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On politics and precarities in academia: anthropological perspectives

16th-17th November 2017, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern

Annual General Meeting (AGM) Seminar of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) organised in collaboration with the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, PrecAnthro Group and the Swiss Anthropological Association.

Bern in November
Bern, old town. Photo

The interplay of nationalism, right wing populism and neoliberal policies affects European residents in general and university education and academics in particular. Recent developments in Turkey, Hungary, and Russia have shown appalling consequences of anti-intellectualism, creating precarity for thousands of academics and damaging intellectual development. Furthermore, academia is also challenged by early career scholars who blame universities, research centres and their neoliberal structures for social and professional insecurities and for creating precarity as normalcy in academia. Precarity, ‘once seen as the fate of the less fortunate’, today, Anna Tsing (2015, 2) states, is ‘life without the promise of security’, an indeterminacy that is less the exception than the condition of our times.

The 2017 EASA AGM Seminar will bring together debates on different strands of precarity, analyse sites of disempowerment at the intersection of precarity and politics and discuss potentials of collaboration, solidarity and unionization.

After the seminar, a selection of contributions may be published in the Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale Journal, subject to the normal peer review process.


Thursday November 16

10:00-13:00 (Room S221)

  • EASA Executive Meeting

10:00-13:00 (Room tba)

  • Pre-Workshop Meeting organised by the AnthroCollective Bern : Between Precarious Norms and Empowering Alternatives. Strategies and Tactics of Labour Organisation Between National and International Academic Contexts. with Carie Benjamin (LSE), Sabine Kradolfer (Université de Lausanne), N.N.

Main Programme

14:00-16:00 (Room 205/203, Hallerstrasse 4)

Workshop 1: Politics and Precarious Lives
Chair: Sarah Green (University of Helsinki)

Introduction: Ester Gallo (University of Trento)

  • An Ordinary Story from Turkey: An Autoethnography of a Dismissed Junior Academic Esra Dabağcı (Ankara University)
  • Questions of political strategy: weighing a politics of voice, of connectivity, and of knowledge Katharina Bodirsky (Universität Konstanz)
  • Between Neoliberalism and Competitive authoritarianism: Academic life in the Eastern Mediterranean Aimilia Voulvouli (Aristotle Universtiy of Thessaloniki)
  • The Politics and Precarities in Being a Pakistani Anthropologist! Inayat Ali (Universität Wien)
  • Colored in Germany: Racialized and Gendered Encounters in Academic Exile Deniz Yonucu (Humboldt-Fellow, Berlin)

In January 2016, over 1400 academics in Turkey and abroad signed a petition calling for an end to state violence and curfews in the South-eastern region of Turkey, and calling for continued peace negotiations. Academics who have supported the petition “Academics for Peace” were straightaway blamed by the state President for supporting terrorism ‘with their pencils’. As was widely discussed, many of them were dismissed, some were put on trial and several even imprisoned. The coup attempt from July 15, 2016 has contributed significantly to a further deterioration of the political atmosphere in Turkey and about 4000 people, many of them left-wing intellectuals, have lost their jobs in academia. Ironically, many academics who had fiercely criticized the Gülen movement in Turkey for years are now accused of supporting the coup which has been attributed to the Gülen movement by the AKP government. In the following months, the German Philipp Schwartz Initiative for scholars under threat received more applications from Turkey than from Syria. Scholars at Risk , an international network to protect scholars and to promote academic freedom, launched petitions in support of academic colleagues in Turkey, as did many European university associations and networks. Many Turkish academics have now left the country and seek refuge and access to European universities, others remain in Turkey and continue their struggle by organizing public lectures in ‘Solidarity Academies’ and ‘Street Academies’.

On April 10, 2017, the President of the Republic of Hungary signed amendments to Hungary’s national higher education legislation which will threaten the existence of Central European University (CEU), an institution relevant particularly for post-socialist countries. Academics at the CEU are protesting against these amendments, (and EASA lent its support) and continue their teaching and research programs, and the local population and thousands of academics globally support their protest.

