Archives for category: Academia:Real World Interface

The tragic hero

For something I was writing recently, I thought it would be interesting to draw on a bank of verbal data to which I had access.  I had some broad overall intentions, but I didn’t quite know what would emerge from the data.  After putting all the text into a database, I explored and interrogated it first from one angle, and then from another, and then from another; the dependent and independent variables alike were up for grabs; the purpose of the exercise, and its overall framing, morphed as I went along. Eventually, the lengthy process – much lengthier than I had planned it to be – ended when I got the data to tell what I thought was an interesting story.

There’s nothing particularly strange about all this: I felt as if I was acting out a chapter from a standard Science & Technology Studies textbook (even if I make no claims that my methods met the natural scientific ideal). But what interests me in this sort of situation is precisely the way that the messy data can only be presented to the world at the point that they can be made to tell a story. What results is ‘fraudulent’ (Medawar, 1963) in the sense that the facts which it makes real are underpinned, and the choices to make them real are constrained, primarily by the requirements of story-telling.

It’s fascinating to think of any academic article as a short story, and about how this is more and less obviously the case – though still the case – across different disciplines.  A particular discursive universe is set up, with its own finite set of actors and causal relations; various plot devices (such as research questions) are deployed; and so on. But perhaps the plot always has pretty much the same structure. At a panel discussion last year on ‘The Allure of Happy Endings’ (at the LSE Space for Thought Utopias literary festival), Jonathan Gibbs made the interesting suggestion that non-fiction always has an implicitly happy ending. And I see academic ‘stories’ in particular as always tending towards comedy rather than tragedy: at the beginning, a particular problem with (one version of) the world is outlined; by the end, that problem is in some way resolved, but the world has been changed.

So I’m left wondering what it might mean to write an academic paper with an ‘unhappy ending’.  Would that only mean that the paper had been badly written?  Perhaps it could tell the unfortunate tale of some of the other unpolished findings, proto-facts, and half-glimpsed perspectives, which had been suppressed and expunged because they were at odds with the world narrated – because they did not serve the story. I’m not sure: the fact of their inscription might mean that the tale was no longer a tragic one.  But, at least, it might be more honest one.

London, 29 April 2017



Medawar, P. (1963). Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud? The Listener, 70: 377–78.


Dialogues of Sustainable Urbanisation cover

A few months ago, I saw a call for contributors to a ‘book of blogs’. The idea was to create a “collection of short blog posts crowdsourced by, and from, our networks of social scientists working on sustainable urbanisation issues”. The editors – Jenna Condie (University of Western Sydney) and Anna Cooper (University of Salford) – were hoping for at least 50 contributions of up to 1,000 words, with no particular restrictions on content within the overall theme. It seemed like a good initiative, and I was curious. So I signed up, dutifully wrote my bit, and the whole thing has just been published.

In the event, more than 120 people from around the world agreed to take part, and the book has ended up containing around 70 short pieces. There is a varied mix of contributions – mostly I think from early-stage researchers, but also from established academics – grouped together into 11 sections: ‘Definitions of Sustainability’, ‘Urban Governance’, ‘Engaged Citizens’, ‘Urban Divides’, ‘Movement and Mobilities’, ‘China’, ‘Making Places’, ‘Environment’, ‘Low Carbon Futures’, ‘Alternative Economies’, ‘Digital Futures’.  The whole process took seven months from the original call up to publication.

Co-editor Jenna Condie reflects on the experience in the final section of the book: “The ‘traditional’ communication platforms of email and the mail lists of international organisations have realised this book into being. Without those networks, the range of posts would have been narrower and the contributions less varied. Whilst mail lists are great for sharing information, they function less well as dialogical spaces. We need more social online spaces to get to know one another given that we are located across the world, living great distances apart with many interests in common. The web presents a wealth of opportunities for networked researchers to create environments for dialogue, discussion, and research. Still, researchers need to want to get involved in those online discussions by putting their identities ‘out there’, and in turn, reap benefits from doing so.”

Will it succeed in its aim of encouraging dialogue? Blogs seem to work well as half-way houses for writing, without the pressure of peer review: they are public enough to make you put effort into what you write, and the process of writing helps you clarify your thoughts.  I admit that I get lots of ideas from other people’s blogs, but I’m concerned that I pilfer these rather than enter into dialogue with their authors. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read or take seriously what’s written in a blog; perhaps they are more useful for the writer than anybody else. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with this.

There’s a link to the pdf here, or you can read it as an e-book from a link here.  A print version should be available soon as well.

