My notes on Nash, K. (2018). Neo-liberalisation, universities and the values of bureaucracy. The Sociological Review, 0038026118754780.

It is too easy to frame neoliberalism in institutions as an outcome rather than a project. In this thoughtful paper, Kate Nash explores the space which this recognition opens up, the “competing and contradictory values in the everyday life of public sector organisations” which becomes apparent when we reject the supposition of “a fit between ideology, policy, political outcomes and practices” (178). Extending marketing competition into the university doesn’t automatically replace public goods, something which is important to grasp if we want to construct an adequate meso-social account of neoliberalisation. New Public Magement, as a theory of administration, might be explicitly opposed to bureaucracy but it is through a bureaucratic transformation that its tenets are woven into the fabric of an institution like the university. Nash begins her argument by revisiting Weber’s conception of the impartial promise of bureaucracy:

I adopt Weber’s definition of bureaucracy as enacting an ‘ethos of impartiality’, treating individuals as cases according to strict rules of professional and technical expertise. Each person in an organisation should follow correct procedures to guard against making personal judgements; to avoid using the authority of their office to exercise power according to their own personal decisions, whims or alternative values (Du Gay, 2000; Weber, 1948). For Weber, famously, instrumental values, the means rather than the ends, come to predominate in a modern capitalist economy and we are all caught in an ‘iron cage’ of technical evaluations (Beetham, 1987, pp. 60–61; Mommsen, 1989, pp. 109–120). (179)

However it is a mistake to regard bureaucracy as a totality, argues Nash, framing it as leading to the displacement of all values other than administrative efficiency. Rejecting this view allows us to distinguish between “different kinds of bureaucracy, that which undermines and that which supports education in universities” (179). It allows us to identify the values which marketisation entrenches (entrepreneurship and consumer choice) and find others to protect. The allocation of research funding (through the RAE/REF and individualised competitions) and teaching funding (through the student fees and student loans system) in UK universities reflects the entrenchment of these values. It is against this backdrop that collegiality, drawing on the analysis of Malcolm Waters, becomes interesting:

Collegiality, he argues, is relevant to university life in that, firstly, as academics we understand ourselves to be experts in our different fields, and therefore as possessing insights into knowledge – scientific, of the humanities, of the arts – on which there are no higher authorities. As such, academics have a degree of expert authority; we expect, and to a large degree we maintain, our ability to ‘have the last word’ on what counts as a university education in our specialised disciplines through procedures of peer and student evaluation. Secondly, academics tend to think of the university as a ‘company of equals’. Where knowledge is ultimately what matters, other markers of status, wealth and power must be irrelevant. As Waters puts it, ‘if expertise is paramount, then each member’s area of competence may not be subordi- nated to other forms of authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). Finally, Waters suggests that the value of ‘consensus’ is a norm of universities: only decisions that have the full support of the collectivity ‘carry the weight of moral authority’ (Waters, 1989, p. 955). (181)

For Waters this is not necessarily a good thing, as collegiality brings closure i.e.the protection of insiders over outsiders, the defence of existing status against threats to it. This can make it appear to be a form of resistance to marketisation, but the intersection of the two can exasperate their existing problems e.g. superstar academics being able to exercise academic autonomy in a collegial mode, while others are left behind to aspire to collegial status (if I understand Nash’s point correctly). The fact that corporatism has displaced collegiality, to use McGettigan’s phase, doesn’t mean collegiality is a solution to the problem of corporatism.

Even if the rise of audit culture and end of contractual tenure have dented academic autonomy, there is still an entrenched expectation that we “should be free to research, to publish and to teach ‘the truth’, however inconvenient or troublesome for university administrators, governments and civil servants, without fear of losing our jobs”. It has the associated expectation that we will develop this by “reading widely, with curiosity, developing capacities to think through different meanings of concepts, challenge fundamental assumptions, and design and use systematic methodologies, as well as to uncover facts through scholarship and empirical research” (182). Meeting this expectation requires temporal autonomy in relation to free time in which nothing is being produced that can easily be registered.

Audit culture on Power’s account threatens this through twin processes: colonisation (transforming an organisation’s values through measuring its activity) and decoupling (the circularity of auditing which has paperwork produced for auditing as its sole object). The assumption underlying this is that “professionals cannot be trusted to do their jobs well; in particular, we cannot be trusted to deliver value for money” (183). However bureaucratic work is of the same kind and Nash draws attention to that we engage in outside of audit, including those activities which support education and resist abuses of collegiality and marketisation. Nash reminds us that “we should not see bureaucracy solely as marketising, nor only as imposed from above” (184). These are described by Nash as socialising bureaucracy:

Socialising bureaucracy regularises collegiality in that it helps academ- ics communicate what counts as good teaching and learning, what counts as research and learning that is of academic merit, and what assumptions and biases should not be allowed to make a difference in these judgements. It regulates collegiality in that documents and procedures help set limits on academics’ discretionary judgements. (185).

