Anna Carola Freschi and Marco Santoro: Italy: A Troubled and Divided Academic Field under Neoliberal Pressure

Anna Carola Freschi and Marco Santoro: Italy: A Troubled and Divided Academic Field under Neoliberal Pressure
Anna Carola Freschi, University of Bergamo,  and Marco Santoro, University of Bologna

It is well known that Italy has one of the poorest public funding for scientific research and universities in Western societies. The number of researchers as a percentage of the employed population is also one of the lowest. The ratio of full time tenured researchers/professors (who amount to about 60,000) to temporary researchers and lecturers (normally with short terms contracts and low remuneration) is near one to one. A big slice of teaching activities and courses is provided by young researchers, often without any remuneration.

The Impoverished University

During the last twenty years, the public university has suffered an increasing financial impoverishment along with a great waste of creativity: the intellectual and practical needs of the new generation of students and researchers has been widely neglected, too often sacrificed in favor of short term interests of both institutions and tutors/masters. The waste of the first ten or more most important years of academic training – spent in intense teaching activities, fund raising and executive jobs – for dozens of thousands of young researchers is clearly a great loss for the university system and the whole country. For those students and young scholars, research has often become a part time and contingent activity, to be done after all the other stuff, in the residual interstices of a growingly bureaucratic and Fordist university.

Actually, the whole academic work (at all hierarchical levels) in public university has been transformed into one of the most entrepreneurial and flexible occupations on the market, at the same time that it has been asked to perform increasingly heavy executive functions, and to apply a wide range of bureaucratic and standardized modes of control. This transformation has specially impacted the academic training relying too much on the sense of responsibility of the masters.

The increasing competition for scarce and uncertain resources has exacerbated the relationship among ‘schools’, cartels and the most influential personalities in academic politics. Under a certain level of resources, competition loses its ideal aura of a fair and fruitful confrontation among peers, at all organizational level, and became pure struggle. Opportunistic behaviours, along horizontal and vertical dimensions, have dramatically increased, even in the ‘market’ of authorship, and have deployed the worst consequences in the recruitment policies. The process of “corrosion of character” (focused by Sennet) has weakened the opportunity to consolidate a professional ethics, which should be the core of the profession.

Not surprisingly, and disregarding the strong continuity with the public policies which have brought about the present difficult situation, the buzzwords which have framed recent governmental initiatives have been “equity,” “meritocracy” and “moralization” of academic life. Such governmental claims sound, however, a bit paradoxical to anyone who has in mind the Italian current scene and specifically the deep public ethical crisis, which concerns the reproduction and even the identities of the Italian political and economic elites.

Still, not surprisingly, public debate has been distorted by strong conceptual as well as empirical mystifications. Concepts and measures of merit and equity have been proposed in rough and misleading terms, avoiding any link with the wider  social context, and often generating more confusion than clarity.

In the middle of the global financial debacle the proposal of private subsidization for augmented university student fees appears to some observers irresponsible, particularly if one considers the unfavourable job opportunities for medium and highly qualified individuals in this country. Again, neither the social selectivity of indebtedness nor the possible motivations for studies, which is not the same as individual financial enrichment, are included in public discussion.

The wider national context is also characterized by other elements, leading to the dismantling of those public functions bearing on social equity: important cuts in the public expenditure on schools, welfare and the disadvantaged areas of the South, very low care for the needs of a growingly multiethnic society. Even the privatization of several public services hasn’t had the expected positive effects on the quality and price of the services; on the contrary, new grounds for inefficiency, corruption and bad entrepreneurship have emerged.

In this frame, the everyday campaign of denigration/humiliation of academic work, conducted by some ministers and by opinion leaders (mainly economists), is not constructive and, definitively, as it is too generic, becomes unfair. However, the academic elite has certainly played its own role in the current crisis of the Italian universities. The recurrent reforms of the last ten years have been often managed in a feudal and particularistic manner, conducive to a disproportioned increase of associate professors and full professors without a parallel recruitment of assistant professors (ricercatori).

Finally, it should be noted that in Italy the only important recent mobilizations against the local and national consequences of the several waves of reforms on the university system haven’t been led by the academically most consolidated cliques, from any disciplinary field. Students and less protected workers (like precarious researchers) were indeed the main protagonists of the two recent protest cycles (2004-2005 and 2008-2009). Only a small proportion of the permanent academic staff has participated in this protest, adopting a mostly symbolic repertoire (such as lessons in the squares). The great part of researchers – precarious or permanent – has continued to accept extra-courses, often with no remuneration and always beyond their contractual duties, according to a pattern of access to professional groups which is widely used (and sometimes abused) in Italy .

