Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth
The Facebook-ization of academic reputation? ResearchGate, Academia.edu and Everyday neoliberalism
How do we explain the endurance of neoliberal modes of government following the 2008 financial crisis, which could surely have been its death-knoll? This is the question of a long, brilliant, book by historian of science and economics Philip Mirowski, called ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste’. Mirowski states that explanations of the crisis to date have accounted for only part of the answer. Part of the persistence of neo-liberal ideals of personhood and markets comes not just directly from ‘the government’ or particular policies, but is a result of very mundane practices and technologies which surround us in our everyday lives.
I think this book can tell us a lot about new ways in which our lives as academics are increasingly being governed. Consider web platforms like ResearchGate and Academia.edu: following Mirowski, these academic professional networking sites might be understood as technologies of ‘everyday neoliberalism’. These websites share a number of resemblances with social networking sites like Facebook – which Mirowski takes as an exemplar par excellence of this phenomenon. He argues Facebook teaches its users to become ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’, by fragmenting the self and reducing it to something transient (ideals emanating from the writings of Hayek and Friedman), to be actively and promiscuously re-drawn out of various click-enabled associations (accumulated in indicators like numbers of ‘likes’, ‘friends’, comments) (Mirowski, 2013, 92).
Let us briefly consider what kind of academic Academia.edu and ResearchGate encourages and teaches us to become. Part of the seductiveness of these technologies for academics, I suspect, is that we already compete within reputational work organisations (c.f. Whitley, 2000), where self-promotion has always been part-and-parcel of producing new knowledge. However, such platforms also intensify and reinforce dominant ideas and practices for evaluating research and researchers, which – with the help of Mirowski’s text – appear to be premised on neoliberal doctrines. Certainly the websites build on the idea that the individual (as author) is the central locus of knowledge production. Yet what is distinctly neoliberal perhaps is how the individual – through the architecture and design of the websites – experiences their field of knowledge production as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ (on the neo-liberal roots of this idea, see Mirowski, 2011).
This is achieved through ‘dashboards’ that display a smorgasbord of numerical indicators. When you upload your work, the interface generates the Impact Factor of journals you have published in and various other algorithmically-generated scores (ResearchGate score anyone?). There are also social networking elements like ‘contacts’, enabling you to follow and be followed by other users of the platform (your ‘peers’). This in turn produces a count of how well ‘networked’ you are. In short, checking one’s scores, contacts, downloads, views, and so on is supposed to give an impression of an individual user’s market standing, especially as one can compare these with scores of other users. Regular email notifications provide reminders to continue internalizing these demands and to report back regularly to the system. These scores and notices are not final judgments but a record of accomplishments so far, motivating the user to carry on with the determination to do better. Given the aura of ‘objectivity’ and ‘market knows best’ mantra these indicators present to us, any ‘failings’ are the responsibility of the individual. Felt anger is to be turned back inward on the self, rather than outwards on the social practices and ideas through which such ‘truths’ are constituted. A marketplace of ideas indeed.
Like Facebook, what these academic professional networking sites do seems largely unremarkable and uncontroversial, forming part of background infrastructures which simply nestle into our everyday research practices. One of their fascinating features is to promulgate a mode of power that is not directed to us ‘from above’ – no manager or formal audit exercise is coercing researchers into signing-up. We are able to join and leave of our own volition (many academics don’t even have accounts). Yet these websites should be understood as component parts of a wider ‘assemblage’ of metrics and evaluation techniques with which academics currently juggle, which in turn generate certain kinds of tyrannies (see Burrows, 2012).
Mirowski’s book provides a compelling set of provocations for digital scholars, sociologists of science, science studies, higher education scholars and others to work with. Many studies have been produced documenting reforms to the university which have bared various hallmarks of neoliberal political philosophical doctrines (think audits, university rankings, temporary labour contracts, competitive funding schemes and the like). Yet these latter techniques may only be the tip of the iceberg: Mirowski has given us cause to think more imaginatively about how ‘everyday’ or ‘folk’ neoliberal ideas and practices become embedded in our academic lives through quite mundane infrastructures, the effects of which we have barely begun to recognise, let alone understand.
Burrows, R. 2012. Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. Sociological Review, 60, 355-372.
Mirowski, P. 2011. Science-mart : privatizing American science, Cambridge, Mass. ; London, Harvard University Press.
Mirowski, P. 2013. Never let a serious crisis go to waste : how neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown, New York, Verso.
Whitley, R. 2000. The intellectual and social organization of the sciences, Oxford England ; New York, Oxford University Press.