Re-invent Yourself! How Demands for Innovativeness Reshape Epistemic Practices

Ruth I. Falkenberg (2021)

Minerva. Online first. Open access.

Abstract. In the current research landscape, there are increasing demands for research to be innovative and cutting-edge. At the same time, concerns are voiced that as a consequence of neoliberal regimes of research governance, innovative research becomes impeded. In this paper, I suggest that to gain a better understanding of these dynamics, it is indispensable to scrutinise current demands for innovativeness as a distinct way of ascribing worth to research. Drawing on interviews and focus groups produced in a close collaboration with three research groups from the crop and soil sciences, I develop the notion of a project-innovation regime of valuation that can be traced in the sphere of research. In this evaluative framework, it is considered valuable to constantly re-invent oneself and take ‘first steps’ instead of ‘just’ following up on previous findings. Subsequently, I describe how these demands for innovativeness relate to and often clash with other regimes of valuation that matter for researchers’ practices. I show that valuations of innovativeness are in many ways bound to those of productivity and competitiveness, but that these two regimes are nevertheless sometimes in tension with each other, creating a complicated double bind for researchers. Moreover, I highlight that also the project innovation regime as such is not always in line with what researchers considered as a valuable progress of knowledge, especially because it entails a de-valuation of certain kinds of long-term epistemic agendas. I show that prevailing pushes for innovativeness seem to be based on a rather short-sighted temporal imaginary of scientific progress that is hardly grounded in the complex realities of research practices, and that they can reshape epistemic practices in potentially problematic ways.

Extract: “In this paper, I explore in how far valuations akin to the project order as described by Boltanski and Chiapello can be traced in researchers’ discussions on demands for innovativeness in the current research landscape. However, I do not treat this framework as a blueprint to be applied to the sphere of research. Rather, I trace comparable tendencies in researchers’ narratives without attempting a full-fledged analysis of how the project order can be found in the academic world. Therefore, I developed, in dialogue with my empirical material, the notion of a project-innovation regime, to denote tendencies comparable to those identified by Boltanski and Chiapello in their analysis of management literature, but to foreground the particular focus on innovativeness that I adopt in this paper.
My conceptual approach is thus situated somewhere between studies that have applied pre-defined orders of worth (Boltanski and Thevenot 2006) as a framework to be traced in different societal spheres (e.g. Sharon 2018; Thévenot, Moody, and Lafaye 2000), and approaches that have empirically reconstructed regimes of valuation (Fochler, Felt, and Müller 2016) or registers of valuing (Heuts and Mol 2013) in a bottom-up manner (Dussauge, Helgesson, and Lee 2015; Helgesson, Lee, and Lindén 2016; Stark 2009). While I applied the lens of the project order, I also traced how it concretely played out in my empirical material, as what I call the project-innovation regime. Moreover, I investigated how valuations of innovativeness are related to, potentially in tension with, and being aligned with different value regimes that I identified to be of importance to the researchers I talked to in a bottom-up manner in the process of data analysis. For my analysis, I employ the notion of regimes of valuation, rather than repertoires or registers, since this concept most strongly highlights the discursive, material, and institutional embedding that concrete evaluative principles draw upon (see Fochler et al. 2016).” (p. 5)

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