A university is not a factory

Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

This article was translated into Norwegian and published online at morgenbladet.no on 17 January 2019. It concerns a particular situation at our faculty, but the general pattern should be easily recognisable elsewhere in the academic world as well.

A university is not a car factory.  And our students are not components to be assembled and processed on a production line in the most technocratically efficient manner without a thought for the culture or working environment in which they learn and develop. What we produce is unique, not standardisedThis is a point so obvious that one could imagine or hope that it wouldn’t need pointing out.  Unfortunately, on occasion it does, such as on those occasions when a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritisation of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.  As the anthropologist and financial journalist Gillian Tett observes, this – often unquestioned – logic was one of the major factors behind the Great Financial Crisis that threatened to collapse the world economy ten years ago. Banks, which had become increasingly distant from their customers, trusted instead in numerical data and engaged in a race to repackage their customers’ in ever more profitable, yet ultimately unsustainable forms.

Despite such repeated disasters, the habit of pushing a bean counting managerial style too far at the expense of the original purpose of the institutions that it is supposed to curate is a hard one to break.  Our public services, including universities, are increasingly the victims of an obsessive managerial focus on hitting targets or numerically driven reorganisations that cause great disruption, often lead to increasingly tense and inharmonious work environments and ultimately threaten the very provision of the services that we are supposed to provide.  It might appear obvious that closing down or merging successful units in order to make marginal short-term savings is the very definition of a false economy, but once the reorganisation fever takes hold it is easily forgotten. History tells us that such reorganisations rarely work.  The balance sheet-savings that they provide are almost always more than offset by the damage to morale and productivity that ensue.

Take for instance, the current proposal to merge the Department of Social Anthropology (SAI) at the University of Oslo with the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK).  Both are highly regarded and internationally renowned research centres in their separate fields, but they are quite different: TIK has no undergraduate teaching, and is itself divided in its research between innovation studies and STS (social studies of technology and science). SAI sees its undergraduate programme as essential for several reasons, and has no research agenda related to the innovation research at TIK. The proposal to merge the two entities seems to be unanimously opposed by scientific research staff in both departments; and with good reason. Shortly before Christmas, a document describing the reasoning behind the merger was sent to SAI and TIK by the Dean. Unfortunately, it does not provide academic or scientific justifications for the proposal. Instead, the proposed reorganisation is only justified in terms of the modest administrative savings that it may make.  We are hoping that the benefits to knowledge expected to result from the merger will be made clearer in later discussions of the matter, which should involve as many scholars as possible from the two entities.  Otherwise, there is a real risk that our leadership will be perceived as seeing its purpose as organising research and teaching to help tilt the figures on the spreadsheet, rather than seeing sound financial management as a tool to facilitate world-leading research and essential teaching at all levels.

Our situation is not unique. A moment’s reflection will tell anyone not blinded by the numbers why such reorganisations are often so fatal to a good, creative and productive working environment.  Imagine that in your workplace you have two units with different remits, both of which are important to the organisation’s overall success; let’s say for example the sales department and the internal sanitation department.  Both units are highly successful at their tasks; sales are consistently high and the bathrooms are consistently sparkling clean.  Alas, one day, a new manager keen to make a name for himself comes in and decides that he can shave a couple of administrative positions from the payroll by merging the two units.  At the end of the year, he may even be so happy with the savings on the spreadsheet that he feels justified to award himself a small but deserved Christmas bonus. (We are not intimating that our Dean has offered himself a pecuniary bonus, we make a purely hypothetical point for illustrative purposes.) By the end of the following year, however, sales are down and the bathrooms are filthy as the members of staff in the newly merged unit spend their time struggling with new management structures, and are forced to devote their energies to internal struggles over whether to prioritise updating the sales software or investing in new cleaning supplies.  It’s a good way to game the numbers, and the manager responsible might well not be too concerned if he has been able to brandish his spreadsheet of savings to the interview panel at a rival company in order to jump ship before the long-term effects of his efficiencies take root. It’s not, however, a good way to build stable and secure workplaces that provide the ground from which innovation can occur.

We are convinced that the proposed reorganisation threatens a rather successful enterprise  that has had a major positive influence on Norwegian society.  Norwegian anthropological researchg is world-renowned, many of its leading figures have also been major contributors to public debate in Norway, and a substantial number of Norwegians in many professions, from journalism to the ministries, from the civil service to the international NGO world, have studied social anthropology.  Social Anthropology was described only last year as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Norwegian social science by a major international review committee.  Last year also saw the Oslo Department receive special praise from the Rector of the University for once again climbing up the rankings of the Shanghai International table of university departments, to number 32, making itthe highest ranked department in the entire University of Oslo.  The Department has to negotiate challenges as all institutions do, but it has shown itself equal to those challenges.  The previous international review of Norwegian anthropology, conducted 6 years ago, was nowhere near as flattering, and as recently as two years ago, Oslo was ranked outside of the top 50 anthropology departments in the world.  This is an institution that has proved itself able to achieve excellent results in teaching and international research. It would be an act of educational vandalism to put this at risk for short-term savings when the long-term rewards, both financial and social, of leaving alone something that works so well were to be overlooked.

We will leave it to TIK to provide an assessment of their unique qualities and the necessity for them to retain their identity as a discrete unit, which they will doubtless do as the debate continues. Fantastic work is often done across disciplinary boundaries of course, but this is often built upon respect for distinct intellectual trajectories, methods, discourses and contributions to the common good, both within and outside science. The recent international evaluation made a point of praising the work that is being done in interdisciplinary institutes but also went on to conclude that much of, ‘the highest quality scientific and society impact’ comes from the kind of long-term specifically anthropological research that specialised anthropology institutes tend to encourage.  As such, their advice to institutions was crystal clear — that units be organised in such a manner that, ‘social anthropologists should be empowered to develop strategies and practices that are relevant to their needs as anthropologists.’  It is in this manner that we will be able to continue to produce research that, ‘stands comparison with the best research in the discipline internationally’, whilst also, having, ‘ a significant social impact within Norway’. Many of our colleagues, not least in Norway, carry out excellent teaching and research in interdisciplinary departments and institutes. However, for social anthropology to fulfil its obligations to society and the wider intellectual community, it also needs firm ground in the shape of strong university departments devoted only to social anthropology. We believe the Oslo department to be such a location, and thus it should remain.


Anthropology in Norway – a potted history

Taking a few steps back, I used the invitation to write an essay about anthropology in Norway as a pretext for delving slightly more deeply into the beginnings – from Eilert Sundt to Gutorm Gjessing –  than what is usual. In many renderings of the history of Norwegian anthropology, the time before the mid 1950s is considered a dark age or black hole, and I’ve tried to modify the picture somewht. The essay was written for the brand new International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Their website address is


Do alert your librarian; this is a really useful and comprehensive resource, and not just for anthropologists!

Anthro in Norway IEA

Hurdal Ecovillage as an Alternative Ecological Space

Co-written with Hugo Ferreira and published electronically by Tvergastein at https://tvergasteinjournal.weebly.com/ferreira-and-eriksen.html#

The stories from Hurdal are Hugo’s, as he has carried out anthropological fieldwork there for an extended time.

Sex and temperament: Mead, Bateson and Fortune, New Guinea, 1933.

It was the most complicated of things, a love triangle involving young professionals who were meant to collaborate, and who did, but whose contrasting personalities and diverging agendas immediately led to tensions which would tear them apart. Two of them came as a couple; after the events had unfolded, they had decoupled and recoupled in a new configuration. The abandoned husband would never properly find his feet again, the two others staying together in a stormy, intellectually rewarding marriage lasting a little over a decade.

I am talking about the most famous and mythologised of all anthropological love affairs of the last century. It began with what George Stocking, a leading historian of anthropology, once spoke of as ‘one of the great moments in the history of anthropology’. Enter the dramatis personae.

Gregory Bateson, today recognised as a major thinker across disciplines, was a young man with wavering confidence. His oldest brother had died in the war, the second brother committing suicide soon after. His father, the famous biologist William Bateson (who in his day coined the term ‘genetics’), wanted Gregory to follow in his own footsteps, but on a train to Cambridge, the youngest Bateson, grief and responsibility weighing heavily on his shoulders, was nonetheless persuaded by the Melanesianist A.C. Haddon to take on anthropology. His efforts to do anthropological fieldwork in New Guinea were initially unsuccessful – the Baining, whom he tried to study, but failed, were later described as ‘the most boring people in the world’ – but by autumn 1932, things were looking up, as he had discovered a fascinating ritual of gender inversion among the Iatmul up the Sepik River.

One day, a canoe carrying two other anthropologists of Bateson’s generation arrived in his village. Reo Fortune, a Newzealander, had made his name with The Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), an account focusing on ‘the black art’ among the men of an island off New Guinea, praised by his mentor Malinowski at the LSE. His wife, Margaret Mead, had acquired fame for her first book, the bestselling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), an analysis of adolescence and gender in a society which valued freedom and responsibility more than guilt and shame.

Fortune and Mead, who had already collected data on a couple of New Guinea groups, were now looking for a fieldsite upstream from Bateson’s, and he suggested the Arapesh, a people renowned for their crafts and aesthetic sensibility. They remained in contact with Bateson through mutual visits, and by the end of the fieldwork, Fortune and Mead could no longer salvage their marriage.

