On the Spiralists

In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one.

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.


Categories: Higher Education

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1 reply »

  1. Rules beget roles beget expectations. The presence of such people is only possible if someone writes rules that allows such roles to be manifest. Someone with real power can set organisational expectations and communicate their power ‘at a distance’ through the kinds of roles they allow. These roles can be made to produce outcomes that, on the one hand, suit the individual in the role itself, but on the other, satisfy other or higher order goals of the person with power ( see Cosimo Medici’s ‘multi-vocality’ as an example).
    If, however, real power is vested in a committee, or easily influenced leader, for example, it’s variable expectations may allow various interpretations of roles and outcomes, thereby permitting an outsider to take control of assets and roles for their individual gain. Leadership has a responsibility for the exercise of power particularly as cooperation versus domination, in order that organisations remain logical, and effective.

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