Against an exclusive focus on marketisation as a threat to education, Nash reminds us of those cases where professional power threatens it e.g. academics act in ways that serve  their own private interests rather than those of education. The first example she gives is formalisation of equal treatment where mechanisms ensure staff and students are assessed on the relevant grounds of academic performance and other criteria are excluded. The contractualisation of learning formalises the reciprocal expectations placed upon teachers and learners, mechanisms ensuring both parties have a working understanding of how the interaction will proceed.

Socialising bureaucracy in this sense mitigates the pathologies of both collegiality and marketisation. Recognising the critiques which see these mechanisms as killing spontaneity and charisma, Nash asks how we could otherwise secure the value for teaching and learning for everyone in a mass higher education system which has expanded dramatically over recent decades? Nonetheless distinguishing marketing bureaucracy from  socialising bureaucracy is difficult in practice. Both can contribute to the intensification of work and be experienced as destructive of autonomy. Furthermore, one kind of bureaucracy can stimulate the other

What’s particularly interesting for my purposes is Nash’s analysis of the grey area opened up between the two by intensified competition within and between universities:

It includes dealing with the paperwork associated with the explosion of publishing, showcasing and promotion of academic work – from reviewing articles for journals and book manuscripts and editing journals to organising and publicising conferences and seminars; the bureaucracy of applying for and dealing with funded research, which can mean managing a team; designing, developing and publicising popular programmes and courses; reviewing new programmes for other Departments and universities; acting as external examiner for other universities; and writing references for colleagues and students. In virtually every case, these activities require hours of meetings and emails, as well as filling in forms, and they often require producing online as well as offline materials. In addition, there are also meetings, emails and paperwork associated with running a Department and a university as if it were a business: writing and re-writing ‘business plans’, ‘job descriptions’, ‘programme specifications’, ‘strategies’ to promote research, enhance student experience and so on (188)

It strikes me that social media is part of this grey area but it also something through which much of the gray area is inflected i.e. it is an expectation in itself but also a way of undertaking these other activities. To use an example I talk about a lot: if social media makes it quicker to publicise seminars and conferences then why do we constantly assume it will be a net drain on our time? This seems like the theoretical framework I’ve been looking for to help make sense of the institutionalisation of social media within the university.

My notes on Lazega, E. (2005). A Theory of Collegiality and its Relevance for Understanding Professions and knowledge-intensive Organizations. In Organisation und profession (pp. 221-251). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

I came to know Emmanuel Lazega over the last five years through my involvement with the Centre for Social Ontology. I initially found his approach difficult to follow, simply because it was quite different from anything I’ve been exposed to previously, but in recent years I’ve begun to understand it and see it as hugely important. Much of his recent work concerns “[c]omplex tasks that cannot be routinized” and the role they play in “professional and knowledge intensive work” (pg 1) and its relationship to bureaucracy. He is interested in the competition between these two trends, collegiality and bureaucratisation, understood as modes of rationalization which are by their nature in tension. This defines a “theoretical continuum between bureaucracy and collegiality” on which organisations can be located empirically, highlighting their co-existence in compound form within actually existing organisations. In doing so, he breaks from Neo-Weberian theories which identify formal characteristics obtaining to different kinds of organisations (collegial, bureaucratic, monocratic) and instead develops a multi-level approach that looks at “the individual, relational and organizational levels at the same time” (pg 2). He begins with the strategic rationality of actors and builds upwards, as described on pg 2:

Such an approach assumes that individuals have a strategic rationality. It looks at members as niche seeking entrepreneurs selecting exchange partners, carving out a place for themselves in the group and getting involved in various forms of status competition. From this conception of actors, it derives the existence of generic social mechanisms that are needed to sustain this form of collective action, in particular that of generalized exchange, lateral control, and negotiation of precarious values. It is rooted, first, in the analysis of the production process
and task-related resource dependencies; and, secondly, in the analysis of derived governance mechanisms. The latter are theoretically derived from the notion of relational investment.

