Navigating the Invisible Patterns of Power in Academia

Imagine a new colleague in the position of an assistant professor (including research and teaching time) with the ambition to stay in academia. She was assigned quite some teaching tasks, which she wholeheartedly commits to. As she is not familiar with the curriculum, she needs to invest quite some time to give the teaching the quality that is expected, which she herself also finds very important. Therefore, all the time that she is paid for by her employer, she devotes to teaching.

However, her contract only lasts two years so although she has a position now, she also needs to invest in her future career. As she wants to stay in academia, it is paramount that she publishes and acquires funding. She spends her evenings and weekends writing papers for peer-reviewed journals and research proposals, to make sure she will find a position in academia elsewhere, when her contract ends.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Aren’t we all in some way or another doing this in academia? Are we not often surpassing our own boundaries and principles when it comes to “work-life-balance”?

One of the significant conditions that distinguish early and late modernity is the changed nature of the way power manifests itself. In the current late modern era, it is not so much visible and coercive forms of domination or suppression that are at play, but rather normalized structures and discourses of exclusion. Power, in this sense, is then located in the discourses and processes that are often taken for granted and reproduced even when they are not in one’s favor. When power is seen as domination, assuming that there are dominators and dominated parties, strategies to resist its impact seem more tangible and observable. A normalized discursive approach of power implies a different approach of resistance or agency. So the question is: How can one detect power structures when they become less visible? How can this kind of hard-to-identify power be resisted? What are the conditions and possibilities for change in these normalized structures of exclusion when all of us are, in one way or another, complicit in reproducing the normalized structures of exclusion?

In order to survive, many academics are contributing to these normalized structures of the opening of this blog, by working harder and harder, hoping that at some point their talent will be noticed and they will begin to benefit from the matteüseffect (the accumulation of prizes or prestigious research grants, exponentially enlarging the chance of future success). However, becoming a visible success does not necessarily make one wiser, and it certainly does not leave academics enough time and space to delay, to reflect, and to inspire. What is left are a few celebrated academics who have been awarded prizes but have not had time to use the money. And at the other side of the spectrum a large group of academics who are frustrated and have lost their motivation and self-confidence to explore their talents and to become inspiring forces in academia.

In between space

The question that has occupied me in the last couple of years is how to create an academic environment for young scholars in this tense field that keeps them engaged and inspired but not marginalized. I found this to be one of the most challenging aspects of my work as a senior scholar. What I think is essential is to create alternative spaces within formal structures – spaces that are safe, encouraging, and motivating but also constructively critical to enable articulation of innovative thoughts and practices. In this idea, I have been inspired by the notion of safe spaces. The sociologist Patricia Hill Collins [1] argues that “creating safe spaces” proposes a different kind of resistance, which is not a reaction to “the center” but a clear distance from the center. Participants of that space get the chance to consider the diversity and richness of their experiences without the pressure of conforming to the norm. I have further conceptualized the notion of safe interspaces. When the sources of exclusion work through normalized and repetitive practices of everyday interaction, the major way to resist is to create delayed spaces to reflect. The act of delay protects us from what the anthropologist, Thomas Hylland Eriksen [2] refers to as “the tyranny of the moment.” The hastiness of our actions strengthens the power of normalization when we forget the differentiated sources of our inspiration and our strength. Although disciplined structures are helpful in organizing everyday practices, the taken-for-granted aspect of these structures serves as a source of exclusion when it lets us forget about our aspirations and ambitions or the ways we would like to define them. This is what makes the structures of exclusion so persistent. Taking time and space by creating delayed in-between spaces of reflection in our hasty routines enables us to rethink our own positions in these processes and to periodically think of actions that can disrupt the taken-for-granted structures of exclusion.

Although disciplined structures are helpful in organizing everyday practices, the taken-for-granted aspect of these structures serves as a source of exclusion when it lets us forget about our aspirations and ambitions or the ways we would like to define them.

We can think of the size and impact of these spaces at different levels. At the group level, it is essential to create spaces for young scholars and PhDs to exchange ideas, challenges, and dreams so that the initial freshness of willingness to be part of academia does not get lost in the normalized calculated structures of performance and privilege. Sharing stories of engagement but also doubts about being part of academia helps to generate a more comprehensive view of what the structural challenges are and how they can be resisted at both individual and group levels. Such spaces allow the emergence of different voices and the cherishing of achievements beyond numbers and finances, thereby stimulating differentiated forms of growth within academia. Doing so broadens and sometimes counters dominant definitions of success.

In sum, academia needs to create spaces for reflexivity and to invest in new creative forms of connectedness that are engaged, vibrant, and dynamic. All of us in academia need to do this, but young scholars in particular should claim their space by creating their own. Platforms such as the IMISCOE PhD Network are eminently suitable to furnish such a space.

This text was previously published in a column of the IMISCOE PHD NETWORK. The IMISCOE PhD Network aims to strengthen research and network opportunities for doctoral researchers in the field of migration, March 25, 2019.


[1] Collins, Particia Hill (1991). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

[2] Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2001. Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.

Navigating the Invisible Patterns of Power in Academia, website "Engaged Scholarship & Narratives of Change".