Intervention – “Precarity, Transactions, Insecure Attachments: Reflections on Participating in Degrees of Abuse”

by Emma Cardwell and Esther Hitchen

Decisions, Part 1

I was sitting on my bed when my phone lit up. I recognised the area code straight away – it must be the University, I thought. It was. It was HR informing me that I had been offered an interview for the permanent lectureship I had applied for. The dilemma I was fearing had emerged: Do I say yes and be interviewed by my harasser, or do I turn the interview down, unemployed and with no future job opportunities? It was at this point that I needed to make a decision about whether to speak up to the detriment of my own career, or to remain silent.

This was the first interview for a permanent lectureship I’d ever received, and after months and months of applications and rejections I should have been overjoyed. But I didn’t even know if I had earned this on my own merit – my harasser, who was on the interview panel, had offered to “advocate” for me to get an interview. I had refused this, but still the offer felt profoundly uncomfortable. I rang friends, supervisors, mentors. In the end I went with my gut – I knew I needed to get away from this man, and others needed to be protected from him too. I decided to pull out of the interview and submit a formal complaint.

This decision created a chain of events that led to numerous women, from undergraduates to lecturers, speaking out about the harasser in question. It led to a year-long battle with a prestigious Russell Group university, 263 pages written across two complaints, including 20 appendices of evidence, an investigation interview, two subject access requests, and innumerable emails to HR. It led to an international news story. It led to an independent review of that university’s complaints procedure, and prompted internal reviews in other geography departments too. It led to the Royal Geographical Society creating a policy statement on sexual misconduct, and statements from the University and College Union and academic journals.

It definitely had “impact”, but nothing I can translate into an “impact case study”. It led to no peer-reviewed articles published, no funding acquired, and zero additions to my academic CV. Two years on, I am still precariously employed.

Decisions, Part 2

“We warn new PhD students to stay away from him.”

It was November 2019, and I was in a pub a short distance from the university at which I had recently taken my first academic job. Two PhD students had just told me that the male academic I had had “issues” with for a year – a “clash of personalities”, as my managers put it – was well known for similar “clashes of personalities” with women he was in a position of power over – although usually postdocs and PhDs, those (unlike myself) below the precarity waterline of a permanent academic contract.

My own “clash of personalities” (note the lack of attention to power in that phrase: a clash, a battle among equals) had me in therapy, regularly crying in my office, and I had rung the Samaritans twice, after idly thinking that hanging myself might be the easiest way out. Sitting in the pub, I imagined being wrapped in the tentacles of this dynamic as a postgraduate student with a supervisor – rather than the more equal footing of a newly-hired lecturer with a more-established colleague – and I was horrified.

“I don’t want to make a formal complaint,” I said to the students, “because I don’t want to put myself into an adversarial situation in the Department. But if anyone more precarious than me comes forward, as someone with more power I have a duty to speak out.”

It didn’t feel like a decision. But when a postdoctoral researcher I’d never met contacted me a week later, saying she’d submitted a sexual misconduct complaint about the academic in question, that promise in the pub became a commitment. It didn’t feel like a decision, but it was – a decision that cost me an incredible amount of stress, socially and intellectually isolated me at work, and ultimately drove me out of a job.

Decisions: An Intervention in Community

It is decisions like these we want to address in this Intervention: the decisions we make as individuals and members of an academic community. The decisions described above, by the two authors of this piece,[1] were the starting point of a process that changed, and bound together, our lives as academics and women.

We’ve spoken about our experience of making formal complaints, and the problematics of university procedures, before (see Davies and Howlett 2021), and there is an emerging body of work on the formal responses to bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct in universities that makes a vital contribution to how we understand the logics of institutional power in the academy (see Ahmed 2016, 2021; Bull and Page 2021; Humphreys and Towl 2020; Oman and Bull 2021; Page et al. 2019). But in this piece, we hope to speak more personally, and more directly, to the community in which we belong: that of critical geography.

