Vlad Schüler-Costa: Academic precarity and the false coin of our own dreams

A specter haunted EASA2018—the specter of precarity. Like a “frightful hobgoblin” (that, one could argue, is a more suitable, if inaccurate, translation of Marx’s Gespenst), it appeared in some instances as an explicit, publicly acknowledged political program (on some panels and the ending plenary) and, at other times, stashed away in the interstitches of the conference program (on #HOWtalk and #PrecAnthro lunchtime discussions, or the myriad of corridor chats that could be overheard during the conference).

Leaving aside the farcical aspect of the #HOWtalk and #PrecAnthro talks—everyone was subtly discouraged to attend these (“lunchtime discussion”; “no lunch in the auditorium”; “no childcare during lunch”; “you have a short time to discuss anything”)—the conversation was interesting on the occasions I witnessed.[1]

The discussion mostly hovered around anthropological, academic, precarity. At this point, it is important to emphasize the analytical distinction between “precariousness”—the fact that life itself is precarious, changing and unknowable—and “precarity”—the circumstance of being subject to precarious labor conditions. As Clara Han writes in a recent review:

For some scholars, precarity signals the loss of stable, regular jobs, which had allowed people to project themselves in terms of upward social mobility. Precarity, in this sense, is deployed as a sociological category: those who would have expected long-term stable employment and the benefits of a welfare state and who today, instead, live through intermittent labor while thwarted in their aspirations for a “good life.” (2018: 335–336)

The discussions I heard in Stockholm pertained mostly to precarity rather than to precariousness. One could see, if chatting with attendees, that many of us are realizing academia’s ivory tower is, in fact, made of cardboard—fragile, unstable, badly planned. Sitting in the grass in front of Aula Magna, one could overhear people talking about their career plans outside of academia. Most of us who are not tenured/full professors are increasingly more aware that we might never find permanent, full-time employment in academia.

EASA2018 held at Stockholm University (photo by Mariya Ivancheva, via Twitter).

EASA2018 held at Stockholm University (photo by Mariya Ivancheva, via Twitter).

This was reflected in the discussions. It is telling that one of the presentations in the final plenary (by Lara McKenzie) was about leaving academia and “quit lit”—a new “literary genre” comprised of texts about leaving academia.

It is also telling that the Early Career Award for best article by an early career anthropologist was given to Vita Peacock, who wrote about academic precarity at the Max Planck Society—which not by coincidence has been the recent focus of “troubles” involving alleged harassment and bullying.

And it is telling that Peacock’s (2016) award-winning article “Academic Precarity as Hierarchical Dependence in the Max Planck Society” was published in HAU, a journal that has been the focus of a veritable upheaval within anthropology—which is, in fact, also related to accusations of harassment, bullying, and a complete lack of oversight and accountability. And, reportedly, Peacock also ended up thanking Giovanni da Col, the person at the center of these accusations, for his invisible labor in bringing the article to life.

One of the things I learned as an undergraduate student is that “anthropologists love when things don’t make sense”—to paraphrase what I heard on various occasions from my teachers. Looking at the European Association of Social Anthropologists as an anthropologist who happens to study academic precarity, I cannot help but marvel at how messy the politics within the organization appeared at times.

I think this messy aspect of the academic politics within EASA is a good example of academic politics as a whole. On the one side, we have righteous fury against the system by those who are kept outside it or at its margins; on another side, we have detached apathy by those who are somehow at the center of the system, or aim to join it. On yet another side (no false dichotomies here), we have people who are trying to navigate this messy and muddy terrain, confusing and being confused by the subtleties and open secrets and left-unsaids of our discipline. A fellow volunteer, a soon-to-be an undergraduate student in anthropology, asked me bewildered if they really should pursue the degree. I did not know what to say.

But back to precarity. What I felt refreshing, in the middle of the messy politics, were (as usual) ethnographic accounts of the precariat. We got that, mostly, in the final plenary. However, even in that discussion, there was an awkwardness, a dissatisfaction. It was said that being a member of the precariat is shameful, but it seems talking about it is also. There was a veneer of pretense, as if precarity was what happens to other people—not to us in the plentiful land of academic anthropology.

Even when data and numbers were mentioned, people seemed not to take those to heart. It was pointed out that the proportion of temporary-to-permanent staff in universities is higher every year, with no expectations for a reversal of the trend in this century. In fact, a recent survey of the EASA members, run by the Precanthro collective, had 75 percent of respondents state that their job situation was precarious. This figure would be alarming—if people cared.

One reason why many colleagues might not care was given almost en passant in a presentation by Christian Rogler, who said that “tenured careers are built on the back of temporary staff.” Permanent professors are, writ large, able to write, publish, and get promoted because they rely on the labor of teaching assistants (TAs) and other fixed-contract staff, who mark papers and assignments and/or give lectures and seminars. Adding to this is the ever-increasing number of postdocs and research associates, who might be contracted to conduct research and write papers by (and sometimes for) the principal investigators leading big projects. This is academic outsourcing 101, which was also pointed out recently by Patrick Neveling (2018):

The abuse of vulnerable, precarious scholars, for example, may not always be as deliberate as is now alleged for the case of HAU, yet it is impossible to imagine that the many departments that contract significant workloads to precarious employees are not aware of the plight of those workers who, in the US for example, are forced into homelessness and in some cases see no other option but sex labor to make a living. Certainly, in order to accommodate this massive imbalance, many universities have established insurmountable divisions between a managerial, administrative branch and an academic branch—divisions that ultimately seem to enable not only the outsourcing of a large number of staff but also the outsourcing of all the solidarity that tenured colleagues might otherwise have about the precarity of their colleagues. And still, if all this creates a sentiment that there is simply no alternative and everyone’s hands are tied, it is striking that no anthropology department has so far chosen the Bartleby way and stated, “We’d prefer not to.”

