A Research Scholar as a Worker: Many Divergences

by Pratik Ali


To see through the aura of professional seriousness that surrounds oneself and others doing research in a university or similar academic environment can possibly lead to the realization that the said person is a worker like any other (alternatively, one may also come to the conclusion that the said person is a spy for the enemy nation, or part of some apocalyptic organization with really evil intentions). This realization appears especially clear when as research scholars, we begin to ask, Is all this really necessary for me to do? These questions throw light upon the absurdity of having to justify every claim beyond the minimum one decides for oneself, having to review a tonne of literature that still remains alien to oneself and unnecessary to one’s work, having to make the art of study and discovery into a systematic practice that should time and again be given to the ratification of the supervisor (whence it really becomes only a summary of existing findings), to attend conferences and present papers that claim more than they beget, to perpetually be questioned on output for getting due fellowships, to always be so tired down and shut out by this individualized research that disjunction from one’s peers becomes the norm, and so on. And then there is also the question, Where is all this going and why are we part of it? To which the answer is, each dissertation is adding to our, supervisor’s, department’s, university’s claim to being quality researchers, professors, departments and universities, and the more the citations, the reviews, the papers, the conferences, the more the university’s felt presence in the network of universities, the more the exchange of grants and man-power, not to speak of the (numerically) biggest function of the university, producing workers and managers for the market. The serious research scholar usually keeps away from the more naked manifestations of the market, and hence conceptualizes themself as not-a-worker; however, to do so, he must participate in keeping the university system up and running, the nature of which is not very different from the market, as we have seen glimpses of in this introduction. However, when we speak of the research scholar as a worker, we find certain traits in the work situations of the researcher as a class that mark them as an exception among most workers, which we shall see is mainly due to his class position. Below we note these divergences that keep the research scholar/researcher (I’m arbitrarily collapsing the two into one, and often and again pointing out the differences between the two) away from the large part of wage workers in present society.

Do researchers produce surpluses?

The largest number of researchers do, in fact, participate in finding ways for enhancing output or finding procedures that reduce costs. In this regard, though, the researcher is only finding a method. The researcher’s product is not similar to the factory worker who comes into direct contact with thousands of products at various stages of its production. We should note that people who ‘excel’ at ‘management’ have, in this case, a task which is similar to the researchers: methods to increase productivity from the workers, even if in those methods there may be substantial differences. Though here we would like to examine the cases wherein the direct products of the researcher’s labour do not seem to add to the process of surplus-accumulation in any way; hence, each discipline will here be purged of a large section, which is today directly involved in the market. Researchers in physical sciences are in large numbers employed in major industries, whether manufacture of missiles or computers or self-help books or so on. There are, then, those remaining who will form the subjects of this study. These are people who chase after ‘eternal truths’, theoretical matters of which direct applications are not well-known in the present, and this aloofness from the ‘applied’ also becomes the pretext for them to claim a different status than other researchers.

One area where said researchers produce surpluses are in the publishing industry, where their product bears some similarity to the individualized, fetishized commodity that is taken away from the worker for a sum of money (after many pretensions, called ‘royalty’ in this case), and the publishing houses to the beneficiaries of industrial surplus. When ‘working days’ and product-by-product suplus is accounted for, it is no surprise that that the research scholar is a more leisurely class of worker with expectations that alienate them from their work, but nonetheless are not as stringent as the case with many in the, for example, garments and automobiles industries. Let’s remember here that every minute a worker in the latter sector produces a surplus of anywhere between hundreds to lakhs, while in the garment sector every day is a stringent collection of the same process repeated over thousands of pieces of clothing. On the other hand, a researcher that produces three papers a year, a book every two years, and takes classes at other times (can go on a leave for specific periods on work purposes) finds themself (notwithstanding the quality of their work, peer-reviewed, depending on what the peers and disciplinary associations are like) the goody-two-shoes of their field. If this might sound a little too much on the higher-end, then let’s look at the research scholar who has just finished a degree and begun work on a thesis. In most cases paid a fellowship that cannot help them survive in the city in which their university is based (unless awardee of some special fellowship or scholarship), expectations at productivity are rather lax. Firstly, they are routinized into, at best, six-monthly semesters for graded evaluations and term papers (not exactly surplus), within which there is considerable amount of freedom for the scholar to use their time. Secondly, dissertations are submittable after two to ten years from the date of commencement. What remains of the time in between, then, is the process of so-called knowledge-production that is negotiated between the scholar and their supervisor.

The so-called physical-intellectual divide

Knowledge-production is so called as a measure to club together the kinds of work that seem to not include the use of manual effort as much as mental effort, but also the product of which is different in the sense that it is informational. This divide has forever been at best an excuse to club different kinds of works. In reality, people involved in the so-called knowledge-production (researchers included) find it devastating to their physique; if work on the auto-assembly line or parts-manufacture or iron-rolling foundries pushes the limits of one’s bodily activity, so-called knowledge-production pushes the limits to the worker’s physical capacity for inertia. On the other hand, this divide is also unsound in its removal of the mental from the physical; in many ways, it has simply been accepted (and worse, emphasized) in a time when behavioural psychology and its categories (in which the only mental entity was information, an imitation of physical stimuli, the only other psychological entity) predominated general discourse (and assumed special significance with respect to capitalism, as laid out in B.F. Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Dignity). Today it is indubitable that the physical involves great amounts of cognition as well as intellect: garment workers operate on computers to embroider and thread, on complex sewing-machines that take some amount of training to use with precision, construction involves a rather precise understanding of geometry, iron-works have always involved a good understanding of temperatures and measures for personal safety, and besides all these forms of individual knowledge, industrial production has exploited for ages the human ability to co-ordinate in common activity, which is also(essentially) ‘knowledge’.

