Feudalism and Academia: UK Academics’ Accounts of Research Culture

Feb. 15, 2011

Source: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 24, No. 1, January–February 2011, 55–75.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this research is to explore the characteristics of university education department in the UK, which have achieved a high ranking in the UK government’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The author aims to recast contemporary academia through the dystopian lens of a medieval feudal order. The term the ‘new feudalism’ designates a donnish dominion in decline (Halsey 1992).

The growth of a new feudal-like order, an interpretation based upon the literature review of academia, prompts the following research questions:
(1) What constructions do educational research academics hold about their research culture?
(2) How is research culture nurtured in education departments?
(3) What impositions, if any, affect academic labour in education?

Five academics were selected to create the sample for this research: a professorial research director, a professor of education, a professorial dean of education and two lecturers in education.


The analysis conceptually recasts Halsey’s thesis about the decline of academic autonomy through the prism of feudalism. It is conjectured, using ethnographic analogy, that contemporary academics are akin to a twenty-first century peasantry in a feudal order where academic freedom to pursue independent research is subject to prescriptive transformations emanating from neo-liberal policies.

The feudal re-casting and implied de-mystification of ‘academic life’ has parallels with the work of others. Gibbons et al. (1994, 1–3) claim that alongside the continuation of the increasingly vulnerable Mode-1 enquiry (Blackmore 2007; Corbyn 2009, 36–9), there is the multi-disciplinary Mode-2 type knowledge.
The problems in Mode-1 are set and solved in a context governed by the largely academic interests of a specific community.
By contrast, Mode-2 knowledge involves a wider, more temporary and heterogeneous set of practitioners, collaborating on a problem defined in a specific and localised context (1–3).
Mode-2 research is significantly more amenable to the policy architecture of the market-driven university, where academic labour is increasingly being fettered and valued (Ozga 1998).

The reliance of this education department upon scientific peer review, as evidenced by its RAE ranking, locates them in Mode-1 knowledge production. However, the authority of the university as a major institutional site for undertaking neutral enquiry appears to be changing as it is incorporated into informational capitalism (Castells 1996).

These unfavourable images are likely to increasingly characterize the emerging university where the class status of academics alters into that of a service-class employee, a natural corollary of the demise of donnish dominion.
Furthermore, the author claims that the sharp decline in numbers of departments of philosophy in the UK over the past few decades may be indicative case evidence of the consequences of the demise of such a historically major form of enquiry, now castigated as useless as its economic contributions to society are perceived to be dubious.

Blackmore, J. 2007. How is educational research ‘being framed’? Governmentality, the
(ac)counting of, and expertise in, educational research
. In Knowledge production: Research work in interesting times, ed. B. Somekh and T.A. Schwandt, 24–44. London: Routledge.
Castells, E. 1996. The rise of the network society. The information age: Economy, society and culture. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell.
Corbyn, Z. 2009. The small scientist. The Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1912, September 3: 36–9.
Gibbons, M., C. Limoges, H. Nowotny, S. Schwartzman, P. Scott, and M. Trow. 1994.
The new production of knowledge. London: Sage.
Halsey, A.H. 1992. The decline of donnish dominion: The British academic professions in the twentieth century. New York: Clarendon Press.
Ozga, J. 1998. The entrepreneurial researcher: Re-formations of identity in the research marketplace. International Studies in the Sociology of Education 8, no. 2: 143–53.

Updated: Feb. 06, 2012