Nested Precarities: On the Limits of Solidarity and the Future of Knowledge

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Sigmund Freud once famously asked, “What does a woman want?” The question was rhetorical: after thirty years of research, he declared it unanswerable. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point out that Freud’s question was unanswerable because it was staked upon a preposterously flawed view of what makes a man and what makes a woman. Yet how could a man for whom material, political, and affective economies were so seamlessly interwoven see “women” and “men” as anything other than discrete ontological categories? How much of his sense of self, constructed over a lifetime, was invested in that imagined ontic divide?

Freud’s question often comes to mind when I follow discussions of academic precarity, both inside and outside anthropology, discussions that are often driven by questions like “why are graduate students so anxious?” and “what do adjuncts need?”

I appreciate the proposals offered in this forum, particularly the suggestions for creating institutional pathways to working as an anthropologist outside of academia. To my mind, this suggestion has two potential benefits: first, it recognizes that chronic under- and unemployment among PhDs poses an existential threat to the pipeline of prospective graduate students. Would-be students talk to each other. A deep pessimism expands. Second, it might help with the campaign to persuade a voting public—a public that, for forty years, has looked on with indifference at the steady erosion of state funding for higher education—that knowledge production in the social sciences is worthwhile. I see the widespread employment of well-trained anthropologists as a means of distributing the tools of our trade—the tools of contextualization, deep ethnographic listening, comparative and relational analysis, and critical questioning—more widely through our society. These are tools for envisioning new possibilities, and they belong in as many spaces as we can insert them.

To my mind, the voting public’s attitude toward the university is at the heart of the matter. Much has already been written diagnosing the material, affective, and political economies that generate academic precarity and its psychic torments, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. I will note, because I was asked to, that the extent to which I have flourished in precarity is due, first, to the private relationships that sustain me and, second, to senior scholars who reject the imaginary ontic divide separating me from them by engaging my work as if it matters and by using what limited institutional power they have to make spaces for me to continue doing my work. Beyond the point that a junior scholar’s long-term viability depends on the caretaking practices of those senior to her as much as it does on the intersection of privileges that shape her biography, I am not sure that the example of my life offers any scalable solutions.

What I would like to draw attention to instead is the way that these material, affective, and political economies intersect to produce a set of nested precarities, a concept I adapt from Milica Bakić-Hayden’s (1995) notion of nesting Orientalisms, across the entire domain of knowledge production. The precarity of graduate students, postdocs, and adjuncts is nested within a broader condition of precarity that shapes the field of social relations we call “knowledge production” in complex ways. But all of this complexity converges in the basic fact that a perceived ontic divide between precarious and secure academics is an unavoidable consequence of university hiring practices—too many universities rely on contingent labor to keep their doors open. This is a problem not easily solved; exhausted, overworked tenure-track faculty have difficulty speaking out against such practices because of a well-founded fear of being denied tenure, while exhausted, overworked tenured faculty have a well-founded fear of losing the few tenure lines they can open if they fight their deans too hard, while exhausted, overworked deans have a well-founded fear that their divisions will lose ground to other divisions, and on and on up the Chain of Institutional Being. Conditions of manufactured scarcity squeeze everyone, turning natural allies into rivals.

The consequence of such nested precarities is that we have a university system that relies increasingly on contingent laborers who teach, write, conduct research, perform service work, and provide mentorship to students at a rate and at a level of professionalism that, in many cases, is comparable to (or even exceeds) that of the tenured and the tenurable. They do so because they, too, are the real deal—they are every bit as talented, accomplished, driven, and committed as those on the tenure track. Such contingent knowledge workers need what every knowledge worker needs: fair compensation for their labor, support for their research and writing, and enough security to see a long-term project through. What makes this such an untenable ask? Limited resources, we are told. This is an intractable problem.

So what do we do? I propose we get creative and ambitious. First, we acknowledge that the field of knowledge production is an ecosystem vulnerable to incremental destruction. Second, we articulate clearly to each other how, even though we inhabit this ecosystem differently depending on whether our institutions are public or private, teaching- or research-oriented, urban or rural, or any other configuration of mission, location, and identity, we nonetheless depend on each other to sustain the ecosystem that sustains us. An adequate response to the crisis of graduate student confidence is to recognize it as a symptom of a crisis of knowledge production per se. The imbalance may not be perceptible in every corner of the ecosystem yet, but it will be eventually.

The task then is to discern our common interests in defending knowledge production from the faction of our governing elite that decided decades ago that the university was a hotbed of Maoist revolution (I’m not being glib, I have heard it firsthand), and that would therefore destroy academic freedom through the back door by persuading millions of voters to elect candidates who go on to defund public higher education. In the process, they destabilize the field of social relations in which knowledge for the public good is produced, eroding the conditions that make it possible to do this work and demolishing the very idea of the public good.

Finally, we must organize. I balk at the thought of a union for contingent knowledge workers—that would further materialize the imaginary ontic divide that is so dangerous to the cause of knowledge production per se—but perhaps it is the only way to instigate a mass response across disciplines, institutions, professional associations, and state or perhaps even national lines, to end the most abusive hiring practices in academia. We might do this in solidarity with contingent laborers everywhere to persuade the public that contingent labor is harmful to all, and to lobby our legislatures to abolish such hiring practices. This, in turn, raises a hundred logistical, practical, and political questions. But those are the questions we need to address if we are serious about safeguarding a future for knowledge production.


Bakić-Hayden, Milica. 1995. “Nesting Orientalisms: The Case of Former Yugoslavia.” Slavic Review 54, no. 4: 917–31.