Affordances, affects, and animosities: Exploring research cultures

by Knut H. Sørensen

When the study of organisation cultures emerged as a fad in the 1980s, a joke circulated about the chair of the board and the CEO of a large company who had attended a seminar on the topic. At the end of the seminar, the COB turned to the CEO and said: “I like this idea of a company culture. I want one on Monday”. One may get a similar impression by browsing the literature on research cultures. In such literature, developing a research culture responds to a need to do research or improve research productivity. I argue for a different understanding of the concept.

While ‘culture’ combined with various other words has been influential in STS scholarship, such as ‘epistemic culture’ and ‘academic culture’, the link to ‘research’ has received less attention. This lack of consideration is a pity since we may usefully employ ‘research culture’ in both a normative and a descriptive manner. It may designate the work culture or working environment of researchers and represent ideas for improving academic life. However, in universities, research cultures co-exist with teaching cultures, constituting departments or sections. The slogan of research-based teaching implies that research and teaching activities should interact while also being distinct knowledge-making practices.

We usually assume that research aims to provide new knowledge. We could then understand research cultures as contexts of knowledge-making, such as routines, standards, habits of interaction, social atmosphere, and assessment criteria. This view could be controversial, given that the scientific ideal is a culture of no culture, a strictly objective and autonomous knowledge-making (Traweek, 1988), but not within STS. ‘Research culture’ overlaps with Ulrike Felt’s (2009) concept of epistemic living spaces, which are the individual or collective perceptions of the structures, rationales, actors, and values, which shape what they aim to know as well as their scientific/scholarly practices and their engagements with society. Clearly, research cultures are intersected by external forces such as funding, reforms and regulations, political and public expectations, and prevailing management practices at higher education institutions. In science policy circles, discursive constructs exist, such as the ‘imagined scientist’ who is not sufficiently concerned with the social relevance of her/his research and thus needs to be disciplined (Åm et al., 2021). 

External forces may interfere in beneficial and harmful ways, providing resources and encouragement but also precarity, work pressure, self-censorship, and harsh competition. Critical university studies have primarily focused on the damaging aspects, framing research cultures as eroded by managerialism, academic capitalism, and budget cuts (Slaughter & Rhodes, 2004; Fleming, 2021). Moreover, we see a growing number of cases where politicians directly intervene in the content of research and teaching, undercutting academic freedom. Recently, we have seen this even in Denmark, and such interventions are becoming pervasive in the US, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the forefront of curbing academic freedom.

Such concerns are essential because external interventions may be detrimental to research, teaching, and academics’ working conditions. Harmful interventions should be met by political activism and engagement with the public to explain what universities are for. Such activism has been rare in academic cultures where individualism rules, but recently, there have been examples of direct political action, such as strikes in the UK over pension cuts, precarity, equal pay, and workload. Still, academics’ dominant mode of dealing with external interferences is to individually navigate the challenges through various forms of entrepreneurialism and resistance by neglecting requirements. Contrary to the perception of universities as bulwarks of tradition and conservatism, many academics are entrepreneurial in their research culture enactments, rethinking and changing practices. For instance, they (we) may experiment with professional exchanges, introduce new social events, extend networks/meshworks, find new ways of gaining support, or identify new outlets for research. Research cultures are made; they do not just exist.

Academic freedom and epistemic politics

The primary condition of such entrepreneurial activities is the principle of academic freedom. Current scholarship about this principle tends to focus on freedom of speech and autonomy concerning research topics (Scott, 1919). However, academic freedom means academics have relative autonomy concerning their work, resulting in the widespread practice of self-management. Of course, academics have obligations for teaching and supervision, research contracts, and collegial collaboration. However, at most universities, command and control practices regarding faculty are restricted, even though the introduction of New Public Management procedures has resulted in comprehensive metrics and reporting systems that impose the exercise of self-management. 

These systems circumscribe the building and rebuilding of research cultures. For example, they have introduced metrically shaped competition on both an individual and an institutional level, they require quantitative and qualitative reporting that may be time-consuming, they may shape publication strategies, and they affect individual and institutional identities and self-esteem. However, there are considerable contingencies that provide space for navigating these systems and bureaucratic requirements, such as budgeting systems, procedures for ordering books and research equipment, refunds for travel, and booking of rooms for teaching and seminars. The contingencies produce substantial diversity of research cultures, meaning academic working conditions may vary substantially even within the same institution.

Such differences also emerge from socio-material and habitual characteristics of scientific and scholarly work, from ‘epistemic machineries’ (Knorr Cetina, 1999) and ‘epistemic practices’ (Lamont, 2009). However, epistemic machineries and practices are also objects of navigation. Thus, Sharon Traweek and I, in our recent book Questing Excellence in Academia, also focus on epistemic politics, embedded in collegial interaction and practices, in addition to analysing the political economy of universities (Sørensen & Traweek, 2022). Culture is made through the interaction of human and non-human actors.

