Passion and Paranoia
This capturing publication by Charlotte Bloch reveals the emotional grounds of the functioning of scientific research, a field long held as rational and above all subjectivities. Associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, Charlotte Bloch is a specialist in sociology of emotions, social relations at work and in everyday life. The book was first published in Danish (in 2007) and draws exclusively on material gathered from interviews with academics in Danish universities.
Bloch analyses how emotions are handled according to social place and position in Academia. The emotions in focus are anger, pride, joy, shame and laughter, with an increased attention on negative feelings, as these highlight specificities of Academia's social structure: competitive collaboration between colleagues, given the peer-review principle. Bloch draws upon Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of Academia as a paradoxical field, given peer-review: 'Scientific recognition, which is the basis of merit in Academia, is accorded by other researcher who, in principle, are also competitors' (p.8). Bloch's theoretical standpoint is that emotions are not just biological instincts, but arise in specific contexts and are handled accordingly, as they 'mediate between us and a given social reality' (p.10). Therefore, 'the character of feelings and social bonds in Academia are not expressions of personal dynamics, but that the social structures and prevailing culture of Academia constitute a stable foundation for the recurring and repetitive character of these feelings, and thereby for the character of its social bonds' (p.112).
Bloch's analysis draws on fifty-four interviews with academics from health sciences, social sciences and humanities. The first to be analysed are the newcomers, PhD candidates - facing Academia's challenges and having to handle emotions accordingly. Deprived of 'power advantages' or 'status shields' (p.24), PhD candidates are so closely associated with their supervisors that their work can easily become a tool in the hands of professors competing in 'power games'. This group of newcomers tends to stay distinct and create itself a shield by staying together, in solidarity, during lunchtime, for example, to share jokes and stories.
Academia's further career stages leading to professorships, present new goals, especially gaining recognition and visibility among colleagues. At the same time staying modest and not showing (too much) pride in their work: 'Recognition is the reward of Academia, such that the prohibition against displaying pride is shrouded in ambivalence' (p. 46). Hence, academics often adopt a strategy of finding loopholes to show their achievements implicitly: telling a funny story about a conference with their participation, for example. In fact, Bloch repeatedly claims that Academia prohibits the show of pride: 'researchers will deny that they undertake research in order to gain recognition. The researcher undertakes research for the sake of research' (p.51). However, this claim calls for further study and comparison, since the 'prohibition', or hesitation, to show pride is generally a wider social norm in Scandinavian cultures, aside Academia's appreciation of modesty, as some interviewees also note. Or perhaps the dilemma is more acute in Danish Academia, being at the crossroads of two social norms calling for modesty?
Since 'competitive relationships in Academia also entail that one person's success is potentially the other person's failure' (p.94), different strategies come into play when handling emotions. The lunchroom, for example, often serves to strengthen social bonds, neutralising the effects of competition. Alas, academics do not talk or joke similarly or about the same topics according to their position. Neither do they handle emotions identically according to 'gender politics': anger, for instance, is more often seen as a show of strength in men and a weakness in women.
While the book's analysis is very rich, I regret that its comparisons are very limited. Surely, handling emotions in the workplace or dilemmas arising from these are not limited to Academia. More comparisons with other studies of emotions in organisations would help further highlight, as the author tries, Academia's specificities. Increasing pressure on universities to be competitive and efficient creates competition at all levels, including the individual, giving way to negative emotions. Analyses as in this book are crucial for Academia's understanding of itself: the academic's dilemma of being passionate about research, but in constant paranoia of rejection, whereas Academia explicitly encourages critical exchange. All academics should find this book interesting, especially newcomers.
ReferencesBOURDIEU, Pierre (1975) 'The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the programs of reason', Social Science Information 14(6) p. 19-47.