On ‘boundary objects’, higher education and the knowledge economy

My Friday’s teaching was all sorted, or so I thought.

At the morning’s MA in Academic Practice/Higher Education Research Group session we were looking forward to a presentation on the use of phenomenography in exploring academic practice.  The afternoon’s workshop on ‘supporting postgraduate research student writing’ was organised around three guest speakers.  I could, so I imagined, put my feet up and just enjoy it.

Not quite.

There has been a nasty flu working its way around Galway and I was nursing my own version of it when I received a call from the colleague booked in to do the phenomenography session.  He was down with the flu and not able to present.

Feeling under the weather myself I seriously thought about just cancelling the morning and keeping my energy for the afternoon and the three hour drive home later.

As I sat in my chair feeling sorry for myself my mind kept coming back to this void on Friday morning, troubling me, not letting me rest.  Did I value the afternoon group more than the Friday morning one? Of course not.  I enjoy the quality of the discussions in this group and knew that if I stayed in bed then I would not relax anyway.  I started to think about my current writing project and wondered about talking about this.  But how to structure it?  I had a successful conference abstract but I wasn’t up (psychologically) for sharing my autoethnographic method just yet.  What else did I have.  I started looking through my Prezi folder and came across a presentation that brought a smile to my face.

It was a presentation I had given back in 2012 to a different group of students and explored the conceptual exploration I was conducting at the time that I hoped would lead to a publication.  But that was just before I became ill and ended up taking 2 years off work.  A life time ago it felt.  But I remembered how I had enjoyed the ideas contained in this presentation and wondered if I could share this now.

An hour later, and after a little polishing up, I had Friday morning’s session covered [http://tinyurl.com/palt84r].

The presentation examined the way discourses of the knowledge based economy, as applied to higher education, worked as a boundary object. I had come across the concept of ‘boundary object’ while reading a brilliant book by the Austrian academic Herbert Gottweiss.  In his book ‘Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States‘ Gottweiss discusses the way ‘boundary objects’ produce policy effects.  This captured my imagination.  I will come back to his argument but for the moment what attracted me was the way the concept could be related to the way discourses of the knowledge based economy appeared to be reformulating the structure and content of academic practice.

Gottweiss referenced the work of Susan Starr and Graham Griesemer in their 1989 article ‘Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and BoundaryObjects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39‘.  Starr and Griesemer propose that a central problematic of the scientific enterprise is how the different social actors can communicate effectively.  Using the Berkeley Museum as a case study they inquire into how a) scientific enterprise often involves a diversity of actors from different social worlds, and b) necessitates communication between scientific and non-scientific actors.  The work of higher education involves a range of social actors – academics, administrators, politicians, students, employers, civil servants, etc.  There is an inevitable tension between diversity and cooperation.  It is in this tension that ‘boundary objects’ operate to facilitate cooperation or communication across this diversity:

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them,yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation (393).

For Starr and Griesemer ‘boundary objects’ work because they are simultaneously abstract and concrete.  Conservation of the flora and fauna of California became the ‘boundary object’ that enabled different social worlds (scientific inquiry, university administration, local benefactors, local naturalists, etc.) to cooperate, a point of convergence for their different and potentially conflicting visions.  Funds can be attracted for the establishment and running of the museum, benefactors and collectors alike can acquire prestige, academics can expand their knowledge.  Conservation, meaning quite different things to each social world, can be plastic enough to mean something substantial (concrete) to each.

Similarly, the knowledge based economy works as such a ‘boundary object’, allowing for an overlapping of economic, academic, administrative, and political domains.  So successful is it that when we use or read a term such as ‘the knowledge based economy and higher education’ we are not fazed by its originality.  It passes as common sense, it appears to us as a necessary articulation.  Its arbitrariness does not immediately stand out.  Yet, a moments reflection sees the apparent obviousness of the construction fall apart.  Its political nature becomes clearly revealed.  How are these separate words – ‘knowledge’, ‘economy’, ‘higher education’ put together, and how do they construct new meaning?

