Sunday, January 20, 2013

Historical Ethnography in the Academy: Academia as a Bureacracy

Part three of a continuing series of thoughts and reflections...

Academia has pretty much followed the developmental path that Max Weber laid out long ago. Educational life was initially centred on the charismatic individual intellectual even if that charismatic intellectual was the product of a "civilisation" brought about by the rise of the city-state with its class differences and its practise of expropriation of land and goods by those at the top of the status pyramid in those city-states. As intellectual life became more and more tied to imperial life and in some cases to the priestly subordinates of that imperial clan and caste who sactified the imperial house, traditions were established in order to train intellectuals for service in the court. With the triumph of "rationality" with its ideologies of professionalisation, expert culture, and "meritocracy" traditional bureaucracies, including traditional educational bureaucracies, were, over time, transformed into modern mass "rational" bureaucracies just as economic and political bureaucracies in the Western world were transformed from "traditional" to "rational" mass bureaucracies around the same time in the "modern" West.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century history and the social sciences, not to mention state bureaucracies and quasi guilds like the law and medicine, were professionalizing in industrialized societies and settler societies all around the globe. In the United States universities adopted the Prussian higher education model and instituted graduate schools at places like Clark University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Chicago. Departments of History, Political Science, Geography, Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology eventually became part of these new “modern” academic institutions. Where Clark, Hopkins, and Chicago led others soon followed. Soon all across the US colleges and universities adopted the German model and instituted graduate schools even at the venerable Harvard and Yale which had entered the nineteenth century as basically Oxbridge style theology schools. The Ph.D. was established as the top professional degree. As disciplines developed at universities around the country, professional organizations were formed and professional standards were adopted. Professional journals and academic emerged as well.

Professionalization gave rise to different if somewhat similar academic cultures. In History it became a rite of passage for graduate students to engage in primary source research in the movement from amateur to professional. In cultural anthropology and sociology the rite of passage was fieldwork, the latter in “exotic” cultures, the former in cities like Chicago and rural modernizing communities in Quebec. From the 1930s on clinical research and statistical analysis became a rite (and right) of passage for advanced psychology, sociology, political science, and to a lesser degree, cultural anthropology students as positivism, with its mania for numbers and typologies, began to dominate the social sciences. The Holy Grail for all these disciplines was now “objectivity” as “advocacy” faded from their collective disciplinary and cultural memories. Increasingly they found objective analysis in the deep structure (social, cultural, psychological, biological) of human action, in factors that only trained “experts” like themselves could discern and unearth. Throughout the entire professionalization process those who earned a degree from a recognized academic institution were distinguished from the amateurs and armchair social scientists who had dominated intellectual culture previously by their expertise, i.e., by completing a series of rites of passage, including writing a dissertation, resulting in an earned degree. “Amateurs”, amateur gentlemen scholars, were increasingly read out of the new professions. As the academy proliferated, intellectual culture outside of the academy sometimes declined.

Intellectual life within the academy also seems to have declined within colleges and universities as education and the intellectual life was transformed from something more akin to a calling into something more like a 9 to 5 job in a modern rationally organised mass bureaucracy. Academics come into their offices. They do their work. Once done they leave for home for the joys or dysfunctions of the private life of home and family that like modern universities and colleges has been constructed by the "rational" bureacratisation or McDonaldisation of the Western world. There seems to me to be little in the way of an intellectual community of discussion and debate in the vast majority of contemporary academic bureaucracies and more in the way of the modern bureaucratic division of labour and relative isolation of academic bureaucrats into tiny little office cubicles so academics, like their corporate and political counterparts, can perform their individual labours and occasionally meet with the clients they instruct in classrooms that can sometimes contain several hundred "students"in the "modern" mass university and college. Academic bureaucrats, it seems, help put the mass in mass education.

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