On April 28, 2017, Rosobrnadzor, the state organization overseeing the quality of education in Russia, forced the European University in St. Petersburg to halt all educational activity. The order against this private post-graduate school for the social sciences and humanities came after a St. Petersburg district court ruled that the university had violated several legal regulations. (EASA wrote against this move.)

In this context, the workshop will discuss effects of different variations of nationalism and ‘representative dictatorship’ (Gürses 2017) on scholars as much as the consequences of closed borders. Academics’ experiences with local, national and transnational interventions (Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), CARA – a lifeline to academics at risk, CEU petitions, etc.), highly relevant and significant for the entire community, will be addressed. These warning examples require attention of our fellow anthropologists but also of our colleagues from different scientific backgrounds that share the same ‘uncertain future’. Contributors are invited to present different contextualized cases and consequences as well as forms of agency and organization.

Katharina Bodirsky, Universität Konstanz

Based on a discussion of the Turkish case, the presentation explores the potentials and limits of responses from within the national and international academia to the precariousness produced for academics by increasingly authoritarian politics. It examines here, first, an oppositional “politics of voice” that is directed at the state elite in forms such as petitions and protests in view of its role in a context where there is no political will for compromise and negotiation; second, a “politics of connectivity” that seeks to set up networks of solidarity both within and across state borders within contexts, however, that are characterized by structures of precarity of different sorts; and third, a “politics of knowledge” that operates within an increasingly anti-intellectual and illiberal climate. The presentation aims primarily at opening up informed questions for comparative discussion of political strategy rather than presenting conclusive results.

Deniz Yonucu, Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation, Post-Doctoral Fellow

Within the space opened up by feminist critique and critical race studies, today more and more scholars, reflecting on their own experiences, elaborate on various forms of structural racism, gender and class bias (re)produced in an ever-precarious academia. Building on the literature on the experiences of women of color, who are in the most precarious condition in academia, and focusing on the experiences of the female academics of peace from Turkey, who found a temporary refuge in German universities, this paper elaborates on the racialized and gendered encounters between German academics and academics of peace from Turkey. Questioning the feelings triggered in the context of this uneasy encounter and pointing out possible forms of exclusionary practices these feelings may give rise to, the paper sheds light into the interpellative force of German academia that bestows the female academics from Turkey a new identity—being women of color. To put it differently, by elaborating on the power relations that manifest itself in the encounters between German academia’s new female refugee seekers and German academics, this paper attempts to shed lightinto the racialized and gendered relations reproduced in German academia.

Aimilia Voulvouli, Post-doctoral Fellow, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

During the last 7 years, Greek Academia has been subjected to severe austerity measures, as a result of the austerity packages also known as MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) between Greece and its creditors. As a result a big percentage of adjunct faculty were laid off, salaries in academia were cut by almost 40% and research funding was minimized. The harsh reality, forced many of the country’s academics, researchers and aspiring Ph.D holders to migrate abroad in search for a job within academia. One of the receiving countries was Turkey which, despite its competitive authoritarian system, with its until recently booming higher education sector and the incentives to foreign faculty, attracted not only Greek but many international faculty. This came to a halt last year after the attempted coup when political insecurity discouraged foreign faculty to apply but also forced many academics out of the country. The proposed presentation attempts to shed light to an often-overlooked group of academics affected by policies such as the ones addressed by the seminar: that of foreign faculty who even though they are considered expats in reality they are economic immigrants living in precarity. To support this claim, the presentation will discuss the trajectory of three Greek scholars who sought academic refuge in Turkey escaping the precarity that neoliberal policies created in their own country and who after July 15 2016, were forced off their jobs and consequently Turkey, due to their alleged ties to the Gülen Movement (GM) because they had been working to so called Gülenist Universities; that is Universities established by followers of GM.

Inayat Ali, PhD Student, University of Vienna, Austria

Although, the global and geo politics affects, every, individual, but differently. It intensifies the precarity, according to the identity the individual belongs to, such as geographical, national, religious, academic, economic, and so forth. Here, I would like to present myself as a case to share the experiences of and exposures to. My visa was deferred to attend the anthropological conferences by the United Kingdom in 2015, and Canada in 2017. The deferment raised various questions into my mind, that despite doing a PhD in Vienna, and having EASA travel grant for UK, what are the responsible reasons, perhaps because my national identity is Pakistani. Moreover, the situation at home country is also challenging to be an ‘anthropologist’. During my graduation in anthropology, most of fellow colleagues from other departments used to say that ‘anthropologists are atheists’ and ‘anthropological research is like farming and cutting the grass’. In this regard, one professor of anthropology was ‘forced’ to resign and end the contract from two universities. The ‘blasphemy’ sword in Pakistan always hangs over your head, especially if you are an anthropologist and ‘label of Pakistani’ hampers you in abroad. Both perspectives push you in the precarious situations.

(Intervention via Skype)

Esra Dabağcı, Ankara Academy of Solidarity. Department of Sociology, Ankara University, Turkey

This presentation aims to connect an autobiographical account as a dismissed junior academic to wider political environment in Turkey. The coup attempt on July 15, 2016 was seen as an “opportunity” by Erdoğan to declare state of emergency and to expel many left-wing academics against the human right violations in Kurdish cities. The academics were purged by statutory decrees, forced to resign/to retire and their contacts were terminated. Although “academic”, as an umbrella term, is perhaps capable of defining many forms of positions within universities; it also overshadows the inequalities within the academy and among the academics, and how AKP government appropriate and recreate these inequalities. Besides endangering autonomy of universities, the state of emergency also functions directly as a machine of precarity and neoliberalization by reorganizing the working conditions and contracts through decrees and oppressing the opposition arising against them. As one of the people lost her job by a decree, which became an ordinary incident in Turkey, I intend to depict what being a junior academic, namely a research assistant, means within Turkish academia before and after the coup attempt, through my own experience.

Coffee Break

16:30-17:30 (Room 205/203, Hallerstrasse 4)

Annual General Meeting (open to all EASA members)

18:00-19:30 (Room F021, Lerchenweg 36)

Welcome note from EASA President – Valeria Siniscalchi, (EHESS Marseille)
Welcome note from Vice Rector of University of Bern, Silvia Schroer

Keynote: Production of 'Dangerous Knowledge', Violation of Academic Freedom and Precarious Solidarities in the Age of Authoritarianism Özlem Biner (LSE)

Drinks Reception at the Department (Lerchenweg 36, 2nd floor)

Friday November 17

09:00-11:00 (Room F-121, Lerchenweg 36)

Workshop 2: Structural Precarity in Anthropology
Chair: Georgeta Stoica (IRD France / University of Perugia)

Introduction: PrecAnthro Group, represented by Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds) Dan Vesalainen Hirslund (University of Copenhagen) and Martin Fotta (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M.)

  • Mobility as precarity in contemporary academia: notes on South Asian social scientists building an academic career in Europe. Vinicius Kauê Ferreira (EHESS Paris)
  • Politics of academic and migrant precarity: experiences of international doctoral candidates in present-day Finland Sonja Trifuljesko (University of Helsinki)
  • On Pioneers, Academic Nomadism and European Funding. Structural Precarity in Post-communist European Anthropology Lorena Anton (University of Bucharest)
  • Beyond the Contract: The Precarization of Scholars’ Lives Marta Pérez and Ainhoa Montoya (University of London)
  • Combating Isolation and invisibility. Dan Vesalainen Hirslund (University of Copenhagen)
  • Precarity, gender and care in the neoliberal academy Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds)
  • “Can’t your parents help?” Experience of everyday cultures and practices of precarity in an Anthropology department. Lavinia Bertini (University of Sussex)

In recent years, there has not only been a severe political attack against academia, independent of academic discipline - natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities - there has also been an increasing protest within different disciplines at European universities over the long-lasting experience of precarity, particularly among early career academics. Several groups and platforms (Doc sans poste, San Precario, External Lecturers, etc.) referring to this problem of academic uncertainty have been established in different countries (France, Austria, UK, Italy, etc.) and at the European level. The organizers of the open meeting of early career and precarious anthropologists #PrecAnthro: toward a transnational Anthropological Union at the EASA conference in Milan 2016 called for a transnational anthropology network of precarious anthropologists.

In collaboration with this network, we invite short contributions to this EASA AGM-seminar on academic uncertainty. Based on the shared awareness that, while employment precarity is on the rise within and beyond anthropology, there is no effective platform specifically dedicated to these problems. There is no transnational organization to address issues of short fixed-term contracts, limited bargaining power and social or economic security in anthropology. Under the burden of the 'publish or perish' imperative young and/or precarious scholars have to secure research and teaching experience (sometimes unpaid) while realizing that their work benefits not the public, but universities and publishers under increasingly neoliberal regimes. The workshop will bring together diverse experiences of precarity and subject positions concerning different contexts and geographic areas. Participants will be invited to focus on politics of precarity, gender and precarity, and paths for labour organization and collective action.

Yet, what are politics of precarity? Eli Thorkelson (2016) challenges the concept of precarity and blames advocates who are not themselves in this situation for establishing a “movement of othering” in order to defend their privileges. This is an important tension, and a possible impediment to collaboration between established tenured and precarious academics: this may cause tensions and the construction of two parties or a blurring of boundaries and constructive thoughts of collaboration during the workshop. The PrecAnthroGroup has been invited to shape this workshop and co-organize the debate.

This workshop ties in with the previous activities of the EASA Executive Committees (2013-2014; 2015-2016) concerning early career anthropologists and precarity in Europe, such as the Early Careers Scholars Forum (Milan 2016) and the panel ‘Anthropology as a Vocation and Occupation’ (Tallinn, 2014). 

Vinicius Kauê Ferreira, PhD Student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris, France)

As “academic mobility” becomes one of the watchwords of contemporary scientific policies, universities and research institutions in the global North adopt new strategies to attract “talented” foreign scholars. In this context, in which historical intellectual circulations between Europe and its ancient colonies are strengthened and resiginified, a growing number of South Asian researchers are recruited as postdoctoral fellows at European institutions. At the same time, European institutions are reshaped by pervasive managerial practices based on the notions of “flexibility” and “accountability”, which are translated into the proliferation of short-term contracts as the dominant model for the recruiting of their academic staff. Those “academic workers” are often postdoctoral fellows. Drawing on an ongoing PhD research on South Asian social scientists trying to build an academic career in Europe, with a special focus on the German context career, this paper explores the experience of continuous and indefinite mobility amongst South Asian social scientists who seeks to build not only a career, but also a life on the road. We ask how lives can be lived in a context of proliferation of short-term contracts engendering indefinite mobility. In sum, it argues that the growing precarization of academic jobs in conjugation with contemporary scientific policies of mobility has meant a particular kind of precarization of life to these scholars who are part of historical circulations between Europe and South Asia.

Mariya Ivancheva, University of Leeds

This paper, co-authored with Prof Kathleen Lynch and Kathryn Keating(UCD) examines the rise in precarious academic employment in Ireland as an outcome of the higher education restructuring following OECD (2004) and government initiatives (HEA, 2011a), and post-crisis austerity. Presenting the narratives of academic women at different career stages, we claim that a focus on care sheds new light on the debate on precarity. A more complete understanding of precarity should take into account not only the contractual security but also the affective lives of employees. The intersectionality of work and care lives was a dominant theme in our interviews among academic women. In a globalised academic market, premised on the care-free masculinised ideals of competitive performance, 24/7 work and geographical mobility, women who opt out of these norms, suffer labour-led contractual precarity and are over-represented in part-time and fixed-term positions. Women who comply with these organisational commands need to peripheralise their relational lives and experience care-led affective precarity.

