War on universities? Neoliberalism, intellectual positioning, and knowledge production in the UK
This thesis contributes to sociological accounts of critique and, more broadly, to accounts of the relationship between knowledge and the social conditions of its production.
It begins with a theoretical exploration of the tension between Bourdieu’s concept of sociological reflexivity and Boltanski’s sociology of critique, including the epistemic and political position from which knowledge claims in social sciences can be made and justified. This question becomes particularly important when the authority of such claims rests on the possibility of a conceptual distinction between the subject of knowledge (the ‘knower’) and their object (the ‘social’).
The empirical part of the thesis provides an analysis of this process through the case of the critique of neoliberalism in UK higher education and research between 1997 and 2017. Intellectual interventions (books, articles, and other public statements) offering critical accounts of the transformation of universities are interpreted as forms of intellectual positioning, speech-acts that assign properties to objects and actors in the social realm. Through a qualitative analysis of interventions and interviews, the thesis reconstructs ontological assumptions entailed in forms of positioning, particularly those pertaining to the justification of epistemic authority of academics in the political and historical context of post-WWII Britain.
The thesis uses these findings to situate the questions of knowledge, critique, and the role of social sciences within the longer discussion about the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. Focusing on the relationship between positionality and positioning, the thesis shows how subject-object relationships form a fundamental part of the production of both critique and knowledge about its object.