A link between academic labor precariousness and engaged research

February 3, 2020

Young People protested massively in Spain in 2011, demonstrating a great level of self-organization and collective innovation.

Young People protested massively in Spain in 2011, demonstrating a great level of self-organization and collective innovation. Copyright: Mika de la Cruz Imaging Solutions LLC.

Written by guest blogger Beltrán Roca.

For many years, one of the defining features of the academic field was its relative autonomy from political, economic and religious fields. One of the premises of this autonomy was that scholars should not experience the penuries and determinants of great part of the working-class. This privileged position was understood as a means for allowing researchers to study social reality with distance, ensuring an ‘objective’ perspective on their research objects. The metaphor of the ‘ivory tower’, that describes an academic absolutely detached from mundane concerns of the people, comes from this positivist conception of the scientific work. The basis of academic privilege was not only symbolic capital, that is, the prestige of the profession, but also job stability and decent salary and working conditions. This was true at least in the case of post Second World War university, which was consistent with the Fordist production model.

The neoliberal transformation of work, that began in the Reagan and Thatcher Era, set the grounds for the erosion of workers’ power and the growing extension of labor precariousness. The Academy was not an exception. Technological change together with the successive crises of capital accumulation—in particular the Great Recession of 2008—intensified these tendencies. At the moment in which I am writing this post, thousands of UK academics are involved in strikes and struggles against cuts in salaries, conditions and retirement. In most European universities, approximately the 50 per cent of the teaching hours are taught by precarious staff, in some cases under miserable conditions.

When the 15M movement arose in dozens of Spanish cities against austerity policies in 2011, we were working in extremely precarious conditions for Spanish universities and participating in protest camps and demonstrations. We were previously involved in radical unions and squatter movements, but what we saw in the 15M was a generalization of direct democratic principles and a questioning of major political and economic institutions. Today, the fact that Spain is governed by a coalition of social democratic and left parties is, without any doubt, one of the outcomes of this social movement. In the article we published in Anthropologica we paid attention to another outcome: a shift in epistemological and methodological orientation of social scientists. After conducting a literature review on the 15M movement, we conclude that the rise of social conflict is somehow connected with the proliferation of reflexive and engaged forms of ethnographic research. In this sense, I think we have opened the door to an intriguing hypothesis: the missing link between societal crises and the production of scientific knowledge. This fascinating link should be addressed by means of what Bourdieu called ‘Sociology of Sociology’.

Beltrán Roca is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Cadiz (Spain), where he is a member of the University Institute for Research in Social Sustainable Development (UCA). He has studied social movements, trade unions, Third Sector and migrant workers over the past fifteen years.

His latest article in Anthropologica entitled “Anthropologists Meet the 15M: The Rise of Engaged Ethnography”is free to read for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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