Book Review: The Social Structures of Global Academia by Cannizzo and Osbaldiston

The Social Structures of Global Academia (2019), edited by Fabian Cannizzo and Nick Osbaldiston. Published by Routledge.

Fabian Cannizzo is a sociologist working in the fields of higher education and the creative industries. He is interested in how political economies shape the normative meaning-making and career planning of workers. He is the convenor of the Work, Labour and Economy thematic group at The Australian Sociological Association. He tweets @fabiancann.

Nick Osbaldiston is a senior lecturer in sociology at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. He is the author of several pieces on lifestyle migration, including an edited volume with Michaela Benson entitled Understanding Lifestyle Migration (Palgrave, 2014). He tweets @nickosbaldiston.

Review by Filip Vostal, 4th March 2021.

Numerous accounts have been published tackling the transformations of academia from various angles and coming up with a range of concepts and research programmes, including critiques of academic capitalism, the enterprise university, audit cultures and metricization, the marketization and neoliberalization of universities, studies of temporality in/of academia, and critical university studies. These accounts, even if very diverse in focus, have one thing in common: a critique of the primacy of the one-dimensional economistic treatment of knowledge and education, cascading down to labour conditions, construction of study programmes, curricula, teaching policies and the ordering of research conduct across all disciplines. These factors shape the lives of those who work in academia. The Social Structures of Global Academia occupies a unique place among this literature. It builds on the corpus of what can be called the ‘critical sociology of higher education’ while bringing into focus new themes, processes and dimensions of academia’s transformation. The four sections of the book outstandingly combine highly diverse yet, on many levels, complementary analytical foci clustered as four analytical domains: academic ethics, affective cultures, funding and metrics, and agency and control.

In the first section, Holmwood, Turner, Osbaldiston, Cannizzio and Mauri et al. discuss the historical evolution of what it means to be an academic vis-à-vis decades of deepening marketization of academia, when academia, in its self-understanding and public discourse, steadily departs from being a public good underpinning citizenry to an important branch of economic and corporate interests (Holmwood) and how this re-shapes academic values and what is value-able. Turner, in turn, illuminates the on-going ‘science wars’ – at least in science policy – and the dramatic shift in academic ethics, i.e. what is ethical is what generates profit. This holds some legitimacy when it comes to sciences that lie more on the applied side of the research spectrum. That ‘academic ethics follows the bottom line’ probably holds for various disciplines and universities’ renewed ‘missions’ that are often subject to industrial lobbying. Under these circumstances the ‘love of learning’ and truth-seeking on all academic levels have essentially disappeared.  Osbaldiston et al., following Turner, note that early career researchers (ECR) – arguably the most vulnerable group in today’s academia – are under increasing pressure to perform delayed existential gratification, accepting precarious, unpaid and/or poorly paid labour with the expectation of future gains (that rarely materialize in the form of tenure or other secure forms of employment). The systemic ordering of contemporary academia assumes that ECR in particular love their work (but hate their jobs as Osbaldiston et al. note elsewhere) and will commit themselves to any job, paid or unpaid, anticipating a ‘reward’ in the form of a decently paid position in the future. It does seem that there might be a disproportionate number of PhD holders aiming to pursue academic careers compared to the number of available national funding-bound academic positions. This situation generates stress, questions and anxiety around the meaningfulness/meaninglessness of the academic vocation.