Consequently, research cultures may be analysed through the concepts of collegial organising, epistemic politics, academic citizenship, and socialisation. Collegial organising means that a research community is largely self-organised. Ideally, leaders are elected among faculty and decisions are made in meetings where all community members may participate. However, in practice, leaders often are hired, and decision-making is shaped by hierarchy and the exercise of authority. A core issue is the assessment of academic performance, expected to result from peer review; evaluation made by colleagues. Assessments should be based on quality, the central tenet of meritocracy – supposedly an ideal that research cultures should uphold. 

Nevertheless, meritocratic practices tend to be opaque, with uncertain outcomes. Already a century ago, Max Weber noticed in his Wissenschaft als Beruf that ‘Academic life, in short, is an utter gamble’. Research cultures differ in terms of how merit and quality are understood, how and by whom assessments are done, the degree of transparency of reviewing, and what consequences evaluations have. For example, the opacity of assessment processes tends to foster distrust and suspicion, and a lack of clarity regarding merit may produce frustration and anxiety. How collegiality is practised is critical to how the research culture and its performance are experienced.

The assessment of the quality of research (and teaching, for that matter) is performed as epistemic politics. Epistemic politics is the local practice of arguing about what constitutes proper academic expertise, the range of that expertise, and who may be considered proper or the best experts. It is intimately linked with meritocracy and how academic freedom is practised in the research group. Academics perform epistemic politics in collegial settings such as faculty meetings, seminars, and ‘corridor talk’ through debates about what constitutes good research, who does good research, what are exciting publications, what are relevant theories to use, and what are acceptable methodologies. Epistemic politics is also enacted in conferences, peer reviews, hiring committees, grant application assessments, and most academic encounters.  

Epistemic politics is a core activity of a research group whose members need to exchange, interact, and discuss. If we judge a group by the quality of the academic workplace environment that it offers and its academic performance, we look at how epistemic politics is enacted. Some groups benefit from generous sharing and caring and constructive exchanges. In others, epistemic politics may result in excessive competition, sexual and other forms of harassment, animosity, and improper mobilisation of epistemic authority to end debates (Hasse & Trentemøller, 2008). Thus, epistemic politics is affective and emotional. The scholarly literature has paid scant attention to the affective features of research, which reflects the ideal of dispassionate research. However, as Parker and Hackett (2014) demonstrate, such features are pervasive in the conduct of science.

The principles of academic freedom provide protected, autonomous spaces where epistemic politics may unfold quite freely. Epistemic politics is an unregulated area. This autonomy means that university leadership is only willing to intervene in departments and research groups if internal conflicts are clearly untenable. Only rarely are departments placed under external administration or receivership.

The role of academic citizenship

Epistemic politics is shaped by academic citizenship. In Questing excellence, we understand academic citizenship broadly as the virtuous performance of academic tasks, including research, teaching, and service towards students, colleagues, and society. We may debate what virtues are essential to epistemic politics, but something as banal as civility is a critical ingredient. Also, reflexivity is called for. Another important virtue is universalism in the sense of being inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and age. Most of us have observed research cultures where internal competition, disrespect, discrimination, and routine displays of epistemic authority produce a caustic climate. Academic citizenship should be given much more attention when considering how research cultures may be improved. 

This need suggests that we revisit the processes through which academics are socialised, not only through research training but also concerning recruitment and introduction of new faculty. The subject formation of researchers happens in contexts that ask for entrepreneurship, competitiveness, metric productivity, and strategic skills to navigate the system. What this means varies. Usually, mobility is rewarded. You ought to have been at the ‘right’ places and working with the ‘right’ people. Academic citizenship is seldom explicitly appreciated but may be valued if a researcher has stayed for a long time at the same place, demonstrating valuable contributions to the department and being socialised into local practices and values. 

However, given the widespread emphasis on mobility, recruiting researchers often means hiring an external person who has been socialised in a different context. When applicants are assessed, their publication records are easily available, their teaching experience is also accessible, although teaching quality may be more challenging to evaluate and academic citizenship even more so. How do you proceed if you want to develop the research culture in your department? An obvious choice would be to look for academic stars with an impressive publication record, but this may result in hiring someone who dislikes teaching, abstains from academic service work, and finds collegial collaboration difficult. Such a person may increase the department’s publication output, but at what cost? 

The current expectation is that research cultures should be excellent or internationally prominent, but these concepts are empty signifiers. There is no intrinsic meaning to excellence or prominence beyond questionable rankings and vague reputation assessment. However, the metrification of academic work has highlighted quantitative indicators like the number of publications or citation counts. The research unit that strives for excellence may end up collapsing its research culture to a singular concern for publication achievements. 

Applying the concept of academic citizenship also to research units may serve as an antidote. At the backbone of the concept is reflection regarding what constitutes high-quality and meaningful research, insisting on the need to engage with questions about what research should be and for whom. In this way, academic citizenship asks that we care for the performed research, its benefits and risk, and its incorporation into society, as well as for students and colleagues. Achieving sustainability transitions, a goal that preoccupies many of us, depends more on care than quantitative excellence. A beneficial research culture affords us to engage in meaningful activities. Thus, when we study research cultures, we need to combine normative and empirical analysis.



The article has benefitted from comments from Vivian A. Lagesen, Sharon Traweek, and the editors of the EASST review.




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