concern about superficiality and stagnation in academia

An accounting professor has recently produced an insightful paper entitled “Constituting the Academic Performer: The Spectre of Superficiality and Stagnation in Academia.” While the paper focuses on academic research in accounting from a North American perspective, it suggests that its argument can be extended geographically and to other social science disciplines:

The present paper should therefore not be conceived of as an idiosyncratic problematization of a single area of research [accounting]; it has broader implications as institutionalized logics and practices in a given area do not develop in a vacuum (Foucault, 1966).[Gendron, p. 2]

The paper identifies the fundamental problem to be pressure to perform:

Various writers have argued that we live in an era in which expectations of self and others to perform, and provide public demonstrations of performance, are considerable (e.g., Lyotard, 1979; Porter, 1995). In particular, Lyotard (1979) develops the notion of performativity and notes its growing influence on society. Performativity can be defined as a set of ideas and practices which stress the search for technological optimality via the most efficient input/output ratio.[id. p. 3-4]

Academic literature indicates that pressure to perform is particularly acute in academia because of declines in public funding, increased corporate funding, and increased use of performance measures in promoting academics.[id. p. 11] An ordinary person can easily recognize, through considering even just style, diction, characteristic invocations of authority, that disciplinary processes in academia can enforce superficiality and conformity:

Foucaultian studies, which are now commonly used in the qualitative paradigm of accounting research (Gendron and Baker, 2005), make us aware that representations of identity can gain in influence and spread in a community via disciplinary and self-disciplinary processes as deployed on individuals. …Through normalization and the detection of “deviants,” individuals may be pressured to alter their self in a way that is consistent with a given representation of identity, as conveyed via some discourse(s) in their surrounding environment. [id. pp. 9, 10]

The pressure on deviants in academia does not occur only through pressure to publish in prestigious journals that deeply entrenched academic interests control. Obsession with using knowledge as an instrument of power is pervasive in academic. Academics feel it in their bones. In other words, power-knowledge obsession creates a discursive system of surveillance and real citation gaze that disciplines bodies just like mamma did:

Lyon (2001) argues that surveillance practices have significantly developed throughout society and now pervade all spheres of social life; these practices are not operated by some central watchtower but instead by a heterogeneous and unstable network of agencies. Academia is no exception as the spread of performance measurement, in particular, renders researchers subject to the gaze of a variety of surveillance systems (Wilmott, 1995). ….Operating across a variety of ways which often may seem innocuous or trivial in the context of day-to-day life, performance measurement as a discursive technology has colonized vast segments of academia and increasingly regulates the conduct of researchers. [id. pp. 28, 29]

The result is stagnation in academia and astonishingly superficial work:

While [academic] research articles undeniably have content (which, as noted above, may have decreased to some extent over time in terms of originality), the key point is that they are often considered superficial by audiences which are increasingly stimulated and provided with means to bypass the reading of articles. [id. p. 31]

According to this academic researcher, Internet-based mechanism for sharing intellectual work and discussing ideas and applications offers no escape from pressure to produce boring, worthless, and intellectually pathetic work:

It is worth noting that the logic of performance measurements even extends to the world of non-published papers. … SSRN [a large, open database of intellectual work] therefore contributes to the construction of researchers and institutions as performers — but a construction which is close to the domain of hyper-reality (Baudrillard, 1981) in that most of the papers displayed on SSRN are unpublished, working papers. An author can therefore develop a reputation as a high-performer even though the key traditional feature upon which is predicated knowledge production systems (i.e., publication) is not met. [id. pp. 24-5]

The author suggests that association journals should support more “epistemological and methodological diversity” and should publish more articles with even less obvious impact than articles currently being published. The author also advocates that academic researchers spend more time discussing journal publication standards and processes. [id. p. 33] To me, these proposals point to a weak, unimaginative reform agenda. Much more radical change is necessary to save the world from tedium and intellectual collapse.

Reference:

Gendron, Yves, “Constituting the Academic Performer: The Spectre of Superficiality and Stagnation in Academia“. European Accounting Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1003797

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