Notes on: Sparkes,A. (2013). Qualitative research in sport, exercise and health in the era of neoliberalism, audit and New Public Management: understanding the conditions for the (im)possibilities of new paradigms dialogue. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 5 (3): 440 – 59.

Dave Harris

In a recent special edition of this journal, a dialogue was invited between quantitative and qualitative researchers, but the issue of power had been neglected. The 'wider social and political climate is important'(440). There has been a 'neoconservative backlash to qualitative research… The rise of methodological fundamentalism'. An audit culture, NPM and neoliberal agendas have 'framed'[sic] the overall climate. Perhaps a collective response will reawaken dialogue.

The paradigms wars of the early 1980s have been described in a paper by Sage. A dialogue did ensue, but recently there are metaphors of 'war' again — Denzin speaks of the '"new paradigm war"' [2009 book called Qualitative Inquiry Under Fire]. In a special issue of this journal, quantitative researchers invited to comment on qualitative work also drew on an article referring to paradigms wars, something going on '"that is aggressive, is competitive and is causing harm"' (441), not helped by the low impact factor of qualitative journals. There has been loss of jobs as well and some have been '"bullied out of departments"' [quoting Smith and Brown 2011]. The new direction is tied to revenue and the '"concentration of executive power"'. Most the contributors referred to methodological issues and problems and that was interesting, but few others address the issue of power.

The conduct of qualitative research is 'firmly located in the domain of politics at the micro level (e.g. faculty), meso level (e.g. University; professional Association) and macro level (Government)'. Of course power and politics are part of the process of judgement, partly because, Smith and Hodkinson say '"we live in an era of relativism"' and that this apparently allows the expression of '"opinions, ideologies emotions and self interests"' in judgement. It is never just an epistemological issue [I said this about debates between theory and practice in teacher training decades ago]. Various studies have been examined, and there has been a neoconservative backlash, with effects audit culture NPM and neoliberalism.

In their preface to the third edition of the great Handbook (2005), Denzin and Lincoln refer to 'quantum leaps' in qualitative research, but also resistance from neoconservative discourses, supported by Bush and his 'narrowly defined governmental regimes of truth'. There is also been methodological fundamentalism, returning to 'quantitative, experimental design studies' (442). Global uncertainty is led to increased government regulation in both the USA and the UK: criteria had been virtually imposed, and research funding limited to those who follow the rules. For Denzin and the others, there are fundamental issues raised by this 'for scholarship and freedom of speech in the Academy', and they have called for resistance.

However what counts as resistance is complex — Denzin 2010. [The qualitative manifesto: a call to arms] speaks of the need for 'intellectual, advocacy, operational and ethical' action, better education and making clear the benefits. This in turn will involve new ways to work with one another, and a dialogue between the two approaches and their various traditions. [He also seems to be advocating '"a greater openness to alternative paradigms critiques… A declining conflict… fruitful dialogue… Celebration of the proliferation, intermingling, and confluence of paradigms"'. Bit Fucking late for that!].Participants should also be aware of risks both professional and personal, however, in the changing climate.

Burrows has reported exhaustion and stress, feelings of shame and guilt — '"a deep, affective, somatic crisis"' (443) and there have been illustrative studies. University life has been transformed — de-professionalised, proletarianised [clericalised I think], disciplines and departments have been broken up, management has assumed greater authority in priorities, academic work is been quantified and evaluated.  Ball has said that our subjective existence and identity have been threatened. Neoliberalism is the direct relation here, and NPM and audit culture. Again there is substantial documentation of the effects (listed 443 – 4).

Focusing on audit culture, we can see the new stress on outcome based assessment systems in various indices, 'arduous external assessment systems; and the publication of miscellaneous league tables'. MacRury sees this as increasing bureaucratic architecture and increasing surveillance and recording, and 'accountancy mindset of performance management'. Examples include impact factors to rank order scholarly journals, and citation counts. These all encourage 'neoliberal self enterprise technologies', individualising performance.

One critique of the University of Queensland sites a '"Q index"' which agglomerates research income, waited research publication, high degree completions and research degree supervision, to 2 decimal points. The score is then compared to average scores at various levels. People began talking of themselves as a number. It was justified as part of the commercialisation of academia and accountability, but it was also '"likely to reduce intrinsic motivation, damage morale and limit the engagement of academics"'. [It was tied to pay scales and income progress in my institution] It was an industrial measurement. Burrows similarly refers to a '"h-index"' and other metrics to measure citations, workload, costing data, research assessments, teaching quality assessments and league tables. Several articles have been written about this and its lack of 'construct validity' especially of citation counts. Despite these methodological objections, the metric has '"taken on a life of its own"' and become reified, used the shortlist candidates, to market CVs, to negotiate salary, predict REE outcomes, rank colleagues, affect institutional restructuring.

