Thinking knowledge production without the university

This is a collaborative blog post leading up to the panel Undisciplining: thinking knowledge production without the university at The Sociological Review’s annual conference Undisciplining: conversations from the edges, Newcastle, Gateshead, 18-21 June 2018.


Jana Bacevic

If it is true that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities. In fact, most critics of contemporary knowledge capitalism assert that The University needs to be rescued, saved, or defended in the face of the neoliberal behemoth. Forms of imagination that hope to bring about the end of capitalism all-too-easily assume that whatever will come after the end of capitalism will see the university preserved or, better still, resurrected in a form that is often eerily reminiscent of the (myth of) the ivory tower: isolated, independent, self-sufficient, and, of course, accessible only to a minority. While rightfully identifying important challenges associated with the political and economic transformation of knowledge production, then, they often fail to challenge the assumptions about the institution strongly ingrained in the imaginaries of Western modernity – The University.

“If it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities.”

Our panel starts from the assumption that effective resistance to forms of exploitation and inequality perpetuated, in part, via institutions of knowledge production requires us to theoretically ‘disassemble’ the university both as an ideal-type and as a spatially and temporally situated assemblage of material and immaterial forces. In other words: in order to understand the ways in which modes and systems of knowledge production interact with social and political structures, we need to be able to think about knowledge production without the university.

This theoretical experiment (contradiction intended) requires probing concepts such as education, publishing, or community organising, and imagine what they would look like in practice absent the university. Obviously, this requires us to dismantle our own tools and concepts in order to undo the classed, raced, and gendered intellectual histories of critical thinking that are already informed by the university. Obviously, we can never fully succeed; but we believe it’s worth trying. We invite you to join us in this effort.

Below we’ll be publishing short reflections from panel participants on different aspects of knowledge production, including learning, writing/publishing, organising, and funding. You are welcome to comment, ask questions, or offer to write your own blog in response – we’ll be happy to publish it here!

The workshop takes place on 20th June 2018, 14-15.30, Meeting Room on Level 3. Please note it’s important to pre-register as organisers need to know the numbers of attendants – you can do that here. We look forward to seeing you.

How can we confront organizational issues related to working outside/on the boundaries of universities?

Sinéad D’Silva

25 May 2018

I will present an example of practice from the Global South, with the hope to reflect on potential improvement in the Global North, challenging the notion that the university is the only space in which knowledge can be produced and engaged with. For this blog post, however, I wish to focus on the situation in the UK and begin the discussion about potential issues that may arise as we begin to think of working outside the university. In some ways these are critiques of current attempts to go beyond institutional confines. I pose some questions to think through in terms of practicalities.

The first question that could be asked is: who are the experts when we move out of the university to produce knowledge? This question is perhaps an epistemological one in which we need to re-think the idea of ‘an expert’ and arguably its audience. On the one hand there are ‘public lectures’, many of which are carried out within the confines of the institutional buildings and predominantly attended by university students and academic staff – I am yet to see support and other staff attend these. On the other hand there are events like Pint of Science, made to interest the common folk who obviously hang out at the pub. In both instances, and the spectrum in between, the all-knowing university folk organise and present these opportunities for the public to engage with the self-proclaimed brilliant work taking place at the university. There are also some assumptions regarding who actually attends these events, and a stereotyping of the ways in which those outside of the university live (and produce knowledge), maintaining a sense of university exceptionalism.

This leads on to a second question regarding inclusion, and the potential for elitism to thrive at such events. How does EVERYONE become part of knowledge production? During the USS strikes earlier this year, many university Unions put together Teach Outs with events ranging from talks, discussions, film screening, poetry-reading, walks, language classes, health and fitness sessions – you name it! However I observed a severe shortcoming as I handed out information leaflets and Teach Outs on the picket line. Here is where I will call out my own faults – these leaflets did not reach non-university-going people. Furthermore, what seemed to have been forgotten – and from my Twitter feed it seems to have been the case in a number of other universities – was to physically move beyond the immediate vicinity of the university buildings. This implies that we were catering to the same people who already are included in such events were they to take place on campus. As has been seen in recent days, and known to be the case earlier, universities in the UK are often isolating and exclusionary places for students from working class backgrounds, as well as for BME staff and students alike. Failure to actively engage with excluded sections of society only serves to reproduce these problems. One might offer a simple (rather obvious) suggestion that local community centres could actively be engaged with for such activities.