On this view collegial modes of organising provide solutions to problems of collective action amongst peers i.e. people who are formally equal in power. Such collaboration is a prominent feature of knowledge-intensive organisations, raising the question of how “organizations without permanent bosses and followers, in which all members ultimately have a formally equal say in running operations or exercising control, are able to operate” (pg 2). Examples of where such collaboration can be found include “corporate law firms, engineering and technology firms, architecture firms, advertising agencies, medical wards, consulting firms, investment banks, scientific laboratories, religious congregations, and many other organizations bringing together recognized experts” (pg 2). HHow is agreement reached without resort to coercion in such organisational forms? How is quality ensured without command and control? How does innovation happen without it being directed hierarchically? How does the organisation adapt to legal, technological and social change? As he summarises on pg 18: problems include “getting, organizing, and doing work; maintaining quality; distributing income; preserving unity; reproducing workers; controlling deviance; and balancing continuity with change”.As he puts it on pg 11 “[u]nable to pull rank on peers, members of collegial organizations need decentralized controls”. If I understand him correctly these are just some of the collective action challenges which are generically faced by collegial modes of organisation. However an adequate account of how this operates empirically must recognise the dimension of power, defined on pg 5:

Power is defined as the ability of individuals or groups in the organization to impose their will on others as a result of resource dependencies. In the case of collective action among peers, however, such dependencies are often less permanent and more complex than in bureaucracies. Power is shared, then aggregated upwards to be exercised simultaneously by several positions in a `polycratic’ system. There are also norms concerning this exercise, especially for legitimization of inequality and justification of acceptance of inequality.

Social ties within the collegial organisation facilitate access to resources like good will, advice or friendship that may directly or indirectly have ramifications for the production process. For Weberians these have been seen as “particularistic obstacles to efficient collective action” and consequentially their significance in “help[ing] members cooperate and exchange, monitor, pressure, and sanction each other, and negotiate precarious values” has been missed (pg 5). These are the context within which the strategic rationality of actors plays out, giving rise to generic mechanisms which characterise the operation of social discipline within collegial organisations. This is the point where I start to feel a bit out of my depth so please take these notes with a pinch of salt:

Niche seeking involves the partial suspense of calculative behaviour, producing a ‘bounded solidarity’ in which co-operation can occur without the expectation of immediate reciprocity. Niche seeking produces a proto-group structure which makes it easier for members to access the resources they need (commitment to work together, professional advice, personal support – pg 8) for co-operation and work together in pursuit of a shared objective or cluster of objectives. It can be threatened by status competition which is an endemic tension within collegial organisation, as forms of co-operation (e.g. ‘brainstorming’) depend on the suspension of status for their efficacy but also often require the intervention of someone (usually of higher status) to draw it to a close and define where it goes. If I understand correctly, the problem is one of collective interests (sharing information and experience as much as possible) clashing with individual interests (stressing their own knowledge and experience in order to increase their standing vis-a-vis their peers). The nature of interaction means members compete over the capacity to define the terms of their interaction while collective action requires a converging definition of the situation in order to be succesful. The niche is where this tension can be temporarily and precariously resolved, mitigating the problem of status competition but remaining continually threatened by it.

It is important to stress that status in Lazega’s sense is multidimensional, “not only based on seniority and money; it has a particularly strong dimension of prestige, of symbolic recognition of a member’s contribution, and of ongoing critical judgements about members’ quality” (pg 16). Formal equality constrains the forms which status competition can take and means it unfolds through all manner of routes, including the deployment of the notion of collegiality or professionalism (and attendant ideas) for personal advantage within the organisation:

This implies that informal authority of members with status is based not only on control of all sorts of resources (important clients, workforce, day-to-day operations, technical competence, experience), but also on their capacity to manipulate relationships to create consensus, on their firm-specific strategic culture. By this I mean a political know-how allowing them to be players in a power game deemphasizing unilateral impositions of strength and encouraging learning and mutual prescription in negotiations. This requires a capacity to share with others a certain code of collegial relations and an ideology of collegiality (Frischkopf 1973)–that is, a certain conception of professionalism. For example, the mix of an adversarial and pushy professional culture, on the one hand, and of personalized and unobtrusive lateral control, on the other hand, are not always easy to combine for partners in a corporate law firm. This also requires rhetorical manipulation of an ideology of collegiality in debates about professionalism, especially when members with market power try to pressure others for consensus around their own conception of professionalism.

Lateral control regimes reflect the challenge involved in ensuring compliance, without the exercise of hierarchical relations. If I understand him correctly, collegial organisation tends to preclude formal command-and-control as well informal conflicts likely to destroy bounded solidarity. This is why informal interventions “in order to curb behaviour perceived to be unprofessional or opportunistic”  become so important, motivated by restoration of flow of resources which the problematic behaviour is seen to have impeded. These “start with convergent expressions of normative expectations, unobtrusive and unsolicited advice and the spread of gossip” before escalating (pg 12).

In his recent book on bureaucracy, David Graeber often turns to higher education to furnish examples of the broader tendency he describes. I thought this was a particularly vivid passage worth reproducing:

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

His claim is an empirical one: ever greater tracts of time are consumed by activities other than scholarship. This in turn has obvious implications for scholarship. Dead zones of the imagination can increasingly be found in our universities.