Bureaucracy and Workload at Universities

Yesterday (18.09.2018), Marc Tribelhorn, a geographer by education, published a commentary in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), the Swiss quality Newspaper about the development of ‘Bureaucracy’ in today’s world which resembles a lot of what we observe in modern universities and which is next to continuous budget cuts one of main reasons for a killing work load and crumbling quality of teaching and research. Not very new, but story which is right from the heart of many scientists working at universities and doing their utmost to inspire and educate our future generation and to create the knowledge our society needs to address the problems of tomorrow. Here is my free translation of that brief commentary:


Those who want to express the discomfort in our service society in one word are well served by the Anglicism: ‘bullshit jobs’. For example, David Graeber, ethnologist, anarchist and professor at the prestigious London School of Economics, described a phenomenon which is not limited to public sector, but can also be found in board rooms of private companies: jobs of which do not seem to make any sense and which you probably will also not miss it if they did not exist. Graeber coined this idea on the basis of the answers to the question ‘What do you do for a living?’ posed while socialising at parties. Increasingly the answers puzzled him when professions like ‘Human Resources Management Consultant’, ‘Regulatory Compliance Manager’ or ‘Senior Compensation & Benefits Specialist’ were mentioned. In England, in a representative study, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they do not contribute anything useful to society through their wage labour.  Graeber first wrote an essay and then a book on this issue that caused a stir around the world because they strike a nerve despite the thin empirics: Many contemporaries have the impression that in the administration and in the middle management of companies more and more well-paid people work without being productive in the narrow sense of the word, i.e. without contributing to consumption and investment. Worse yet, the bullshit jobs are not just an expression, but are the drivers of ever more bureaucratic excesses.

Undoubtedly, more and more activities require more and more time to document the work done and to justify the future work, as the Zurich economics  professor Bruno S. Frey stated several years ago. We all know this from our everyday work? Everything is diligently questioned, controlled, administered, optimised and reformed, supervised, outsourced, reintegrated and harmonised – in an endless Möbius loop. Rarely, this results in something tangible and useful, but it always produces a lot of paper and ever more administration. What is sold as a recipe for simplification, streamlining and improving work processes often cause exactly the opposite.

The power of numbers

A prime example is the evaluation, which one can no longer dismiss as a fad, so omnipresent it has become in the modern organisation of labour. In the third decimal place, companies and authorities are now collecting so-called key figures that are supposed to prove, for example, ‘performance’ or the ‘satisfaction’ of the employees. Entire internal departments and an army of external consultants specialise in such ‘monitoring’ in the sense of ‘quality management’. There is nothing that cannot be measured. Only: Not every measurement leads to findings that deserve this name. It’s like with medication, where the dose determines if it is poisonous or not. Not to mention the monstrous ‘evidence-based’ reports, that are produced but not read, but nevertheless are followed by further meetings, debriefings, as well as action plans, regulations, and guide lines. The complaints about the rampant ‘administration’ in all spheres of professional life are fierce and omnipresent. Doctors, teachers, police officers, bank client advisers, nursing experts or scientists, all complain about the protocols, questionnaires and other forms of data collection that would hinder their actual work today.

These are historically and culturally interesting findings. Could it be that in recent decades the way we deal with bureaucratic processes has imperceptibly, but fundamentally changed?

The concept of bureaucracy, when coined in the 19th century, was limited  to actions and functioning of powerful civil servants. The sociologist Max Weber later enthused about the ‘formally most rational form of exercise of power’, an ideal for a lean and efficient organisation that guaranteed standardised processes for modern societies. But soon there were signs of degeneration. The dubious reputation of the bureaucracy, for example, observed by British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who had a keen sense of  the absurdities of the world of work. In the mid-1950s, the ‘Darwin of the Manager Age’ (‘Time’ magazine) published its famous Parkinson’s Law on Administration, which basically anticipated Graeber’s bullshit job thesis. Firstly: ‘Every employee wishes to increase the number of his subordinates, but not the number of his rivals’. Secondly, ‘Employees create work for each other’. And Parkinson says this work will never end because it will always expand, in the same rate as the time available for it. So the bureaucracy keeps on growing – no matter if its actual tasks are reduced or not.

