Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Gleichschaltung of Institutional Statistics and Death in the University

I've been reading a lot of Everett Hughes's work recently. His most significant work is contained in a collection called "The Sociological Eye" (see Hughes's principal focus is, I believe, very important: the ecology of institutions and society - very much forming the cornerstone of what is now termed the "Chicago school of sociology" (not to be confused with the Chicago school of economics which of course is practically its opposite!) I brought this up at the SRHE conference in Sue Clegg's keynote on social inequality and the role of education. I asked whether the focus was too much on identifying 'species' in society when we talk about inequality, rather than studying relationships. The question really was first asked by Hughes in the 1930s.

Ecological understanding of society was an interesting subject in the 1930s. Hughes took a particularly keen interest in the rise of Nazism, asking about what it was that distorted the relations between 'good people' which then led them to behave appallingly. Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, I think this is an important question now when we look at the behaviour of managements of all institutions, including universities. Under the "regime of scarcity" that calls itself 'austerity', managements have sacked people in large numbers, putting others under increasing pressure, driving them to extreme levels of anxiety and stress and rising rates of absence (which has consequent effects on everyone else) - mostly in pursuit of statistical proof of the effectiveness of the management, not scholars.

In September, Professor Stefan Grimm from Imperial College, London, was found dead in his home after apparently gassing himself. He had been 'under review' by the college authorities for not bringing in enough funding. In a reported 'posthumous' email, reported in the press (see, Grimm commented "What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine [...] This is not a university anymore but a business, with a very few, up in the hierarchy, profiteering, and the rest of us milked for money." Imperial's comment on the 4th December (see looks like a somewhat desperate exercise in arse-covering.

Something seems to be going wrong with the ecology of our institutions. Much of what Grimm complains is patently true: salaries for senior managers have shot up in recent years, bringing insecurity for everyone else. We're told there's no 'job for life' any more... except for the 'job for life' of the person who tells everyone else that there's no 'job for life'! People's deaths can be the trigger for real revolt: Universities are fundamentally oriented towards truth, and the distortions of management can only be a temporary pathology before there's some corrective mechanism that kicks in. How much will it take?

In Nazi Germany, of course, it took a lot. Hughes's question is fundamentally, How did they get away with it? The statistician, in Hughes's view, provides both a clue and a possible cause. "Gleichschaltung" means "bringing into line", and is the name the Nazis gave to the process of gradually distorting the democratic mechanisms of Germany which gradually gave them absolute power (see The Wikipedia article covers the Nazi moves between 1933 and 1934. Hughes's interest is in the German statistician over this period. He points out that subtle changes resulted in the presentation of the German population having 'religion' but not 'race' in 1932, and by 1935, they had 'race' but not 'religion'. This was a statistical shift accompanied with growing hyperbole in the introduction to the statistical reports extolling the virtues of the regime, and gradually tending to show progress of the ethnic cleansing that was underway (in 1935, a new section detailing figures for "glaubensjuden" people following a 1933 census). Some of it is obscured in the statistician's gaze: Hughes argues "one has to dig the facts out from many tables. In 1910 there were 538,909 people of 'Israelite religion' in the Reich; 564,379 in 1925; 499,682 in 1933"

The Gleichschaltung was a subtle process of renormalising peoples' expectations. I think this is going in education. Where universities engaged in scholarship of various kinds, now they have impact factors, REF scores, citations, H-indices, journal rankings, student satisfaction, subject groupings, retention statistics and workload analysis. Our learning analytics identify different types of "pedagogies" (how are they identified exactly?), indicating their relative effectiveness, but more importantly the relative effectiveness of individual staff. What joy for the statisticians in HESA! Where scholarship was perhaps more akin to 'religion' - a set of practices, or a habit of mind - now it becomes a statistical trait, whose possession you are either blessed or burdened with, but whose possession may have little bearing on one's practices or habits of mind. Indeed, those most effective with their statistical labels will acquire the habits of mind geared towards feeding the statistics, not the business of scholarship. We kid ourselves with a 'mereological fallacy' - the confusion of parts for wholes - if we believe the habits of mind and practice of scholars can be broken-down into the aggregation of statistical metrics.

But this is Gleichschaltung. It is the bringing of the scholars into line. For who? Certainly not for Stefan Grimm, for whom it is tragically too late.

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