Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say

Gives my reflections on my Summer reading "Return to Meaning" and pleads for individual initiative in creating Positive Academia

Late June, I ended the academic year with a post on research fraud and recommended Diederik Stapel's book Derailment as salutary holiday reading. So I thought I would start the academic year with a positive message and a new category for my blog: positive academia.

At the EURAM conference in Glasgow I heard Mats Alvesson speak about academics as "paper producing machines". Intrigued, I picked up a copy of his latest book Return to Meaning  - co-authored with Yiannis Gabriel and Roland Paulsen - for my Summer reading. The book argues that we are currently witnessing not merely a decline in the quality of social science research, but the proliferation of meaningless research, of no value to society, and modest value to its authors - apart from securing employment and promotion. For a brief summary see this blog post by Yiannis Gabriel.

It was an unexpected eye-opener. Not because it told me anything really new. You can't work in academia for more than 25 years and not be aware of most of the dysfunctionalities that Alvesson and his co-authors describe. The book isn't even one of the first to highlight these problems. There is a whole cottage industry producing books that critique present-day universities and the state of academia in general. What was an eye-opener though was the engaging and convincing way in which this relatively familiar story was written up. It kept me reading; I even read most of the book a second time. Prepare for statements such as: "Never before in the history of humanity have so many written so much while having so little to say to so few."

What I liked most of all though were the authors' recommendations to "recover meaning", not just by policy changes (some of which not unlike my most recent white paper on the REF) and reforming organizations and institutions, but also by reforming academic identities and practices. As academics, we often justify our actions based on presumed external constraints, but Alvesson et al. cogently argue that we - and especially senior academics in relatively secure positions - have more freedom than we often pretend we have. Here are some representative quotes.

"Some social science academics can and do stand up for their values and priorities, accepting less than optimal pay, status, and prestige in return for greater fulfilment in the work they do." (2017:51) [Yes, that's me at Middlesex!]

"In the majority of all cases, competent and ambitious researchers insisting on sound priorities would not face any actual disciplinary consequences other than in their imagination." (2017:51)

"Developing and reinforcing myths about the impossibility or enormous costs of not following the system's imperatives and rewards/sanctions means that researchers can wash their hands of responsibility, happily complaining about lack of choices, and often profiting from the game." (2017:53)

"Even if much of what takes place in universities is entangled with larger socio-political developments, most academics are still able to shape the academic asssment systems and at least minimize the perversions they engender." (2017:55)

This freedom, they argue, is key to recover meaning in social research:

"But many academics downplay the freedom they have in constructing their identity and emphasize the imperatives and pressures [...]. Recovering meaning in social research [...] seeks to reinstate identity as a crucial part of the research, not as the product of external pressures but as the result of the researchers' own conscious (and sometimes unconscious) choices and the way they exercise their freedoms." (2017:100)

"We do claim, however, that most researchers have more power than they realize. They largely evaluate each other's efforts, they deploy resources, they promote and discourage different practices. [...] Few groups have as much individual and collective autonomy, free time, and self-governance as academics. Few groups can escape system imperatives and rigid control as easily as academics. Academics institutions, we believe, can still provide terrains from which the pressures of corporatization and neo-liberal agendas can be opposed and resisted, provided that academics as individuals, groups, and communities abandon their quiescent and conformist attitudes and their individualistic and careerist preoccupations." (2017:139)

It has certainly made me think about the research I still want to do and I highly recommend the book. This blog post has also given me the impetus to start a new "category" in my blog: positive academia. Postings under this category deal with inspirational papers and researchers and suggestions on how to make academia a nicer place to work in.

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