The marginality of sociology in Italian society and in its universities

All these features of the national and university contexts find a clear resonance in the sociological field, with the aggravating circumstances which derive from being a recently institutionalized discipline and from its-own scientific core. The generation of sociologists, who control the nodes of academic power and connections with local and national political and economic elites in the last two decades, played a substantive and peculiar part in this debacle. They didn’t succeed in carrying out the defense of their position with respect to market and public action. Bitterly, this implied also a lack of vision about the future of university and of the space reserved for sociology and sociologists as both professional experts and intellectuals. The prevailing weakness of a public and professional ethic, neoliberal culture and the wider media context are radically unfavourable especially to many kinds of sociology, due to the well-known hegemonic denial of the existence of an object such as “society” even among Italian gatekeepers, in large part under control of/belonging to right wing parties. This, in part, explains why sociologists don’t succeed in claiming the scientific autonomy of their-own field of knowledge. Unfortunately, the increasing troubles for cultivating sociology as a discipline, which favor more pragmatic and short term policy analysis, haven’t given advantages to the sociological field as a whole. Indeed,  it has led to the progressive expulsion of sociology from a few of the fields where it  had achieved important results on analytical grounds. The almost complete exclusion of sociology from the curricula in Schools of Economics or even Statistics is an example of this significant trend. Not surprisingly, as less profitable in terms of the current market logic, public sociology, social critics and part of the humanities have been the predictable ‘victims’ of the newly emerging models of university and society. Precisely because of its-own scientific peculiarity, these defeats/retreats have been almost fatal to the sociological field. In government milieu the proposal to dismiss sociology as a discipline (and to merge it with other social and cultural sciences) is being debated and seriously considered as a result of intellectual inconsistency and vacuity, generically addressed to the sociological field. The imbalance of quality within the field is instrumentally used by other social scientists against sociology as a whole. After all, sociology is a well established discipline, with a solid and acknowledged canon, in different regions of the world. This is not a claim for disciplinary fundamentalism, but surely the centrifugal pressures towards more (neo-classical) market-inclined fields and a corresponding positioning of the discipline – without acknowledgment of itsown autonomous scientific dignity – have been accepted as only a minor problem by the same gatekeepers of the sociological field.

Sociology: a divided intellectual field

As usual, history is a helpful resource for understanding puzzles. Consider first of all that sociology arrived late in Italy – late with respect to countries like France and the United States, at least from an academic point of view. The first chair in sociology was  recognized by the Italian government only in 1950, when the chair in history and the doctrine of fascism held by Camillo Pellizzi in Florence, was transformed into a chair in sociology. The first appointment following public competition in sociology goes back only to 1961 – in Rome, with Franco Ferrarotti. Therefore the sociological field emerged only in the 1960s, mainly around a few scholars who acted as poles: Pellizzi in Florence, Ferrarotti in Rome, and then Filippo Barbano in Turin, Luciano Cavalli in Genoa, Achille Ardigò in Bologna, Alessandro Pizzorno in Ancona, and so on. Still more recent is  the introduction of a third degree in higher education, i.e. PhD. This was introduced in 1985, and the current cohort of PhD students is only the 25th. This means that it is only since the nineties that PhDs entered the sociological field – with the few exceptions of those who since the sixties graduated in a foreign university (rarely absorbing the foreign country’s academic customs, however.)

But another feature is important and should be noticed in any account of the Italian sociological field. Since its inception, with the aforementioned early academic practitioners, the field structured itself around two great poles: a lay pole, on the left, and a Christian (or better a Roman Catholic one), on the right. A  great tension was therefore organizing and driving the emerging Italian sociological field in its early years (approximately 1960-1964), a tension which would be soon institutionalized in a true cleavage between two so-called “components,” or better “camps”: the Catholic camp (with the full leadership of Ardigò and at least two strongholds: the Catholic University in Milan and the Faculty of Political Science in Bologna), and a less organized and more polycentric camp of lay (usually left-oriented) sociologists. It is not surprising that Parsons – with his stress on social integration and the importance attributed to value systems – was appealing to the Catholic camp more than to the left-oriented one. It is less obvious why Merton and Lazarsfeld proved so alien to this same Catholic camp: the most promising explaination  is probably the stronger philosophical orientation of early Catholic sociologists, who were still influenced by Luigi Sturzo’s philosophical sociology, and still sceptical about the extension of scientific programs and tools to the study of human life and culture – including, of course, religion.