Even digitisation, of which one expected a relief like in the so called paperless office, in reality mainly produced additional administration

Ever since Parkinson’s seminal classic, the state administration of liberal spirits is scolded as a juggernaut, insatiably generating new jobs, fields of activity and idle procedures. Bureaucracy has become a political swearword, and nothing is more popular and easier than tuning into the song of the indignant. But to the chagrin of their critics, bureaucracy has transformed everything that has been designed to stop bureaucracy into even more bureaucracy. Even digitisation, of which one expected a relief like in the so called paperless office, in reality mainly produced additional administration.

Meanwhile, the concept of bureaucracy has become more and more the metaphor for all kinds of meaningless self-employment – even in the private sector. The fact that excessive bureaucracy is not an exclusive phenomenon in public administration was already acknowledged by the analyst Parkinson. Shortly after publication of his laws, the author received enthusiastic letters from business circles: ‘How is it possible that you know our company?’, was asked with a degree of surprise. This already called into question the capitalist master story, according to which the market automatically eliminates the irrationality and inefficiency of economic actors.

«Cover your ass!»

In the private sector, however, on tends to explain the rapid increase in administrative work with state regulatory rage. That is only partially true: in Switzerland alone, the systematic collection of laws by the federal government between 2004 and 2015 grew from 53,958 to 69,354 pages. The world is increasingly interconnected. This also calls for more ordering and coordination, which is why the state increasingly intervenes with laws and regulations in the economic processes. As an example, one can think of the compliance regulations in the banking sector, monitored by countless legally educated employees. And the administrative paperwork that companies incur as a result of such activities is expensive. In 2013, the federal government estimated the direct regulatory costs in the most important economic sectors at around 10 billion francs per year. The Swiss Trade Association even puts it at 50 billion francs.

But the bureaucracy problems in the private sector are also home-made and follow a general social trend: the avoidance of risks, the fear of mistakes and the flight from responsibility. For these reasons, management departments such as controlling, communications, internal legal departments and, of course, HR are flourishing, which has long ceased to be concerned only with employment contracts and conflicts. Everything has to be meticulously transcribed, measured and double-fused in order to be protected against negative headlines or lawsuits, both in private companies as well as in state agencies. ‘Cover your ass’ is the English name for it.

The emeritus Bernese professor Norbert Thom for economics, who spent decades researching ways of reducing bureaucracy, also observes how the zeitgeist is characterised by the drive to avoid uncertainty and to permanent preservation of evidence. Therefore, with Swiss precision everything is logged, evaluated, quantified and controlled from above, which has led to a massive increase in internal bureaucracy. The corresponding departments would develop a considerable life of their own and grow steadily.

This ‘all risk’ mentality, based on dense regulations, but without any error culture, has consequences that go beyond the loss of efficiency and the immediate cost increases: It smothers the cardinal liberal virtues of employees such as personal responsibility, intrinsic motivation, expertise and common sense. Ultimately, it also undermines the mechanism that, according to sociologist Niklas Luhmann, reduces complexity in modern societies and in companies – trust.


New Publication: City as Medium and Stage for Encounters

The Spatial Dimension of Culture

How does spatial knowledge come about? How is it visualised and with what effects does it have on spatial imaginations and power relations? The spatial dimension of culture employs many different disciplines. Nevertheless the history of knowledge of space is, except for its representations, hardly investigated. This edited volume focuses on the current as well as historical practices and media of spatial research and their relations to social and technical developments.

Media that produce the spatial thinking of a discipline are the expression of power relations, for example in colonial contexts or in the study of nature and historical heritage. They develop forces that affect both the object of investigation and the relationships to other systems of knowledge. As instruments of demarcation, they legitimise academic styles of thinking over other forms of world-knowledge. Thinking in media techniques and formats promises evidence by means of popularising visualisations. The contributions of this volume focus on such epistemics of the terrain. They ask for old and new forms of spatial knowledge and discuss the influence of medial and sensual practices in science and in the public realm.

Contribution by Prof. Huib Ernste: City as Medium and Stage for Encounters

“Wissensmedien des Raums” is the second book published by the French and German-speaking network “Saisir le terrain / Terrain und Kultur” by researchers from ethnological disciplines and neighbouring fields.

Jean Louis Georget
Professor German Cultural History at the university of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3).