Finally, when we have confronted these aspects, and perhaps something we should have thought of to begin with, how might such initiatives be sustained to ensure longevity? For example, it is often the case that at the end of a community-based research project, said community is long forgotten. Therefore, it is important to think of such initiatives beyond the confines of the hegemonic, neoliberal university and its structures when considering how knowledge can be produced outside. Such an initiative must achieve collective ownership, which need not exclude the university. That is, the university can still play a role in knowledge production beyond its existence, through, for example, the exploitation of resources within it (books, equipment, spaces and so on). Furthermore this needs to be sustained over generations, which cannot be done unless it becomes part of community social practice. The power of universities need to be broken down. However, as we negotiate this change, it also raises the awkward question about financing knowledge production outside the university, to which I have no answers.

“The power of universities needs to be broken down.”

Through these questions I have attempted to argue for thinking of knowledge production outside or beyond the university to be meaningful and non-hegemonic, inclusive and geographically accessible, and in a sense cross-generational. These can greatly complement the empowerment of communities often facing gentrification as universities continue to grow and studentify their associated geographies.


Cesar Guzman-Concha

28 May 2018

We all feel uncomfortable with the current state of affairs in the university system, yet most of us attempt to accommodate ourselves to this state of affairs. We are in and, to amplify the reach of our publications. We announce our latest published article in Facebook and Twitter, in the hope that that will amplify the reach of our publications among our colleagues. We have set up our Google scholar accounts, so we can demonstrate the real impact of our publications while showing to our current and future employers that we comply with the productivity benchmark. And we fantasize with winning a huge ERC or ECRC grant. But in so doing, we end up legitimizing and naturalizing a defined set of policies, the paradigm of the performance-based university.

Universities are the only job destination that most of us are willing to accept. Through our postgraduate education we have been trained to search the rewards that the university offers: reputation, status, middle class positions, secured jobs. This put many academics in a position of vulnerability: we are too willing to accept changes or conditions that make harder our insertion and progression in the academic career, because we are not willing to give up.

We are taught that to progress in our careers we must demonstrate merit or achievements. The culture of meritocracy is at the base of the modern university. But patronage, nepotism and parochialism are too often an insidious presence in recruitment and promotion. Groups such as women, migrants, blacks and persons from lower income backgrounds suffer marginalization in the academia. Budget cuts, originated in the 2008 financial crisis, created the perfect storm that justifies a radical marketization of the university. One of the main consequences is that innovation and creativity are undermined.

“Universities are the only job destination that most of us are willing to accept.”

Therefore, the main problem is the ecosystem in which universities are embedded. If we want to imagine new communities of knowledge, we must set them up in a new ecosystem, not governed by the same incentives, rewards and penalizations of the performance-based university. We should expand the space of knowledge creation and innovation beyond the borders of universities and explore new modes of organizing.

How to break with these logics? To think of alternatives beyond the university we have to find new models of funding, management, publication and dissemination of research and creation. Only an ecosystem that articulates at least these four components can offer a sustainable non-university system.

One might think that management is the least important component, as it seems that all depends on adequate funding. While funding is indeed very important, the organization of truly collaborative, horizontal, democratic and non-for-profit spaces of research and creation is a pre-condition to make these alternatives spaces attractive to the public. Why a potential benefactor should bother to make a financial contribution to such an endeavour? What is new in these spaces, that differentiates them from foundations and think-tanks? I suggest that the organizational form to be adopted should incorporate the aforementioned principles, as many experiences of the collaborative economy (for example, cooperatives) have already done.

Alternative sources of funding that can be explored include donations, crowdfunding and patronage (as in the Italian Renaissance), but avoiding being bought out by a single sponsor. Central to the new spaces are the collaborations with other actors of the third-sector, including foundations and think-tanks, as well as social movements organizations. The formation of networks of knowledge creation should thus become a central goal.


Delinking, decamping, deprofessionalising

Sarah Amsler

13 June 2018

I would like to begin by saying that I do not think everyone who studies and works in universities and who wishes to change them suffers from a crisis of imagination. Many people already do learn differently and struggle more to imagine what learning feels like with or within the university than without it. The harder thing to imagine for people who work for and study in universities in this wage-dependent society is constructing a different relationship between institutional and functionalist knowledge-making, on the one hand, and living and livelihood, on the other. What looks like a crisis of imagination is entangled with a crisis of social reproduction – and it cannot be confronted using the tools of academic knowledge production alone.

