Home > Research > Researchers > Jess Butler

Dr Jess Butler

Research student


I am a qualitative, interdisciplinary researcher specialising in gender studies. I recently submitted an AHRC-funded doctoral thesis researching unbelonging and inequalities, using contemporary academia in the UK as a case study (viva pending).

Thesis title

‘These little things blossom and then they die because they don’t fit the world’: Inequalities, the subtle cruelties of unbelonging, and the “true academic” in “neoliberal” English academia.


Record numbers of academic staff, particularly from under-represented groups, are considering alternative careers, frequently citing “neoliberal” shifts contributing to overwork, burnout, and precarious positioning as emblematic of higher education (HE) in “crisis” (McKenzie, 2021). This qualitative, interdisciplinary cultural sociology project foregrounds the experiences of academic staff in early 21st-century English HE with the aim of bringing new understanding to the continued prevalence of inequalities in this environment. Data was generated in 2017-18 through semi-structured interviews with a diverse sample of 29 academics, highlighting the role of identity in who ‘fits the world’, ‘blossoms’, or ‘dies’.

The research explores systemic inequalities and power, which are considered through the lens of belonging in relation to ideals and values circulating in English HE culture stemming from both traditional “ivory tower” and contemporary “neoliberal” cultures. Data analysis informed three core concepts—“unbelonging”, the “proper academic”, and “legibility zones”—and proposes that to avoid a sense of unbelonging an individual must be legible as a proper academic by achieving particular forms of success across various sites of belonging, which are divided into three zones: institutional/administrative, ideological/philosophical, and individual/biographical. 

The thesis argues that some belonging sites bind into over-arching and inter-related narratives, creating cumulative ideals that are profoundly exclusionary but not always or entirely “neoliberal”. One such narrative is that of the “true academic” or “academic’s academic”, a sub-type of the proper academic constructed through the core beliefs “academia is a vocation”, “knowledge is inherently good”, and “proper academic practice is single-minded and altruistic”. Together these contribute to the widespread but subtle cruelties of unbelonging and illegibility, fostering individual anxiety and (re)producing systemic inequalities. The research concludes that emulating the true academic involves prioritising unattainable and politicised ideals rendering many academic participants conflicted, disillusioned, ambivalent, and ripe for unsustainable (self-)exploitation.


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)

Contact me

View all (4) »