Cultural Studies and the Grant-Funding Regime

I want to reflect in this blog on the changes I have seen in Cultural Studies as a result of its increasing organisation around grant-funded research. The latter has now become so naturalised that it is sometimes hard to remember that there was ever another time. But much of the works we now regard as ‘classics’ in the field were written before research funding applications became a thing.

Examples would include the work in Britain of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies; Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979); Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977) and Angela McRobbie’s Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses (1988) – not to mention Raymond Williams’ extensive writings and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957).

In Australia, examples of work written before the grant funding regime would include Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée (1988); John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner’s Myths of Oz (1987); John Hartley’s The Politics of Pictures (1987); McKenzie Wark’s Virtual Geography (1994); Catharine Lumby’s Bad Girls (1997); the essays published in John Frow and Meaghan Morris’s edited collection Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader (1993), the latter a snapshot of some of the best Cultural Studies work of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In short, a lot of people did a lot of very good work without grant funding.

At the CSAA conference at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch in 2003 – ancient history! – I organised a roundtable session on how the grant funding regime was then remoulding Cultural Studies. At least that’s what I intended it to be about. In fact, the session quickly gravitated towards a form that has since become very familiar: an advice session with senior academics who have been successful in the grant-funding game addressed implicitly to postgraduate students and those we were then still learning to call ‘Early Career Researchers’.

The intentions of the advice-givers were, of course, only good: a generous desire to pass on useful information. But I was surprised at how difficult it seemed to be to stage a more critical reflection on the grant funding regime – on the kinds of research it led people to do; indeed, the very framing of Cultural Studies as research, rather than as say ‘theorising’; the sort of relations it set up between scholars; the more explicit involvement of government; the role of that all-important body, the Australian Research Council.

A critical view of the grant funding regime would be that it brought an end to forms of knowledge production that Cultural Studies had borrowed from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – particularly what might be called ‘collective-dialogic’ forms. These forms had anchored Cultural Studies very much in teaching practice, the classroom being one of the key institutional contexts in which collective dialogue could be staged.

By contrast, grant-funded research is organised around what economic geographer Gernot Grabher calls ‘project ecologies’. Participants in projects are conceived not as dialogic partners so much as members of a ‘team’, all supposed to be pulling in the same direction. In business contexts, from where the form derives, projects are governed by what Grabher calls a ‘service logic’ – that of solving a problem for a client – and a ‘management logic’ – aimed at keeping the project within time and on budget.

This might all seem a bit depressing. Has the grant funding regime led to the capture of Cultural Studies by utilitarianism? Should we see it as yet another chapter in the sorry tale of our discipline’s submission to neoliberalism? I confess to having had thoughts at times along these lines. But in finishing up a co-authored book that has emerged from a grant-funded project, I have also come recently to a different view.

It is certainly true that research grant applications require a certain alignment with Grabher’s logics, sometimes involving imaginative conceits such as the idea – increasingly explicit in recent years – of the nation whose funding body underwrites the research as ‘client’ (hello Simon Birmingham, hello Stuart Robert!). The art of writing a funding application is, in part, to convey a sense that the project has been fully conceptualised at the outset, needing only to be ‘executed’ to deliver outcomes in the service of the client’s needs.

In practice, however, there are countless unforeseen questions that need to be addressed during the course of the research, not only at an operational level, but also in refining the value horizon of the project – the shared understanding of what is ultimately ‘for’. Projects are therefore much more internally dialogic than their externally facing appearance might suggest. Indeed, they could be thought of as one of the forms preserving a space for collective dialogic practices in the corporatised university.

This at least has been my experience. Am I just trying to put a cheerful spin on things? We should talk more than we do about what the grant-funding regime has done to Cultural Studies.

Bio: Professor Mark Gibson is Associate Dean – Media, Writing and Publishing in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.

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