Here, ideas of ‘unlearning’ and ‘undisciplining’ and related others such as ‘delinking’ and epistemic disobedience can help. The concept of delinking was introduced by the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano in the early 1990s as a radical mode of critique that integrates epistemic with institutional resistance to hegemonic structures of power. It is necessary, he wrote, to ‘liberate the production of knowledge, reflection, and communication from the pitfalls of European rationality/modernity’, including the instrumentalization of knowledge to maintain power that is ‘organized as inequality, discrimination, exploitation, and as domination’. I don’t think we need to throw our minds into imagining the end of the university as much as we need to throw our hearts into hastening the end of this situation – and we can do so from within as well as beyond the institution’s walls.

The epistemic activity of measuring research ‘impact’, for example, is a site of struggle within institutions. Riyad Shahjahan and Anne Wagner have just written a wonderful paper that shows how the quest for ontological security through hegemonic constructions of scholarly impact in universities produces colonizing subjectivities, socially damaging divisions, overly linear perceptions of time and ignorance about ways of knowing that open onto alternative ways of being in this already very wounded world. He then calls in the notion of Śūnyatā, from Japanese and Chinese epistemologies, to illustrate how understanding reality through a different ‘onto-epistemic grammar’ – in this case, as an infinitely interrelated universe of fundamentally unified beings – not only requires other ways of thinking about the relationship between knowledge and social change but denaturalises the desire to ‘have’ or demonstrate ‘impact’ itself. We can imagine the end of producing this aspect of producing knowledge in this way, and therefore imagine a limit on capitalist rationality and its institutional architecture in this form of life. These new horizons appear together because they are not separate.

Such action is complemented by the delinking from hegemonic logics that happens when we produce and validate knowledge, for reasons and with others that do not belong to, serve or need and obtain permission from the dominant knowledge institutions that credential and employ. Here we can work on ‘shifting the geography of reason’. While this idea signals ‘an attempt to displace the Eurocentric monopoly over reason…and to relocate reason in a different physical space’, it also allows us to map collective higher learning in a distributed way. The UK has a rich history of self-organized, independent, community-based and activist education at all levels from supplementary schooling to adult and workers’ education, and in a multitude of forms including hedge teaching, anarchist education, experimental communities and free universities. Informal practices of higher education, learning and inquiry exist today, although most are not recognised as part of the central nervous system of higher education (except as epistemically subordinate status as subjects for ‘knowledge exchange’ or objects of inquiry). Rather than seeking such incorporation, however, I think one of today’s challenges is to disidentify with the university’s corporate forms in order to expand space for the appearance and visibility of the ‘heterogeneous totalities’ of knowledge that already flourish beyond the academy on their own terms.

Invoking Quijano again, if the decolonial alternative is ‘the destruction of the coloniality of world power’, then we need epistemological and embodied grounds for an alternative rationality that recognises ‘other epistemologies, other principles of knowledge and understanding, and, consequently, other economies’, with special interest in those that have been denied recognition as knowledge. This provides opportunities to re-educate not only the desire for institutional recognition, but for the epistemic privilege that accrues to the educated expert. It demands that institutionalised scholars who are accustomed to ‘continuing professional development’ deprofessionalise. It is possible to imagine becoming epistemically and economically disobedient in this way, and in the process to educate radical change. Here again, the relocation of the university and the reconstruction of our relationship with capital are two faces of a single move.

Delinking from the modern corporate university epistemically, affectively and institutionally does not constitute systemic change on its own; [but] organised movements for radical change will only be possible when collective knowledge production and learning are decoupled from this hegemonic form.

Doing higher learning differently demands ‘border work’ across a plurality of different sites and forms of knowledge production. While delinking from the modern corporate university epistemically, affectively and institutionally does not constitute systemic change on its own, organised movements for radical change will only be possible when collective knowledge production and learning are decoupled from this hegemonic form. Once released, we can focus on visioning liberating knowledges as part of a humanising and sustainable form of life, rather than worrying over the future of the university and its associated employments. I’m with Richard: ‘at issue is how we find co-operative mechanisms for dissolving knowledge production that has been enclosed inside institutions into the fabric of society, in order to enable communities to widen their own spheres of autonomy.‘ Let’s work on this.


