Archive | March, 2014

Academic Bullying: An update

30 Mar

Following my last post on academic bullying, I received quite a few emails from people who said that it all sounded very familiar. They did not want to post a comment on the blog because you have to register to do that. And a few people have mentioned it to me in person at the International Studies Association meeting over the past few days. Very sadly, quite a few of the people who got in touch were PhD students who say that they recognize the pattern already: the insidious use of hierarchy and the dreadful psychological harm that bullying does.
In all the cases where correspondents told me what happened in response to the bullying, the bullied dealt with the problem by moving away from the institution. To confront the bullies was deemed impossible given that they were seen as embedded in the University system. And indeed, looking at some Departments and Institutes across the UK there has been a high turnover of staff. Of course, this is not always an indicator of bullying: staff leave positions for many different reasons. But there are a few notable outliers – Departments and Institutes where positions may be said to be seasonal rather than permanent because of the high turnover among junior staff.
Anyway, that’s the end of the update but let’s keep talking about the problem and calling it what it is.

Bullying in Academia

17 Mar

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:
– immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
– the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
– the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
– the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.
Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.
One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.
The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.
The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.
The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.
There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities. Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues. Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy. Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.
Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.

Party like it’s 1914: Some thoughts on Ukraine

10 Mar

One of the interesting aspects of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is how it is stuck in very traditional modes of military and diplomatic behavior. As my friend Ondrej Roztomily remarked on Facebook when Russia occupied Crimea: ‘Party like it’s 1914!’. Or that could read 1814 or 1714.
The term ‘gunboat diplomacy’ has long been a metaphor but we have seen it in the literal sense of gunboats stationed off coastlines as a statement of intent and in order to physically blockade ports. We have seen crass militarism in the sense of Russia creating ‘facts on the ground’ in order to thwart negotiation (a strategy that Israel uses as a permanent feature of its state creation). There has been plenty of ‘flag planting’ or the replacing of one flag with another on military bases or municipal buildings to enforce the message: we own this now! It is difficult to get more traditional than that – this flag planting was a key part of colonial expansion with Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French and British adventurers planting flags on far away beaches and declaring the land in the name of their monarch. And we have seen plenty of elite behavior in the form of political leaders (on all sides) acting autocratically and without recourse to people.
The international diplomatic responses are also very traditional. They have taken the form of statements, press releases, photo opportunities, threats of sanctions, and symbolic invitations to the White House and elsewhere. There has been the calling in of ambassadors and threats of boycotts. It is all very 1938.
Even if we look at the central issue (the extent to which the population wants to be in the borders of one state or another) we see a very traditional issue: borders and state sovereignty. These are quite old modes of political organization. We live in a globalized world in which the movement of people, goods, news and ideas is much more instantaneous, yet states have fought hard to maintain very traditional barriers to movement: borders, passports, sovereignty etc.
It is tempting to counter this argument (that Ukraine/Crimea is a very traditional sort of conflict) with the observation that there is plenty of evidence of ‘popular’ behavior in the form of protests, demonstrations and the use of modern communications and social media. In a sense, an argument can be made that this is an emancipated and popular conflict. Certainly it seems to be a conflict with modern elements that speak of popular politics. But scratch the surface and we have to ask: just how significant are these ‘popular’ elements?
It is very difficult to gauge how representative the protests in Kiev, Sevastopol or Luhansk or Donetsk are of anything. Obviously we can see protests – that is the point. They are visible and vocal. What we cannot see are the non-protests – the people who are not demonstrating for one reason or another. They might be undecided, or frightened, or not terribly bothered one way or the other. The number of people on the street is a very poor indicator of democratic intentions. Certainly it can be an indicator of discontent (and state reactions to it are often an indicator of authoritarianism) but it is not the same as a measureable democratic or consensual exercise. The demonstrations might simply indicate that one set of people in a particular locality are better mobilized or secure enough to take to the streets at a particular moment in time.
The Russian suggestion of a referendum in Crimea might seem like a sensible way ahead, but what looks like a way to ‘solve’ the problem democratically is actually laced with problems. Firstly, it is a very hasty referendum indeed. There is virtually no time for each side to put its case across in a way that allows for genuine debate. Secondly, by restricting the referendum to Crimea, Russia guarantees that it will win. This is not a Ukraine-wide referendum. And thirdly, and most fundamentally, a yes/no question is a poor way to ‘solve’ a very complex constitutional issue. For many people, identity is not an all or nothing thing. They might have torn or overlapping loyalties reflecting their complex origin: a family history of migration, mixed-marriage, enforced movement, multiple languages spoken in the home etc. Identity formation and state formation are long historical processes. A constitutional referendum (especially one without a debate) turns such processes into once-off events.
The essential point of this blog post is to highlight how many of the techniques that governments and others use are very old-fashioned. They simply are not fit for purpose in an era in which people have conflicting and overlapping loyalties. International diplomacy seems very ill-equipped to deal with complex questions of identity. The traditional model of statehood seems addicted to sticking square pegs into square holes. There seems to be little room for a more imaginative form of statehood that could accommodate multiple identities and loyalties. Of course, such creative and inclusive models do exist but neither Russia nor the West seem to have encouraged Ukraine to follow that route. The emphasis has been on: Ukraine must be in the ambit of the West OR Russia.
A few voices have been advocating that Ukraine could see itself as a ‘bridge’ between east and west and capitalize on this role. After all, bridges offer incredible opportunities. Many towns and cities owe their existence to bridges spanning rivers. The towns became trading centres, sites for business, and for the meeting of people. A more imaginative form of international diplomacy could have encouraged Ukraine to become a bridge: East meets West rather than East OR West.