Unlike Neveling, however, I believe there is a great deal of unawareness—either intentional or not. In fact, what one sees is a particular lack of concern (or awareness) of how insidious precarity is. As a volunteer at EASA, I wore a yellow T-shirt during my shifts. Some senior academics, when interacting with me, immediately thought that, as such, I was an undergraduate student—after all, there’s no way that a PhD student (at the University of Manchester, no less!) would be a volunteer, surely. People get paid to go to conferences (not me, though).

This blindness is not restricted to events, such as the EASA conferences, although the unequal access that different classes of academics have to these definitely makes them a focal point. Chatting with the staff in my own department, one can see how permanent professors are barely aware of how things are for the precariat. Overwork and underpay are the rule, not the exception.

To give actual numbers and examples: I TA’d for my university for the two semesters in the academic year 2017/2018. Looking at my pay slips, I can see that I made, over that academic year, £2,980.87 after tax. The UK poverty line, in 2016, was £15,000 per year. Asking around in my department, I did not find anyone who made even close to that with TA’ing.

I do not mean, of course, that we are living in abject poverty—luckily, most of us have scholarships (that usually do not cover the last year of the PhD, so you are on your own then), supportive family, and/or part-time work. But our labor conditions are certainly precarious. We work as TAs during term time, and on our theses outside it.

In fact, the general feeling, even with this, is that “we have it good” (as in, “other people have it worse”). This was also mentioned in the ending plenary, when Rogler said that these conditions of precarity are possible because there are many people who would like to join in—and the departments are aware of that, and use it in their favor. Or, as it was put in the emails I received after applying to be a TA in my university, “you have been successfully added to the teaching pool, but this does not guarantee a teaching allocation.”

And that brings me to what was the initial intention behind writing this piece. During the final plenary at EASA2018, I sat there until the very end, with my hand raised, but could not ask my questions. Now, after the conference has ended, I can voice them.

I find it fascinating that, during the final plenary’s discussion about precarity, Marx was somewhat absent. When Rogler mentioned that the academic precarity of the precariat is a product of its overabundance, the first thing that came to my mind was the Marxian notion of the “reserve army of labor”—that is, the mass of potential workers who help those in power to keep wages down and curb worker demands solely by being available to replace current workers (and thus creating job insecurity). Although we all know that this is a central feature of capitalism—to the point that Marx called the fact that surplus labor worsens work conditions “the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation” (1887: 451)—it is still uncanny to see that people within academia have no problem reproducing this and will keep exploiting their workers as much as possible just because there are many to replace them. It shows an extremely refined lack of self-awareness.

Something that was mentioned during that debate on the final plenary, this time by Vita Peacock, was that academic work can be, and often is, pleasurable and rewarding—and thus we feel less comfortable denouncing it. This caught my attention, as it resonates a lot with David Graeber’s notion of “bullshit jobs.” Academic work is thus the logical counterpart of a bullshit job (we might call it “meaningful work”): “In our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it” (2018: 9).

As Graeber goes on to discuss (mainly in subchapter 6.3 “concerning the inverse relationship between the social value of work”), “meaningful” work, in our society, is seen as its own reward: if one wants to enjoy work and have decent work conditions, one is seen as too greedy. And that, of course, applies to the academic precariat as well—just try bringing up the issue of labor rights for temporary workers to your union’s meeting.

Peacock’s mention of pleasurable and rewarding academic work—although I do have to point out that this is definitely not always the case, as we all know—came up in the context of a discussion of Max Weber’s famous text “Science as Vocation.” Her poignant criticism is that “vocation” is a theological concept, relating to the “call of God” so present in Christian tradition—and thus work that not only is rewarding on its own but should be just that. A priest should not be paid handsomely (if at all), for a priest has the ultimate pleasure of serving God.

However, to conclude, I would like to bring forth another of Weber’s concepts:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. . . . In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. ([1930] 2001: 123)

We academics, as Weber knew, are forced to work in a calling. This is our very own iron cage—which most of us do enjoy very much so. The academic precariat thus has an immense contradiction to solve: we have nothing to lose but our chains—but we are infatuated with those shackles.

Vlad Schüler-Costa is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. He conducts research in the anthropology of science and technology, most recently among “automation scientists” in Britain.


[1] I could not attend all the relevant events, partly because of my own somewhat precarious situation: I was one of the many volunteers who volunteered in exchange of a fee waiver, so I could cut expenses in one of the world’s most expensive cities.


Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit jobs: A theory. London: Simon & Schuster.

Han, Clara. 2018. “Precarity, precariousness, and vulnerability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47: 331–343. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041644.

Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. 1. Marx/Engels Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1.

Neveling, Patrick. 2018. “HAU and the latest stage of capitalism.” FocaalBlog, 22 June 22. https://www.focaalblog.com/2018/06/22/patrick-neveling-hau-and-the-latest-stage-of-capitalism.

Peacock, Vita. 2016. “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence in the Max Planck Society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 95–119. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.006.

Weber, Max. (1930) 2001. The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. London: Routledge.

Cite as:  Schüler-Costa, Vlad. 2018. “Academic precarity and the false coin of our own dreams.” FocaalBlog, 21 September. www.focaalblog.com/2018/09/21/vlad-schuler-costa-academic-precarity-and-the-false-coin-of-our-own-dreams.