Portrait: The ills of a neoliberal academic world

2016-08-22 10:30

Siv Fahlgren became a professor just before she retired. She has witnessed a lot of change over her 35 years in academia. She is critical of the neoliberal development of expecting all research to lead to economic growth and new patents.

Siv Fahlgren has been increasingly absent from the Forum for Gender Studies in Sundsvall in recent years. She has scaled down her work, and last spring she became a full-time pensioner. However, her engagement in academia and academic issues remains strong. She is critical of the neoliberal development that forces researchers to act as entrepreneurs.

‘Today research needs to be marketable or at least useful in the political arena, and this certainly doesn’t encourage critical examination of society and its actors,’ she says.

‘In the beginning of my career, there was a focus on critical thinking and the content of research, but that’s no longer the case. Now you get rewarded for publishing 10 articles in high-status journals and not for scrutinising and problematising things.’

Everything must be measured and assigned a value in the neoliberal academic world. Researchers are made contestants and are forced to compete with each other for research funding and personal success, she continues.

‘It wasn’t like that when I first started.’

Forum for Gender Studies – a big victory

Over 10 years have passed since she was part of starting the Forum for Gender Studies at Mid Sweden University. She describes that accomplishment as a big victory, probably the most important thing that has happened in her many years as a researcher. Siv Fahlgren and other gender researchers had fought for a research environment for the development of gender theory for over a decade. When the Forum for Gender Studies opened in 2005, the struggle was over.

‘Gender research was finally given space. We received funding and a half-time position. It was huge. The Forum has always been a fantastic research environment,’ she says.

She believes that the best research is interdisciplinary and conducted collectively and that it is unfortunate that this type of research is not given the time of day in today’s academic world.

‘When researchers are forced to compete with each other, cooperation becomes a lot more difficult,’ she says and adds that interdisciplinary research is under particular pressure. ‘I’ve been in situations where researchers have left interdisciplinary projects because the work hasn’t yielded enough points in their own fields,’ she says.

Leftist experience

Personally, she never thought much about making a career. However, going on to university studies after school was always a given. She grew up in a farm environment in the 1950s and 1960s. Although her family didn’t have much of an academic tradition, she was encouraged to attend a university and received a lot of support from home.

‘My parents belonged to the generation that pushed hard for their children to become what they never became,’ she says.

She started studying social work at Umeå University in the late 1960s. Umeå is a city in northern Sweden known for an atmosphere to the left on the political scale.

‘What that meant is pretty obvious,’ she says and sums up her first years in higher education with four words:

‘They were incredibly leftist.’

Bring attention to norms and offer counterstories

Equality and postmodern science critique eventually became the cornerstones of Siv Fahlgren’s research, but her path into academia was not perfectly straight. She had worked as a social worker for 10 years when she in the early 1980s was offered to start teaching sociology at Mid Sweden University College (which later became Mid Sweden University). She ended up staying there and in 1999 she finished her PhD in social work at Umeå University after presenting a doctoral thesis titled A Drama of Social Life and Its Manuscript: Discourse Analysis, Gender and Social Aberrations. In her thesis, she developed the discourse analysis, which at the time was not established in Sweden. Her interest in normality and normalisation has followed her through her research career. The creation of truths and the construction of persons and groups that deviate from the norm as ‘the others’ are recurring topics.

‘These truths take a hold in our bodies and make us do things without thinking. This affects how we talk and how we behave towards each other,’ she explains.

She believes that today there is a need to bring attention in particular to the whiteness norms in addition to the gender norms.

‘The rampant nationalist and racist sentiments we’re witnessing today are incredible frightening. It makes it very important for feminists and gender researchers to provide counterstories. I probably wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. Back then, I believed that the researcher’s primary task was to unveil truths, but the world is different today,’ she says.

She describes the feminist movement as an important counterforce to the nationalist ditto.

‘The way I see it, feminism, with its various branches and affiliations, is very strong today, so I feel hopeful about the future.’

Retired after two years as a professor

After completing her PhD degree in the late 1990s, she took a position in the field of social work at Mid Sweden University. She has never been very interested in climbing the academic career ladder, but in 2014 she still reached the top. The university has started a mentorship programme aimed to help more female researchers advance in the ranks. Her colleagues thought it would be fun if the Forum for Gender Studies had its own professor, so Siv Fahlgren signed up for the programme.

‘Part of me didn’t want to get even more drawn into the academic system, which I keep criticising in my research. And I wasn’t looking forward to the administrative tasks that would come with the professorship,’ she says.

‘However, that last part never really happened,’ she adds and reveals giggling that she retired only two years after being appointed professor.

‘That’s probably unusual, but I got into research relatively late in life,’ she says.

Intentional ambivalence as a strategy in the neoliberal academic world

In recent years, she has pondered a lot over how she as a researcher should handle the fact that she is part of the neoliberal academic system that she is so critical of. Also researchers who question the system must to some extent adapt in order to continue doing their job, she explains.

‘There’s a risk you get filled with self-contempt and get disgusted with yourself and your role, but what choice do you have? Of course we could leave the academic world altogether, but I think the production of knowledge is too valuable for that. We need to be where it happens,’ she says.

She develops this point in the chapter she wrote in Ambivalenser och maktordningar – feministiska läsningar av nyliberalism, an anthology published in the spring of 2016. There she describes ‘intentional ambivalence’ as a strategy for feminist gender researchers.

‘By remaining intentionally ambivalent, we can continue doing our research without getting absorbed by the neoliberal norms,’ she says.

She mentions the publication strategy at the Forum for Gender Studies in Sundsvall as a concrete example.

‘We decided that, ok, we’ll get articles published in the big scholarly journals, those that are considered important, but for each such publication, we’ll do something just because we think it’s important or fun, something we are burning for,’ she says.

The researchers at the Forum for Gender Studies have for example explored children’s literature and are publishing their own writing series. When Swedish former minister for cultural affairs Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth caused a scandal by cutting up a cake that artist Makode Linde had baked in the shape of a black woman, they wrote an analysing article.

‘That doesn’t score any points in the neoliberal world, but I still believe it’s important,’ says Siv Fahlgren.

She is hoping that gender research will be able to maintain its critical stance, despite the present climate in academia.

‘We need to adapt in order to stay in the game, but we shouldn’t adapt ourselves to death,’ she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Newen, Skellefteå
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