Some thoughts on intellectual community

Building intellectual community isn’t just an optional luxury within higher education. It’s a necessary (but insufficient) condition for academics to act together in meaningful and effective ways. Collective action has to be constituted in who we are and what we do. This applies just as much to knowledge production as it does to union mobilisation. It’s why the sustained removal of adequate resources for building intellectual community in universities is so utterly short sighted. Over the years I’ve come to think of Twitter as a weed killer for civic goods. It has become utterly poisonous in many respects. However it remains the most effective tool we have available to us for building intellectual community. Closely followed by blogging.

There are three main spheres of intellectual conviviality: departmental, associational and digital. During the pandemic we were forced to rely solely on the final sphere. The fact we have been through that and still don’t prioritise professional digital literacy is astonishing. The most important thing we can do at the moment is learn to use these platforms properly. This means defining what ‘properly’ is in a way which expresses a shared diagnosis of our conditions, such as the one which was near-hegemonic during the #USSStrikes. Things will be getting ever bleaker within universities (and beyond them) over the next few years. We have left neoliberalism but entered something much worse. Intellectual community is increasingly akin to something like intellectual self-defence in Bourdieu’s sense.

The fact that professional associations have existed throughout our careers doesn’t mean they will survive the next decade. I spent 2016-2018 exploring the network of organisations which built classical British sociology (and Geography) before utterly collapsing by WW2. The Covid-19 pandemic, declining disposable income by staff and the possibility of a shrinking sector already weakened professional associations. Plan S and sustained double-digit inflation could kill them. It is REALLY important we don’t let this happen. These organisations are the cumulative product of decades of academic gift labour. We have a responsibility to conserve them. They are often flawed, sometimes tone deaf and near uniformly unable to adapt to platformisation adequately. But we still have to protect them.

I’m lucky enough to work in department w/ deeply collegial culture. Two departments at which I did my two post-docs were utterly riven with internal conflicts. But there were pockets of intellectual conviviality. We need to care for these Eudaimonic Bubbles, as Lawson calls them. There are senior academics I have worked closely with who have become incredibly effective at nurturing collegial modes of thinking together. E.g. The role of Bev Skeggs in establishing Sociological Review Foundation. We need to all learn these skills as part of PGT/PGR training.

We still lack concept for these organisational & digital competencies or at least one with meta-theoretical or methodological sophistication. There’s a big change underway at the intersection between organisational behaviour, infrastructural transformation & political economy. Our social infrastructure for scholarship urgently needs upgrading to cope w/ changing political economy of higher ed.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on intellectual community”

  1. Thanks for these comments, Mark. I work in an emergent and highly interdisciplinary field (interior design history) and, at the moment, the most exciting collaborative projects on my desk stem from informal networks and established scholarly societies (who have encourage new branches). We are leaning on a lot of ‘gift’ labour, but we are building community from the bottom up. Membership is open with a token fee. I agree that scholarly networks are precious and often life-sustaining, and we need to reiterate their value more often.

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