Writing our way out of neoliberalism? For an ecology of publishing 

Jana Bacevic

16 June 2018

What kind of writing and publishing practices might support knowledge that is not embedded in the neoliberal university? I’ve been interested in this question for a long while, in part because it is a really tough one. As academics – and certainly as academics in social sciences and humanities – writing and publishing is, ultimately, what we do. Of course, our work frequently also involves teaching – or, as those with a love for neat terminologies like to call it, ‘knowledge transmission’ – as well as different forms of its communication or presentation, which we (sometimes performatively) refer to as ‘public engagement’. Even those, however, often rely or at least lead to the production of written text of some sort: textbooks, academic blogs. This is no surprise: modern Western academic tradition is highly reliant on the written word. Obviously, in this sense, questions and problems of writing/publishing and its relationship with knowledge practices are both older and much broader than the contemporary economy of knowledge production, which we tend to refer to as neoliberal. They may also last beyond it, if, indeed, we can imagine the end of neoliberalism. However, precisely for this reason, it makes sense to think about how we might reconstruct writing and publishing practices in ways that weaken, rather than contribute to the reproduction of neoliberal practices of knowledge production.

Even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to disrupt neoliberal modes often rely on implicit assumptions that feed into the logic of evaluation and competition.

The difficulty with thinking outside of the current framework becomes apparent when we try thinking of the form these practices could take. While there are many publications  not directly contributing to the publishing industry – blogs, zines, open-access, collaborative, non-paywalled articles all come to mind – they all too easily become embedded in the same dynamic. As a result, they are either eschewed because ‘they do not count’, or else they are made to count (become countable) by being reinserted in the processes of valorisation via the proxy of ‘impact’. As I’ve argued in this article (written with my former colleague from the UNIKE (Universities in the knowledge economy) project, economic geographer Chris Muellerleile), even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to ‘disrupt’ such modes, such as Open Access or publish first/review later platforms, often rely on – even if implicit – assumptions that can feed into the logic of evaluation and competition. This is not saying that restricting access to scientific publications is in any way desirable. However, we need to accept that opening access (under certain circumstances, for certain parts of the population) does not in and of itself do much to ‘disrupt’ the broader political and economic system in which knowledge is embedded.

Publish or…publish 

Unsurprisingly,  the hypocrisy of the current system disproportionately affects early career and precarious scholars. ‘Succeeding’ in the academia – i.e. escaping precarity – hinges on publishing in recognised formats and outlets: this means, almost exclusively, peer-reviewed journal in one’s discipline, and books. The process is itself costly and risky. Turnover times can be ridiculously long: a chapter for an edited volume I wrote in July 2015 has finally been published last month, presumably because other – more senior, obviously – contributors took much longer. The chapter deals with a case from 2014, which makes the three-year lag between its accepted version and publication problematic for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, even when good and relatively timely, the process of peer review can be soul-crushing for junior scholars (see: Reviewer No.2). Obviously, if this always resulted in a better final version of the article, we could argue it would make it worthwhile. However, while some peer reviewers offer constructive feedback that really improves the process of publication, this is not always the case. Increasingly, because peer review takes time and effort, it is kicked down the academic ladder, so it becomes a case of who can afford to review – or, equally (if not more) often, who cannot afford to say no a review.

In other words, just like other aspects of academic knowledge production, the reviewing and publishing process is plagued by stark inequalities. ‘Big names’ or star professors can get away with only perfunctory – if any – peer review; a series of clear cases of plagiarism or self-plagiarism, not to mention a string of recent books with bombastic titles that read like barely-edited transcripts of undergraduate seminars (there are plenty around), are a testament to this. Just in case, many of these ‘Trump academics‘ keep their own journals or book series as a side hustle, where the degree of familiarity with the editorial board is often the easiest path to publication.

What does this all lead to? The net result is the proliferation of academic publications of all sorts, what some scholars have dubbed the shift from an economy of scarcity to that of abundance. However, it’s not that more is necessarily better: while it’s difficult (if not entirely useless) to speak of scholarly publications in universal terms, as the frequently (mis-)cited piece of research argued, most academic articles are read and cited by very few people. It’s quite common for academics to complain they can’t keep up with the scholarly production in their field, even when narrowed down to a very tight disciplinary specialism. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the changing structure of academic labour, in particular the increasing load of administration and the endless rounds of research evaluation and grant application writing, which syphons aways time for reading. But some of this has to do with the simple fact that there is so much more of published stuff around: scholars compete with each other in terms of who’s going to get more ‘out there’, and sooner. As a result, people rarely take the time to read others’ work carefully, especially if it is outside of their narrow specialism or discipline. Substituting this with sycophantic shout-outs via Twitter or book reviews, which are often thinly veiled self-serving praise that reveals more about the reviewer’s career plans, than about the actual publication being reviewed.

