The main current focus of my research are public debates concerning the transformation of knowledge production in the UK, in particular the way in which they frame the role and purpose of universities, as well as intellectuals as knowledge producers. This is the topic of my doctoral thesis, whose working title is “War on universities? Neoliberalism, knowledge production, and intellectual positioning in the UK”.
By analysing forms of critique of UK government’s policies related to knowledge production since 1997, I am trying to understand how intellectuals negotiate their social positions and identities in the context of social change, and how this links to their analyses of these processes: in theoretical terms, how reflexivity and (self-)knowledge relate to structure and agency, and how this interacts with the production of critique.
The idea is to develop a theoretically innovative way of thinking about the relationship between knowledge (and social critique) and the conditions of its production. It is informed by the belief that, if we are to understand the dynamics and consequences of any social process, we must (simultaneously) interrogate the possibilities (and constraints) of our own knowledge as well as agency when it comes to them. This also means that ‘resistance’, whether conceived of politically or analytically, must be driven by a critical consciousness of where it stems from, as well as what its limitations are.
Policies of UK’s successive Labour (1997-2010), Coalition (2010-2015) and Conservative (2015-present) governments in the domain of academic knowledge production have attracted a fair bit of criticism from public intellectuals. These articles, books, and blog posts – what Eyal and Bucholz (2010) call ‘intellectual interventions‘ – have been almost unanimous in equating these changes with the death of, or at least serious assault on, universities (e.g. Docherty, 2015; Eagleton, 2015). Yet, where does this diagnosis – and forms of resistance associated with it – come from? My thesis combines the concern with the social (in particular class) foundations of knowledge with the work in sociology of intellectuals, in particular positioning theory (e.g. Baert 2015, 2012), and asks: what is it that intellectuals do when they criticise the conditions of knowledge production from within the institutions of its production? What ideas and concepts of self and agency are implied? In other words, what is the relationship between the conditions of knowledge production and reflexivity – and how does this relate to the possibilities for social critique?
The thesis engages the following concepts: positioning (Baert, Harré, Lawson) – and the related question of human agency and intentionality (Searle); reflexivity, both in terms of Archer’s (2012, 2007, 2003) work on reflexive subjects, and Bourdieu’s concept of reflexive sociology (1990); knowledge production, as a political-economic term for capturing both the practice and value of intellectual labour, as well as the work of delineating boundaries (e.g. Lamont, 2009) of the academic field; and the ontology and performativity of concepts (Callon, Latour), but seen through the lens of agential mediation of their properties. It is concerned with the epistemological and ontological foundations of critique (e.g. Boltanski, 2011), and, in particular, the relationship between different forms of epistemic privilege and political agency.
My second major focus is developing a relational ontology of knowledge production, in particular openness/accessibility of information, ‘distributed knowledges’, questions of authorship and ownership, and (again) aspects of subjectivity, identity and agency implied in this.
One element is reframing intellectuals’ public engagement or positioning as a practice of agential mediation of conditions of knowledge production, taking into account how concepts such as ‘habitus’, ‘reflexivity’ and ‘field’ can (or not) be mobilised to explain this (an example of my earlier ethnographic work on public engagement in the UK is here).
Another major theme is academic publishing, such as Open Access, copyright, or Open Research Data movement, and trying to understand the ontologies implied in them, as well as their effects on the processes of knowledge creation and distribution; a paper I’ve recently co-authored with Chris Muellerleile addresses some of these issues.
Last, but not least, this concerns the relationship between academics (or intellectuals) as ‘individuals’ and the broader collectives, institutions, and processes of knowledge production, and forms of authority and reflexivity associated with it (longer articles are in the process, until then, I often blog about this). Some of this builds on my previous research on public engagement and university–society relationships in the UK and in New Zealand, which was part of the Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE) project.