University bureaucracy and resistance

Dear colleagues,

In their article "Invasion of aca-zombies" published in The Australian, the mysterious Joseph Gora and our own Andrew Whelan (lecturer in sociology, University of Wollongong) used the metaphor of zombies to highlight the ongoing imposition of bureaucratic controls in university life.[1] The great sociologist Max Weber analysed the phenomenon of bureaucratisation, and many others have followed. One book I often cite is The bureaucratization of the world by Henry Jacoby.

In a bureaucracy, workers are treated as interchangeable cogs. Hierarchy and the division of labour are the key organising principles. Things are supposed to be done according to the rules, especially rules imposed on those lower down.

A vibrant intellectual life does not immediately seem to fit the bureaucratic model, but that is no obstacle to administrators. Solzhenitsyn's book The First Circle described how Soviet managers attempted to control top scientific workers in prison camps.

In my 25 years in the university, curriculum matters have always been rule-based and highly regulated. I found it a tortuous process to negotiate a cross-faculty Arts major and I don't think much has changed.

Back in the 1980s, research used to be relatively free of restrictions. Those were the days before the introduction of research groups and performance assessments. Over the years, though, research has been subject to ever more controls and measurement processes.

Most annoying to me has been the rigid controls imposed on the university website, squeezing out opportunities to use up-to-date techniques, such as wikis, except by going off-site. Just as Web 2.0 is opening interactive possibilities highly relevant to learning, university managers attempt retrogressive control methods.

As I read their article, Joseph and Andrew use the term aca-zombies to refer to staff who simply accept such bureaucratising processes, perhaps even without paying much attention. They go along with it all without a thought of resistance.

In response, Wenche Ommundsen (Dean of Arts, University of Wollongong) commented that most staff see only a portion of the impositions from on high.[2] The higher one goes in the system, seemingly the less room there is to move because of the constant demands for what is euphemistically called accountability but might better be described as subordination to government mandates.

It is understandable that Labor governments promote control measures. What I found ironic is that a Liberal government, while using the rhetoric of diversity and autonomy, imposed ever more stringent controls while offering ever less money.

I agree with Wenche that the old days were not golden days. Decades ago, there was more than a small amount of laziness, intrigue, special favours and poor performance.

What interests me most is processes of resistance. Weber theorised bureaucracy but he didn't provide a parallel theory of resistance to bureaucratisation. In part that's because he looked at organisations as systems and didn't account for the agency of organisation members. My assumption is that resistance is a key factor in understanding bureaucracies. But this is not a hot topic in academic circles.

The best treatment I know of resistance in bureaucracies is Deena Weinstein's book Bureaucratic Opposition. She says that bureaucracies are similar to authoritarian political systems: opposition by individuals or movements is suppressed. Bureaucracies are the antithesis of participatory democracy. This analysis fits with the experience of bureaucratisation of universities: the trend for a couple of decades has been relentlessly towards top-down decision-making, with staff and student participation gradually reduced from a fairly low starting position.

Years ago, the Wollongong NTEU branch organised a simple and powerful action. At a designated time, everyone sent one megabyte files to each other. (In those days, one megabyte was quite large.) Within minutes, the entire university email system ground to a halt.

Today, though, the NTEU is trapped in the government's convoluted processes for taking protected industrial action, and hasn't dared to step outside the government's parameters. Initiative is stultified as risk-aversion becomes the dominant viewpoint.

Discussing bureaucratisation can be demoralising, and I struggled to find an optimistic note on which to finish. Here's a thought.

One of the most powerful methods of nonviolent action is working to rule. It simply means following all regulations. To speed the process, when you receive some unnecessary bureaucratic request, write back asking for more information and guidance, for example in filling out some form. If you're the only one to do this, you will be seen as a pest. But if all your colleagues join in, work will grind to a halt.

It might even be fun. However, I don't remember Weber writing about humour in organisations.

16 November 2010


[1] Joseph Gora and Andrew Whelan, "Invasion of aca-zombies", The Australian, 3 November 2010.


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