In this context, we find interesting output from researchers. Firstly, the art of having mastered the canon: research scholars often figure out that a dissertation is structurally a very recurring object. It largely consists of phrases like “As per X, this phenomenon…” or “In other words…..”. In most (unremarkable) cases, a quarter of the thesis is merely literature review involving reduction of already written material to smaller lengths, about half of it data and data analysis, and the remainder one’s conclusions. In this scenario, research becomes tamed to the form, and it becomes worthy of questioning how much of this recurring procedure ought to be called knowledge-production. An argument in favor of this phraseology is that the history of the field would show that knowledge has actually accumulated over time, and it is mainly due to the contributions of individual research scholars. While that cannot be disputed, it is also to be borne in mind that knowledge itself is not a positive entity, but a very unstable thing that is often rendered banal or basic. But even outside this general process of exploration and redundancy and perpetuation of knowledge, a lot of research in current academics is based upon assumptions known to be unscientific, yet necessary to keep the market running. Neoclassical economics and human resource management are prime examples. In other cases, research in hard science that is assumed will give no applications in the here-and-now often hold the hope of some grand marketable possibility in the future. Proliferation of departments of linguistics in the USA (and the world later) are a case in point: they arose with the hope of development of artificial intelligence for machine translation (early grants for research were very often made by the US military). This was accompanied by a simultaneous efflorescence of linguistic theory, but also collection of large amounts of data from world languages. Soon, a large industry of language teaching and translation, treatment of language disorders, and so on were to develop.

Hence we assert that research workers are neither outside the constraints of physical labour, nor necessarily producing knowledge, and so-called intellectual-labour is merely a part of what they do, even when interpreted in sound and holisic cognitive terms.

So why does our society produce research workers?


As things have been, to perpetuate the university system. The university system – along with the entire edifice, efficient or otherwise, of all levels of schooling – has been feeding into the political economy not only its managers and supervisors, but also its “experts”. It is an indication of more widespread tentacles of the same university system (often these tentacles belong to powerful university systems of other places, something linguistics departments of North America and Europe have been) that it begins to invest in research that does not seem to produce surplus. But the university itself ought not to be conceptualized as not-a-market, and hence there is no question that sustaining a university and within it fields considered worthy of repute is not part of the market in general. In fact, from the prerogative of the biggest accumulator in the past – the state – the university system as such has now grown by the proliferation of private institutes and universities, given the presence of a class of people that wish to spend more. A question to start with here is, what departments are running in most universities? The answers seem tied up to a more basic question: where does each university stand in relation to the wider university system, which also means to processes of accumulation? In either case, ‘pure research’ or search for ‘eternal truths’, howsoever sincere, cannot outrun the requirements of being a worker, even if not a worker broadly in the same sense as the mass of humanity is.

Class as differentiating the research worker from most workers


The very first fact noticeable about schooling is that it is a very difficult business. Whether it is children crying in their first days of the nursery or the suicides that follow the declaration of board results, schooling and university is a matter of immense expectations from people. And this is only the surface of this so-called rigour, the wider dimensions of which are to be found in the drop-outs that take place at each level. Such parochial terms such as ‘merit’ are garbled by many a mouth that has crossed into the university gates, on which are inscribed for those who can see, “Fucked, either way”. The masochism with which we keep inside the university is made more tolerable due to our class. Research scholars who work on the meager fellowship they receive compliment their incomes, whether by borrowing from parents or working part-time. They are now expected, despite all the diversity they come from, to be presentable, to be articulate, as well as to imbibe the format of conferences and papers. While production of knowledge becomes the ideal daily task of the university worker, the fact that their supervisor is one too, allows them to cut around the expected productivity in various ways. Universities often keep rules – such as being present in the department for x number of days during research, prohibition from leaving city without express permission from the guide, and so on – which are relaxed out of considerations of mutual calm and atomized work. The culture of atomized work, as well as discouragement from sharing crucial insights, often is transmitted from the supervisor to the research scholar. Which, again, is not a general tendency, because within the understanding of what is beneficial and what is not, other kinds of tendencies arise that seek to promote ‘inter-disciplinary exchange’. When these are initiated by the scholars, they hardly ever fall under official policy; when they are initiated by professor-researchers, they naturally are imposed upon the research scholar. But given the atomization, as well as the promise of assimilation in research (especially if one enjoys one’s subject), research scholarship offers a good deal to people who have been able to afford to make it till there. If seen from a wide-lens, it is difficult to miss that in people’s evaluations of whether or not they can take up research, class plays a crucial role.


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