The Two Academic Economies

A couple of my colleagues have been discussing one of the most challenging topics facing academic scholars, writers, and musicians today: how do we make a living doing what we think is important even as immediate economic realities of our profession change. Among academics, endless articles have detailed the rise of adjuncts, the reduction in full time, much less tenure-track or tenured, jobs, and the general decline in working conditions particularly among scholars in the humanities. Musicians, writers, and creative professionals have likewise spoken out about the challenges they have faced in the face of new economic realities presented by the wide reach of the internet, growing expectations of “free culture”, and pervasive corporate influence in how creative works are produced, distributed, and consumed.

If you’re expecting some brilliant resolution to these problems, it’s probably best to stop reading now. All I want to do is to frame the problem is what might be a useful way.

I’ve decided that one way to think about the issues facing academics and creative professionals is by thinking about our lives in terms of two economies: a fiscal economy and a social economy. Most problems arise when these two economies, and the institutions and structures designed to maintain and promote them, come into contact.

Fiscal Economy. The fiscal economy, in my little model, describes the amount academics and scholars get paid, our basic work conditions, job security, and anything that involves our ability to feel financially secure in our day-to-day lives. The issues related to this economy have received the most attention in the national media as stories abound of faculty members are prestigious schools who are struggling to make ends meet and the remarkably difficult road that many scholars and creative professionals traverse to get to a position of job security.

I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a good place in the fiscal economy of my profession. I make enough money to be happy, have tenure, have a nice office, good students, fantastic colleagues, and an relatively decent relationship with the university administration.

That being said, I have found the last two months of sabbatic rather stressful. My work hours have crept longer, my anxiety level has slowly ratcheted up, and I never feel like I’m doing enough. What is this about?

Social Economy. My muddled mind has attributed this to the other major force in the lives of creative professionals, the social economy. This describes the other benefits most of us seek for doing our jobs. We hope that our work and its influence will in some way transform the world for the better. To achieve this, we need people to read our work, to invite us to join into conversations, to agree to collaborate, and to generally respect our intellectual and personal integrity. This social economy cuts across our work as scholars, its products, and our various academic obligation and rewards us through professional advancement which will, with any luck, advance our academic or creative agenda.

The social economy offers very little in terms of direct financial reward and whatever it does offer tend to be much delayed. That being said, the academic social economy does offer loads of fringe benefits that range from better odds at winning grants, cool travel opportunities, rewarding collaborative projects, and, of course, opportunities to publish work in high profiles places (which add value and increase the exposure). In most cases, capital in the social economy develops through productive engagement with institutions other than our primary places of employment (although not always). Academic associations, research centers, scholarly publications, conferences and meetings, and various institutes award capital and status in the social economy by both leveraging the work of scholars to fill their pages, panels, and libraries, and providing platforms to amplify the impact of scholarly production.

To be clear, I also regard most publishing to be a social act. The most successful scholars best understand the conversation among their peers and find ways to contribute to shared concerns. Understanding this conversation is rarely simply a matter of reading all the books and articles on a subject and is typically the result of personal familiarity with individuals, the community, and the language used to consider and resolve problems within a discipline.

I understand that the social economy is not “fair” in a traditional sense. There are myriad unspoken rules, relatively little institutional oversight, and an over reliance on personal relationships and connections. Among those most committed to the accumulation of social capital the vagaries of this economy are incredibly stressful, but the benefit of accumulating status within the social economy is, typically, real social or political change. 

For academics, the greatest challenges arise when the social economy intersects with the financial economy. For example, I have colleagues who refuse to work in the summer months when they are not on contract or take weekends off. These are reasonable actions considering our expectations of the fiscal economy, but they don’t always maximize our potential within the social economy (putting aside arguments that we need time off to be creative and things like that). I’m aware of the anti-free movement and the policies that it advocates, but this movement seems – right now – to privilege the immediate benefits of the fiscal economy over those of the social economy. I can’t quite stomach the idea that fewer, less free works of scholarship, art, and music is better for our world.

Academics are also susceptible to bullying as the expectations within the social economy (publishing, presenting, researching, collaborating, peer-reviewing) often trump opportunities provided within the fiscal economy, yet lack the direct and immediate financial rewards. Service throughout the academy and within our disciplines often develops vital social capital, but when reciprocity breaks down (typically under pressures from the fiscal economy), service become exploitative.

Nowhere is more fought than the hiring, tenure, and promotion process where genuine fiscal rewards (however modest) are directly tied to the successful deployment of social capital, reciprocal relationships (whether through personal familiarity or shared academic pursuits), and good will. It is hardly surprising then that moments where the social and fiscal economies directly interact become times where expectations a disappointed and anger at the unclear boundaries is the most pronounced.

I don’t know how to ameliorate the tension between the two economies. Typical of someone who is secure in one (the fiscal) over the other (the social), I feel far more powerfully the pressures of the social economy in my field, and this is leading to a rather stressful sabbatical year.

Some of this stress, undoubtedly comes from recognizing how privileged I am to survive in the fiscal economy of my discipline while others struggle but continue to be active, engaged scholars or creative professionals. 


  1. I think this is a nice framing of these problems. As you have time, if you have not read him before, you might enjoy some of John B. Thompson’s work in this area. I’m slowly reading Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, and will eventually follow that up with his 2005 Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States. The former (and I assume the latter) treat publishing as social fields, and I’ve found his work useful in thinking about publication.


    1. John,

      Thanks for the reading suggestions! As you know, I’ve started my own press which is a small gesture of revolt from the academy.



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