Friday, February 28, 2014

Science, capitalism, and the rise of the “knowledge worker”: The changing structure of knowledge production in the United States (Kleinman & Vallas,2001)

In their 2001 article published in Theory in Society, Kleinman and Vallas argue it’s time to refocus our concerns over the influence of industry on academic institutions. They say the conventional concern that an increasing commercialization of academic institutions is threatening autonomy of scientific researchers distracts us from more central problems raised by the blurring boundaries between industry and academic institutions.
They say convergence of norms is occurring whereby both industry and universities are influencing the codes and the practices of the other and that it is the change of these norms that is at the heart of the problem. The convergence is asymmetrical, with industrial norms having a greater impact on universities and resulting in new disparities in workforces and in the production of knowledge. They build their argument first by debunking myths about academic research and describing the normative changes occurring in academia. They also discuss what they argue is an overoptimistic view of recent changes in industry, consequences of the convergence, apparent contradictions characteristic of the convergence and finally how we should respond.

Myths about research in academia:
Kleinman and Vallas say corporate investment is not a novel threat to disinterested science, autonomous research or a novel obstruction to the free flow of ideas among researchers. Instead they say the idea that science is disinterested and that academic researchers have ever enjoyed complete autonomy is a romantic myth. They say “science is always interested” with non-technical considerations continually coming into play. Similarly, they say there are few instances in which academic faculty autonomy in research has high. And in the university, the free flow of ideas can be impeded by inter-lab competition, the reluctance on the part of researchers to voice unpopular ideas in fear of alienation and group affiliation. They say what is really threatened by academic relationships with industry is the myth of disinterested science.

Academic adoption of industrial norms & consequences:
Kleinman and Vallas describe four ways in which industrial norms are emerging in the university setting. First, administrators increasingly tend to treat departments like profit centers and invest in each accordingly. As a consequence, support for research with uncertain economic rewards in the market is dwindling. Second, more contingent forms of employment are being adopted, resulting in more adjuncts, contracts or part-time instructors. Third, more proprietary thinking ways of thinking have emerged, with universities becoming more concerned with patents. Finally, work performance assessments are becoming more quantitative, with appraisals increasingly based on things like number of publications and revenue generated. In response, researchers may be producing shorter and more fragmented studies.

The industrial fairytale
The romanticized story of change in industry, paints a picture of a more egalitarian present compared to a more hierarchical past, providing a greater level of autonomy for workers. Kleinman and Vallas say knowledge workers do indeed appear to be enjoying greater levels of autonomy, but counter that it is a trend that is unlikely to benefit the workforce as a whole. Instead they propose autonomy is increasing for only a select few—the technical intelligentsia. Meanwhile, workers holding more traditional skills are marginalized and devalued. So this industrial fairytale misses the bigger picture.

Dualism & stratification
As a result of asymmetrical convergence the economic and social position of a limited segment of technical intelligentsia has become much stronger. Kleinman and Vallas say convergence is creating patterns of dualism, disparity and contradiction. So in the academic setting, we get dual systems of employment, with tenured staff representing “core” faculty and adjunct, contracted, and part-time instructors representing marginal faculty. Additional stratification occurs among the core faculty based on relationships with the market. In this case, faculty engaged in more commercially relevant work occupy the top of the hierarchy, while faculty whose work is distant from the market become marginalized.

Contradictions in convergence
A couple of seeming contradictions emerge in the convergence as described by Kleinman and Vallas. For example, while the university uses commercialization of scientific research to boost it’s own legitimacy, it may at the same time be delegitimizing science in the public eye. Another possible irony they mention is that as convergence progresses, autonomy may remain stronger in academic market-distant disciplines like the humanities and sociology. Finally, as they conclude their paper they note that it is worth pondering whether there be growing satisfaction with research in industry, while satisfaction with research in the university declines.

What to do?
Kleinman and Vallas say that while it’s unlikely that we will halt convergence, policy interventions might change its nature. To determine the appropriate interventions they suggest probing several questions such as, what do changing administrative conceptions mean for knowledge production? What does asymmetric convergence mean for scientific work? The quality of academic production? Finally, they also suggest we challenge common-sense notions that innovation requires proprietary knowledge with experiments.

Academic duty not to take it all at face value
Throughout this piece, Kleinman and Vallas repeatedly say one of the factors propelling academic adoption of industrial norms is the universities’ sagging legitimacy in the public eye. I can’t help but wonder if this sagging legitimacy is a reality, or based on yet another romanticized myth of the academic past. I think it’s likely there has always been public skepticism over whether academic researchers do anything worthwhile in the ivory tower on the public dollar. I’m inclined to think this has not changed a great deal in recent years. I could more easily accept the idea that public skepticism may be growing over the value of higher education as tuition costs climb and things like MOOCs erode university monopolies on education. But I think that the legitimacy of the university as an educational institution is a separate question from the legitimacy of the university as a research institution.


How well do you suppose the ideas Kleinman and Vallas present might translate to other countries?

On a scale of 1 – 10 how would you rate the market-proximity of your graduate work?

On a scale of 1 – 10 how well does your confidence in (anxiety over) your future job prospects correspond with your response to the last question?

About the authors:

Daniel Kleinman, lead author on this paper, is not a British TV and music video director, as Google might suggest. He is the associate dean for social studies in the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. He also has a long history of studying commercialization of university science, starting with an ethnographic research project he began in the mid 1990s involving the practices of people working in a biology laboratory. Steven Vallas is professor and chair, in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University. His areas of research specialization include the sociology of work and inequality, contemporary social theory and the sociology of culture/knowledge/economic institutions.

No comments: