Archive for February, 2016

[First version. Revised version considered to appear in Care, Power, Information]

In recent years, colleagues and myself have often talked about our experiences with funding institutions in higher education and research,  which I have recently begun to re-evaluate under the conceptual-empirical lenses I call economies of relevance and white collar academia. Using these concepts, I have come to the conclusion that while supposedly ‘helping’ researchers with funding them, these organizations often hamper critical research as well as the careers of scholars with the promise to have critical impetus and clout.

Two short clarifications regarding this paragraph:  By ‘critical’, I evoke quite intentionally simultaneously the multiple dimensions of the word. And secondly, before anyone starts the whole ‘how is it a legitimate use of tax-payer money, anyway’, ‘how is any research funding warranted’, ‘academics feel entitled’, etc., etc., that discussion is another discussion entirely and I am more than happy to have  it – respectively, I have had it, I have said my bits and pieces here and there (including on this blog as well as in our, i.e. Weiss and Restivo and my book), and I will have it for years to come. But I am after something else  here and now.

My concern is, here, about the issue of accountability and transparency, about a ‘culture of suspicion’, and about the deployment of social capital, which has become a lopsided affair for those academics who are not already under the  ‘golden Matthew shower‘. I am, of course, referring here to the (in)famous Matthew-effect, as coined by Robert Merton in the 1960s (though hardly the first to notice this), which refers to a quote from the King James version of the gospel of Matthew and basically says that those who already have will be given even more. In academia, as Merton and others noticed,  those who are already blessed with credentials of some kind will receive more and easier so; whereas those who do not have them credentials, will not have a chance of obtaining any. Hence, one can hear people saying that the ‘first research grant is the hardest, but afterwards…..’. In the so-called 3P academic job economy of pedigree, (department) politics, and publications, this  can be seen in terms of pedigree (where have you graduated and who are your reference writers or where are they from). As one of many consequences, I have argued, several critical research areas and questions receive little or no attention (let alone funding), because they  require ‘dirty work’, which does not match up with any one of the 3P’s and is a hard sell. For example, social research questions that are basic research, research questions that are uncomfortable, or research questions that would require developing at the same time an (often genuinely interdisciplinary) line of inquiry and simultaneously new methodologies, revealing how insufficient some of the existing methods are to ask some of the harder questions, or, worse, that there even cannot be any seriously sufficient methods, because some things just can’t be measured,…. . The toughest and yet ‘shooting your career in the foot’ thing one can say is: ‘Look, there is this major issue, and we really know jack-shit about it.’ It’s a no-no to propose research like that – and not only for the quite illustrious use of expletive -, but it’s actually the research we’d need to do.  Respectively, I have come to call this kind of ‘getting your hands dirty research’ blue collar scholarship (Blue sCollar, if you prefer), and continue to critique and criticize the prevailing culture of entitled, privileged White Collar scholarship. There are, of course, also (intersectional) issues of class, ethnicity, gender, race, (dis)abelism, etc. included in this notion, which all deserve to be lifted and acknowledged, but for the moment, I can only work with a focus on the one’s I understand best (given that I am a male, white, German, transatlantic scholar with a lower class background, i.e. first in my family to even be eligible for higher education, let alone obtaining a PhD), which are the global mechanisms of White Collar Scholarship and the forms in which they work the ‘class’-differences.

Let me say one thing about the ‘schizophrenic’ issue of social capital and academic prestige: Without profiting from it myself, I do represent a form of ‘prestige coin’ for the German and European Research Area domestically (here, look, one can get a PhD without academic parents) and abroad (my CV, I am told, looks prolific), including the schools I am affiliated with, however loosely. Some time ago, a representative of an institution I enjoyed a ‘contingent affiliation’ with, introduced me – and later explained to me that that this was being said in all seriousness – to an audience as ‘one of the school’s luminaries’.  Of course, I would argue, if you are all serious, then let’s change the type of affiliation I have with you into an actual job, eh? Let me be precise here about a misconception my US friends have about the situation of German academia: No, it’s not better, we have our contingent appointments just the same, career paths that are just as shitty and, at times, even worse because there are more ‘career cul-de-sacs’, often to do with age; not to mention the steep institutionalized hierarchies which make assistant professors into servants of full professors, and I could go on and on. The sole thing we do have going for academicians is that we have an actual health care system in Germany (though, like many other smart things we used to have, we will be taking that down as well, piece by piece, wait for it). So, yeah, having an appendectomy or a colonoscopy will not ruin my family as it will yours, my US American friends, but the persistent anxiety, depression, existential angst, and  I am pretty sure and let’s be serious here, lots of under-employed knowledge workers carry their own suicide fantasies, these issues are all the same on both sides of the Atlantic. But hey, there’s one other big difference, you are right: At least no concealed guns in a German class-room, where I can still teach controversial issues without having to be afraid some angry white boy will shoot me in the face for it.