Lorena Anton, Marie Curie CIG Fellow in Social Anthropology (2013-2017) University of Bucharest, Romania


Drawing on my own experience for ‘becoming an anthropologist’, as a PhD candidate in cotutelle (2005-2010, University of Bucharest – University of Bordeaux), and the ups and downs of my involvement with anthropological research ever since, in this paper I show how the history of European anthropology/ethnology during communism created a ‘boomerang effect’ for all researchers involved in this field. Still in place in some post-communist countries, this effect can dramatically affect early career scholars who have to battle yearly with the constraints of ‘academic excellence’ vs. ‘academic nomadism’, imposed by availability of jobs, funding and even fieldwork. This helps creating and reinforcing precarity as normalcy in academia. I argue that even if these mix of causes and effects can be nation-based, they become more and more transnational. Sometimes they are supported by research and funding policies, as I have noticed during my recent Marie Curie Career Integration Grant. Unfortunately the consequences of precarity, even those related to physical and mental health, are generally silenced down, even if better work and research practices can exist.

Dan Vesalainen Hirslund Postdoc at the Dept. of Cross Cultural and Regional Studies. University of Copenhagen, Denmark


Academic careers are increasingly punctuated by experiences of insecurity relating to the larger neoliberal framework which seeks to transform academic institutions into markets for commodified knowledge. This has rendered new generations of academics particularly vulnerable as ‘superfluous populations’ that must struggle precariously and compete intensely - and late into their life - for the scarcity of jobs. I contend here that the problematic of academic precarity can be expanded by reflecting on the isolation and invisibility that academic specialisation and a punitive system of expulsion together effect. Based on experiences from Denmark, which with its history of welfare provisions provides a slightly different case of academic precarity, the contribution sketches a three-pronged strategy to strengthen work conditions and liberate academic careers from the tight snare of university institutions: a standardisation/formalisation of non-tenured academic contracts; strengthening of non-tenured academic networks through existing union structures; and the creation of new academic collectives that transgress institutional and disciplinary boundaries and which can serve as ‘homes’ for non-tenured academics.

Lavinia Bertini, Doctoral Researcher, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex

“Can’t your parents help?”. This is the response, either explicit or implicit, I often receive when expressing my difficulties as a self-funded, PhD student and Associate Tutor in Anthropology at an English university. Drawing on my experience, I reflect on how elitist cultures of academia entangled with neoliberal politics and conditions of precarity are detrimental to the career development of early researchers as well as to the very idea of research as a career. I identify three main issues: first, the self-funded doctorate concept is problematic and belittles the essence of doctoral research, dismissing its practical and financial aspects. Second, implying that PhD researchers should use family rather than University or research funds as their main, economic resource, reveals an elitist culture of access to academia. Finally, the silent but daily reproduction of neoliberal cultures and politics is particularly problematic in anthropology where a lack of funding, sharpens the effects of precarity. Moreover, it shows how anthropology has failed so far to critically reflect on the modes of production of anthropological knowledge in everyday contexts. Therefore, I express the need for organised and informed spaces to contrast the many inequalities produced by precarity.

Marta Pérez and Ainhoa Montoya, University of London
ainhoa.montoya(at)london.ac.uk; marta.perez(at)fulbrightmail.org

Our presentation will address the lived experiences of increasing precarious conditions among scholars and the kind of responses they are offering to them. In so doing, we will discuss one way in which we consider scholars’ precarization can become visible and facilitate more collective responses. Drawing from research among early career anthropologists from a variety of backgrounds within Europe and beyond, we will seek to bring into the discussion how, in addition to deteriorating contracts within academia, many aspects of life—from the strictly material to the affective—are becoming ever more precarious. Imposed transnational lives; the difficulties in balancing professional and personal life; the inability to make a decent living with part-time, by the hour or occasional contracts; the demand that scholars become multifaceted individuals excelling at a greater number of tasks; the uncertainties and anxieties attached to deteriorating working conditions and increasing work demands are just a few examples of what we mean by the increasing precarization of life. Ultimately, we will argue that autoethnography rather than an individualizing method has allowed those participating in our research and ourselves to reflect critically on the issue of precarity beyond our own experience.

