Three Modes of Academic Success, none of them quite autonomous

Early career academics periodically ask me what it takes to be successful – as if I would know! Nevertheless, I do have some general observations on the topic based on what seems to work. Unfortunately, the three strategies listed below have nothing to do with the individual autonomy of academic inquirer as popularized by Max Weber in his advice to graduate students, ‘Science as a Vocation’. But in the end, I’ll return to Weber.

Discipline-based success: You become someone who is seen to have made a distinctive contribution to the collective knowledge process of a discipline. It is what Kuhn called ‘normal science’. However, because your contribution is exhaustively explained in terms of the larger disciplinary narrative, you end up being no more than a vehicle to move the plot along and so your name is forgotten shortly after your work has been superseded. Weber believed that this was the fate of most academics, regardless of the formal autonomy of their work conditions.

Constituency-based success: You become the academic voice of a recognizable sector in society. Michael Burawoy’s idea of ‘public sociology’ seems to aspire to this status, especially for sectors of society that might not otherwise be given effective voice. This sense of success is likely to be held hostage – or at least accountable – to the changing fortunes and dispositions of the constituency in question. So, if your own thinking does not move in the same direction as that of your constituency, you may find yourself out of a job, just like an MP!

Funding-based success: You become a ‘rain-maker’ who can parlay the same toolkit of concepts and methods in many different funding environments to success. (Science & Technology Studies comes to mind here.) Indeed, your flexibility might be easily mistaken for autonomy, especially if you normally get the money that you apply for. However, such a person’s curriculum vitae tells otherwise, since there is no clear narrative thread running through the series of successful funding bids (other than perhaps size of bid) that might amount to ‘intellectual progress’.

To be sure, these are ideal types that may be mixed in practice. I’m particularly struck by the hybridisation of the first two types – namely, the elective affinity between an established body of academic knowledge and an established extra-academic constituency. These are the sorts of figures who had they not already existed could be easily invented. Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler come to mind as people who have leveraged into public discourse a certain set of texts that humanistic academics had already been reading in consort for around a generation. (Roughly speaking, for Zizek it’s the French Marx-Freud complex, for Butler the French post-structuralist complex.) This helps to explain the rather polarized attitude – ‘you either get it or you don’t’ – that has surrounded their public reception. The people who think such people are geniuses are basking in the reflected glow of their own college days, whereas those who don’t see the genius in Zizek and Butler didn’t go to the same colleges.

But finally let’s go back to Weber. What makes him appear so ‘autonomous’ to us is something that would not have been so obvious to his contemporaries. After all, this was a guy trained in law and political economy who found himself somewhat awkwardly placed in those disciplines because of the nature of his interests and his approach to them. However, once ‘sociology’ came to be recognized as a separate academic subject (which was shortly before Weber died), he was seen as a ‘founding father’, a godlike figure who set the terms that others then developed. In short, he was deemed ‘autonomous’.

Autonomy requires a collective Gestalt switch on the part of the academic community to turn someone’s awkwardness into originality. Weber may have reflexively understood this process, which is simply a secular way of talking about the complementarity of what he had identified in the great world=religions as ‘charisma’ and ‘routine’. Thus, Jesus remains an awkward Jew in the history of Judaism but the founder of a new faith in Christianity.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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1 reply »

  1. Or the way Socrates was a somewhat awkward sophist, and yet a (the?) founder of philosophy.

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