8 August 2015, Cornwall


I’ve attended talks in the past where examples of ‘best practices’ in urban sustainability (often from somewhere in Northern Europe or the US) have been presented, along with vague discussions of the difficulties of applying these in the context of developing countries. These difficulties are sometimes explained as rooted in the lack of ‘institutional capacity’ in such places. ‘Institutional capacity’ is an umbrella label, and might be understood in all sorts of ways. As a label, though, I find it problematic. The idea of ‘capacity’ points us towards thinking about quantifiable deficits, in terms of budgets, staffing levels, and technical experience, and so on. Such factors are, of course, important: it’s not hard to find examples of cities which – for whatever reasons – have plenty of resources available for ‘green’ infrastructure, and therefore appear to achieve a lot more than their neighbours. But talk of ‘capacity’ seems to evoke a set of particular criteria, each with a positive and negative pole, constructing in their totality a singular norm of the way that cities should be governed.

Strangely, I never hear much about corruption in such discussions. This is odd, if only because of the increasingly high-profile anti-corruption drives in international development more generally (Harrison, 2006). Presumably, corruption is to be understood as just one possible form of municipal incapacity; one flaw among many in need of correction if a city is to move further along the road to enlightenment. There is an assumption that most urban residents, and their well-intentioned leaders alike, would be pleased to be rid of this scourge, and would relish the chance to act in their own rational collective best interests.

This assumption seems logical enough if we treat the idea of corruption as an economic phenomenon. Susan Rose-Ackerman (1999:1), for example, understands corruption essentially in terms of institutional and market dysfunctionality. In her view, “societies differ in the way they channel self-interest. Endemic corruption suggests a pervasive failure to tap self-interest for productive purposes”. If the goal is one of infrastructural improvement, this would suggest that technological considerations alone do not suffice. While making a city ‘greener’ may be ‘technically straightforward’, we should remember that “reforming government and nurturing a strong private sector are more subtle and difficult tasks that cannot be reduced to an engineering blueprint”.

Fair enough. But what if corruption is not simply readable as a system’s relative position on a continuum, with regretful dysfunctionality at one end and an ideal of collective best interests at the other? What if corruption isn’t straightforwardly analogous to, say, levels of funding? What if some municipal councils are not staffed by individuals who dream that one day an equitable democracy will be installed within their jurisdiction? If, instead, they appear to the ‘western’ eye to function as consciously self-seeking gangster organisations?  Perhaps we accept the idea that corruption can have a “positive function in development because it ‘fills the gap’ left by partial bureaucratization and the incomplete penetration of the state. According to this logic, corruption eases the transition to modernity” (Haller & Shore, 2005:3). Again, though, this would be to interpret corruption in terms of a position along a particular path to becoming a ‘good’ system.

Instead, might we understand ‘corruption’ in more positive terms – not as a lack of civilisation so much as a reflection of deeply embedded cultural tendencies?  Rose-Ackerman (1999:5) nods in this direction by acknowledging that “corruption has difference meanings in different societies. One person’s bribe is another person’s gift”. Despite her interest in the causes and contexts of corruption, however, she still presents it fundamentally as a form of transgression: “culture and history are explanations, not excuses”. We are urged, in other words, to adopt a legal definition of corruption for practical purposes.

The legal codification of corruption, in itself, would appear to be a useful activity. I’ve made no attempt to review the vast literature categorising its different manifestations (see, for example, Heidenheimer and Johnston, 2002) – but Wikipedia at least suggests that the following analytical ‘scales’ are widely accepted:

  • ‘petty bribery’ (“the exchange of small improper gifts or use of personal connections to obtain favours”);
  •  ‘grand bribery’, (“occurring at the highest levels of government in a way that requires significant subversion of the political, legal and economic systems”); and
  • ‘systemic corruption’ (“primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process. It can be contrasted with individual officials or agents who act corruptly within the system”).

Each of these describes a deviation from an ideal of a system functioning efficiently in the collective best interest, and characterised by consensual compliance with an equitable regulatory and institutional framework. Thinking about scales of corruption might help us start unpicking statements such as that of Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, who in 2010 justified his government’s austerity measures on the basis that the responsibility for the country’s debt crisis was simply a collective one (in his words: “we all ate it together”).

All the same, such an analytical framework sidesteps the problem that the notion of ‘legality’ itself seems to have a different status in different societies. What if the ‘law’ is sometimes understood as little more than a series of arbitrary potential punishments, only tangentially connected with ‘real’ morality, and not to be obeyed by default?  Clearly, there is no necessary equivalence between the legal and the moral (Bauman, 1989), and defining ‘corruption’ as a legal condition is a relatively recent phenomenon; the term has a longer history of reference to moral decay (Anders & Nuijten, 2008:1). Others, equally, have suggested that the idea of ‘legal corruption’ is not as oxymoronic as it might appear.  Cockcroft (2012:3) comments that “there are also forms of corruption which are technically ‘legal’ but which most of society regards as corrupt” (giving the example of “the risks taken in the banking sector on Wall Street and elsewhere” which “were not, in principle, illegal”). Haller & Shore (2005) remind us of Berlusconi changing the law so as to legitimise his previously illegal book-keeping practices.