In fact, after the great mobilization of the 1970s, and the exposure of social science to the political conflicts and stakes of that decade, Italian sociology worked hard – as other national sociologies – to eliminate any suspicion of ideological commitment, looking for a new and, strictly scientific, legitimation. This work of de-politicization and de-ideologization was particularly intense in the camp which was more involved in  political mobilization, i.e. the lay camp. In this conjuncture, it is revealing that precisely a conservative French scholar like Boudon was identified as a bearer of scientific legitimacy even by the more leftist sociologists. Incidentally, the troubles Bourdieu has long encountered in Italy, after a first import in the early seventies, have to be located, and seem accountable, exactly in this context. Just to complicate the case, the lay camp within the sociological field worked hard to further differentiate itself after the early seventies. At first there was the constitution of an academic group – labelled MiTo (i.e. Milan and Turin, as the greatest part of their members were associated with these two big universities in the North of Italy, even if an influential group was also located in Bologna), composed of younger left-wing or liberal scholars who wanted their voice to be heard in the  Associazione Italiana di Sociologia – the first true professional association which was effectively founded only in 1982 (before that year, sociologists were  associated with groupings that were both more local and specialised). The second one was the formation, in the early eighties, of a new group, the so-called Third Wing , which was and still is appealing above all to sociologists in the Center and South which were not part of  the Catholic wing and not willing to stay in MiTo – indeed, were  not really accepted by the latter. Different from the principles structuring the MiTo, which adhere to the rules of a Weberian “sect” (with a high barrier to the access), the Third component seems characterized by an opposite organizational/normative model, less exclusive in access and more rigid toward exits. This organizational feature accounts for the wide range of topics and references which characterize this wing – much wider than the MiTo’s. Political, geographical, interpersonal, and only in small part scientific-intellectual factors account for this split inside the lay camp.

This articulation of three camps, which can be found even among formally established associations (e.g. the SPE, the “Sociology of the person,” in the Catholic camp), has deeply marked and still is marking anything a sociologist can do, including his opportunity to enter the field, and particularly the chances to enter it through a formal public competition (necessary to gain a tenure). We don’t have enough evidence to say that this model of structuring the disciplinary field doesn’t also affect other academic disciplines in Italy, in different ways and measures. Our sense, however, shared by many colleagues, is that sociology is really an exceptional case at least for the degree of institutionalization that this organized system of cleavages has achieved in 40 years of development and improvement. Perhaps, this is an aspect of the delayed modernization of the (academic) profession, which has had stronger consequences for sociology, as a particularly vulnerable field, for many of the reasons we have underlined above (its specific public mission, late institutionalization, small dimension of the field, relationships particularly unfavorable inter-disciplinary fields, etc.). What is sure is that this internal division affects almost all the institutional and even intellectual life, and work, of Italian sociologists.

It is easy to imagine how the prevailing structuration of the field according to cleavages, which are only in small part intellectual but mainly organizational and political (unfortunately not in the sense of academic politics, but in the sense of potential relations with the political and especially the party system) could affect the working and the intellectual productivity of the sociological field. Suffice to say that the psychological tension among intellectual generations is here distorted by tensions and cleavages pertaining less to the current scientific game and much more to the political or bureaucratic fields. Too much academic work is in Italy consumed in managing and above all piloting competitions, in order to regulate who will enter the field, usually  less on the basis of  scientific merits than  reliability to the camp (and inside this, to the smaller local group, or even the personal chair). Of course, given the features of the field and the growing scarcity of resources, an open critique has been quite rare.

After all, the AIS is the expression of this threefold structuration of the sociological field, in so far that each new President and executive board has to be decided (before the voting) according to the negotiations among these three “parties”. An enlightening indicator of this main function of AIS is the fact that its members do not include  some of the most influential and respected sociologists and that almost none of them has ever considered becoming a President. If few younger scholars – especially from among the more productive and internationally linked – aren’t involved in the activities of the AIS, it is often because it is more common to adopt a strategy of loyalty than implicit confrontation or voice.

This is after all the main issue of the Italian sociological field: i.e. the interiorization and internalization even in the younger generation of a vision of sociology as a system of cleavages and tensions among academic power groups, which do not easily foster intellectual creativity, and cannot promote the change and innovation needed to strengthen and re-launch an original role for sociology in Italy. Indeed, even among the younger generations it is very rare to find attempts  to modernize the structuration of the field in a direction that would offer better opportunities for innovative and substantive involvement.. That may be because strict loyalty has become a particularly precious resource in a context of permanent ‘war’ of all against all , with negative consequences in  recruitment policy.  This result has been exacerbated by subjecting the current generation over 40 years old to excessive amounts of teaching and bureaucratic tasks during the last decade, with the effect of reducing  time for research and pressure to rely more on organizational than intellectual or scientific resources.