Christine Hämmerling
Associate Professor at Dept. of  Popular Cultures at the University Zurich.

Richard Kuba
Scientific Staff and Curator at Frobenius-Institute of the Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main.

Bernhard Tschofen
Professor for Popular Cultures at the University Zurich.

Alexander von Humboldt Lecture, at the opening of the Human Geography Master Programme 2018-2019

Thursday 06.09.2018, 15:30, Radboud University, Nijmegen

The Mediterranean Threshold

Prof. Timothy Raeymaekers, Dept. of Geography, University of Zurich, Switzerland


Timothy Raeymaekers’ presentation tries to fill a gap in the critical geography of territorial borders. Taking the current ‘crisis of migration’ in the Mediterranean as a case study, I ask myself what territorial effects this crisis is producing and how it challenges our conception of political subjectivity. The work I present here builds on five years of ethnographic and geographic research in so-called ‘migrant occupations’ across the Italian peninsula (e.g. Raeymaekers 2014, 2018 and 2019 forthcoming). Altogether Prof. Raeymaekers addresses two intersecting questions, which can be summarised like this: if we accept that the Mediterranean is increasingly becoming a ‘middle passage’ (after Gilroy 1983, 2015), then what kind of transformation shall we think this passage is producing, not just in terms of the technology of border and migration control, but also of citizen subjectivity? This question requires a reflection on two fronts. On the one hand, we observe how a rapidly transforming border regime across the Mediterranean is producing a progressive delocalisation of state boundaries – a process that results both in a form of extraterritoriality and of micro-territoriality. On the other hand, he argues, the way the actual management of migration and asylum is systematically being outsourced and privatised across this bordered territory produces an expanding, liquid threshold, which becomes central in the alignment, coordination and translation of contemporary migrant rights. The metaphor of the threshold serves to further explain and disentangle the way the rights of Europe’s non-citizens are currently mediated on the boundary of often conflicting political institutions. he concludes this presentation with a few more general reflections on the relation between territory, authority and political rights.


Butler, J. (2010) Frames of war: when is life grievable? London: Verso.

Gilroy, P. (1983) The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness, Harvard University Press

— (2015) Offshore humanism, Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture, Exeter.

Mbembe, A. (200) At the edge of the world: boundaries, territoriality, and sovereignty in Africa, in: Public Culture 12(1), pp. 259–284.

Raeymaekers, T. (2014) Europe’s bleeding border and the Mediterranean as a relational space, in: ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 13(2), pp. 163-172 (special issue).

— (forthcoming 2018) The laws of impermanence: displacement, sovereignty, subjectivity, in: Mitchell, K., Jones, R. and Fluri, J., eds., Handbook on critical geographies of migration, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press.

— (forthcoming 2019) Liquid thresholds: migrant territorializations and the Mediterranean crisis, in: Giglioli, I., Hawthorne, C. and Tiberio, A., Rethinking ‘Europe’ through its borderlands’, Cultural Geography.

Curiosity Driven Research and Teaching

The opening lecture at this year’s opening of the academic year was presented by Bert Wagendorp and addressed the topic ‘Curiosity’. As a researcher socialised at a real Research University, curiosity is very close to my heart, and I felt strong sympathy and agreement with the words of Bert Wagendorp. Below you find my own free translation of his speech.

It is a great honour for me to be here today and to be able to contribute to the opening of the academic year. That has never happened to me at my alma mater, the University of Groningen.

Nijmegen is a special place for me, my mother was born here, my grandfather was a teacher at the Hazenkampseweg and my great-grandfather was a well-known Nijmegen farmer. And then somewhere in my family tree there is also a verger of the St. Stevens Church.

The fact that I can sing the praise of curiosity and doubts here at a former Roman Catholic university as a journalist of a former Roman Catholic newspaper makes it extra special. Progress exists.

I am a journalist and I find it a happy coincidence that the topic of this afternoon is curiosity. Because curiosity is the basis of my profession. A journalist without curiosity can better do something else. In that respect, there is an agreement between journalists and scientists.

