Vita Peacock, “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence”

Vita Peacock turns in a significant contribution to the growing literature on precarious academic labor with her “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence at the Max Planck Society,” which she published this year in the open-access journal Hau. Peacock’s paper is a challenge to what we could generically call “neoliberalism theory,” a body of thinking which has often viewed the ongoing explosion of precarious labor as a consequence of the general process of neoliberalization that has reshaped the global political economy since the 1970s. In academia, to rehearse the obvious, neoliberalization usually refers to things like the growth of contract and audit-based funding systems; the treatment of students as consumers (whose student debt is considered an investment in “human capital”); the expansion of academic branding and marketing; and the generalized decline in job security for university staff. Indeed, when the contingent workforce grows to 74.8% of all academic teachers in the United States (in 2007), one may reasonably speak of a growth of precarity. It matters how we analyze and historicize precarity, though; which is the crux of Peacock’s intervention.

Peacock’s empirical case is that of the German Max Planck Society, a scientific research organization which comprises more than eighty separate institutes, which are further subdivided into research departments headed by directors. Interestingly, the administrative and technical staff tend to have permanent positions, while the scientists themselves have term contracts and are thus precarious. (Such a labor structure contrasts with the situation at many “neoliberalized” universities, where administrative and service workers are commonly precarious, temporary or outsourced.) Peacock’s study thus focuses on precarity among the scientists, who serve, she remarks, “‘at the pleasure of’ the director” (98). Peacock argues basically that these scientists’ precarity has to be understood not merely as a result of neoliberal economics but as a product of a longstanding German cultural logic of academic “kingship,” which creates a relationship of non-stigmatized and even “potentially desirable” dependence between ruler and ruled (99).

As Peacock usefully documents, this system of cultural values has changed over time. The Max Planck’s keywords are no longer a former era’s “kingship” or “patriotic supremacy,” but “the more contemporarily acceptable values of autonomy and excellence” (101). Nevertheless, drawing on the work of Louis Dumont, Peacock insists that academic dependence always fits into a larger system of cultural values. (No doubt, this retro gesture towards classical anthropological theory is partly why her paper found a home in Hau, whose editors advocate this sort of return to classical anthropology.) Adopting the structuralist view that culture is organized by logical oppositions, Peacock proposes that “dependence” for the subordinated scientists is the cultural corollary of the “autonomy and excellence” embodied by their directors. Institutional autonomy for the top and precarious dependence for the bottom — it has a painfully familiar logic, does it not?

The more richly ethnographic section of the paper shows how a series of three male scientists negotiated their dependent relationships with their director. Peacock particularly emphasizes the force of personal relationships in career outcomes (in a section that echoes Pierre Bourdieu’s observations in Homo Academicus about professors’ power to control their disciples’ time). From this she draws some unexpectedly political conclusions:

“If a position of precarity in the form of temporary employment is equivalent to a social condition of hierarchical dependence, then it can no longer be an epiphenomenon of impersonal neoliberal forces. In fact, it would suggest that the framing hitherto, of precarity as somehow impersonal works in practice to exculpate the specific actors driving its distribution across the world” (113).

In other words, when we talk about “precarity” as a sort of epochal force or “wave” sweeping across the neoliberal academy, this may absolve prominent academics for their own personal involvement in managing and fostering precarious work. “It’s the way things are these days,” one pictures a department chair saying as they hire or fire yet another contract worker. Peacock’s paper thus has the great merit of reminding us of the personalized nature of precarious employment. It reminds us that academic precarity is not coextensive with neoliberalism, since precarious academic work and “kingly” clientelism long predate the post-70s neoliberal moment. And it emphasizes that precarity is not only a moment of abject inferiority, but also a sphere of agency and strategic opportunity — at least for some.

A few questions do come to mind for Peacock, building on the intriguing critical commentaries already published alongside her paper. Given that economic precarity is a highly stratified space, how much is her theory of precarity shaped by her focus on what we might call precarious elites? Surely precarity has a different cultural valence for relatively prestigious mid-career scientists than it does for, say, a temporary secretarial worker in a campus call center. Secondly, what is at stake for Peacock in maintaining a realm of “culture and social relations” as something separate from what she calls “economistic thinking” or “sociological categories”? From the North American perspective these distinctions seem increasingly hard to maintain, but I wondered if disciplinary categories may have different valences in Peacock’s UK context, given the heritage of British social anthropology. Finally, is it altogether fair to see the existing literature on precarity as being so one-sidedly sociologistic or economistic? Or is there something more to be said about the work that treats precarity as a matter of affective flows and existential vulnerabilities? Peacock’s finding that dependence can be desirable would seem, in this light, to raise questions as much existential (or psychoanalytic) as ethnographic in nature.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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