The quest for a stronger professional identity

The weak sense of professional and disciplinary identity is, we suspect, an important social condition for the ‘market’ drift of Italian sociology. Not only exchange and negotiation have become an integral feature for the working of the field, but the lack of a clear and deeply felt scholarly identity – and of a mission grounded on it – has favoured the acceptance of heteronomous organizational principles, which for long have been mainly political (i.e. linked to the peculiar party system) and currently are more market-oriented (also this in part an effect of the party system and its move toward the right). In the absence of shared criteria of scholarly evaluation, the (neo-classical, mono-dimensional) market has become the main standard – in the design of the courses, in the selection (and still before that in the writing) of textbooks, in the building of reputation (measured in terms of student numbers, fundraising and book sales), and even in the selection of the topics to study, methods to adopt, and the books to write (very often driven by the expectations of sales, according to the publishers’ vision).

It is not surprise that the first (and recent) national assessment of research in Italy (so called CIVR) which has been conducted for the social sciences by a group of experts with no interest at stake in the national game, has thrown a long black shadow especially on Italian sociology, very poorly evaluated and described in the following points: 1) a prevalence of books as against articles (a mark of an immature and heteronomous scientific field); 2) an almost total nationalization of book production (i.e. books in Italian, and for the Italian market) and an international visibility promoted only by (the few) articles; 3) little cooperation among researchers (that is, a prevalence of individually authored articles and books); 4) concentration of research in the Northern and Central regions of the country, as a confirmation of the wider territorial imbalances affecting the country; 5) a relatively low average quality; 6) a strong heterogeneity among research areas, with excellence concentrated in some areas and very low standards in others. There are good reasons to suspect that these outcomes in turn are the natural effect of a distorted selection of the intellectual products to be evaluated, in which the institutional position and the academic power of the authors have been prioritized over intellectual qualities like originality and soundness. But this is only a cold comfort, as it translates on another plane into what is the deep problem at stake in the field. In other words, the perverse criteria of valorization in the field have been isomorphically transferred to the assessment process (through the phase of product selection which was controlled by the academic hierarchies), with the effect of distorting the relationship between outcomes and the object of the evaluation exercise (the actual potential of research).

Although Italian sociologists learnt this outcome in 2006, till now the very apparent challenges posed by the CIVR assessment don’t seem to have given rise to  extensive and appropriate reactions in the national field, different from the usual (and not very productive) ones discrediting the real value of the whole enterprise. But a few innovations can be highlighted.

One improvement in the Italian sociological field has been the wider adoption  of  peer review procedures by the human and social sciences, as a consequence of the pressure of other scientific fields at the national level and their influence in the national decision making arena. Even if promoted from the outside, the new system of evaluation has anyway been welcomed by the most prestigious sociological journals – even if, so far, there aren’t indications about how much it will be accepted in the whole field, and how it will be implemented in practice.

The founding in 2007 of a new journal by a group of younger sociologists to which we belong (mainly in our forties) is, we hope, a step in the direction of the internationalization of the discipline and the improvement of its internal communication, as well as the general improvement of standards.  The journal, named “Sociologica. Italian Journal of Sociology on line”  and published by the most prestigious Italian publisher in the field of academic sociology, is the first sociological journal in Italy to exploit digital technologies. , It publishes peer reviewed (in blind and public modalities) essays, it has chosen English as its main language and it is explicitly designed to foster discussion among scholars, both Italian and foreign.

We regard both these initiatives – the spreading of peer review and the founding of a new, and internationally oriented journal – as encouraging signs of change and professionalization. In order to institutionalize this novel trend, some social conditions need to be first realized , and among them is priority given to the organization of a solid constituency. Even here there are may be good reasons for being optimist. For partly contingent reasons, but also as an effect of the working of the  field itself (e.g. the introduction of PhD programs and the recent professionalization of social research, a few “deep” and virtuous intellectual continuities between good masters and good students, the recent resurgence of a radical, critical attitude even inside sociology, etc.), in recent years a new generation of scholars have begun to occupy interesting, strategic positions in central regions of the field, which  Canadian sociologist Neil McLaughlin would define as “optimal marginality”.

Actually, the new generations of sociologists have to accept the challenge of overcoming the weaknesses of the legacy of their elders  and promote wider changes in the field. These changes must  prevent the final dissolution of the discipline,– which prevailing current cultural and political trends tend to reinforce –  by reversing the  many mistakes made  in the past by many of its  practitioners.

How near the system is to collapse  is witnessed by the recent proposal to dismiss sociology as an autonomous discipline from the official list of disciplines acknowledged by the State, which has provoked a public discussion online about the “suicide/homicide” of sociology in Italy (launched in mid February by the sociologist Guido Martinotti, one of the founders of AIS, in the website of one of the most important intellectual institutions in Italy, the Istituto Treccani’s, that is the publisher of the Italian Encyclopaedia and many other reference publications in Italian high culture.

Indeed, only six sociologists have till now contributed a post, three of them from the younger generations, almost all insisting – this is not by chance – on the issue of professional division and lack of a national representation with high scientific legitimation. We can only hope the discussion will continue…

Universities in Crisis, 18/03/10