What is ‚risky‘ about risky research?

What are different notions of “risk” mobilized when proposing and evaluating research projects? This project addresses this question by studying the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) Reinhart Koselleck Funding Program, a program specifically dedicated to exceptionally innovative, higher-risk projects.

Funded by the DFG, the project aims to investigate empirically how risky research is discursively labeled as “risky” in the Reinhart Koselleck Funding Program. Drawing on research proposals, reviews, final votes of review boards, and final project reports, the project establishes three analytical approaches: It reconstructs (1) how different notions of risk are rhetorically highlighted and hedged in research proposals (risk management), (2) how reviews distinguish legitimate and illegitimate risks (risk assessment), and it tracks how notions of risk travel throughout project biographies from project proposals to final reports (risk trajectories). Across these three approaches, the project focuses on disciplinary-specific and gender-specific peculiarities in risk management and risk assessment.

Academic socialization at the postdoc stage

How do academics become competitive?

This project, which I conduct with Kathia Serrano Velarde (University of Heidelberg), analyses the socializing effects of academic competitions on postdocs. The study is designed to capture intrapersonal development in time through a qualitative panel study.

Proceeding from a combination of socialization theory and sociology of (e)valuation, we argue that postdocs learn two things when participating in academic competitions: On the one hand, they realize that academic competitions are constitutive for the allocation of reputation, employment and resources. On the other hand, postdocs learn to deal with the demands of multiple competition and to position themselves in different types of competitions.

We propose to approach the phenomenon of postdoc socialization by (1) investigating the relationship between competition and socialization. In doing so, we focus on the nexus between competitive attributions, postdocs’ self-perception and their coping strategies with multiple competition. (2) Furthermore, we want to understand how experiences with academic competitions influence individual career and labor market expectations.

The project is funded by the German Research Foundation and part of the research group “Multiple Competition in the Higher Education System“.

Evaluation and social inequality in academia

In this cumulative project, I assemble a number of studies that highlight how social processes of valuation and evaluation contribute to the production and reproduction of inequality through routine practices and taken-for-granted actions.

The studies assembled for this project focus the nexus between (e)valuation and inequality in different sites in academia: 1) professorial appointment procedures, 2) obituaries published in academic journals, and 3) governance instruments of research performance assessment.

The assembled studies make two contributions: They sensitize the sociology of valuation and evaluation for issues of inequality and power, and they inform quantitative research on social inequality about social processes like valuation, recognition, and legitimization.

Professorial appointment procedures

What is actually going on when professors are appointed? How do research profiles of individual scholars emerge? How are different candidates compared? How are very consequential recruitment decisions legitimized?

To address these and other questions, this project draws on archived records of 145 appointment procedures that took place from 1950 to 1985 at 16 German universities. Studying this material, my research in the project is mainly concerned with dynamics and processes of (e)valuation, positioning, performativity, and subjectivation. Going beyond methodological concerns about what documents ‘actually’ prove, this project takes serious the textual agency of documents.

The project was funded by the German Research Foundation (2015-2018).

Academic obituaries

Academic obituaries are a fascinating and yet understudied genre. The project demonstrates that obituaries do more than just remember dead professors. Obituaries are a site where lifetime achievements are evaluated, where biographical artifacts are produced and consecrated, and where subjectivity is constituted.

The project draws on a sample of 216 obituaries published in academic journals from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, in physics, history, and sociology, and from the 1960s to the 2000s.

The project was supported by a Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Research Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Centralized research performance assessment

What are the effects and defects of assessing research quality not via decentralized peer review, but centralized, with a comprehensive and generic, yet peer review-based framework?

In this project, I have looked into what is probably the most sophisticated framework for assessing the research of higher education institutions: the United Kingdom’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which has been renamed to Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014.

In a longitudinal perspective across the three most recent assessments from 2001 to 2014, I have examined processes of standardization and stratification related to the RAE/REF.

Towards a sociology of social sciences and humanities

Higher education research and, even more so, science studies, have the tendency to focus on the natural and life sciences and engineering. Social sciences and the humanities (SSH) tend to be overlooked. This has changed only slowly in recent years. My research contributes to the growing field of sociology of SSH. Two major research topics have evolved from this:

A first body of my work is concerned with a sociology of the humanities. This line of work began with my PhD, in which I studied how the notion of “Bildung” is discursively constructed in the humanities, and how it develops from the 19th century to the present. In other studies on the humanities, I have examined how the humanities are anchored in national contexts and produce national narratives, traditions, and ideologies. This contribution to national narratives is a remarkable “social impact” of the humanities since the 19th century. In yet other work on the humanities, I have looked at symbolic boundary work in which the humanities and the natural sciences negotiate their relation to each other.

A second line of work on the SSH is concerned with the methods and methodologies mobilized in the social sciences. What role do methods play for the way we conduct our research? How do they shape and bring about the things that we study? How do we decide what is a ‘method’ and what is not? My attempts to address these questions draw on current debates in science studies and the sociology of scientific knowledge that are interested in knowledge practices in the social sciences. Currently, my work on this topic has two foci: One are practices of qualitative inquiry, i.e., the daily routines of developing, applying, and modifying qualitative methods. A second focus is the nexus of methods and power, i.e., the way power relations are built into and reproduced by sociological methods and methodologies.