Impact factor of journals has been developed, and now a low IF just 'means low quality research' (445). Sparks has heard 'allegedly "learned scholars" and senior managers state that, "if it hasn't got  an IF, then it can't be research"'. Some disciplines have obviously benefited over others, and lots of people '"cannot help but reorient their actions toward it"' [quoting Burrows]. Others have made similar points. Systems of audit are not just neutral or politically innocent but 'disciplinary technologies', Foucauldian '"techniques of the self"' (446). Universities have been transformed into 'corporate enterprise'.

The result is to transform academics into '"competitive individuals"' after government approved products. The 'new corporate academic self' is flexible, ready to internalise the norms of management, supervising themselves. This simply 'reflects the logic of economic liberalism harnessed to technologies of modern bureaucracy' [quoting Shore — academics become '"an individualised proletarian workforce"', compliant, willing to change what counts as legitimate knowledge and good practice, while managers have become increasingly '"coercive and authoritarian"'. Gillies uses Foucault to show how metaphors of agility have replaced flexibility. This might look more positive, and imply greater agency, but it also means that workers are now responsible for their own fate — 'agility comes from fear, insecurity and an absence of ethos'. This is also an entrepreneurial self, reconfiguring itself as the market changes. This self can simply identify with corporate desires and 'be captured by the discourse' (447).

Holligan says that contemporary academics are more like a peasantry in a feudal order. Scott revisits the notion of a total institution and describes universities as a '"reinventive institution"', with reinvention interpreted positively. There is 'formal instruction in an institutional rhetoric' backed up by various regulative mechanisms. It looks voluntarist, but academics even engage in '"techniques of mutual surveillance… [Even]… Performative autonomy… [Is]… Compromised by the discipline of the interaction order"'. For Craig et al, universities with an audit culture are actually psychotic, where audit culture becomes '"a mechanism for coping with anxiety"', arising from a schizoid split between good and bad objects. Bureaucracy removes emotional problems: '"there is a functional disconnect between the creative rhythm of thinking which is the essence of university life the academic (or rather, should be in some wistful lyrics sense) and the inapt reality of the University audit culture, which induces the psychotic University"' (448). Ryan speaks of academics as zombies. The effects will be influenced by 'gender, age, social class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and religion' and other variables. For example women scholars have been disadvantaged.

The turn towards STEM at the expense of other subjects reflects the trend — more funding is attracted and better faculty recruited [not students though?]. Sometimes the micropolitics leads advocates to 'express their deeply held paradigmatic prejudices'. Others have displayed 'complicitous silence'. Barney sees micropolitics as '"pathological"', 'onerous work that is disruptive, antagonistic, risky and dangerous', so is not surprising academics remain as '"ordinary cowards"'. Individual withdraw all 'is the most common form of resistance and also an effective means of protecting values and identity'. Many academics refuse to engage with management and can sometimes be seen 'complying with the letter, but not the spirit, of particular requirements'.

It is hard to resist the notions of audit which are reasonable — transparency, excellence, accountability. Resisting them seems to make you the opposite of all those things, '"a semantic  snare"' [quoting Darbyshire]. Management have succeeded in producing a suitable language and make meaningful opposition to policy 'strictly impossible'. Managers own the necessary vocabulary, including that necessary to make legitimate objections. [Just like feminist courtesy]. Management discourse even engages capacities as moral agents and professionals — self-discipline, drive to quality. The audit culture is now so pervasive that it is almost impossible to critique it [and assertions of subjectivity will not do either].

Even academics trained in critique find it difficult, because NPM has already colonised everyday meanings of concepts like efficiency or accountability. For Lorenz, it offers 'a "bullshit" discourse' not concerned with truth but with advancing agendas. Criticism is seen as subversion, entrepreneurial autonomy is the only good kind It is '"hermetic self-referential"'. Even affiliating with this critique can have negative consequences, by making it sound playful and offering no effective analysis. Trading insults can avoid collective action.

However, managers are also able to regulate troublemakers, bringing them back on task, and the techniques here 'do not exclude intimidation and bullying' (450). There are authoritarian measures available, especially squeezing the precarious [confirmed by a UCU survey], and frequent bullying. There are also 'highly seductive' competitive forces, and some academics clearly have benefited [with a managerial career?]. Academics are complicit because they cannot collectively contest the system, which means any dissenting individuals encounter '"huge costs and penalties"'.

