Max Planck dependence, in context

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Christoph Brumann. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.009


Max Planck dependence, in context

Christoph BRUMANN, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Comment on “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence in the Max Planck Society” by Vita Peacock, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, Summer 2016.

It is always a special pleasure to see one’s own tribe under the ethnographic lens. As a nonprecarious head of research group (no director but tenured) of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, I learned a lot from Vita Peacock’s historic analysis and from her sensitive case studies, and the theoretical framework she brings to bear is suggestive. An insufficiently acknowledged strength of our discipline is the range of our comparisons and the ease with which we enlist Southern African patterns of relationship or European monarchy to explain a modern research organization. But thought-provoking though Peacock’s Dumontian analysis is, I think that it isolates and rarefies the Max Planck Society too much. The genealogy of particular structures and practices is insufficient to tell us why these persist when others do not, and here, the interaction with the surrounding institutional environment is crucial.

This is true already for the origins: Kaiser Wilhelm’s personal example certainly helped to justify hierarchies throughout what was a rather authoritarian society. But the apical structure with single directors simply copied the model of the German universities where, as Peacock herself mentions, almighty professors controlled large numbers of dependents. And the postwar Max Planck Society too operates in the context of the German and international academic environment. The single Max Planck Institute cannot be the equivalent of Harvard or Oxbridge, so for recruiting leading researchers in their fields as directors (one third from abroad), it [132]helps to offer a lot of autonomy and resources. The output in terms of publications, Nobel Prizes, ERC Advanced Grants, and the like has so far prevented German lawmakers and taxpayers from questioning the model, and the Max Planck Institutes continue to enjoy a high reputation and a five-percent annual growth rate of their public subsidies.

But that the director model is not more than occasionally (Grünewald 2014) questioned is related to the conditions of surrounding academia. In German universities (from which the majority of directors have been recruited), a tenure-track system is missing; tenure (in the form of a full professorship at a different university) comes in the forties more often than in the thirties; and the proportion of researchers on limited-term contracts approaches 90 percent, much more than in other countries. Renewal spans rarely exceed three years, and when six years have passed on either the doctoral or postdoctoral level, further renewal requires special justification. The vast majority of the precariat subjected to these conditions is tied to a specific tenured professor who formally and often also factually decides about appointment and renewal; only professorial appointments are regularly decided by entire faculties. Much of the comparatively important third-party funding by the German Research Association (DFG) and other donors goes to university professors too, with them acting as project leaders with formal authority over the actual researchers even when it is these who write the application. Autonomy builds on precarity here in much the same way as Peacock argues for the Max Planck directors. Such conditions may sound exotic to someone used to an Anglo-Saxon tenure-track model where even the novice lecturer / assistant professor is a colleague accountable to his departmental and faculty colleagues, not a single superior. But where similar models of hierarchy can be found—such as in the other German-speaking countries, France, many Southern and Eastern European countries, and East Asia—everyone including the public and governing authorities is rather used to it. Fifty or more dependents amounts to more than just a difference in degree when compared to the average German university professor but even so, Axel’s, Benjamin’s, and Faris’ strategies and tribulations are entirely familiar to many of their colleagues outside the Society (as Peacock herself seems to suggest in footnote 1). This means that researchers’ choices are most often between different versions of dependency, and here, the Max Planck Institutes with their resources, technical equipment, and research focus are attractive.

But there are also limits to Max Planck director autonomy, and the surrounding environment shapes these, too, to a large extent. German labor law applies as in any workplace, such as the right of employees to elect a Betriebsrat (a work council, not a union as Peacock claims, and certainly not a Max Planck invention). Also, time limits for contracts are not just “soft law” but the Max Planck Institute’s precaution against the risk of being sued for permanent contracts after a given number of years (in any workplace), a practice they share with all other German universities and research institutions who likewise dread the attendant pension payments. While constituted as an independent Verein, the Max Planck Society is publicly funded to more than 90 percent, which entails public financial auditing, and this means that a lot of its regulations converge with those of the public sector and its academic part—the (state-funded) universities. Researchers’ typical contract durations, ranks, pay scales, and pay raises, reimbursement limits for business trips and [133]fieldwork, the obligation to justify tenure with external evaluations, the de facto civil servant status given to directors and tenured heads of research groups, the exclusion of directors from the search committees for finding their successors (the next “stranger-kings,” in Peacock’s suggestive metaphor), and even directors’ salary scales are all taken from outside the Max Planck Society, as significant deviations would provoke public questioning. And when criticism escalates, the Max Planck Society is quick to adapt: in reaction to the media coverage cited by Peacock, stipends were recently abolished and work contracts (more expensive for the employer) made mandatory for all researchers; also, funding for doctoral research was extended to a fourth year. This brought significant constraints to director autonomy, but when the higher autonomy of the Max Planck Society is at risk that of the directors ends.

Peacock argues that the Society’s independence has been sustained by postwar public funding. But I believe that the true source is the complexity of this public funding where with the national government and those of the sixteen federal states, there is an abundance of overlords who are not used to agreeing with one another. Sheltered also by its reputation, the Max Planck Society is largely left to govern itself as a result, and this autonomy guarantees that of the directors: where everyone up to the president is a director, the Harnack principle has little to fear.

In my view, the organizational context is indispensable for explaining Max Planck patterns of hierarchy, and it renders them less special—better-funded versions of what is also found elsewhere. If that elsewhere changed—for example, in the unlikely event of a sudden surge of tenured and tenure-track positions in German and international universities—the Max Planck Society would be forced to react in order to justify its policies to the public and to continue attracting excellent junior and mid-career researchers. The increasing precarity of the latter not just in Germany but also in international academia (from which more than 80 percent of Max Planck postdocs are recruited), however, produces little such pressure. Peacock is right to argue that dependency within the Max Planck Society is not a particularly neoliberal product, but neither it is in many other state-funded research institutions and universities around the world, and to the degree that they look to international recruits, they are connected with neoliberal pressures in other university systems with which they compete for personnel. I therefore believe that Peacock’s explanatory model does not fully account for the case of the Max Planck Society. But it explains part of a much broader phenomenon of academic precarity.


Grünewald, Sven. 2014. “Max-Planck-Gesellschaft: Im Zweifel hat der Direktor recht.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. October 22. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/forschung-und-lehre/nachwuchssorgen-in-der-max-planck-gesellschaft-13220330.html.


Christoph BRUMANN is a Head of Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, where he has led groups on UNESCO World Heritage and on Buddhist temple economies in urban Asia. He is also an Honorary Professor of Anthropology at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. His most recent books include Tradition, democracy, and the townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a right to the past (2012) and the coedited World Heritage on the ground: Ethnographic perspectives (2016, with David Berliner), Urban spaces in Japan: Cultural and social perspectives (2012, with Evelyn Schulz), and Making Japanese heritage (2010, with Rupert Cox).

Christoph Brumann
Department “Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia”
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36
06114 Halle