Tag Archives: Bev Skeggs

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

The utility of the economic lexicon in HE

This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the  true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking

Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.

Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’

In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’

Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?

What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?

At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.

So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.

It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!

Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’

But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.

And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.

References:

Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

 

Conviviality with a cause

Conviviality with a cause

This is the second of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan

My first post, entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’ (26th March 2014) included observations about the relationship between the state and the voluntary & community sector:

http://jebounford.net/the-marketisation-marvel-in-higher-education/

This post is about voluntary action and the research agenda.

In critically appraising the historiography of voluntary action, Rochester embraces notions of ‘conviviality’ and ‘expressive behaviour’, providing a fresh insight into the roots of volunteering.  Breaking free of a ‘narrow paradigm’, he looks beyond the restrictive archetype of volunteering as a philanthropic act and explores what he describes as a desire for ‘conviviality’ that is closely allied to recreational activities and the constructive use of leisure time.  I don’t believe for a moment that Rochester is claiming we use all our spare time for idle pursuits.  I do believe that he is retelling the traditional chronicle and in doing so, providing a new lens through which we may see the act of volunteering as ‘serious leisure’; a term used by Rochester as he works towards his, ‘truly ‘round earth’ map of the territory’.

Rochester draws upon Hemming’s conclusion that participation in volunteer groups provides, ‘a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; a sense of belonging or identity; and above all, ‘an excuse to escape’ and ‘an adult form of play’.  It contributes to a sense of community (Hemming 2011).  He believes ‘expressive’ volunteering enables people to pursue an interest out of love for the activity rather than financial reward, and to act upon their most cherished beliefs.

In my blog entitled, ‘Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme’ (31st Jan 2014), I pleaded for us not to ignore the mundane, as without it, society would come unstuck; meeting basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small:

http://jebounford.net/why-extreme-volunteering-is-too-extreme/

It’s about community on many levels.  Since moving to Great Gransden, for example, I’ve been struck by the way in which the expressive and the mundane are fused in friendships of all kinds, in all scenarios, responding to need, and sharing recreation, joy and troubled times.

I would call it conviviality with a cause.

Rochester also calls for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field.  Critical of an academic tradition that has, ‘not produced much in the way of additional ‘usable theory’’ (his ‘honourable exceptions’ include Horton Smith 2000, Lohmann 1992 and Milofsky 2008), he wants research to move away from quantitative methods, that is, collecting evidence by measuring e.g. organisations, resources and time spent on volunteering.  Existing qualitative research is also judged to be of limited scope, diverting attention from what volunteers actually do, and how they work together; what is the balance – or tension – between expressive aims (or member benefit) and instrumental aims (or public benefit)?; why and how do people join non-bureaucratic groups?; how is the ‘work’ of the group organised?  He says we need qualitative research that develops ‘usable’ theories to explain ‘how things work’.

In attempting to move away from the concentration on measuring the instrumental impacts of volunteering, Rochester looks to the IVR Impact Assessment Toolkit which groups ‘the major ways in which stakeholders can be affected’ into five types of ‘capital’ – physical, human, economic, social and cultural.  He clearly approves of this societal level analysis, saying it captures much – but not all – of the constellation of roles and functions played by volunteering.  Social capital, for example, contributes to the creation of a ‘more cohesive community through building relationships, networks and bond of trust between people’.

My concern is that having criticised a ‘dominate paradigm’ that characterises volunteering as a gift of time (analogous to a gift of money) Rochester then appears to endorse the notion of capital which itself is contested as a tool of analysis in certain academic quarters.  For example, Bev Skeggs, in her 2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture last October, concluded that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse.  In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity.  We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives.

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

I am currently grappling with this issue in my own research where I am asking if ‘community’ may be construed as a form of capital and exploring the conditions necessary for the existence of community inside the academy.  I am, for example, seeking signifiers of personal, physical and institutional attributes that may reveal the existence of ‘community’ capital.  Last week my supervisor asked me how I intended to ‘measure’ these forms of capital.  I didn’t have an answer and, to be honest, that doesn’t worry me.

As I work through the final analysis, I am minded to heed Skeggs’ call for us to look for where the theories don’t work, where they can’t be applied.  This is where, in my view, Rochester’s plea for us to embrace the expressive and Skeggs’ entreaty for the expression of ‘values beyond value’, come together.

I’m now wondering how ‘community’ may be understood in its expressive form… in 2015 I may have an answer.

References

Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’

2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2057

Hemming, H. (2011) Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, London: John Murray

Lohmann, R. (1992) The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organisations and Voluntary Action, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass

Milofsky, C. (2008) Smallville: Institutionalizing Community in Twenty-First Century America, Hanover, NH and London, University Press of New England

Smith, D. H. (2000) Grassroots Associations, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage