On the celebrification of the university

There has been considerable discussion of the ways in which universities around the world are experiencing enormous pressures, organized around a range of issues including the question of neoliberal strategies of management, the constant restructuring and deskilling of academic labour accompanied by insecurity and uncertainty, tightening financial constraints, the commodification of higher education, a global competitive dynamic which has set in motion a never-ending process of gradually ramping up the expectations placed on university academics, a process with no ceiling and no end. Unlike the builder or the carpenter who can say – ‘that looks pretty good’ – or even the academic who used to be able to say – ‘that was a good book’ – the message now is always ‘hmm….could do better’.

In universities today one can clearly see a number of facture lines that are growing longer and wider, dividing the academic community into, roughly:

  • an elite of high-profile researchers with little or no teaching or administrative responsibilities and academics occupying select, highly-paid, often endowed positions,
  • a ‘middle class’, or perhaps ‘respectable working class’ of teaching-and-research staff squeezed between constantly increasing demands for both more and better research and teaching ever-expanding numbers of students. The catch is that the elite research-only performance output is used as the benchmark, but it’s unattainable, so they are doomed to failure and frustration, and the pursuit of the holy grail of a research fellowship or the like. Like de Tocqueville’s America, they are happy to stay on the treadmill because they hope that, one day, they too will hit the big time.
  • an expanding proletariat army of casual and part-time teachers and researchers experiencing extreme insecurity and poor working conditions, likewise hoping that they will eventually acquire a full-time and tenured position.

There are a number of ways one can analyse these tendencies, drawing on concepts like neoliberaliam, post-Fordism, globalisation and so on. What I would like to contribute here is a discussion of the way in which a particular kind of ‘celebrity rationality’ is also at work, so that there is in fact a connection between Kim Kardashian – as a social figure occupying a particular social and economic location – and the transformations affecting universities around the world. I’ve been attempting to reclaim the analysis of celebrity for core conceptual concerns in sociology like inequality, identity, power and governance, and there are a number of ways in which scientific scholarship is a key example of the processes and dynamics of ‘celebrity society’ [more here].

There are earlier discussions of celebrity in Robert Michels and others, but C. Wright Mills made an important contribution when he noted the ways in which the dynamics of all sorts of competition underpins the production of particular individuals as celebrities – that is, highly visible ‘performers’ who function as a cognitive and practical reference point for the rest of the competitive field. He wrote:

In America, this system is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small white ball into a series of holes in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains social access to the President of the United States. It is carried to the point where a chattering radio and television entertainer becomes the hunting chum of leading industrial executives, cabinet members, and the higher military. It does not seem to matter what the man is the very best at: so long as he has won out in competition over all others: he is celebrated. (1957: 74)

This wasn’t quite right, it’s more the rock star who gets access to the President, but the man with the small white ball still does pretty well, and you get the general idea. The point is that the broadest possible spread of visibility and recognition becomes a resource or value in itself, independently of what generated the recognition in the first place.

Robert Merton characterize the problem as the ‘Matthew Effect’ in scientific work, referring to the Gospel according to Matthew 25:29: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’1). He noted that scientists who had received a Nobel Prize would receive far more attention than their colleagues, no matter what the relative merits of their research. Wealth in attention to scholarly performance tended to be self-accumulating, as long as one stayed in the field. This was elaborated on by Herbert Simon in 1971, when he pointed out that when there is a surplus of information and knowledge, the resource that becomes scarce, and thus an important commodity, is attention, the capacity to orientate cognition in one direction or towards one object rather than another. Attention is the scarce resource or ‘positional good’ in circulation in what Sennett called the ‘star system’ in relation to music, the way in which particular musicians capable of going beyond just being good musicians to include additional attention-capturing characteristic, end up crowding out the rest of the musical field.

The increasing orientation towards global rankings and the constant refinement of methods of performance measurement and assessment generate similar competitive dynamics between individual academics, between universities, and between countries, and where there is competition, there is the production of celebrities. One could say that the measurement of citations is a measure of how influential a piece of research is, but it is also a measure of its author’s scholarly celebrity. We cite Bourdieu or whomever not just or even primarily because it makes much difference to the analysis, but to indicate that we know about Bourdieu.

The current system of academic celebrity operates at three levels: individual (usually researchers, rarely teachers), institutional (universities) and national or regional (countries or clusters of countries), and it’s clear that both political authorities responsible for higher education and university managers are wholly caught up in its logic. It may be stretching the metaphor a little too far, but in many respects they all want – or are being forced to want – to be the Kim Kardashian of their discipline or the global university system. Just as Kardashian’s visibility affects her capacity to earn through sponsorship and sale of her image and brand, rankings matter to universities because it affects their student enrolments, their social status, and the generosity of patrons, donors, and governments. This is also why universities spend so much time and money on developing their ‘brand’.

What lessons can be learnt from the sociological analysis of celebrity for ways to respond to these transformations of the university? I don’t have the space to go into this in any detail here, but there are a few possibilities to begin with. First, recognizing that what we are looking at is a machine for the production and distribution of attention, and that is attention that is very often the resource at issue, not the scholarly value of what’s being produced, makes it possible to adopt a much more sceptical perception of the status games that are being played in universities these days, and to see much of the crisis tendencies as being about the ‘struggle for attention’.

Second, if celebrity is the game we’re in, then we can observe what is happening in the broader field of celebrity and adopt similar strategies in our academic activity.  We all know that Andy Warhol said that ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, but later he said he was bored with that line, and wanted to change it to ‘in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous’. We can see this mechanism at work in the massive proliferation of different types of highly visible and widely recognizable individuals (aka celebrities) in more and more fields of activity. Rather than accepting the hierarchy of scholarly status currently being machined into place, which resembles the old Hollywood star system, it is possible to generate our own systems of recognition and acknowledgement ‘from below’, different kinds of ‘arthouse’ scholarship, to stick with that analogy, including a diversity of research networks which may or may not achieve stardom, but which we enjoy and which we think does good and useful work. It is possible to reject the ‘winner takes all’ logic that seems to be running through universities these days, to orient ourselves to each other, rather than allowing ourselves to be seduced by the ‘centripetal gaze’ focused on academic stardom.



  1. Merton 1968: 56 []