This is where Herbert Gottweiss came in.

Gottweiss picks up the concept of ‘boundary object’ and re-articulates it through a Foucauldian lens. In this way Gottweiss provides policy discourse with an active role.  The knowledge based economy therefore does important policy work.

This resonated with those at the MA session on Friday morning.  The knowledge based economy was full of significance and empty at the same time.  One contribution to discussion focused on the way we engage in funding applications.  In many respects the particular formulations and key terms are meaningless, and we know it, but they are essential and act as points of obligatory passage.  As such they force us, if we are to engage in the funding game at all, to take them seriously.  We gear our research concerns around their fundability.

Of course, at a more profound level ‘boundary objects’ such as the knowledge based economy re-structure our working practices and our identities.

The conclusion to my presentation sought to capture the profundity of this.  I argue that the discourse of the knowledge based economy and higher education produces three main effects:

  • it creates new objects of higher education – innovation, commercialization, and knowledge transfer
  • it creates new subjects of higher education – students acting as consumers, academics as product innovators, and managers delivering against performance indicators
  • it creates new social relations – academic work is seen as servicing economic activity

It is not that higher education has never been involved in innovation, commercialisation or knowledge transfer before.  Academics have always been innovative, but we are increasingly being required or judged against particular constructions of ‘innovation’ that are determined by their immediate application to commercial activity.  As well as funding for the humanities and social sciences being cut in favour of the STEM subjects, we see basic scientific research sacrificed at the alter of applied science.  The same with commercialisation (of which the tradition of academic publishing is a feature) and knowledge transfer (another name for teaching?).  I raised the prospect that if these criteria had been applied to the revolution in physics that revolved around quantum mechanics we would not be living in the digital age we are.  There is an irony that the simplistic economic rationalism driving current  higher education reform could have prevented the amazing applications we now take for granted, micro-computers, iPhones, and the internet.

Similarly, it is not enough for academics to be involved in the business of knowledge production, we need to be ‘product innovators’.  This happens when we loose grip on the ideal of the free flow of knowledge and see knowledge as a commodity that requires increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights.   Would Peter Higgs (who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the ‘God particle’) have lasted in the modern university with its obsession for ‘key performance indictors’ such as research publications?  Many of those present on Friday morning attested to the way such KPIs were affecting what and how to conduct research, questioning whether this was driven by ‘scientific inquiry’ or bureaucratic aspiration.

And finally, while education has always had an economic function, I have deep concerns about the way this is conceived in policy thinking.

I left the session excited about this earlier conceptual work and a desire to get back to it soon.

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Migration, the University, and What the Hell is a Knowledge Economy?

I tend to go to work relatively early – not out of any conscientiousness, simply because I wake early and get bored.  While much of the day the corridors and stairways thong with students and faculty going about their ‘knowledge work’, the early morning presents a different kind of labour.  I greet the cleaners, the silent bodies of our public buildings, clearing away the debris left by student and staff alike, making the place ready for another day of knowledge-intensive activity.  There is a sense in which my articulated identity as a knowledge worker, of an academic identity construed in large part by identification with epistemic communities, is quite separate from that of the cleaners I say hello to.  I am forced to contemplate the nature of this encounter, and in particular my privileged position.  I encounter something more than just different functional roles – after all there is a symbiotic relationship here whereby their work makes my work more feasible and comfortable and my work makes it possible to employ them. I find myself entering into an international division of labour, and a very hierarchical one at that.

It has become a truism of late capitalism that we are ‘in’ a period of the ‘knowledge economy’.  The engine of economic growth is seen to be characterised by the ‘added value’ that accrues from human capital, particularly in the form of continuous innovation.  At its most sexy the knowledge economy is represented by bright young things working in high tech companies.  Look at the image below:

story_best-company-to-work-for-fortune-2013_image_726x726

The photo is taken from the Google website and comes with the following caption:

We think Google is a great place to work, but don’t just take our word for it. Fortune awarded Google the number one spot in its 2013 list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This marks our fourth time at the top and the honor reflects our ongoing efforts to create a unique workplace and culture.

