CfP: The politics of size in higher education – devices, patterns and spatial imaginaries

World Class Universities remind us of what the German novelist Michael Ende (1963) once described as an illusionary giant. The further away one stands, the bigger the giant appears. The greatness of a university seems more apparent if you are not actually learning or working there.

While indeed Oxford (UK), Sorbonne (France), or Heidelberg (Germany), carry their fame from a time in which barely a handful of universities existed, “newcomers” such as Stanford, the University of Chicago, or the London School of Economics, are equally known around the world. Acknowledging these institutions from a distance seems to relate to a stable linear timeframe, but it also goes beyond.

In order to see Oxford as world class we have to get close in distance. Specific devices help transcend geographical space by instituting new forms of space. Rankings, newspapers, accreditation procedures, websites, exchange programs and not least research on science and higher education itself, carry a proximity that is both legitimate and imaginary.

Universities can monitor each other in devices but they can also perceive themselves as acting entities. And as Simmel ([1908] 1985) famously noted, a third allows for the construction of conflict without direct interaction. Only through a commensurating entity can Stanford compete with Oxford. Both have to remain aware of the third while assuming the transcendence of the wholeness it depicts (Serres 2007).  In this sense the competition of “all against all” turns into a competition “of all for all” (Simmel [1908] 1992: 328). Universities do not compete against each other but for the favor of the third (cf. Werron 2014).

Intermediaries are the boundary objects of global stratification. They construct subjectivities, actorhood(s), and patterns of comparability. In those mirrors of the global, the local messiness becomes whole. They allow universities to see their identity and encourage competition through instituting relative sizes. We thus encounter a form of politics that works through visualization, the imaginary of collective spaces, and active participation. Beyond the capacity of brute force, it induces size by reconfiguring geographies, and it uses material infrastructure of all kinds to make these seem legitimate.

We invite contributions that focus on, what we frame as the politics of size. Such politics make universities visible from a distance by instituting spatialized forms of size and scale. These can refer to the politics of comparison in ranking devices, infrastructures such as google algorithms and backlinks, maps, logos and other visual depictions of greatness, as well as ways in which the distant becomes a role model for the local. The way in which departments restructure around global discursive patterns (internationality, gender equality, publication output etc.) to maintain their visibility or standardize their learning environment to make it transparent from everywhere in the world, as remarkably described by Anteby’s (2013) ethnography of Harvard Business School.

The panel will be submitted as part of the Knowledge Politics and Policies Section of the conference. Please send your abstract (up to 500 words) by January the 14th 2019 to Alexander Mitterle ( and Susan Lee Robertson (

  • Anteby, Michel (2013): Manufacturing Morals. The Values of Silence in Business School Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ende, Michael (1963): Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver. GG Harrap.
  • Serres, Michel (2007): The parasite. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Simmel, Georg ([1908] 1992): Soziologie. Untersuchung über die Formen der Gesellschaftung. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
  • Werron, Tobias (2014): On Public Forms of Competition. In: Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 14 (1), S. 62–76.

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