This dramatic affair is fairly well known through professional lore, correspondence, biographies and Mead’s memoir Blackberry Winter, but we cannot know every minute detail of the drama up the Sepik River in 1932–33 as it unfolded. This is why Lily King’s recent novel Euphoria is such a riveting read and also a frustrating one for an anthropologist who is not only a lifelong Bateson aficionado, but who is also above average interested in the history of the discipline (cf. Eriksen and Nielsen, A History of Anthropology). King has endeavoured to do nothing less than to reconstruct, in a fictional form, the triangular relationship, with all its energies, passions, sparks of intellectual excitement, deceptions and emotional turmoil and, not to forget, the physical privations (less in the case of Mead and Fortune than of Bateson, as they had brought with them many a creature comfort from Port Moresby) and sheer alienation experienced in a society which would be difficult to make sense of on a good day.

King paints the personalities of the protagonists with a clear, sharp brush. Bateson (‘Bankson’) is the gifted, but shy public schoolboy who feels that asking probing questions of the informants would be unacceptably intrusive, thereby missing out on a wide range of ethnographic details. He enjoys mind games, is good with metaphors and comes across as a caring and compassionate man. Mead (‘Nell Stone’), who would later conquer the American public sphere with her wit and quick tongue, is efficient, systematic and direct in her manner as a fieldworker and a companion, brave and ambitious in her forays into some of the more demanding fieldwork sites in the world. She believes in humanity and takes pains to find goodness in the society she studies. Fortune (‘Fen’) is quite the opposite. He is a tough cookie from down under, sees no reason to trust anyone, rarely backs off from a potential fight, threatens and cajoles to get the material he wants, regards his famous wife with a heady mixture of envy and admiration, and harbours genuinely mixed feelings for the tall, mild-mannered and obviously learned and intelligent Englishman.

Gregory Bateson is by common consent a profound and complex thinker, and King’s lightly fictionalised Bateson (Bankson) does little to add or subtract from posterity’s image of the man. With Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), the novel brings her to life in a way rarely seen in retrospective accounts of the woman; she was young then, and vulnerable, not yet the ‘formidable woman’ she is usually typecast as: Nell Stone once remarks to Bankson that there ‘seems to be a stench of failure about us’. She is earnest and confident, but aware of her own limitations, and extremely hard-working. Many, including a few anthropologists, have attempted to demolish Mead – her work in Samoa was allegedly flawed and marked by wishful thinking; she was too much of a fast thinker, not enough of a plodding scholar to be taken seriously in the professional guild; she did so well in so many arenas that she had to be superficial, and so on – and in its fictionalised way, Euphoria gives a portrait of Mead which is both credible, endearing and commanding of the reader’s respect; a young woman in the interior of New Guinea, struggling with a violent husband and recurrent physical ailments, yet persevering in her doggedly systematic study of kinship, gender, ritual and art in a remote people lacking books, coins and metals.

With Reo Fortune (‘Fen’), the situation is again different, and I must admit that having completed the novel, I scanned the Internet for traces of indignation among his defenders. There were none to be found. He doesn’t seem to have any. Fen, Nell Stone writes in her (fictional) diary, didn’t really want to study the natives. He wanted to be one of them. He worked with them, got high on local drugs, went shirtless and sweaty for days, and was uninterested in keeping his part of the husband-and-wife agreement that she should study the women while he should do the men. His notes were sketchy and less tidy than those of his wife. Years later (in 1939), Fortune would write a very bad-tempered article about the Arapesh where he openly argued against his ex-wife’s view of gender equality and tranquility in this group (in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies), claiming that conflict and warfare were institutionalised aspects of their political world. In the novel, Fen is portrayed bluntly as an uncaring and selfish macho man who dreams up secret plots that will enable him to outshine his famous wife upon their return. Characteristically, Fen repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tries to impregnate his wife.

Although he was still young at the time of his divorce from Mead, Fortune would never subsequently publish anything of significance, apart from an acclaimed grammar of the Arapesh language. After a few years of temporary appointments, he settled as a lecturer in social anthropology at Cambridge, where he stayed until his retirement in 1971. He was known as ‘a difficult colleague at the best of times’. Perhaps it was the divorce that broke him as a man; perhaps it was his personality that broke the marriage. Lily King provides answers, but Euphoria being a novel, they are difficult to evaluate, and I cannot help thinking that she might have done without the passages about the unsuccessful attempts at impregnation. Fortune may well have been a cruel man, but delving into these details seems just as cruel.

I recently asked one of Bateson’s close relatives what she thought about the novel. She sort of shrugged and said that well, it’s a novel. Touché. On the other hand, it is more than a novel insofar as it builds on meticulously collected facts; but it is also less than a novel by the same token. As a work of documentary fiction, Lily King’s evocative and powerful novel inevitably influences our views of the protagonists, her depictions of the tall, feverish, bored, brilliant Bankson, the small, vivacious, structured Nell (her hair in a sensible bun most of the time), and the dark, brooding, volatile Fen, reverberating at the back of our minds whenever we contemplate their respective contributions to knowledge. Such is the power of fiction; such is the hybrid nature of knowledge.

