Looking Local: Affective Benefits and Burdens in the Academy

In the current moment we are bearing witness to a rising tide of negative affect among academics. #Ichbinhanna comprises just one example of a wider global movement that has been swept to the fore by increasingly competitive, exploitative, and precarious working conditions; conditions which are encouraged under the corporate university model, and which university administrators and policy-makers make every effort to brand as a positive step forward for research and innovation.

The collective anger, frustration, exhaustion, and anxiety driving #ichbinhanna and other protests like it are, for some, compounded by persistent experiences of exclusion, marginalisation, and discrimination that are linked to one’s gender, race, and other markers of social identity, and the sedimentation of Eurocentric, androcentric, and other conservative orders in institutional norms. For others, such affective burdens are alleviated through the affective benefits (e.g. of esteem, comradery, and trust) they accrue in virtue of their social power and privilege, and in virtue of their ability to excel by institutional standards – many of which embed and overwhelmingly serve the values and interests of dominant social communities.

Exploring the affective (dis)advantages that accrue to differently raced, sexed, and other social actors in the academy is central to my Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) project, which I am undertaking as a member of the CRC Affective Societies. Entitled ‘Embodied Institutionalism: A New Model for Gender Equity Reform,’ this project is driven not only by my long-standing research interests in the relationship between institutions, social imaginaries, and affect, but also by the deeply affecting stories of life for underrepresented, precariously-employed scholars in the academy.

The affective experiences that differently embodied academics tend to encounter, and the inequalities of power such experiences reflect and entrench, have been of key interest to studies of discrimination in higher education (Ahmed 2012; Churcher forthcoming; Fotaki 2013; Taylor and Lahad 2018). The role of affective dynamics in contributing to ‘leaky pipelines’ in academia cannot be understated. Among other things, disinvestments in ways of knowing and being that are particular to marginalised social groups (and overinvestments in those that are particular to dominant groups) can give way to discursive and communicative practices – as well as bodily behaviours (e.g. sighing, averted gazes, eye-rolling) – that may, over time, engender deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and fatigue among less powerful actors. In the absence of robust, countervailing solidarities, affects of this kind can ultimately prompt such actors to exit the institution in question. That these dynamics unfold at the micro-level of everyday social interaction makes them difficult for institutions to monitor and correct for.

Yet what remains relatively under explored are the subtle (and not so subtle) differences that exist between the affective cultures of universities that are embedded in specific cultural, national, and political contexts, and which are guided by international standards and practices as well as by domestic frameworks of value and meaning.

Maria do Mar Pereira’s 2017 ethnographic study of the Portuguese academy is helpful for illuminating the role of domestic orders in shaping embodied dynamics that can obstruct institutional change; specifically, attempts to centralise and normalise Women’s, Gender, and Feminist Studies (WGFS). Her study reveals the influence of heteronormative, homophobic, and sexist imaginaries on the discursive and communicative behaviours of powerful academic actors in the Portuguese context to be particularly pronounced. Do Mar Pereira documents how these imaginaries are mobilized in various ways, and through informal channels, to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of those who pursue WGFS. She notes that it is fairly common for Portuguese academics (and especially male academics) to “mock WGFS by claiming – backstage and unofficially – that an interest in WGFS reflects deviance from, or inability to secure, a ‘normal’ heterosexual (sex) life” (135). One junior scholar revealed in an interview that:

Whenever I invite gender people to speak in seminars, one colleague says ‘here comes another of your feminist friends. I wonder if she shaved? (…) He describes this as just a joke, nothing to take seriously, just innocent teasing (…) but there really is a culture of teasing vis-à-vis this field, which shows they attribute less importance and value to it. (81)

Pereira also notes that six of her interviewees explained that “the fact that they (or others) were married, and married to men, made a significant difference to their experience of negotiating the status of WGFS, because it made it harder … for colleagues to openly dismiss their work as the musings of ‘sexually frustrated women’ or ‘the rants of lesbians’” (135).

The mobilization of pervasive cultural images and tropes (‘the hairy, angry lesbian’; ‘the sexually frustrated woman’) that are designed to denigrate their targets can have a powerful affective ‘bite,’ even if one consciously rejects them (Gatens 2004) . Being stereotyped in this way can elicit feelings of shame, humiliation, and anger, as well as sheer exhaustion from having to constantly engage in rhetorical moves (e.g. retorts, comebacks) that attempt to diffuse the power of such ‘jokes’ to cramp one’s intellectual self-worth and self-confidence. 

Disrespectful postures among academic scholars are enabled and emboldened by institutional disinvestments in WGFS and other epistemologies that have been developed by marginalised social communities. And yet even when material disinvestments are rectified, such postures can demonstrate a striking inertia and resilience. This is clear in the Portuguese context: since the 1980s, Portugal has made concerted efforts not only to promote the number of women in academia through various awards, scholarships, and laws governing university hiring policies, but has also significantly increased funding in projects that address the impacts of gender inequality. What do Mar Pereira’s study illuminates is these sweeping changes have been necessary, but not sufficient, to transform the attitudes of many academic scholars, and the lack of credibility they invest in WGFS. As Sharon Meagher points out, “changes in attitudes, habits of thinking, and behaviors cannot be legislated as motions or bylaw amendments” (2012, 201).

