In a precarious academy, how can migrant academics survive – and thrive?

In this extract from their book, ‘Migrant Academics’ Narratives of Precarity and Resilience in Europe’, Olga Burlyuk and Ladan Rahbari explore the ways precarity presents itself in academia


University of Amsterdam
11 Jun 2024
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Academia is not the first area that comes to mind when speaking of precarity. It is often considered a space of knowledge production, status, social prestige, and sometimes – but not always – “progressiveness”. Despite this privileged access to status, academics are not immune to precarity, as systematic powerlessness is distributed along all social strata, including the academic context. Precarity has been presented as a state of being for many and a condition of our times – where we are experiencing the weakening of welfare states, the growth of neoliberal social order and economies, climate change and the recent pandemic-induced state of precarity. 

The academy’s current state is precarious for many reasons, including job insecurity, scarcity of positions, insular community, unpaid work, unhealthy working conditions, the inadequacy of commitment to anti-discrimination and lack of academic freedom within a neoliberal context that promotes self-care instead of solidarity, individualises responsibility, masks inequalities, and pathologises radical thinking about change. In addition, Eurocentrism in academia leads to the (re)reproduction of inequalities in the formulation and dissemination of knowledge. This makes academic conditions particularly precarious for migrant academics, especially for those with ambiguous (legal) status, as the loss of previously built social networks and various forms of discrimination and disadvantage impact their lives as academics and as migrants. 

Coupled with the rampant neoliberal and competition-based work culture in academic spheres in the global north, inequality materialises in diverse forms in academia. Discrimination based on gender, race, ability and age – among other factors – has been shown to affect everyday life, the physical and mental health of academics, and “survival” within an academic system that is often characterised by individualism and hierarchical relations. Academia inherits the flaws of the larger social system in which it is embedded. As Cecilia Ridgeway puts it, the Western labour market is only “ostensibly meritocratic”. The discrimination mentioned above has intersectional effects on the everyday lives, career paths, mental health and life course trajectories of migrant academics.

Precarity has already been used to analyse how the current state of affairs in the academy contributes to systematic discrimination and moulds academic careers into tools of alienation and to answer the question of whether precarity can serve as a critical concept for challenging social exclusions or forming new political collectivities. We draw on how (feminist) scholarship has taken up precarity as a concept to illustrate different forms of structurally induced and individually perpetuated and suffered powerlessness. We extend this structural and lived experience of powerlessness to the realm of academia by centring on autoethnographic and autobiographic insights, and thereby also proliferating accounts of precarity, creating more dialogue around it. Precarity is not a set of fixed conditions but a complex and multidimensional state that is context-dependent, relational, relative, material and embodied. 

Resilience refers to strategies of endurance that people adopt to facilitate their day-to-day living but which do not really change the circumstances that make their lives difficult. It can be related to how individuals and societies adapt to externally imposed change. Some argue that, even if we cannot change the world, we can survive better by knowing how to adapt. Resilience is a currently debated concept, especially because it has expanded to include neoliberal subjectivities through its use within discourses of self-help and self-improvement. Neoliberalism is understood here as a rationality of government performed through regimes of subjectification that extend the logic of the market – and, specifically, the principles of competition and inequality – to all spheres of human activity 

In this view, resilience becomes a normative concept, an ideal type of human agency fit for neoliberal logic. However, there is a post-neoliberal discourse on resilience as well, which opens up the possibility for resilience to be conceptualised in a way where individuals are not mere targets of top-down or bottom-up frameworks of government, but contextually empowered selves in a constant process of learning. In the latter view that we adopt, resilience may have the potential to enable survival and help subjects learn and prepare for uncertainty and challenges in the future. 

Resilience is, however, not experienced in the same way by all people, because our individual vulnerabilities constitute our “un-freedoms” or the restrictions – material or ideological – that prevent us adapting to change. Not everyone is afforded the same level of resilience, and scholarly literature has already revealed the gendered and racial nature of resilience. Adapting to change, resisting structural challenges and preparing for future uncertainties is difficult in the presence of inequality, precarity and the shortage or lack of support systems. Different narratives highlight exactly this: that the capacity to become resilient is not distributed equally.

Olga Burlyuk is assistant professor in the department of political science and Ladan Rahbari is assistant professor in the department of sociology, both at the University of Amsterdam.

Extracted with permission from Migrant Academics’ Narratives of Precarity and Resilience in Europe (Open Book Publishers).


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