Sonja Trifuljesko, PhD student, University of Helsinki

Doctoral candidates in Finland are ambiguous figures: they are students and/or researchers, depending on their source of funding. If they are employed by a university, they tend to be considered as researchers. Those PhD candidates who do not receive funding for their dissertation work are regarded as students by the university administration, even if they work full-time on their PhD research. Finally, if a PhD candidate’s work is financed via grants, an in-between situation gets created. The stratification of doctoral candidates is reflected in many aspects of their lives, but for those among them who are foreigners, it gets additional significance. While the intertwining of academia and (inter-)national politics at times becomes very conspicuous, its daily consequences are usually less visible, but equally powerful. The paper focuses on the interplay between precarities generated by border regimes and by the contingent academic work through experiences of international doctoral candidates in present-day Finland. Drawing on my long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2014 and 2016 at the University of Helsinki, I show that stratification of PhD candidates and stratification of migrants reinforce each other, creating experiences of a less or more certain (both academic and migrant) futures.

Coffee Break

11:30-13:30 (Room F-121, Lerchenweg 36)

Workshop 3: Transnational Collaborations Against Political and Structural Precarity
Chair: Thomas Hylland Eriksen (University of Oslo), Sabine Strasser (Universität Bern)

  • Report from the World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA): presentation of the Global Survey of Anthropological Practice and the WCAA-IUAES initiative on “Anthropological fieldwork and risk in a violent world”, by Chandana Mathur (WCAA Chair)
  • Scholars at Risk: a brief introduction by Ester Gallo (University of Trento)
  • Presentation of the Survey on Precarity in Academia, PrecAnthro Group (Martin Fotta Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M. )
  • Reports from the Workshops

Final Debate

In the third workshop, the potential for inclusive strategies for anthropology and beyond will be discussed.

  1. EASA’s concrete options for intervention – in collaboration with and input from those affected – can include watchdog efforts in collaboration with existing activities in different national contexts and seek to assert influence in cases of structural violence, exploitation and proliferation of precarity and the permanent threat of insecurity.
  2. Updating – with input by those affected – the existing database on number and types of contracts offered in anthropology departments across Europe in order to better understand the current situation with precarity in the profession.
  3. Develop strategies of collaboration and unionization across borders and boundaries.

This workshop will bring the positions and results of Workshop 1 and 2 together and is meant to discuss options for future collaboration and to prepare a statement for the public.

14:00-14:45 (Room F-121, Lerchenweg 36)

The seminar aims to bring together different experiences and potentials in three workshops and discuss recent threats and activities of scholars at risk and variations of precarious lives in academia. The press conference will focus on relevant issues about anthropological contributions to the politics of precarity in populist-nationalist, as well as in neoliberal ‘publish or perish’ academic contexts. Th press conference will distribute information about the actual situation and will answer questions from journalists. This should be considered a follow-up to the press conference organized in Prague in 2015 “Making Anthropology Matter” where the importance of anthropology and need for anthropological input in a constantly changing world was underlined.

Expected impact

This two-day EASA AGM seminar focusing on politics and precarities in academia, will serve to a significant degree to gather information on the actual situation of precariousness in Europe in order to make it more visible and develop strategies of support beyond petitions. The workshops and keynote will address questions concerning the precarious generation of anthropologists and scholars at risk. Each workshop’s debates will be specifically addressed in a report leading to an EASA position paper. EASA will include reports on variations of precarity in academia in the position paper that will be officially presented to different universities, the European Commission’s Director General for Research, Science and Innovation, but also to the Director General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

In collaboration with the World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA) project “Global Survey of Anthropological Practice”, this meeting will contribute to the creation of a database of precarious researchers and a collaborative transnational approach to scholars at risk to be realized in partnership with the other anthropological associations that are members of the World Council of Anthropological Associations.


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Organising team: David Loher (University of Bern), Georgeta Stoica (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement - IRD France), Sabine Strasser (University of Bern)