I do not know how that is with scientists, but there are many more journalists who lose their curiosity than you might think.
‘Losing’ is, by the way, the wrong word, we can not lose something that is ingrained in our minds. But there may come a time when we deny our curiosity, stop asking questions, because looking for answers is too strenuous for us. Journalists caught by this, for example, become university educators. Then the taming of curiosity has become their profession. Other journalists who have put aside their curiosity remain journalists, because denying your curiosity does not mean that you do not have to pay the mortgage anymore. Scientists who lose their curiosity, often then become university administrators.

The loss of curiosity is tragic and an important signal, at least, according to the Portuguese writer José Saramago. According to him, old age starts where curiosity ends. He died in 2010 at the age of 86 as a curious man who had never become old.

Incidentally, I can understand the man who puts his curiosity on the back burner. Keeping curiosity alive requires a lot of effort and answering the questions that emerge from the curiosity as well. And then you have to wait and see if those answers are sufficient. Usually they lead to new questions that also beg for an answer. The life of the curious person is restless, boundless and endless. Curiosity can lead to disillusionment and the loss of security. But it also leads to enrichment.

According to the Bible, Eva, the wife of Adam, was the first curious person. Seduced for this by the serpent, she took a bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have seen where that led to. Adam and Eve were thrown out of the blissful paradise of ignorance and ended up in the rugged world of eternal questions and the arduous search for answers; in short, in the world in which curiosity reigned, our world. Without curiosity, As it turned out, there was no survival outside of paradise.

But, to be honest, it was also incredibly boring in paradise. There was nothing to experience. It was even worse than in Centerparcs. How Adam and Eve should have endured eternal life in paradise, God alone knows.

Life only began to become interesting and exciting when the gate of paradise was locked behind them and doubt appeared on the horizon. And that was because of the bonus given to any kind of curiosity: the curious constantly explores the distant unknown, meets great minds and experiences things that will remain unknown to the less curious. The most important of these experiences is the surprise, the overwhelming  new insight that turns everything upside down. Curiosity leads to better understanding, to explanations for the hitherto unexplained. And to new curiosity.

Coincidentally, a novel by my hand appeared last year about a journalist who reached the end of curiosity. When my editor-in-chief read the book Masser Brock, it counts 412 pages, he said that I could also have done with a letter of resignation of two A-4s. In that comment was a truth and an untruth. The truth was that whoever loses his curiosity is no longer suitable for this profession. And then I’m not just talking about the journalist. It had made little difference to the core of the novel if I had made Masser Brock a scientist.

The untruth was that the protagonist in the novel and the author of the novel should never be equated.

Coincidentally, Masser Brock had developed a theory that I often use myself. Like me, he called it the Theory of Layered Truths. This theory is based on the stratification of reality and the different truths that come with it. According to Masser, you can divide the news according the depth of each level of truth. A bare news item can consist of one single layer and then it is unambiguous and uninteresting. But there may also be several layers of truth, the news item may then only be the tip of the iceberg. In that case it forms a layered story, in which you can set one truth against another, or in which a truth is thrown upside down by the truth underneath. Digging for the different layers of truth is done with the help of to the five W’s, Who, What, Where, When and especially: Why.

For science too, the Theory of Layered Truths is a useful tool. There the ‘Why’ is the magical abacadabra of the curious truth seeker.

We have just heard the beautiful song ‘Dare to Doubt’, and I can assure you that Masser Brock could have joined in with full conviction. There are few ‘doubters’ in the Dutch literature of the same calibre of Masser Brock. He doubts everything; he not only dares to doubt, he actually can not do otherwise. That does not make his life easier.

Doubt and curiosity are brother and sister. Who doubts is researching, for those who know for certain, research is superfluous. Eventually the doubter is driven by a certain despair, for doubt is an exhausting state of being. The doubter is life-long looking for security, with the only certainty, that he will never find it. That is not really a pleasant fact, but that is life, we call it la condition humaine.

In a moment of great lucidity, Masser suddenly sees that reality has the form of a pyramid. Under every truth, There is not one other truth, no, there are at least two. And below them there are four. Etcetera. And that continues until at the base of the pyramid it becomes so complicated that nobody really understands it any more. The deeper you dig, Masser thinks, the more confused it becomes. There is no single truth, there are infinite truths.
The truth is a convention, an article of faith to keep things a bit clear and reassuring.

Then Masser leaves for the Provence, where he observes the growth of the grapes, without even wondering how that actually works.