Even some STEM academics have been opponents of audit and have acted solidaristically with their non-stem colleagues. They find it difficult to ignore what's going on once they've realised it, but this makes them lose their innocence politically — and feel accountable.

So the current crisis is 'real and it is harsh' (451) and there is violence underneath land even observed surfaces. Managerial language is the key for Davies — one technique is to '"whip up small-minded moralism that rewards the attack of each small powerless person on the other, and it shuts down creativity"'. We can already see 'the politics of erasure' as academics have been sacked, say in Australian universities [La Trobe] , even in the domain of sport, exercise, health and PE. The actual document outlining the case has been analysed and it is contradictory and rhetorical, but not bullish it as much as a 'powerful though highly unstable system of meaning'.

This discourse 'does pervert into their opposites concepts such as efficiency, quality, transparency, accountability and flexibility', and it is difficult to critique as a result. However it is still unstable. We must first imagine an alternative, and then do analysis which includes analysing our own assumptions and biases [typical academic deferment]. So we have the potential for a collective effort in analysis, coming together, as Denzin was to advocate in 2010. It might involve speaking to other audiences, like the public and the media who are already distrustful of politicians. Industrial action seems less popular with the public, especially if it is focused only on pay not things like health and safety, occupational health. Academics might need to forgive '"managerial barbarians"' and invite them.

Drawl, 'many managers are hostile to the neoliberal agenda' [because it makes them unpopular with colleagues and students?] They can be critical of ideologies. They also share 'the somatic crisis'. The might be common ground in arguing for 'social justice' [another Denzin 2010 idea assuming a common commitment to wanting to influence social policy]. Of course many positivist scholars have also made useful contributions here, so there's particular need for them to work with qualitative ones 'within a social justice framework'. We might also investigate longer term implications of managerialism [hint of Habermas on threats to the life world].

We might reconstruct notions like accountability, to include '"compassion, multiplicity, social welfare, social responsibility, equity and trust"' (453) [quoting Craig et al]. We might expose the implications of narrow assumptions and interests on pedagogy, as part of our 'essential role as university faculty members'. We can disturb the peace in a way which helps students think critically.  We might be inspired by people such as Masefield who had wonderful views of the University, values which cannot be reconciled with the market [quite], yet which offer a more hopeful future. Sparkes has a an inspiring source of his own — Niemoller and the bit about coming first for the communists, then Jews, then me. This should 'resonate with all scholars' (454), because we are all vulnerable, to changes in government directions.

A collective future may not be desired by all, however. Some researchers in sport exercise and health have benefited from investment, especially physiologists. They might choose to consolidate their power and let softer approaches with — 'it is already happening', for example with the sociology of sport. That needs an active defence, including gaining greater acceptance from sociology, acknowledging shortcomings, and trying to be 'much more creative and vital', perhaps even engaging with natural scientists.

Evans draws from complexity literature and advocates 'intra disciplinary and transdisciplinary "border crossings" of an ideational kind' — he wants us to focus on '"concept studies"' (455), deliberately seeking diversity and dissenting voices, which are here seen as particularly useful and insightful compared to '"the lowest common denominator solutions"'. It need not lead to reductionism or appeasement. It does not mean we should ignore tensions and difficulties, but rather embrace them positively and creatively. There are risks, because they ignore power and vested interests again, which leaves only ideational efforts.

Perhaps this is all we can do, together with advocacy as in Denzin. Others might be only able to practice individual withdrawal 'as a form of resistance' which is useful and can combat managerialism. We should analyse power, however, and make ourselves aware of the role of discourse, including those which we speak. We should look for '"lines of fault in and fracture those discourses"' [that will be popular!]

We must understand neoliberalism how it works and what its effects are, an attempt to assess them. This will at least open 'up the possibility of us not being that which we perform' [role distance!]. We also need to avoid our own cliches and platitudes and comforting views of the world. We should continue to criticise 'the vapid, cliche ridden "qualipak"' [by taking it seriously I think] we should continually ask 'what do you mean?' to hold managers accountable, to challenge their use of managerial language, even '"make a point of not playing the game, of not reciting the rhetoric on queue [sic]"' [quoting Loughlin]. Comparative data from other countries might also be useful to examine the precise intertwining of audit, NPM and neoliberalism, and get ideas to 'contest, challenge and resist their oppressive aspects'. (457).

There is no simple response, but we should look for signs of hope, like this journal inviting dialogue, and colleagues who are prepared to act as allies some institutions still support diversity and people in them should support others. Denzin's hope for fruitful dialogue is therefore both possible and necessary for democratic community.

[Cracking references]

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