Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence in the Max Planck Society

Vita Peacock


This essay examines the idiosyncratic internal hierarchy of Germany's foremost research organization, the Max Planck Society. It employs Louis Dumont's analytics of paramount value, encompassment, and complementarity to convey the symbolic logic of relations therein. One consequence of this is to show that the organization's paramount values of autonomy and excellence (embodied by its governing community of directors who encompass their departments) produce the complementary value of dependence for subalterns. Ethnographic engagement with three post-PhD scientists demonstrates that dependence is thereby constituted as a “mode of action” in James Ferguson's terms, which hinges on their director's support. The essay concludes that the ubiquity of temporary contracts among these actors does not arise simply-as many presume-from a generic neoliberal precariatization of the academy. Instead, precarity of employment in the Max Planck Society is the contemporary expression of dependencies initiated by a far older tradition of intellectual leadership, and the morphologies of German monarchy that preceded it.


hierarchy, dependency, personhood, precarity, Germany, kingship

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.006