What I want to say with this is that the curious does not choose the easiest way, he gets a lot of trouble and hassle on his neck. But we can not do otherwise. The former ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’, the philosopher René Gude, said that our incessant, curious striving for knowledge is nothing more than an attempt to supplement ourselves, to brush up, to develop. To put an end to a gnawing sense of emptiness and to find an answer to the disturbing question of what we are doing here and why. According to him, curiosity had to do with a desire – without knowing exactly what we desire.

That desire is endless, just like our curiosity. Our observation is limited, Gude said, following Descartes, our minds are limited, our whole ability is limited, but our will, our desire for knowledge, our curiosity knows no limitation.

In biology we know the concept of neoteny: the human being who, for much longer than other animals, continues to exhibit youthful characteristics and whose brain is not fully mature until around the age of 25. That, in turn, is related to the fact that we are actually born too early and therefore have been working for a relatively long time to become adults. It concerns physical characteristics, but perhaps curiosity is a mental form of it. The human being who is curious about the world around him will always stay young and keeps asking questions. Who, in the terminology of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, constantly enters new spheres and tries to understand them… We are born curious and curiosity always stays with us.
And fortunately, because our whole civilisation is based on it, and shaped by it. It is a direct result of our curiosity. The greatest minds of our culture were the most curious spirits. You undoubtedly know Albert Einstein’s famous statement: ‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious’. Great scholars and great artists are united in curiosity. In the work of the greatest Dutchman in history, the philosopher Spinoza, the curiosity sparks from it. Look at the work of the painter Picasso and you see a life-long quest driven by pure curiosity.

Religions know that curiosity is the ax at the root of faith, and therefore did not stimulate it. In fact, they prefer to put curious people at the faggot. Even in my own youth in a conservative Protestant milieu, curiosity was seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Curiosity, questioning, searching, was dangerous because it would irrevocably lead to answers that were not in accordance with the dogmas on which the belief was based. Dogmas are never curiosity-proof.

In the West, the Enlightenment opened the for curiosity, and immediately the absolute truths were questioned – although they are still very persistent to this day.

Here, I am a guest in a centre of curiosity. I am not sure whether we are still sufficiently aware of this, in this profit- and output-based society, in which the most curious question is: what does it yield? That is not the first question of the curious person. He/she wants to know something much more fundamental, period.

I would not want to nourish the politicians who think that curiosity and its financing should be in the service of the gross national product, the employment and the export of tomatoes and cucumbers. That is legitimate, as long as it is not the only purpose of scientific research. Because then something essential is lost, not only scientifically, but especially in what we ideally and in our deepest sense are: the curious, searching human being.

Every civilised society cherishes the curiosity of artists and scientists, without immediately asking about the utility. It is easy to make a caricature of the artist who is freely creative in his atelier or the absent minded scientist in his ivory tower. But what we then seem to forget is, that they bring us further, perhaps not directly in the economic sense, but as a human beings. We would still live in caves or swampy marshes, if there had not been these incomprehensible searchers who have the why-question remaining on their lips. We would literally have stayed primitive and would never have reached beyond our status quo. Curiosity also stems from dissatisfaction, from the refusal to accept that things just go the way they go.

Saramago’s definition of old age – and perhaps of death – as the end of curiosity, applies to the individual. But perhaps you can generalise it, to society as a whole. Perhaps a society in which curiosity is not or not sufficiently cherished is ageing, or approaching death. Curiosity is connected with doubt, but also with vitality. It prevents stagnation, lethargy and complacency. A sensible government does not just address the usefulness of innovation by mouth, but it also stimulates curiosity and fundamental research. And is willing to provide the necessary budgets for it. If we really want to look at costs and benefits, I dare to claim that the benefits – and then I am not just talking about the monetary benefits – will far outweigh the costs.

In other countries, people seem much more aware of this than in the Netherlands, the country of utility thinking par excellence. That needs to change, otherwise we will pay a high price for it.
Saramago was a child of poor Portuguese farmers. He was allowed to go to a technical school by grace of God and then worked for years as a car mechanic. But every night he went to the village library to read everything he could get, driven, as he wrote himself, by nothing but curiosity and the will to learn. In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

I wish you all an academic year in which the curiosity, the desire for knowledge and the doubt are passionately celebrated and given free rein.

Bert Wagendorp