Awaiting a Sociology of Global Academia

Image: Jan Bottinger on Unsplash

Tuesday 27th November, 2018

By Fabian Cannizzo and Nick Osbaldiston

Across many borders, higher education has become a mass system, integrated into not only the broadest expanse of national economies, but also interlinking nations in their own right. Higher education is Australia’s third largest export sector and largest service export, reflecting its relevance to global political economy. Steven Ward has noted that, within the rhetoric of the ‘knowledge society’,

Universities occupy a particularly special place in this new economic configuration and the creation of these new national, regional and city-based “information systems.” Knowledge society proponents envision universities as engines of economic growth… They are to do this by providing the new epistemic materials for post-industrial production, by becoming the setting for entrepreneurial innovation, business incubation and technology transfer and by providing a well-trained and flexible labor force that can continuously be retrained with useful skills as economic conditions and the needs of corporations change.

Universities have come to occupy a near-mythological image in wealthy nations – as foundries of knowledge, economic resources, moral classrooms, and engines of socio-economic mobility.

While these glossy images adorn national policy discourses and corporate advertising, a second figure is currently taking form. At present, UK is asking if their Ministers should allow universities to declare bankruptcy, Cornell University in the USA is cutting its ties with China’s Renmin University over claims that Renmin is curbing academic freedom, universities across Europe are banding together to create a Civic University to promote “European values”, and in Australia it has been revealed that a former Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has vetoed 11 Arts/Humanities-focused Australian Research Council grants (recommended for funding by a rigorous peer-review board) seemingly because he does not believe that they serve the “national interest”.

While international neoliberal policy discourses have centred the economic missions of universities, whose value is measured ultimately by the floating dollar, the cultural missions of these institutions have seemed to follow in step in scholarly research. The study of academia, in this sense, has given way to the study of higher education, of research organisations, of academic capitalism; domains that centre the power of management and economics at the expense of intellectual cultures.

Academia is not reducible to the infrastructure and bureaucracies that give it material support. Rather, academia is premised on the idea that the rationalisation of knowledge is a public good that requires appropriate forms of social organisation. Studies of this cultural institution have taken on at least three forms over the past 40 years:

  1. The national academic systems approach, perhaps best characterised by Pierre Bourdieu’s study of French academia in the 1980s, Homo Academicus, and Mary Henkel’s outstanding study of academic identities in the UK through its policy landscape, Academic Identities and Policy Change in Higher Education. While these approaches demonstrate mastery of national intellectual cultural systems, they are limited in focusing on state-centred policy and organisational structures, leaving open the question of what a global academia might look like.
  2. The cultures of academic disciplines approach, typified by Robert Merton’s analysis of ‘The Normative Structure of Science’ in The Sociology of Science, Tony Becher and Paul Trowler’s Academic Tribes and Territories, and Michéle Lamont’s analysis of the boundary work performed in grant panels in How Professors Think. This approach centres inter-national cultures of academic work, offering an entry point into a sociology of global academia. Becher and Trowler’s cross-disciplinary comparative work is particular useful in describing the differences between disciplinary tribes, who might ideologically describe their differences as purely epistemic, in terms of technological and historical contingencies, bringing the social back into the study of social groups.
  3. The social acceleration approaches, most notably in the works for Filip Vostal Accelerating Academia and Dick Pels Unhastening Science. Although Vostal and Pels have differing perspectives on what constitutes the appropriate pace of academic/scientific work, social accelerationist approaches all distinguish the temporalities of academia from a surrounding (capitalist or economic rationalist) environment. These approaches offer outstanding analyses of how academic cultures work within, or grate against, organisational structures and are foundational to global academia.

What each of these approaches are limited in addressing, but which each contribute to in part, is how to conduct a comparative sociology that accounts for continuities and differences in academies across borders. To argue that academia is a global practice is to move beyond both methodological nationalism and economic globalism, towards a study that takes the cultures of intellectuals, labourers and scientists as seriously as their economic relations. At present, what Raewyn Connell describes as a “Eurocentric Curriculum” has developed through the history of academia, spreading through colonial ties to reproduce the dominance of centre over periphery in academia’s political economy.

Although a mature sociology of global academia is still a way off, the foundations for a sociology that is not limited by the boundaries of statehood or international political allegiances is underway, promising to offer richer accounts of intellectual cultures around the world.

Fabian Cannizzo and Nick Osbaldiston have edited a collection of essays focusing on such a project, The Social Structures of Global Academia (Routledge, early 2019; click link for a description and table of contents). Essays in that volume address the themes of academic ethics, affective cultures, funding and metrics, and also issues of agency and control embedded in global scholarly communities.

Fabian Cannizzo is a Research Officer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is interested in the study of governance and careers in academia and the creative industries, but is also frequently side-tracked by political economy and the sociology of time.

Nick Osbaldiston is a Cultural Sociologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. He has published in the fields of lifestyle migration and cultural sociology with two monographs entitled Seeking Authenticity in Place, Culture and Self (Palgrave, 2012) and Towards a Sociology of the Coast (Palgrave, 2018).

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