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Jess Butler

Research student

Jess Butler

Lancaster University

Bowland North




I am an AHRC-funded doctoral candidate researching contemporary academia.

My current project is an empirical study into academics’ experiences of working in early 21st-Century higher education (HE) in England, working title ‘“No-one’s safe”: Gendered competitiveness, inequalities, and academics’ experiences of belonging in precarious English higher education from the ivory tower to the neoliberal marketplace.’

Data was generated in 2017-18 through semi-structured interviews of 60-400 minutes with 29 current or recently ex-academics of various genders, ages, career stages, ethnic backgrounds, institution types, geographic locations, subject areas, contract types, and previous institutional affiliations.

Transcripts were analysed within a theoretical framework that sees the historical conventions and policies of HE as rooted in elitist and archetypally masculine values and approaches characterised by ‘hegemonic masculinity.’ These are now being played out both through and in tension with the neoliberalised expansion of the academy, with the common thread linking the ideology of the ‘ivory tower’ to that of neoliberalism being ‘fetishisation’ of competition. 

I demonstrate how the privileging of competitiveness creates a culture of precarity that affects what universities – and all who work within them – do, how they do it, and what is generally signalled as most valuable or important through attracting the greatest reward (i.e. the ‘ideal’). However, some are more equipped to resemble the ideal of the ‘hegemonic academic’ than others.

The data shows that the degree to which academics are seen to emulate the hegemonic academic, and to which they feel (and are)secure and/or successful, is based on how far they experience or project a sense of ‘belonging’ within their environment(s).

To structure analysis, I divide the ways belonging in academia is communicated, read, and experienced into three main legibility zones: 1. Bureaucracy (e.g. intelligibility within administrative and institutional structures); 2. Ideology (e.g. intelligibility as someone holding certain perspectives on the world, particularly around the function and value of HE); 3. Embodiment (e.g. intelligibility as someone who holds certain physical and identity features). Through this, the hegemonic academic is revealed to be, amongst other characteristics, white, male, middle-class, left-wing, securely employed at a well-regarded institution, invested in their job as a vocation, mobile, and able to work in excess of standard hours.

Common across all zones is the experience of belonging as mutable, contingent, and contextual. Academics are shown to curate, perform, and promote certain identities in each of the three areas, to varying extents and with varying degrees of mimesis, to project, capture, or reject a sense of belonging and to heighten both actual and perceived success. However, the ability to do this, the level of mimesis required, and the penalty or reward associated, is not evenly distributed despite the collectivity of the underlying feeling of insecurity.

I therefore conclude that contemporary academic culture in England has negative impacts that perpetuate existing problematic values and unequal social power relations, and explore how these manifest personally, sectorally, and societally. Cultural change can and must be made at individual, departmental, institutional, and policy levels.


BA (Lon) English with Creative Writing • Goldsmiths, University of London • 2010

MA (Lon) Comparative Literary Studies: Modern Literary Theory • Goldsmiths, University of London • 2013

Supervised By

Professor Anne Cronin (Sociology)

Professor Carolyn Jackson (Education)

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