Social justice, inequality and power relations are common topics in critical geography (Blomley 2006), and from the undergraduate level, we ask students to consider ethics and their own positionality as researchers in relation to the communities they study (e.g. Wilson and Darling 2020; see also Cahill et al. 2007). But what about our positionality within our own community? Our discipline is too quiet on the intimate relational dynamics we perform in our working lives day to day (in the sense described by Butler [1990]). As researchers, we are often studying a community separate from us, and to which we are not always responsible (there are of course notable exceptions to this, such as feminist “doorstep ethnography” approaches, e.g. Stenning 2021; Whittle 2021). Pointing out power relations and structural inequality at a distance earns us accolades, publications and funding bids that raise our status and incomes (Sidaway 2000). However, our experiences suggest pointing out these issues in our own community – namely, the academic community, and more immediately, our own departments and the critical geography sub-field – usually leads to the exact opposite.

Kim TallBear (2014) describes how for her, the ethical imperative of feminist scholarship is to study not at a distance, but from within community. Drawing on Tadiar (2000), she calls this the production of “faithful knowledges”, in which “one speaks as an individual ‘in concert with’ … one’s people”. TallBear frames this discussion around her own community membership as an Indigenous scholar and an academic, and points out that some researchers may critique this approach as “insufficiently replicable” for the non-Indigenous. “Community” is not only “out there”: we are all part of communities, though we do not always approach our workplaces this way. Yet we still have an ethical imperative to produce faithful knowledges about our communities, as loose and individualistic as these may be, rather than simply critiquing external phenomena from a safe distance. If we believe in the theoretical principles that guide critical geography, we need to be attendant to abuses of power and reproductions of inequalities that touch our own relational realities.

What does this look like, in a geography department, in practice? It looks like a series of decisions in which you have to decide to make yourself more vulnerable to precarity – financial precarity and social precarity – in order to perform a community based on justice rather than inequality. It means standing against those with power – which includes the power to reward you for your fealty, or punish you for your opposition – and standing with those without. Though there is important work in critical geography that engages with the structural conditions of the neoliberal academy (e.g. Askins and Blazek 2017; Horton 2020; Jones and Whittle 2021), addressing more immediate issues within our personal communities is fraught with danger, particularly for students and the precariously employed.

And more and more people in the sector are precarious. One third of all academics are now working on fixed term contracts in the UK, rising to over 40% for Black and Asian academics (UCU 2021). Furthermore, the increasing use of blunt metrics to rank both universities and academics against one another, with the implicit threat of redundancy for those ranking lower (Simpson 2021), create feelings of precarity even among permanent staff (Berg et al. 2016; Strauss 2020).

In the face of this precarity, we become so attached to academia’s power to confer social identity and material security (or the promise of this), that any risk to that attachment becomes an existential threat. It becomes a threat to us as human beings – through both the provision of our basic material needs, and our sense of belonging and identity. From our own personal experience, being the “enemy within” a department hurts, as does being unemployed and kept out. It goes right to the heart of who we think we are. At times our material security and social identity as academics become so intertwined, we forget that our material and social security needs could be met outside of academia. This attachment makes us precarious, not only economically, but also psychologically.

Transactions of Precarity and Survival

Precarity is an existential condition of late capitalism for many academics, as it is for others, such as students, delivery drivers, creative workers and the unemployed (Brown 2015). Ultimately, it is our dependence on the material and social provision of the university – you can’t afford to lose your academic job, you can’t afford to say no to that interview – that locks us into ever-performing power structures, for the sake of job security.

As such, by standing up for community justice, you increase your precarity. It’s worth noting that the (limited) economic security of the permanent academic is the social and economic exception, not the norm, under racial capitalism, and rests on the back of a wealth of unpaid labour and environmental devastation both historic and current (Makhulu 2016; McRobbie 2011; Mitropoulos, 2005; Nyong’o, 2013; see also Robinson 1983). It’s also worth noting how many people with the highly privileged position of a permanent academic still feel an existential sense of precarity (Simpson 2021; Strauss 2020).

The academy can be understood as having two strata of transactions (Lister-Ford 2002). Firstly, the social level, in which collaboration, community and interdisciplinary working are not only encouraged, but often required for success (for example, through multidisciplinary, cross-university research grants). Secondly, however, there is also the affective/psychological transaction which, at times, underneath the emphasis on collaboration, is the darker side of academia: namely, the feeling that academics – often but not exclusively early-career researchers – are working against one another, fighting for the same few jobs and fellowships available, where failure holds high stakes. This generates the need to collaborate, whilst existing in academic structures that individualise success. The simultaneousness of these transactions can make academia, at times, feel exhausting and even toxic. The division between the social and psychological transaction is particularly stark in a field like critical geography, which foregrounds social justice, while positioned within such unjust conditions.