Being contingently affiliated makes it hard to receive research funding: Being an adjunct at a minor league college versus being an associate professor at a major research university means that the prior has little chance of receiving funding, often enough they cannot even apply, whereas the latter’s chances are comparatively fairly good. Similarly, think about something as simple and supposedly small-sum as travel funding, when going to a conference. Supposedly small-sum, because for someone with a full-time job that doesn’t count in ‘months of health insurance payments’ (and even if I can receive health care in ways US Americans can’t, I still have to pay for it, and that’s still how I count any costs in ‘health insurance months’). Some conferences, kindly, offer registrations fee rates for un-/underemployed participants, although some don’t and, interestingly, they don’t like to be questioner about reasons – believe me, I tried, often citing that as a member of the parent organization, I could expect some transparency about the cost structure. But when it comes to applying for travel funding – and travel we must, because presenting your work and networking are the only ways of ‘un-contingency-fying’ your academic career – with funders, one can again count on the fact that a funding institution is likely a  Matthew shower. Most likely, funding is given to people who are at high maintenance universities, i.e. those who already allot some travel funds to their faculty (and often graduate students, too – helloooo, facebook friends who regularly complain how they used up their travel funding before summer and can’t go to some expensive conference in Asia, which would have been so much fun and how horrible of their Ivy League school not to allow them more travel funding for professional development), not to applicants who actually need financial help, for: ‘How dare they?’ – yes, funding is a reward for being (already) ‘awesome’ and part of the ‘awesomeness of a prestigious elite’. But really, think about it, it makes sense on the part of the funders: They need to show to the politicians, tax-payers, and other stakeholders, that the money they are in charge of, is given to people who go places. And how can you guarantee that people go places? By choosing people who already are at places. So, they don’t give to people who are in ‘no-places’. Of course, there have to be a few poster boys and poster girls to deflect criticism, but even these are, often enough, already somehow and strangely ‘in the game’ – no, I won’t give examples here, because that’s equally unfair to them, but chat me up, should you run into me and I will tell you all about supposed ‘rags to academic riches’ stories where it turns out that these peoples’ daddies or mummies or uncles were famous professors and that their academic advisors were good pals with their folks back in the day.

Now, in many ways, I could just say, why give a shit. But I don’t say that, because we all who are not Matthew Showered, still try for funding, we have to – even knowing how small the chances are, but we do believe in our research, in the importance of the difference it could make, and because ‘we want to believe’ that at least every now and then a worthwhile project can get a win, too, not only a ‘career-trajectory observant one’. And there is this one issue for us Blue sCollars that concerns me, and that is that these funders ask us to burn a lot of our social capital in the process of applying for funding. I use the word ‘social capital’ a bit freely and unspecifically here for a sociologist, but it will become apparent what I mean.