Following this, the second section centres on affective implications of socio-historical transformation and the one-dimensional economistic self-understanding of academies.   Mannevuo and Valovirta chart the management of specific, largely negative emotions of, for example, ECR that stem from ever-changing expectations from their superiors – ‘normalized exhaustive patterns’ – i.e. to be increasingly ‘excellent’ and ‘at the top’ in all (un)thinkable respects. Again, the authors claim that many academics try to steer such feelings into denial and rationalize the unpleasant emotional and highly-competitive atmosphere by reminding themselves of their love of academia and other ‘micro-emancipatory’ convivialities. Cannizzo subsequently looks at Sennett’s notions of ‘craftwork’ – a brilliant prism – and authenticity. He argues that established institutional structures tend to foreground a specific definition of what ‘the ideal of genuine or real academic work’ is. This idea tends to highlight work in academia as a ‘lifestyle’ to which one must be 100 per cent committed, otherwise he or she is out. Such expectations marginalize women (and men in domestic partnerships and/or with children) in particular. The preference for single white senior male academics with no family ties comes to be what ‘authentic commitment’ to academic work stands for. Ylijoki then investigates the moral economy of happiness in academia. Understandably, academics in good positions, possessing international recognition (this assumes some degree of seniority), resources and both direct and indirect power (in departments, faculties) are usually the ones who see themselves as ‘happy’. Ylijoki shows that ‘happy academics’ actually reject that deep inequalities and ‘misery’ exist when it comes to remuneration and the psychic condition of many within academia, or are incapable of seeing them given their privileges. Given that the (re)production of knowledge is still one of the main missions of universities, one would expect solidarity, rather than ignorance and diminishment, to emerge from privilege and contentment. 

The third section opens with Haddow’s and Hammarfelt’s account mapping how evaluative metrics impact ECR in Australia. Using substantive empirical evidence they argue that there are three reactions to the increasing penetration of metrics in academic work-life: resistance, gaming, resignation. Metrics in this sense are Janus-faced: they can co-shape firm academic subjectivity as well as undermine it. Franssen and de Rijcke show how the increasing casualization and precarity of employment affect academics using the example of a Dutch research group. Even if the funding of the specific discipline examined is stable and increases, there is still a substantive rift between senior scholars and ECAs, who experience ‘ontological insecurity’. Müller’s reprinted chapter complementarily shows how young academic are in a ‘rat race’, but rather than advancing they seem to stand still. She introduces the concept of ‘anticipatory acceleration’, which discloses how the competitive nature of academia is getting worse and is straining scholars’ psychological and physiological limits. The final section opens with Mauri’s argument on how academia actually thrives on precarious and insecure labour and raises a number of critical points about the academic hiring process. Davies, following the preceding arguments, shows that the academic experience is a multiple, contradictory and fragmented set of experiences and suggests that we academics should ‘strike back’ in the same manner. Connell’s final contribution to the volume explores deep-seated inequalities and new technologies of power that dominate academia. However, she concludes on a positive note and highlights alternative movements to the managerial and corporate university. The fundamental point (that is neither implicit nor explicit) is who can actually participate in struggles for a better university without suffering further impediments.

Some of the chapters (notably those of Mannevuo and Volovirta, and Connell) interestingly tackle how Anglo-models of academia essentially colonize academic systems in semi-peripheries, peripheries as well as core non-English speaking countries, to use the Wallerstenian categorization. However, a substantive engagement with tensions, conflicts as well as complementarities of academic systems, cultures and affects along the North-South axis are not covered in depth in the collection. Still, the contributors are very diversely positioned across disciplines and have different epistemic groundings, and they capture different issues of globalizing academia. Overall, the contributors in the collection offer cases, arguments and insights of an explorative and explanatory nature. In memory of David Graeber, we might say that the very idea that ‘we live in a totalizing system is itself the core ideological idea we need to overcome’. Indeed this holds for academia, too. One of the aspects that we are currently witnessing on a ‘COVID-19 planet’ has shown that policies, systems and ideologies are far from totalizing (they are only subject to gaming and subversion) and can potentially and promptly change the world (for the better) – the university can become, to use Connell’s words, the good university.

Filip Vostal works as a research associate at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences. His research interests encompass sociology of time, science & technology studies (STS), critical social science, and numismatics (notaphily). He is an author of Accelerating Academia: The Changing Structure of Academic Time (Palgrave, 2016) and editor of forthcoming volume Inquiring into Academic Timescapes (Emerald, 2021). He teaches STS courses at Charles University.

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