The ‘dirty little secret’ of ‘field’ research?

5 Mar

Today we went to try out our Everyday Peace Indicators. Previously we had crowd-sourced the indicators from the locality through focus groups with men, women and youth. We then took the indicators to a number of parishes in a locality to see how much they chimed with the population. The day was a great lesson in doing research for real.
The easy part was designing the research on paper. The very difficult part is trying to operationalise – in the real world – what we thought was a good research design.
Some of the problems with faced today were:

• Turning up to our randomly chosen ‘target villages’ in which all of the adults were absent for the day. In one case they were all attending a reburial service (for people killed in the war) and in another they were all at a ‘land wrangle’ meeting. Of course, we did not know this and so turned up and ‘no one was at home’.
• Turning up to a village, introducing yourself to the ‘head man’, which is the protocol that all of the research guidebooks tell us, and realizing that he was very, very drunk. What do you do?
• Relying on mobile phones for the collection of survey data and then experiencing the batteries running out.
• Working out who actually lives in a certain localities. Often people live in a collection of huts. It is not clear which huts belong to the same family.
• Trying to interview an individual in a communal setting. Most people seem to sit outside of their huts in the day in communal areas where there is shade. Her/his answers then become a focus for debate among the extended family and may impair the ability of the interviewee to be candid.
• Turning up to an interview with the survey questions in the WRONG local language. We thought we had this one covered, but then chose to interview a family who were IDPs/refugees displaced by the war. Our NGO partners could not speak their language well enough to complete the survey.

Of course all of these ‘problems’ have ‘solutions’ or measures we can take to overcome them. But these take time and are unanticipated. They forced us to think on our feet (no bad thing), and make all sorts of compromises that would send methodological purists into fits of anxiety. It really ate into the time we had. We had hoped to conduct about fifteen interviews today. We completed five.
Our research is taking place in the real world. Not in some laboratory, or using a dataset that someone else has collected. These problems are the ones faced by many NGOs, INGOs, international organisations and academics in their research and yet … and yet … we rarely hear about these problems. Why not? Is it because they only conduct research in perfect environments? Or is because they tend to mask many of the practical difficulties that they face in order to give the impression that their research is robust and trustworthy? Maybe other research projects suffer similar projects, but I rarely seem to read about this. It makes me wonder.

Is this some sort of dirty little secret that a lot of researchers keep to themselves?

You can find out more about our project at and sign up for updates. We also have Facebook page.

Focus Grouping

4 Mar

Today I was able to sit in on a focus group for our Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) project. The EPI project aims to crowd-source indicators from the community. Rather than outsiders come in and give the community a list of indicators, we approach the community and ask them to identify their own indicators. We then turn those indicators into a survey.
The focus group was expertly run by Evelyn, assisted by Joyce and Harriet – all excellent staff at the Justice and Reconciliation Programme in Gulu, Northern Uganda. The Gulu region has been badly affected by war, with multiple child abductions, and outrages by both rebels and soldiers. The violence has now ended, but many social and underdevelopment problems remain.
The focus group was held in K, a community on the outskirts of Gulu. It was a verification focus group to confirm a list of peace indicators that would then be turned into a survey. In the weeks prior to today, three other focus group meeting had taken place among – respectively – men, women and youth in K. Today they all came together to agree on a joint list of indicators that could apply to the entire community. That meant that a list of over thirty indicators had to be whittled down to fifteen or less. This was done through discussion and a vote among the focus group.
A few observations are worth making. The first was that the community members who agreed to take part in the focus group were incredibly patient. They spent two and a half hours together listening and discussing. The principal aim of this research is academic – to road test a research methodology in a war-affected community. The benefits for the community are not immediately obvious. We hope that they spark discussion in the community on their goals and shared problems, but we are not a well-resourced project that can promise to deal with community problems. So for the community members to stick with an academic focus group was very humbling. Gulu has also seen its fair share of researchers so it was all the more impressive that the people did not show signs of research fatigue.
Secondly, it was striking the extent to which community safety and poverty came to the fore in the list of indicators. Major political issues were not mentioned. Project participants were free to propose whatever indicators they wished. We encouraged them to think in term of their local community but this was not a strict order. I had expected people to raise major political issues such as those mentioned by political leaders, or discussed in the media. This did not happen. This is not to say that people are not political, or that politics is somehow the preserve of elites. It is, instead, to reflect, on the centrality of everyday concerns (school fees, land wrangles, crime etc.).
The third point to make is that although there were differences between the priorities of men, women and youth, there were also very many similarities. There was a genuine sense of shared community concerns that did not just apply to one sector or another.
Tomorrow we go to area A, outside of Gulu, to observe how the survey is run. In this case, the indicators from focus groups in the area have been loaded onto a mobile phone platform and our colleagues from JRP will go door-to-door to see the extent people concur with the indicators chosen by focus groups. We will then repeat the exercise in 6 months time to see if there have been any changes in community indicators of peace and change.