Recently, I applied for  travel funding to a large conference where I am presenting a paper as well as having organized an entire mini-conference with 9 panels, several of which I am also supposed to preside over – of course, the mini-conference was on Decoloniality and involved aspects of the Global South, and my own paper was critical of the Global Northern economies of relevance and precarity (how dare I, that’s so not what I should be doing). Did I get funding? No. And normally, I’d be a bit disappointed and that’d be it. But there was something else in the process, and that’s something I find increasingly typical in these affairs, which I find worthy of some hefty criticism, precisely because it displays one of the sources of the inequalities that make the Matthew shower so unfair and perpetually so: I was asked to deploy some of my social capital in order to even be considered eligible for the travel funding, and I had to spend it needlessly. After being accepted into the conference program, I sent the funding organization a copy of the program since, by their own rules, all that is required is an official receipt of acceptance (what’s more official than being on the program?) and only in certain cases a personal letter of invitation (Mind that if you are receiving that funding, you will also be reimbursed only months after the event itself, no one cares if you can afford to travel otherwise in the first place, duh; and you have to give proof afterwards that you actually attended the meeting – had I gotten it, I would have been tempted to include pictures). Now, attending  a large academic association’s conference, even as organizer of a small sub-conference, does not normally mean that someone will just write you a personal invitation for laughs – that should be common sense, even for someone working for an official semi-governmentous funding organization. However, that personal invite was what I was told is required of me. So, I headed out (electronically) to ask for some personal favors of people I knew only by mediation through other friends (and that already puts me in a privileged position of sorts, I have worked hard to have some friends who know people who could help here). And, by kindness of strangers, I got my personal letter of invitation – at this point, I should also mention, one of the speakers for the mini-conference already bowed out after he did not receive funding from, I was given to understand, the same organization, which meant I had to ask for program changes (not the last, for similar reasons each time, lack of funding) to be made from the  same people who kindly provided me the letter. You see where this is going and how not receiving the funding is then increasing the value of the social capital I burned with these very kind people. And that is one of the many aspects we often do not talk about in the ‘economy of third party funding’, that there are several forms of social capital at stake, and that the social capital of Blue sCollar knowledge and cultural workers gets burned more often and with more severe consequences than for the already privileged White Collar academicians. Let alone that, to begin with, we often have to work harder and in far more fields and contexts to make a living and keep an open profile (to apply for a variety of positions), only to be told, that it makes us a harder ‘sell’ on the job and funding market because either we seem ‘unfocused’/’undedicated’ or we ‘scare’ reviewers/committee members because we can do so many many things – well, we are ‘luminaries’, after all. And once again, if this was just about this instance or me alone, perhaps I’d keep my big mouth shut. But it isn’t. I hear this same shitty story from other people in different contexts. Some research funders ask very specific details about ‘research populations and where to find  them’. While they will keep the information certainly confidential for they surely know what they are doing, since most of them ask you to have a elaborate ‘data management plans’ appended to your grant proposals that cover everyone’s ass legally (but probably yours). But here’s the issue, you have to find, groom, and maintain a research population and its gatekeepers. How is that supposed to work, if the decision on a grant takes up half a year or more (longer if you have to revise and resubmit, which for some funders is now the usual procedure as everyone knows that with some ‘you never get funding before the second round and if, only in the third, really, but never after’)? If your chances of getting the grant are small? If you have to try different funders (and aren’t even allowed to submit simultaneously to several)? The point is, you can only seriously groom a research population if you don’t have to depend on the funding to do the research. So, anyone who already has a well-paying job at a good research university is already enjoying an advantage over anyone who hasn’t, because they can just count on the fact that they will do their research, no matter what – funding for them is rather a matter of scale not of ‘if’. It’s also easier to work on a White Collar issue with a White Collar access: So an Ivy Leaguer (Not to be misunderstood: not all Ivy Leaguers are White Collared academicians, not all White Collared academicians work at an Ivy League school; it is actually quite surprising that one can find the White Collar mindset in so many odd places, and often precisely with people who by any right shouldn’t support it) who studies social inequality, using a social welfare program run by a church  affiliated with a charity funded by an alumni of another Ivy League school or a program supported by the government and represented by an official with academic credentials, will have an easier time gaining and maintaining access, than a someone currently working at a community college, who is trying to recruit random people in a poor neighborhood to ‘tell it like it is’. Of course, these examples are a bit simplified, but they flesh out the contrast well enough, I think, and they are not too far from real conversations I had. Not too long ago, I approached a person who does an interesting and effective (but very Blue Collared) project combining social developmental work with martial arts training. His response to my approach was, that he would love to have research done around the project, but would only consider allowing me to mention his name once the research funding was already granted, since he already gave his name several times to other researchers for the funding process (none of them White Collar academics, from what I understood between the lines), and no one ever got the funding. This is precisely my point, since with this very involved, energetic project, a lot of social capital has already been burned: In order to apply for funding, his organization would need to be named as a research site with a major funder, something he is no longer willing to do. in the same way, I could ask: How many times will people do people favors in writing letters of invitation, recommendation, and so on? With regard to letters of recommendation, I have repeatedly stated that these are a means of maintaining the current inequalities in higher education in the US: If you are not already at a highly recognized, and thus expensive university (many of which often aren’t as good as they pretend to be, by the way), you will have to be on the job market very aggressively, meaning a lot of applications with a very low chance of success and a lot of letters of reference/recommendation (by writers the more prestigious – and thus busy and disinclined – the better) that need to be written and send off. Yup, social capital at work.

Regardless, whether it is about the decision who will be hired for a job (when often the short list is already clear before the actual process starts) or how a teensy bit of travel funding is decided, we applicants are always told that ‘decisions can’t be explained to us’ for x,y,z, reason. However, as applicants, we are asked to be transparent and to help make sure that the funders and their officers can do their jobs in ways so that they can be  considered accountable; only, we applicants have to burn our social capital for it, and if we are Blue sCollared knowledge and cultural workers, the value of social capital we have to burn in order to do so weighs heavier than it does on privileged White Collared academicians who already have higher chances to score the jobs and grants, because they are already under the Matthew shower.

At the end of my day, maybe it is because I am luminary, that I shine and burn so hot and so bright, that I cannot but burn all my social capital because of it.

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