Might it also be problematic if definitions of corruption assume a clear-cut distinction between the expected behaviour of individuals in a ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ capacity? Gupta (1995) observes that in North India the boundaries between an official’s professional role and his private life might appear very blurred to the western eye. Ruud (2000:271) finds that in West Bengal, “networking is an everyday coping strategy that does not distinguish between the private and public roles of the individual. Although such distinctions may be well known, practices such as networking and the moral weight of reciprocal obligation ensure that the dividing line is still crossed”.  Harrison (2006:15) refers to other work suggesting that what is interpreted by the outsider as ‘widespread corruption’ in India in fact implies a “widespread acceptance of particular norms and values of bureaucratic practice, rather than their rejection”. Price (1999:315) argues that “in India, at least, some kinds of corruption are a function of complex cultural dynamics involving notions of the ontology of ranks and statuses, or the nature of authority, and of personal evaluation in political competition”; such corruption is better understood as reflecting “systems of belief and practice which have historical antecedents”.

And what of our own systems of belief and practice in the West? In our institutions, and in our dealings with them, can behaviours only be described as rational and just? In imagining our own societies as ‘less corrupt’ than those of the global South, are we potentially demonstrating blindness to structures and behaviours which are structurally inequitable but are ‘normalised’ for us?  Might the ‘global coalition’ against corruption (Anders & Nuijten, 2008:3) have Orientalist overtones in its ubiquitous “juxtaposition of the honest, hardworking and sober North with the image of a decadent, deceptive and savage South” (ibid: 4)?  Perhaps the “commonly held view that corruption is simply the law’s negation, a vice affecting the body politic” is a modern illusion. Insofar as the “image of a thoroughly corrupted South seems to be necessary to uphold the idea of an efficient and transparent North” (ibid: 4), it would seem that “corruption and the law are constitutive of one another” (ibid: 2).

transparency international 2013 indexTransparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013

At this point, it may seem that corruption loses all coherence as a concept. As Harrison argues: “because corruption is by its nature difficult both to define and to measure, to some extent its meaning will vary according to the perspective and context of the definer” (Harrison, 2006:15). We might be tempted to agree that “from a culturally sensitive point of view, it can be argued that the focus on corruption as a ‘problem’ in the developing world prevents us from understanding that these are practices developed within a fully mature normative system of no less moral validity than any other normative system” (Ruud, 2000:272). On this view, global ‘anti-corruption’ drives amount to little more than cultural imperialism.

But I think such relativism is too fatalistic. It denies the possibility of any constructive evaluative judgment; as well as spending our time splitting hairs over the definition of ‘corruption’, we also need to act in the real world. As Harrison puts it: “There is an uneasy tension between an appreciation of the fact that the meaning of “corruption” may vary and the harsh realities of being unable to get access to electricity, land, or a job, without a bribe” (Harrison, 2006:16).

But nor does this tension justify a retreat into “stipulative definition following Western norms” (Philp, 2002:47). A better way forwards would be the open acknowledgement of the particular norms and agendas which underpin any particular definition of corruption. Once these underpinnings are acknowledged, useful work can still be done to identify corruption – albeit within the terms of the definition and in the service of particular goals. Such work might be done by international organisations like Transparency International, or by individuals – as in the case of the crowdsourcing initiative in Greece. But, even more importantly, the norms themselves should continue to be questioned – especially by those countries who emerge under dominant definitions as ‘less corrupt’ than others. And this is where critical academic analysis has an important role to play, in working to destabilise discursive logics and identify the contours of internal and external power, countering our tendency to forget that these are never inevitable.

Returning to the shortcomings of urban sustainability policy-making, my most basic claim here is that the concept and practices of corruption receive insufficient attention in plans to roll out urban sustainability initiatives worldwide. I would argue that corruption should be understood not only as a practical impediment to smooth ‘progress’, but also as a clue to potentially generative sources of cultural sustainability. This possibility, however, will evade us as long as mainstream urban sustainability thinking remains narrowly focused on technological specifications on the one hand, and economic considerations on the other, and continues to avoid engagement with the abundance of potentially disruptive insights provided by social sciences such as anthropology, development studies, and critical political theory.

29 December 2013, London.


Anders, G. & Nuijten, M. (2008). Corruption and the Secret of Law: An Introduction. In: Anders, G. & Nuijten, M. (eds.) Corruption and the Secret of Law: A Legal Anthropological Perspective. Ashgate: Farnham, pp.1–26.

Bauman, Z. (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cockcroft, L. (2012). Global Corruption: Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World. Philadelphia, PA: University of Minnesota Press.

Gupta, A. (1995). Blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics and the imagined state. American Ethnologist. 22: 375–402.