We are used to these images.  Bright young things excited and animated, often clustered together in open plan spaces, thinking ‘beyond’…But we do not see the invisible workers that make all that brightness possible.

Office Cleaners

Higher education (and often the term ‘university’ is used) is identified as both a major contributor to the development of the knowledge economy and as a beneficiary of the knowledge economy discourse.  Documents such as Ireland’s ‘Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy‘ position higher education as a major site for basic research that contributes to an innovation environment.  The ‘Hunt Report‘, which still frames the reform of Irish higher education, contextualises the need for systemic change in terms of the NEED for Ireland to develop as a knowledge economy and innovation society.  Therefore Irish higher education MUST become more aligned with economic goals.  Universities and other institutes of higher education are corralled into a national mission of increasing the stock of human capital and producing the research that will lead to innovation and economic growth.  We are all familiar with the narrative.

Semiotically higher education seeks to achieve a careful balancing trick.  It wants to allude to the status that comes from connections with ‘heritage’ whilst also projecting themselves as leading edge.  But that will have to wait for another time.

We can perhaps view higher education as not just producing knowledge and skill-rich workers but as KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE ORGANISATIONS, indeed KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE COMPANIES.

I think this is appropriate for many reasons:

  • Higher education is increasingly positioned as a kind of service industry for the wider economy
  • The policy thrust for greater academic-industry links constructs higher education professionals as involved in using their disciplinary knowledge to support product development and problem solving in industry and wider society
  • There is often a kind of ‘client’ relationship at play
  • The ‘knowledge’ that higher education often deals with, produces, and applies is expert, specialist or esoteric in character.

In conceptualising higher education in this way I am particularly influenced by Mats Alvesson’s discussion of ‘knowledge intensive firms’ and his more recent look at higher education in his book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” (I am currently reading this and may write on some of its themes).

Alvesson warns us that apparently self-evident terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge work’ (let alone ‘being’ a knowledge worker) are ambiguous.  So if the terms by which we seek to portray ourselves are problematic, what about the things we do, the activities we engage in?  To what extent can we be secure that they ARE knowledge (let alone knowledge-intensive) activities.  He suggests that the language and the actions take on a persuasive character, that they work to both convince ourselves and wider publics of the importance and specialness of what we do and who we are.

Work by Alvesson and others resonates with the wisdom expressed in Buddhism about the non-essential nature of all phenomena.

As I walk through the doors and encounter those cleaners I am clear that ‘I am because they are’.  My status as a knowledge worker requires that there are others who are designated as non-knowledge workers. In a kind of zero sum game my fortune is directly at the expense of somebody else’s lesser fortune.  These cleaners are an effect of the expansion of the European Union, the partial welcoming of ‘workers’ (units of human capital) from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, places poorer than here.  So, despite being relatively well educated they take on cleaning jobs, they keep our hotels and cafes and restaurants going.  They are (in this ‘service’ position) because I am (able to accrue symbolic and monetary benefit from my association with ‘knowledge’).

When I think about my job, what do I actually do?

Knowledge work is made up of non-knowledge activities especially as imagined in the knowledge economy.  It is made up of the cleaners who maintain my office space, the cooks who prepare my dinner in the canteen, the bus drivers, the shop assistants, the porters, the builders who constructed this building, the workers who make sure that clean water arrives in my tap each day, the often third world children who probably sweated away to make my clothes, the Bangladeshi sailors who made it possible to ship goods across the world for me to consume.  I am because they are.  I make tea and coffee – all of which requires the labour of people I will likely never meet and who often could only dream of the luxury I call normal living.  They are because I am.

They are because I am – I am because they are.

What exactly is this thing called ‘knowledge’ that makes my work, my identity and the institutions I work in so special when it and I are so completely dependent on non-knowledge activities?  There is a deep ethical quality to these questions.  What should my role as a knowledge worker be in the face of the fact that ‘they are because I am’?