare to talk of such things. A few months earlier I watched as the trials of a female post-graduate student approaching her mid-thirties were dismissed because she had resigned herself to the apparent safety of further study. In another fascinating example an academic invokes the idea of the Real World against himself in order to pre-emptively humble his position before a strange new audience. Finally, the entire higher education system can be treated as a target through questions that treat it as the Real World’s purgatory, in which people hide like children who won’t leave the locker room for fear of the game. We’ll consider the implications of such treatment later; for now let’s turn to Garfinkel.

Right from the start Garfinkel defines a degradation ceremony as “any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types”. This tells us that the point of the ceremony is the objectification of a person, to transform them from a single human being into a representation of something the audience looks down on or dislikes. Once this is done the audience will find it easier to notice or project negative qualities onto the person, find it harder to notice their positive qualities, and thus be less trusting, forgiving, and accepting of their points. The target who doesn’t notice this process quick enough will likely have their initial behaviour used as material by the accuser, meaning that they might naively solidify the initial accusations and contradict themselves when they later have to backtrack. The quick target may find themselves having to defend against this new accusation, rather than the initial accusation which triggered the event. This may take form in their attacking the accuser, who (as the steps to be discussed will show) will have positioned themselves in such a way that any attack against them can also be treated as an attack against the audience. The result in any event will likely be that the integrity of the target is further damaged and their esteem further reduced as the degradation ceremony gains momentum.

This seemingly extreme process can in fact be quite subtle, and partially occurs in the simple moments of everyday life: when an otherwise thoughtful person is ousted as a bigot in some regard, when otherwise thoughtful groups perceive their moral position as superior to others and descend into bullying tactics, or when someone mentions that they intend to vote liberal in the next election. More extreme examples might be when the partner becomes the promiscuous cheater, or the man the paedophile. All of these events share the same opening ceremony, that moment of realisation when the person becomes that person of those people. The transformation that accompanies the incantation: “Oh, it’s one of those“.

rabbitduck2

Garfinkel’s argument is that initiating and maintaining this transformation can be a refined act, and that the likelihood of its success can be improved according to eight conditions… Of course, whether or not there is some truth to this argument is another question. Academics need to publish and Garfinkel was an academic. Nevertheless, if these eight conditions were to be treated seriously, what would they look like? And how is this reflected in the Real World spiel? What follows is an at times quoted at times paraphrased summary of these conditions, for the more detailed original list see here.

“To be successful,the denunciation must redefine the situations of those that are witnesses to the denunciation work. The denouncer, the party to be denounced (let us call him the “perpetrator”), and the thing that is being blamed on the perpetrator(let us call it the “event”) must be transformed as follows”:

1. Both event and perpetrator must be removed from the realm of their everyday character and be made to stand as “out of the ordinary”.

This is achieved through the act of splitting the world in two: the Real World inhabited by the denouncer, and the other world inhabited by the perpetrator. The added bonus of this spiel is that this achievement is marked by the denouncer successfully formulating “the ordinary”.

2. The preferences must not be for event A over event B, but for event of type A over event of type B. … The unique, never recurring character of the event or perpetrator should be lost. The audience must appreciate that these preferences present them with a side they must choose, and the denouncer must be aware of and in control of this process.

The details of the academic working in the arts, such as their field, teaching and research work load, expertise and values, potential for career development, family life and other non-professional responsibilities are removed as they become a privileged academic in the ivory tower. Likewise, the corresponding details of the denouncer are removed, as they become a representative of the Real World, and thus the Everyman.

3-7. The denouncer must make his position not as a privately motivated person, but as a participant and representative of the interests of the audience. They must also appeal to the audiences’ sense of dignity by mentioning and supporting their values as being self evident. Most importantly, as far as possible the denouncer must be viewed by the audience as a fair representative of these values and thus justified in defending them.

As the representative of the Real World, the denouncer doesn’t publicly acknowledge that they’re presenting a subjective world view as an objective one. For them and the audience, their Real World constitutes a reality where participants make certain career choices over others and face the corresponding challenges, and treat certain issues as worth thinking about and others as irrelevant to the needs and interests of their Real World kind. Of course, the exception to this would appear to be the student or academic who denounces themselves as not having entered the Real World (as is becoming common practice around my campus); while it is enough in this instance for the denouncer to make their belief in the Real World plain, this will likely be the more challenging condition of the ceremony if they were to attempt to take it seriously and thus be treated seriously.

8. The denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order … he must be defined as standing at a place opposed to it. He must be placed “outside,” he must be made “strange”.

How could a man who has spent his life in the ivory tower dare to preach about life out there in the Real World? (Here at sociyology we don’t like to pointlessly overcomplicate things…)

Garfinkel mentions that he only cared to consider the more obvious conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. Those listed shine an interesting light on the Real World spiel that I find illuminating. There are of course numerous other possible ceremonies that I haven’t cared to mention; I’m sure you can think of many yourself, and will maybe even spot some more out there in the social wilderness. Maybe you’d like to go through the steps again and see how they reflect the treatment of certain ethnic groups in Australia. Maybe you’ll use Garfinkel’s conditions or discover some of your own. For this post however, I’m satisfied to put the Real World spiel on the list of real world degradation ceremonies of the here and now. At the bottom of what some might consider to be a rather dark paper, Garfinkel’s last sentence points out that knowing how to construct successful degradation ceremonies provides the potential to render them useless. The next post will attempt to go further than this by providing a brief argument for why the Real World spiel should be challenged whenever possible as being poorly placed at best and sinister at worse.

“I don’t think he ever even was a sheep”
“It’s fine, he’ll learn his lesson when he gets out into the Real Field”

Thank you for your time.
Sociyolo.

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