There is also a webinar on academic freedom with Joanna Williams, Daniel Nehring and me that you can listen to here
Let me by way of example use the many responses to the 2016 academic book the Welfare Trait. The reviews by a wide-range of experts have in the main been critical of the work. There have been disclaimers from some who initially supported the work and these have focussed on a long list of data flaws, basic errors, and sloppy scholarship. On the other side of the debate the author and his supporters suggest such criticisms are unfair and attack the character of the author rather than his argument, ‘that workless people breed children with job-resistant traits’.
Ignoring that some of the criticisms of the work come from those who’s own data was misused I focus on another part of the discussion away from criticism, and this is the issue of how scholars who’s work is not supported by peer review still get their work published by reputable academic presses, simply because it sells, no matter the racism or other like problems of its ideology.
My recent co-authored work, Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry: The Politics of Contemporary Social Change, collected data and ethnographies from Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, the People’s Republic of China, Argentina, the UK, and the USA on the production, circulation and reception of self-help products around the world. In particular, we identified a host of features about the transnational self-help industry many of which are quite suggestive and pertinent to the processes and production of many other transnational culture industries such as academia and academic book publishing.
One simple insight from our work is that the transnational self-help industry promotes a ‘psychological’ vista on the world that erases and makes invisible the ‘sociological imagination’ and the reality that every individual life is not simply a matter of positive mental attitude or genes but everyone has a biography and a structural context to their life that needs to be understood too.
One way to frame the deliberate removal of sociological context from analytical scholarship of the social is to call it problematic. For example, scholarship deliberately ignoring that poverty comes before the culture of poverty not only simplifies reality, but to start an analysis with the culture of poverty and ignore what produced and drives it, misses the significance of what the analysis is trying to understand, and will end up producing scenarios to fit claims.
A second insight we suggested in our research is that the mantra of the self-help industry – its authors, their products and the narratives within them – in the main constitute a call to self-branding, self-reform and self-improvement. This is the change yourself ethos of self-help, versus the change the system ethos of collectivism, more familiar to those working for social change.
This second insight again is analogous to changes in the production cycle and ethos of academic publishing in the 21st century. For example, within Western academia the individual and competitive logic of academic careers is today driven by metrics, a neoliberal monitoring and evaluation system, and audit culture, which promote and suggest a psychology of self-branding and self-promotion as central to career development and advancement.
Yet in academia the entrepreneurialism of self-branding and self-promotion, familiar to the self-help industry, can often mean the self-branding of your work, comes before and trumps the quality of any scholarly argument. The incentive becomes think about your career (and who your ideas are most attractive to) before you think about the honesty of your claims.
This returns us to the role of academic publishers in supporting work not supported by peer review. The question should be asked does a work adequately pass peer-review because it was a work of merit, which many now suggest the Welfare Trait is not (including initial peer reviewers who revealed they dismissed the book completely), or did it pass peer review because a publisher saw a sure way to make sales? And what does this mean for academic freedom?
The logic of book sales suggests the answer to the first question doesn’t actually matter anymore, because whether a book gets hammered or it is agreed with, is less important today than the financialisation of ideas, be they adequately peer-reviewed or straight up political. This is the emergence of a franchise system within academic publishing: a sentiment of play to the stalls rather than play to the evidence.
This is academic book publishing as the commercialisation of ideologies and cultural objects for sale. It is a form of accumulation by dispossession. The rigorous production of academic knowledge is hollowed out and instead replaced by an increasing amount of monographs, which claim scientific status when their argument is eminently political. Publishers in this way ensure the accumulation of wealth and profits by dispossessing the very heart and traditional purpose of academic knowledge production.
So a simple concern here is that the desire for career advancement and self-promotion from authors and the desires for capital accumulation by publishers may warp the production of knowledge and perhaps has larger implications for those working for social change versus those defending the status quo and involved in re-writing reality to fit their ideological myths. In this muddle what does ‘academic freedom’ mean?
Another insight from our research also pertinent here is the promotion by the transnational self-help industry of what other scholars in the field have described as ‘The New Survivalist’, and what we described as the ‘Thin Self’. The thin self is a metaphor of the disconnection myth peddled by the Self-Help Industry. The thin self is the de-socialised and atomised self who lives in a world where your life is what you make it because there is no history, no social structure, no economic inequalities; the playing field is level for all, and your future is 100 percent what you do with it.
It is a seductive idea. And in the self-help genre it is the bread and butter logic of the field. In academia the thin self is a good analogy of the type of people the Welfare Trait claims it is writing about. Yet individuals understood as thin selves in academic research are a danger to us all because the new survivalist mantra, the survival of the fittest narrative, and the thin self are all disconnected from their points of socio-economic origin and as such are a seductive simplification of reality.
Now these three insights are a small sample from many others we could mobilise. What we learned in our work on the Transnational Self-Help industry is that the narratives and ideas a majority of self-help texts produce, each emerge and are received within certain environmental contexts.
Today in the culture industry of Global North academic knowledge production these contexts are ones of entrepreneurial academic authors, who become franchises for book publishers who implicitly and perhaps explicitly encourage a type of hyper-entrepreneurialism that perhaps leaks into many modern 21st century academic disciplines and corrupts them. In such a scenario some might phrase this as a hostile takeover of social science by mammoth book publishers through the commercialisation and financialisation of ideologies. Or perhaps it has always been so?
The thin self of academic work like the Welfare Trait can be described as a consequence of the branding and financialisation of the academy. The debate is no longer about what is or is not academic freedom; instead scholars become brands, their ideas franchises and the readers who buy their books markets for capitalist accumulation. This turns academic knowledge production and book publishing into an entrepreneurial ploy. Academic disciplines and freedom then become ideological franchises that publishers can bank on as they know full well that books like the Welfare Trait will find a book-buying audience no matter whether the book’s content is political rather than factual.