On the Spiralists

In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

4 responses to “On the Spiralists”

  1. Being a fan of Burawoy, I’ve read the article, but come with a quite different take-away that is deeper than, and predates ideas of rationality. What Burawoy describes is nothing new – it started in the 1940s at the University of Chicago (more on that in a minute), and has the fingerprints of neoliberalism written all over it. Neoliberalism is of course, rooted primarily in utilitarianism vis-a-vis Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, and Karl Popper.

    Perhaps you meant to say that Burawoy essay is “exploratory” rather than “explanatory.” You bring up some very relevant and interesting questions that come out of the Burawoy essay, which by itself suggests an exploratory angle. I do not feel that Burawoy essay “explains” anything, especially in the backdrop of utilitarian neoliberalism versus post-modern anti-truth. Burawoy does however, describe a lot, and gives us a lot of “red meat” to chew on, especially in (Burawoy fashion) in the idea of academic self-reflection.

    In the late 1940s, no one wanted to publish Hayek’s manifesto: “The Road to Serfdom.” Milton Friedman, being at the University of Chicago, convinced the university to publish the book, which it did. The sensation that Hayek’s manifesto became to utilitarians put the University of Chicago at the center of the Economic and neoliberal universe. The University of Chicago even sponsored a TV show hosted by Friedman at a time when neoliberal thought was still on the fringes. Other universities caught on to this “branding,” including the Collège de France who sponsored TV debates featuring Foucault.

    Enter the post-modern anti-truth, where just like utilitarians, social moral values (along with “truth”) no longer existed, which had been a prerequisite for social justice. Social justice just became another regime of power. “Branding” for universities became more important that moral values of what the academy was supposed to be in lieu of profits, in trading regimes of administrative power for academic power. It didn’t matter – “branding” made both the neoliberals happy and the post-modernists happy. This is a philosophical difference that goes well beyond “rationality” theory, and dives into the fundamental philosophy of the social institution of the academy.

    Your contrast with the Clinton campaign is fitting. However, I would also argue that the same conditions exist(ed) for Trump; where people are engaged in that administration for their own (utilitarian) career advancements. There’s no question that neoliberals existed in both Clinton and Trump. I would also argue that post-modernists (as embodied in anti-truth) also exist in both camps. Recent examples of Trump’s climate denial, along with Clinton’s (and staff) complete inability to engage in self-reflection point to not only neoliberal fingerprints, but post-modern ones as well.

    The fundamental question I found in your post, as well as Burawoy’s essay are these: Can we redeem the seeking of truth as a fundamental moral mission of the Academy? If Sociology can engage the publics as Burawoy suggested, can we do so beyond making the public little more than a euphemism without the existence of truth? Can we re-engage the idea of cultural morals of the academy that were abandoned, that make “spiralists” not even want to engage the academy in the first place? Can we, as academics change the culture that we (the academy) have created? Are we even capable of that kind of self-reflection?

    Burawoy’s essay on creating a public sociology was met with fanfare, and rightly so. The result was that Sociology still hasn’t engaged the publics. As this Sociological Review article points out: “…public sociology has, to this day, amounted to little more than a mere rhetorical gesture or a self-righteous posture…”


    I fear that Burawoy’s latest foray into academic self-refliction will meet a similar fate.

  2. Yep I agree with that, in fact we’re in the early stages of writing a book together on that very topic. I’m increasingly cold about lofty rhetoric of ‘truth seeking’: I think it romanticises what academics do, effectively a form of knowledge world and disguises the realities of academic labour… I think Burawoy would argue the spiralists concept is meant in an organisational sense, reflecting certain power positions within the university and how they’re mutually reinforcing, to be resisted through collective action rather than suffocated out of existence through moral uplift. Though of course the two things aren’t necessarily opposed in practice.

  3. I came back to the academy in old age (I’m 50 now), and with old age comes cynicism – especially after a few degrees (including Economics) and 20 years experience in board rooms of Fortune 500 companies. I do not wish to romanticize the academy, nor would be foolish enough to think that “truth” would actually matter in the social sciences; “truth” is the realm of natural sciences.

    However, just because social science says that “truth” does not exist, doesn’t make it so. There actually are “social forces” and we actually have “agency” against them. International trade and Economy actually did exist 3000 years before Marx, and was a political force long before European Feudalism. The first common currency, and first common debt frameworks actually did happen in the Bronze Age (along with the first government taxation system rooted in Juris Prudence).

    These are examples of the kind of “truths” I’m talking about for the social sciences in the academy. For Canadian Sociology, there is no economy before Marx, and (à-la Foucault) there is no history before the European nation-state. In American Sociology, there can be no new theory without it first being couched in old theory after 1898 (an oxymoron and paradox); completely ignoring anything that isn’t European or American. At the end of the day, we just all end up attacking each other’s theories through the presentation of half-truths and falsehoods.

    So when I say “truth,” I don’t mean it in some abstract, romanticized sense; I mean “truth” empirically. Seeking the truth empirically is what both natural and social science have in common, and used to be the mission of the academy. Research funding in search for “empirical truth” still goes to the Universities. Graduate students still research with their professors in search of “truth” – empirical truth (both qualitative and quantitative).

    It’s my concern that because empiricism no longer matters, either in the academy of “spiralists” or in the general public. Society today is a place where all truth is made up and the facts don’t matter. If we (as academics) are not going to be concerned with empirical “truth,” then who will in our society? There’s literally no one left to explore and search for empirical truth in today’s political climate. I could be wrong (that’s been known to happen form time to time), but I don’t see the search for empirical truth (either social or natural) to be romanticizing. I do however, see it as important in our society, and we (as academics) need to be self-reflective enough to examine how we came to end looking for it; even if it’s a “historical sociology.”

  4. Oh ok I see where you’re coming from and we’re largely in agreement. Why frame it in terms of ‘cultural ideals’ though? As opposed to the practical activity of social inquiry?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.