Haller, D. & Shore, C. (2005). Introduction – Sharp Practice: Anthropology and the Study of Corruption. In: Haller, D. & Shore, C. (eds.) Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press, 1–28.

Harrison, E. (2006). Unpacking the Anti-corruption Agenda: Dilemmas for Anthropologists. Oxford Development Studies. 34(1): 15–29.

Heidenheimer, A. & Johnston, M. (eds.) (2002). Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. Third Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Philp, M. (2002). Conceptualising Political Corruption. In: Heidenheimer & M. Johnston, M. (eds.) Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 41–57.

Price, P. (1999). Cosmologies and corruption in (South) India. Forum for Development Studies. 2: 315–327.

Rose-Ackerman, S. (1999). Corruption and Government: Causes, Consequences and Reform. Cambridge: CUP.

Ruud, A. (2000). Corruption as Everyday Practice. The Public—Private Divide in Local Indian Society. Forum for Development Studies. 27(2): 271–294.


I don’t really know so much about the way universities operate. However, having until relatively recently spent my days in the ‘real world’, I retain an outsider’s perspective on what I do observe. From this perspective, it strikes me repeatedly that society as a whole seems quite unaware of what goes on within their walls. I think this is problematic, both for universities and for society generally.

I was interested to hear one remark recently made by Liza Griffin (University College London), who was outlining various theoretical criticisms of the notion of ‘good governance’. At one point she suggested that policy-makers or the general public might dismiss such arguments as being those of “tub-thumping academics”. This imagined dismissal, it seems to me, is based on two assumptions, only one of which I accept: that academics are often seen by wider society as somehow unqualified to comment on ‘real world’ social phenomena. I’ve heard this point of view expressed before, along the following lines: “it’s easy enough for them to sit around theorising about things, but what do they know of what it’s really like to work on the ground? What use is all this in practice?”  But the second assumption, that academics might be perceived as pugnacious opponents of the accepted order, seems to me to miss the mark. Rather, I would suggest that academics are generally understood to spend their time deliberately disengaged from the wider world, doing little more than playing intellectual games for each other’s pleasure.  The big point for me, then, is that their voices are not even heard at all.

But why should their voices be heard?  And what should they be saying?  Well, beyond the valuable services that universities provide in terms of preparing people for the world of work, and perhaps simply in terms of allowing many of us to ‘enjoy’ learning, academia also has a rather more consciously subversive purpose. Especially, I think, in the social sciences, academics set out to critique everyday practice and the structural status quo. But the case that criticism might help us act more constructively, individually and collectively is far from self-evident, and rarely made in public.

In fact, I see the expectation that academic work should directly prescribe action, or even provide clear answers to problems, as fundamentally misguided. Equally, however, I don’t see the theoretical work of the university as being an end in itself. Rather, I would like to think that theory, to quote Stuart Hall, should always be “a detour to something more interesting” (1997:42). Theoretical critique provided by academics is valuable to society when it allows actors in the real world to make more reflective personal decisions about how to behave as citizens, workers and consumers.  The point was recently well made on the Design Culture Lab’s blog:

“Critique shouldn’t stop us from acting or tell us how to act. Critical awareness should help us situate ourselves, make active decisions to do some things and not others, and accept the consequences of these actions for ourselves and others”.

So far, I’m not saying anything new. All I want to do here is register my own newcomer’s impression that academia fails to communicate its valuable critical insights effectively with the outside world.

Whose fault is this?  The lack of public engagement with the concerns of academia no doubt partly reflects the technical language in which much academic publishing is couched. Meanwhile, hundreds of talks and seminars, where all manner of unruly topics are intensely debated, take place every week in London alone – but the general public is not invited. But this shouldn’t be a problem in itself. It seems fair that complex and challenging ideas might need to be incubated and tested in ‘safe’ environments before they are ready for public scrutiny. The problem is that so little seems to result from this incubation – except possibly via long-term processes of diffusion, which seem to occur organically rather than as a result of active promotion.

We seem used to the idea that, beyond a few celebrity faces, academics only rarely appear on the television.  And how many newspaper editors would routinely turn to academics to write on a given topic? Of course, a wealth of well-rehearsed (media studies-related) arguments explain why this might be the case. But then, surely, there is a correspondingly large onus on universities to do more to open their own doors to the public. Instead, universities almost seem to want to present themselves as fortified citadels (and are increasingly securitised as physical spaces). Even when public lectures do take place, almost nobody knows that these are happening.  The use of social media, meanwhile, is patchy, or non-existent.

Or is it just that there is very little public appetite for academic input into the questions of the day? That’s probably true. And yet I still suspect that demand outstrips supply. Or, at least, that there is a latent demand out there, which should be more actively encouraged by those on the inside. This is a topic I feel strongly about, and to which I hope to return in future.


Hall, S. (1997). Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities. In: King, A ed. Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 41–68.

1 April 2013, London

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