Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Education, Manipulation and Extortion

I've just returned from Vienna, where (after my talk in Eisenstadt last week) I gave a paper on 'Animating Pathological Communications' as part of the GLODERS project (see an EU STREP project organised by CRESS (Centre for Research in Social Simulation) at the University of Surrey. I'm not involved in the project, although it's good to see conferences being organised like this, and it's great to see the EU funding an ICT project with such rich and important social implications. It's also a sign of the emerging methodological significance of agent based modelling.

Amongst the presentations were a number of insightful contributions from those working with police forces in parts of the world where the mafia and other groups conducting extortion are active. Most interesting for me was discovering the extent of mafia involvement in everyday life in parts of Sicily. The obvious question to ask was "In these cases, what is the difference between mafia and government?"

To make that distinction, a deeper systemic definition of mafia is required. Here both cybernetic and agent-based model thinking is very important. In my talk, I drew attention to Bateson's double-bind theory as a starting point, explaining the power of the metaphor, but also the difficulty in trying to get to a workable representation of double-bind situations which might be modellable. The mafia in Sicily clearly have people in a double-bind: usually by picking targets and gently inculcating dependency on illegal activity, and then exploiting the consequent vulnerabilities of those individuals (the mafia becomes the only available "solution" to the individual's problems). But, seen like that, we all inhabit double-binds: whether in families (which as R.D. Laing showed, are full of them!), government, etc. Indeed, as I suggested a while ago, education is full of double-binds (see and these dynamics may be partly responsible for the very existence of our educational institutions. And EU projects? Well, if anyone's ever tried to work through the documentation and jargon of the commission...

But the mafia is horrible, and education and government are generally not. However, these things can be horrible. A lot depends on what people can do when they become so. Governments can be voted out. We can choose not to do an EU project. But education? Of course, students can leave an institution. But there are risks in doing so. For students in parts of the world where there is less freedom and opportunity, these risks multiply. I know of a case where a student studied at a domestic university's overseas operation in an unfree part of the world and a country where they themselves were an immigrant. They found that their (quite good) degree result didn't open the doors which they had hoped because the validity of the overseas operation was questioned by employers. They then found that they would have to leave the country where they studied because they hadn't found a job and would have to return to the country of their birth (which was even less free). If they wished to stay in the country, what was their only option? Answer: to sign-up for another course from the overseas university operation (at considerable cost) which their experience suggested would not deliver a sufficiently credible qualification that would help them any further. But it was the only way of staying in the country.

Is this extortion? To answer that question, it is useful to look at the social dynamics of systems like the mafia. They always appear as 'parasitical' upon a pre-existing legal framework. 'Illegality' - a construct of the state - is the mechanism by which people are lured into the racket. In the case of this student, I think there is something similarly parasitical about the relationship between government regulation of immigration and residence rights, and the operations of the University. The only difference is that unlike the mafia, putting the student in this position is not the explicit intention of the University: although the university benefits from the situation.

With very complex issues arising from international operations of UK universities at home as well as abroad, I think these questions of whether there is extortion going on are very important. The terrible financial situation facing many universities creates the conditions whereby practices which may be 'racket-like' are tempting to institutional managers, even if we convince ourselves that such practices are in the best interests of our students. In order to properly use our moral compasses, we need deeper knowledge about the kinds of pathological and manipulative situations that are exemplified by organisations like the mafia, in order to understand the very real possibility of moral hazards for educational institutions.


Anonymous said...

One consequence of this is our current epistemological difficulty in figuring out whether we're "struggling" or "succeeding" as an organisation.

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