Lily King: Euphoria. Picador 2014.

Open Access and the academic gift economy

No, I’m not arguing that everything should be free. Just academic articles. And I mean really free, in most senses of the word.

Last week, the University of Oslo organised a conference about publishing, with a special focus on Open Access and the Creative Commons. Like many institutions, UiO has an explicit policy in favour of open access publishing, and new employees have to sign a contract where they vow to make their publications freely available, if at all possible.

The ‘if at all possible’ caveat is an interesting one, and I’ll return to it very soon.

Open access comes in three main flavours – gold, green and hybrid. Gold means freely available to everybody. Green means that the author has placed the original manuscript, but not the pdf of the publicatoin, in an open archive – at UiO, it is called Duo. Hybrid means that the author pays a non-open access journal to make their publication freely available.

However, if you look closely, it soon becomes apparent that ‘gold’ is less golden than it may appear at first glance. According to the librarians, who should know, 60 per cent of the open access journals are completely free. They are produced either for free by enthusiasts or idealists, or have institutional support enabling them to cover costs. The remaining 40 per cent are commercial ventures, where the authors pay, sometimes significant sums, to get published.

In other words, in spite of the apparent open access revolution, the large academic publishers still laugh all the way to the bank. During the conference, the paleontologist Jørn Hurum pointed out that academic publishing now has a larger turnover than the music industry, and with this funding model, that may well continue indefinitely. Libraries no longer have to pay indecent sums for journal subscriptions under the OA model, but instead, academics have to pay indecent sums to get published.

The question that really needs to be raised is, do we need the publishing houses?

The answer is complicated. Notably, a distinction needs to be made between academic publishing and general, or trade publishing. We academics do not write for the money, since we usually write on a salary, temporary or permanent, and the aim for every academic who writes is to be read, preferably by as many as possible. Naturally, the situation is qualitatively different for the novelist or the essayist. Also, publishers often carry out a gargantuan job in making a book come about. The term ‘ghostwriter’ is a relative one and can often, with some justification, be applied to a good editor.

I’m not talking about academic books either. I rather like my books to be bound in cloth or paper, I’m happy to pay a reasonable price for them, and don’t see why the publishers should not be able to make a living producing them.

With academic articles, the situation is different. As our Rector, Ole Petter Ottersen, pointed out at the conference, academics work relentlessly and without payment for the big publishing companies, as editors, members of editorial boards and, not least, as peer reviewers. (He has also written about this in his Norwegian-language blog.) In fact, we do virtually the whole job as contributors to the academic gift economy. So why do our journals need publishing companies?

In a recent past, the publishers took care of marketing, layout, printing, subscriptions and distribution. However, now that journals are mostly electronic, neither subscriptions, printers nor much by way of paid marketing is necessary. The layout of a standard academic journal is also relatively basic. On this basis, the question needs to be asked again – why do we continue to take the detour via the publishing companies, when P2P – peer to peer – publishing would have been a simpler solution?

The answer remains complicated. In the last few years, I’ve sometimes asked younger colleagues whether they’d be keen to publish their work in an open access journal. The answer is nearly always no, and the reason is simple. It is true that academics are usually not paid money to publish their work, but they are paid in symbolic capital and prestige which may later be converted into a tenured position. Thus, Ph D candidates and postdocs cannot afford to publish their work in OA formats. They are entitled to worry about their future.

The best and most prestigious journals are still either not open access at all or paid/hybrid. The system is objectionable, unfair and should be abandoned. In the past, scholars in the global south could publish in the metropolitan journals, even if they couldn’t afford to read what they had themselves written. The current situation is, to some extent, the opposite: They can freely read the journals, but cannot afford to write in them.

Many of the best journals do not belong to the publishers, but to professional associations or foundations. There is no good reason why we shouldn’t take them back and turn them into genuine open access journals. It would not be costly to do this. The technical production of an electronic journal is easy, and the software facilitating submission of articles, referee reports etc. can be purchased once and for all.

Of course, academic publishers would not be enthusiastic about this kind of development. Your electricity provider is unlikely to encourage you to go off grid with your solar panels. They might instead offer to install solar for you, for free, provided that you continue to buy your electricity from them. But why on earth should you?

By and large, there was agreement among the contributors to the conference – who came from different faculties at the University – that the academic communities should take command of their own journals, and that the ultimate aim should be to share knowledge, not to make profits. And this is already happening. Hundreds of thousands of articles are already being shared on websites such as academia.edu and ResearchGate, and they grow fast. These are in all likelihood intermediate, temporary phenomena. Organising the academic gift economy in the best possible way is a collective task of the greatest priority, and this particular adventure has only just begun.