Among other things, a lack of attention to localised, micro-level dynamics that constitute ‘corridor life’ in different academic institutions – dynamics which can have a subtle yet profound effect on the professional advancement of marginalised social actors – constrains the capacity of theorists to formulate interventions that meaningfully address asymmetries of recognition and representation within academia.  

Looking local in this sense is a complex and multi-faceted task. It not only necessitates consideration of the formal policies and procedures that are specific to a given institution (for example, the mechanisms and rationale adopted for hiring, promotion, and funding decisions; the shape and form of misconduct procedures; the kinds of international initiatives and reforms that have been taken up, and which have been refused). It also involves, among other things, attending to domestic imaginaries (e.g., sexual, racial, and national imaginaries) and the embeddedness of these imaginaries in informal norms of behavior among academics, including their everyday habits of communication and interaction. Looking local further necessitates a focus on the materiality of particular university settings (Rich 1980): for example, which voices, texts, and epistemologies are present and absent from the university’s curricula; what and whom is recognised and honoured by monuments, buildings, and other artefacts particular to a given campus; around whose needs and interests are common spaces designed – and so on. All of these material factors affect the distribution of social bodies within academic institutions, and the affective cultures specific to those institutions (see Slaby, Mühlhoff, and Wüschner 2019).

Attending to site-specific dynamics in this way reveals variations in the symbolic, material, and affective orders among institutions of higher education that are located even within the same national, cultural, and political context. This reality necessitates a move beyond standardized policy-making to address issues of discrimination within different academic institutions, and highlights the importance of committing to context-specific interventions in order to create more just and inclusive academic communities (see Connell 2006). Moreover, it illuminates the need for these interventions to meaningfully engage with the emotional, bodily, and habituated dispositions of academic actors, and the cluster of culturally-specific imaginaries to which these dispositions are tied (Celermajer, Churcher, and Gatens 2020).

One such example of a context-specific intervention that directly engages with localized structures to galvanize change comes again from do Mar Pereira’s ethnographic study. In the Portuguese context, collective anxieties about appearing ‘backward’ as a nation are mobilized by feminist theorists to increase support for WGFS. As do Mar Pereira explains, “Portugal is frequently described in daily and media discourse as residing on the ‘tail of Europe;’” hence, collective imaginings of Portuguese nationhood are “set around the necessity to demonstrate to the world (…) that Portugal is a modern country and indeed a truly European one (152-153). With strengthened commitments among European nations to gender equality and mainstreaming, individuals pushing for change within the Portuguese academy tend to discursively position WFGS as “a symbol of [the] ‘modern'” (163). As do Mar Pereira writes, “flagging backwardness” in relation to diminished investments in WFGS mobilizes a particular imaginary that “produces forms of shame or embarrassment,” which can in turn assist to “increase support for the field” (158). 

Notably, the same set of rhetorical techniques may not effectively aid reform efforts in different national, cultural, and political locations. In the Australian context, for example, evocative narratives of ‘ordinary, hard-working taxpayers’ having to ‘foot the bill’ for ‘elitist’ and ‘self-indulgent’ research projects have been repeatedly mobilized by conservative governments to justify sweeping funding cuts to the Humanities and Social Sciences, and especially to social justice and advocacy research for women and other minorities. Such projects have been framed as promoting ‘politically correct’ ‘special interests’ at a cost to mainstream Australia (Johnson 2014, 130). Thus, far from setting the nation back, disinvestments in the field of gender studies are discursively positioned (and widely perceived) as benefiting Australian citizens. (Compare further the status of WGFS in Central and Eastern Europe, where it has been drawn into anti-Western, nationalist discourses that frame WGFS as part and parcel of “a long tradition of using the ‘women’s question’ or  ‘progressive women’s politics’ for the purposes of western political dominance” (Zimmerman 2007, 141)).   

A theoretical lens that attends to how localized symbolic, material, and affective dynamics open up or foreclose certain opportunities and avenues for institutional transformation in the academy is methodologically complex, and beset with practical and ethical challenges. Not least, it would necessitate gathering testimonies that evidence the affective experiences of differently embodied academics who are embedded in specific institutional sites, and the particular cluster of imaginaries and structures to which these experiences are tied. The process of gathering localised, qualitative evidence of this kind is not only labour intensive; it must also reckon with and address the difficulty of preserving the anonymity of minority participants, whose representation within elite academic institutions (and among senior-level positions) is still too low for them not to be readily identified.

These challenges aside, it remains imperative to take seriously local regimes of power within academic institutions, and the ways in which these regimes are often supported by distinctive affective, symbolic, and material orders that interpenetrate to (re)produce systems of unearned advantages and undeserved disadvantages for differently embodied actors. Without a theoretical lens that attends to domestic imaginaries and their sedimentation in material structures and embodied habits, the effectiveness of certain initiatives and campaigns to galvanize reform in one institutional context, and their non-effectiveness in another, will remain a puzzle.


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