The New Rules of Sociological Labour

By Lambros Fatsis

Pressures to “publish or perish” have left an indelible mark on contemporary academic life. So much so, that they are often expressed in crude “survive-the-heat-or-retreat” appeals that inspire warnings about ‘the closing of Sociology’s mind’, the ‘hidden injuries of neoliberal academia’, and the negative impact of auditing practices in Higher Education (see herehere, and here).

What such trends illustrate is the undeniable influence of metrics on the sociological imagination, leading some to draft manifestos for the public university, or even suggest that we have reached a ‘post-public’ moment in Higher Education. In the process of discussing whether designations such as ‘public’ and ‘post-public’ are useful, meaningful, or possible even, another set of questions immediately pops up, calling into question our position, role and power in such newly-found circumstances. The remainder of this article takes up these questions, by exploring our existential condition as sociologists who labour under “new” rules of sociological labour that are suffused with the spirit of academic capitalism.

Before I type another word on this however, a disclaimer is necessary. I have no intention to froth with indignation against “capitalism” indiscriminately and without qualifications. Nor am I oblivious to the dangers of chameleon concepts, ‘-isms’ included, to mean different things to different people, while often signifying very little in their own right. I will therefore limit my working definition of academic capitalism as an institutional logic that seeks to make profit out of academics’ labour and students’ fees, without due regard for the parties affected; be it academics, students, scholarship, or education, culture, and politics more broadly. As a result, much of what counts as profitable, cost-effective, and impactful, may not necessarily matter as academically and pedagogically worthy, desirable, or relevant.

Such a take-over of scholarship by managerial targets, is bound to raise a few eyebrows among those whose work is weighted, packaged, and sold ‘just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage’, as Max Weber put it some centuries ago in a lecture (which it initially was), and a famous essay (which it later became); which would hardly tick the appropriate TEF or REF boxes for either “excellence” or “output” value.

What is the post-public university?

Weber’s heirs, dare I say “us”, express similar misgivings about the lamentable state of Higher Education, pointing at the increasing marketisation of the University, the transformation of students into consumers, and the commodification, if not the reification, of the processes of research, thinking, and learning too. In doing so, many (fore)see the disappearance of the University as a space where citizenship is cultivated through critical thought, political dissent, and intellectual inventiveness, fearing that the impending techno-bureaucratisation of an otherwise open space will strip it of its value as a public good.

At this point, persistent calls for a (more) public university may gradually fade into a benumbed feeling that any attempt to bring back, dig up, or somehow revive the public role, function, and accountability of university institutions, may be for naught. Especially since the university’s idealised public past has met its ‘post-public’ present, in a reshuffle that has radically transformed the idea of the university from a pastoral garden to a corporate post-industrial complex.

The question however remains; what is post-public about the ‘post-public university’? Does the term refer to a moment in time which succeeds previous eras (post-public), or does it describe a specific location (post) on which to ground our decision to either surrender, or wage a war of position against the further dismantling of public higher education? If we are to conceive of the ‘post-public’ condition as a historical era which has, in its sweep, replaced genuine intellectual curiosity with research assessment exercises, league tables, student fees, citation scores, impact factors, visual learning environments, time allocation models and funding bids, doesn’t that also urge us to inquire what is the place of, as well as where is the place for critical scholarship in the wake of such a new era?

However ambiguous or elusive the post-public university’s “post” may be in 21st century academia, its consequences reverberate across campuses, urging sociologists around the world to join Weber in asking, ninety-seven years later, ‘what shall we do, and how shall we live?’, where is our social science, and what is our vocation?

How to “do” sociology in the post-public realm?

If the reality is as bleak as this, (how) can anyone “do” sociology, of the critical kind, under conditions that practically discourage it? Succumbing to such pressures may signal a retreat to passive compliance, while open resistance might lead to academic exile; thereby rendering critical scholarship extinct in the process, by pressing it down or kicking it out, with its valuable insights kept under lock and key or out of sight. It is of course tempting to suggest that critical scholars can keep appearances while also holding the faith, through some Faustian bargain between selling their labour to affiliated institutions, and kindling the fire of critical scholarship without setting the conflagration alight.

None of this sounds immensely reassuring or inspiring, but variations on such a theme might. In our desperate search for spaces in which to live, breathe, teach and write sociology in a way that allows us not just to ‘live off’ but ‘live for’ sociology, we often ignore what we can do for sociology out of our love for it. One such alternative, that is often overlooked, is to volunteer for community-based, co-operative “universities” that often are the brainchildren of critical scholars, and prove themselves to be an impressively positive and constructive response, a protest even, to the ‘post-public university’. Being part of one such co-operative endeavour, as a volunteer, I can speak first-hand of its considerable merits as an outlet for critical, and often radical, sociological scholarship.

Without wishing to draw facile comparisons that would simplistically or dogmatically praise public initiatives over formal academic institutions, it would nevertheless be fair to say that the comparative advantages of the former are to be found in exactly what seems to be lacking in the latter. If there is one thing that makes community-based projects like the Free University Brighton stand out, is that they are intrinsically and inescapably public. They are made up of a team of academic volunteers who teach a bewilderingly diverse group of adult learners from virtually all backgrounds and abilities in public spaces, not self-enclosed campuses. All courses/activities are entirely free, and anyone can join with the only condition being that students are committed to attending and participating in the courses offered.

In return they receive high-quality, University-level education that spans the whole three years of undergraduate study, and can be awarded an independently validated degree (we call it “Freegree”). In addition to all that, as members of such a co-operative, we pride ourselves on the democratic organisation of Free University Brighton, given that students actively participate on decision-making processes about the content of the courses offered, the degree of learning support offered in terms of study skills sessions and mentoring, as well as our future plans as an independent, public education collective.

The lessons that can be drawn from such initiatives are very and many, and hint at what may be lost when education exchanges its public character to become a private service, transforming itself into a costly luxury at the expense of education itself, especially if the latter is conceived as the rocket booster of critical, participatory, and open democratic citizenship. All this may sound exaggerated to the non-academic reader, but even a cursory look at the current white paper, tellingly entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy, may point to the contrary. The choice of language alone reveals a lot about where the emphasis lies in the government’s vision for Higher Education, and it is interesting to note that the word “democracy” is only mentioned once in the entire text, and that’s at the document’s Foreword from the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

Leaving political sympathies or ideological inclinations aside, what is clearly at stake in “post-public Higher Education”, if we can call it that, is the intrinsic rather the market value of learning, scholarship, and pedagogy in fostering something more than the aspiration to personal success in a knowledge economy, appealing though this may be to some. To return to Weber, and paraphrase Marx; any espousal of the economy as ‘the ultimate point’ of social relations ‘is completely finished’ as a political ‘proposition’, especially if and when we “train” students and academics alike in a manner that does not affirm but denies our satisfaction from education in its own right, urging us instead to view education as a means to satisfy needs external to it, be it personal advancement, wealth, or ambition.

While there is nothing wrong in desiring or pursuing such aims, to design and serve an entire educational system with those objectives in mind can be seen as slightly antithetical to the broader aims of educational development and scholarship as vital tools of as well as for active and critical democratic citizenship.

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institutions he works or volunteers for.

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