This duality of transactions is something anyone who has experienced bullying, abuse, or sexual harassment in academia will be familiar with. Often, such behaviour hides behind plausible deniability at the social level, while being unmistakable at the affective. Yet another racist comment that someone can insist “wasn’t meant that way”; body language and tone of voice that are undeniably and oppressively sexual, yet can’t quite be captured on paper, or are not “beyond reasonable doubt” to an (always sceptical) HR manager.

The “academic community” exists, then, but membership of that community is insecure and conditional, and is dependent on attributes (winning a permanent post, funding acquired, publications, citations, international recognition) that have very little to do with strong social bonds, ethics, or acting communally (Todd 2017) – unlike in more horizontal forms of community organisation. You will not necessarily be rewarded for making the community better by addressing inequality, though you will be rewarded for giving the university a “competitive” edge by demonstrating how inequality doesn’t exist (Ahmed 2007). This is what leads to the hypocrisy, and for idealistic new academics, institutional betrayal (Smith and Freyd 2014) of aspirational equalities policies, Athena Swan “gold” awards, and groundbreaking critical analysis of power abuses in other places, while we replicate these very same intersectional oppressions in our own workplaces (Ahmed 2012).

It also produces an environment that renders everyone vulnerable, a community that is ready to cast you out at any time for purely instrumental reasons, related to the university’s bottom line.[2] It is in this context of (perceived) social and economic insecurity that decisions about addressing harassment are made. Standing up as (or for) a student or precariously employed person – who is likely to disappear at some point, so not considered a full member of the community anyway – becomes dangerous: “If I help this person – where does that leave me?” This means students and the precariously employed are left vulnerable and alone in the face of abuse – as other community members are incentivised to avoid the conflict, rather than acting in solidarity with the less powerful. This can also be seen as acting in solidarity with the powerful, and reproducing unfair power structures as they stand.

What we see in our departments isn’t a lack of community, then, but an over-identification (even when this is reluctant) with an affective community that is competitive, insecure and hierarchical – and deeply committed to the colonial scarcity logics of patriarchal white supremacy (Esson et al. 2017; Okun 2021). Drawing again on TallBear (2014) and Tadiar (2000), and echoing a similar argument, made under different circumstances, by Esson et al. (2017), we suggest that in order to produce faithful knowledges and act ethically within community – and in concert with one’s people – as critical geographers, we should have an honest conversation about what exactly our community is, and who, as people, we are. We need to rethink our attachments to academia, the decisions these lead us to make, and where our security is found.


Emma and Esther would like to acknowledge all the women involved in this case, particularly Lauren MacDonald, Courtney Walker, Tayler Henderson, and the anonymous “Hannah”, as well as all the students who had reasons not to speak out publicly, yet bravely shared their experiences more privately. We would also like to acknowledge the parallel struggles of Becca Harrison and Heather McLean. You have been our community, and we wouldn’t have got through this without you.

We would also like to recognise and acknowledge Alex Howlett and Deborah Davies, and everyone else who contributed to the Al Jazeera Degrees of Abuse podcast series. Especially the other women at Glasgow, Oxford, Warwick, Cambridge and Toronto: the series would not have had the impact it has, or been recognised more widely, without their voices. There were two internal cases that led Glasgow to launch a QC-led independent enquiry into their policies, and all the UK cases as a whole contributed to wider coverage and response to the podcast beyond Geography. Our stories should be heard within the context of theirs, and all those which do not have the privilege of a professional media broadcast.

Thanks also to Heather McLean for suggesting the Zoe Todd reference, and though not cited above, Audra Mitchell’s (2016) blog on “Lifework” (referenced by Todd), and how “academic busy-ness” can stand in the way of us tending our communities, is an important complementary text to this argument.


[1] Both authors of this article are white British women from Yorkshire.

[2] We’re not talking here about accusations of “cancellation” for cruel or damaging ideas: these are based on creating a strong and safe community for all, including the most marginalised, and therefore improving our social bonds.


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