The bullshitization of academic jobs: the start of a theory

David Graeber, one of my favorite anthropologists (I am thinking of shortlisting him for our forthcoming Economics vs. Science Fiction seminar), has been for some time a scholar of bureaucracy. Why is bureaucracy so pervasive, resilient and expansionary organizing principle of human activities? Its rise in the modern age was attributed to efficiency gains, and there certainly were plenty of those. But post-modern societies tend to introduce bureaucracy even where they appear to reduce efficiency.

Observation of this phenomenon is itself interesting, but recently Graeber published a brilliant article in which he takes a look at its possible causes. He has (ethnographic) data concerning “the bullshitization of academic jobs”. The theory is still relatively rough, but seductive. The main engine seems to be that higher-ups desire entourages to make them look more magnificent, just like feudal lords did. Once the entourages are established, the prevailing “managerialist” ideology dictates that at least some (BS) work is made up for them. Some of this work ends up creating more BS work for other people: for example, the Italian ministry of education has introduced a practice of schools self-evaluating, starting in the early 2010s. This has spawned an entire agency devoted to that, called ANVUR. ANVUR collects, aggregates and reflects the self-evaluation reports issued by schools (there are about 20K schools in Italy, if memory serves); so, the only way it can function is by imposing the admin (hence BS, in Graeber’s language) duty of producing these reports on the people whose (non-BS) job is to teach kids.

A positive feedback kicks in, because now the new (BS) activity will also, naturally, require someone to be in charge of it. This person, or people, will then want their “tiny empires” of PAs and middle managers to rule over. This will require them to invent at least some meta-BS jobs for them to do. If this sounds exaggerated, consider that ANVUR has 21 employees at the time of writing, but the employees do not actually evaluate schools (or better, do not meta-evaluate their self-evaluation reports). Such core activity is farmed out to roughly 50 “evaluation experts” with small contracts of 2K to 20K EUR (list here). There are even ANVUR employees in charge of monitoring ANVUR’s own performance, which should depend on how well ANVUR monitors the performance of schools. So:

  1. Teachers teach kids. This is, without a doubt, making the world a better place.

  2. Then they self-evaluate. This can help them do a better job, but to a first approximation it takes time away from teaching kids. The jury is out whether this time is still making the world a better place.

  3. School principals collate and integrate the data from teachers into school-level self evaluation reports. Hmm.

  4. ANVUR evaluation experts collate and meta-assess the self-evaluation reports coming from schools.

  5. Most ANVUR employees and management coordinate the admin around the activity of ANVUR evaluation experts.

  6. ANVUR employees in charge of evaluating the performance of ANVUR itself generate data and reports on the activity of their colleagues, who oversee the evaluation experts, who oversee the schools, who manage the teachers who actually teach the kids. They are four levels removed from actual non-BS work! It highly doubtful that these people, brilliant though they may be, are contributing anything at all to human well-being.

So, why does this happen? And why in universities? In the words of one of Graeber’s informants:

It is not capitalism per se that produces the bullshit. It is managerialist ideologies put into practice in complex organisations. As managerialism embeds itself, you get entire cadres of academic staff whose job it is just to keep the managerialist plates spinning — strategies, performance targets, audits, reviews, appraisals, renewed strategies, etc, etc. — which happen in an almost wholly and entirely disconnected fashion from the real life blood of universities — teaching and education.

The full article is well worth a read, especially if you – like us – are struggling with designing or scaling organizations (as in the discussion I am running with @anique.yael here ).


Oh my how refreshing and yet depleting and hence motivating to read this and be reminded of the ridiculous structures humans tend to create to make themselves feel useful.

Reminds me of three related texts and in particular Stefano Harney’s work in “strategic management,” a kind of subversion of these bs bureacratic structures through autonomous and postcolonial organisational approaches.

  1. The University and the Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
    This has become a prolific text among academics and activists and has induced the Undercommoning movement: “a network of radical organizers within, against, and beyond the (neo)liberal, (neo)colonial university.” Its success propelled Moten and Harney to write the series of essays that became the even more prolific _Undercommons: Fugtive Planning and Black Study._This thinking has heavily influenced my own research and I was lucky enough to spend some time in residency with Fred and Stefano back in 2016. One of the things I found super powerful was that they see the solution in the social and not the political. This is for many reasons outlined in their work but one that has stuck with me is because the political triages (sorts), and by doing this upholds power dynamics of valuation. Hence my ongoing hesitancy to focus on the political system as we broach solutions (as per some of our conversations @alberto) .

  2. State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality by Stefano Harney
    This is an older work of Harney’s from 2002 where he reflects on his own time working in state bureaucratics.
    “An innovative contribution to political theory, State Work examines the labor of government workers in North America. Arguing that this work needs to be theorized precisely because it is vital to the creation and persistence of the state, Stefano Harney draws on thinking from public administration and organizational sociology, as well as poststructuralist theory and performance studies, to launch a cultural studies of the state. Countering conceptions of the government and its employees as remote and inflexible, Harney uses the theory of mass intellectuality developed by Italian worker-theorists to illuminate the potential for genuine political progress inherent within state work…”

  3. Capitalist Sorcery (which I’ve actually listed as a possible text for our Econ Sci-Fi reading group as per the wiki here) and talks about how management turns people into minions. I also love the Micro-politics of Capital by Jason Read for that…


And hence why the threshold we’re on with scaling the Edgeryders research network is so significant. As per my latest post on its scaling, the philosophies of organisation that can align with Edgeryders’ principles and practice in collective intelligence, emergent processes and open science are vital.

Curious as to others thoughts around this.