For an ecology of knowledge production 

So, how is it possible to work against all this? Given that the purpose of this panel was to start thinking about actual solutions, rather than repeat tired complaints about the nature of knowledge production in the neoliberal academia, I am going to put forward two concrete proposals: one is on the level of conceptual – not to say ‘behavioural’ -change; the other on the level of institutions, or organisations. The first is a commitment to, simply, publish less. Much like in environmental pollution where solutions such as recycling, ‘natural’ materials, and free and ethical trading are a way less effective way to minimise Co2 emissions than just reducing consumption (and production), in writing and publishing we could move towards the progressive divestment from the idea that the goal is to produce as much as possible, and put it ‘out there’ as quickly as possible. To be clear, this isn’t a thinly-veiled plea for ‘slow’ scholarship. Some disciplines or topics clearly call for quicker turnover – one can think of analyses in current affairs, environmental or political science. On the other hand, some topics or disciplines require time, especially when there is value in observing how trends develop over a period of time. Recognising the divergent temporal cycles of knowledge production not only supports the dignity of the academic profession, but also recognises knowledge production happens outside of academia, and should not – need not – necessarily be dependent on being recognised or rewarded within it. As long as the system rewards output, the rate of output will tend to increase: in this sense, competition can be seen not necessarily as an outcome as much as a byproduct of our desire to ‘populate’ the world with the fruits of our labour. Publishing less, in this sense, is not that much a performative act as the first step in divesting from the incessant drive of competitive logic that permeates both the academia and the world ‘outside’ of it.

One way is to, simply, publish less.

Publishers play a very important role in this ecology of knowledge production. Much has been made of the so-called ‘predatory’ journals and publishers, clearly seeking even a marginal profit: the less often mentioned flipside is that almost all publishing is to some degree ‘predatory’, in the sense in which editors seek out authors whose work they believe can sell – that is, sell for a profit that goes to the publisher, and sometimes the editors, while authors can, at best, hope for an occasional drip from royalties (unless, again, they are star/Trump academics, in which case they can aspire to hefty book advances). Given the way in which the imperative to publish is ingrained in the dynamics of academic career progression – and, one might argue, in the academic psyche – it is no surprise that multiple publishing platforms, often of dubious quality, thrive in this landscape.

Instead of this, we could aim for a combination of publishing cooperatives – perhaps embedded in professional societies – and a small number of established journals, which could serve as platforms or hubs for a variety of formats, from blogs to full-blown monographs. These journals would have an established, publicly known, and well-funded board of reviewers and editors. Combined, these principles could enable publishing to serve multiple purposes, communities and formats, without the need to reproduce a harmful hierarchy embedded in competitive market-oriented models. It seems to me that the Sociological Review, which is organising this conference, could be  going towards this model. Another journal with multiple formats and an online forum is the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I am sure there are others that could serve as blueprints for this new ecology of knowledge production; perhaps, together, we can start thinking how to build it.



The USS strike and the winter of academics’ discontent

Long read from Times Higher Education featuring commentary from our member, Dr Jana Bacevic. Read the full article here

“Pensions became a potent – if somewhat unlikely – symbol for how academic leaders imagine the development of higher education: high-risk investment in the ‘student experience’ and declining investment in people,” explains Jana Bacevic, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

Bacevic, a sociologist who during the strikes helped to organise “teach-outs” on the effects of neoliberalisation on higher education, believes that the discontent over pensions cannot be separated from academics’ “visceral experience of the declining quality of working conditions” caused by the growing marketisation.

“For those working at universities, the USS scandal destroyed the vestiges of the myth that precarity at present can lead to security in the future,” she says. “The remarkable solidarity between academic staff and students can be seen as a collective effort to reclaim that future.”

The proposed move to a more uncertain pension plan and UUK’s failure to understand why this was so unpalatable to academics merely underline the gulf between academics and management, Bacevic adds. “There is a growing realisation that employers view academics and the things that they value – job security, time to reflect and research, and decent retirement conditions – as a liability rather than an asset.”


Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

By Jana Bacevic

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production(universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

Screen shot 2017-12-18 at 3.58.23 PM
From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledgethat can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.


(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.