Academic productivism and mental health

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Academic productivism established a sociability and a way of life basically guided by productivity

The title of the proposed debate is “Productivism and mental health in graduate studies”, which, in turn, is part of the question, at least dramatic, that entitles the 7th Forum of the Graduate Program in Sociology, at Unicamp: “ Is it possible to cross precariousness?”

Considering the proposal, our intention is to reflect on academic productivism, precariousness and mental health or psychic suffering through the idea of ​​subjectivation. More specifically, from the current “mode of subjectivation” (by subjectivation we mean “subjection” and “mode of production of existences”), which also involves the University and, in particular, postgraduate studies.


academic productivism

As is known, the origin of the notion of “academic productivism” refers to the North American context of the 1950s and the famous dilemma “publish or perish”. In Brazil, the idea initially appeared in the 1970s and was institutionalized mainly in the 90s, through guidelines, regulations and evaluation processes by development agencies, in particular Capes (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel).

There is also a movement in public opinion in this direction: in 1988, the Folha de São Paulo had published the so-called “list of unproductive”, prepared by the rectory of USP[I]; later, in 1995, the same newspaper published the “list of the productive ones”, encompassing 170 researchers from different areas[ii].

Roughly speaking, “academic productivism” is the conventional way of calling the current graduate culture and university practices in general. In any case, it is the modus operandi above all postgraduate studies (thus, a significant part of national scientific production), subject to external control and promotion agencies.

In the book The intensified work in the Federals: post-graduation and academic productivism, Valdemar Sguissardi and João dos Reis Silva Jr show that academic productivism is consolidated through the articulation between daily university practice and institutional policies related to the country's project, from FHC to Lula (it is worth mentioning that the 1st edition of the book, which is a quantitative and qualitative study of the subject prefaced by Chico de Oliveira, is from 2009[iii]).

Submitted to the reforms of the Brazilian State, which, in turn, are articulated with the development of capitalism on a global level, the policies of control and promotion introduced entrepreneurial values ​​into academic life: efficiency, excellence, high competitiveness, performance, reduction of costs, evaluation by product, achievement of goals, results, and so on.

If science and technology constitute fundamental productive forces for capitalism, and contemporary capitalism is distinguished by the centrality of overqualified intellectual and immaterial work, the project to capture the University through business logic is not surprising.

Academic productivism, this current way of organizing university activity (research, teaching and extension), is a policy that will become, little by little, an institutional culture – or, better, an organizational culture: we move from institution to organization, says Paulo Arantes[iv], in the wake of Franklin Leopoldo e Silva and his precise diagnosis regarding the “terminal project” of the University that is at stake.[v] Taking as a reference the argument of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, we could say that, in this transition from institution to organization, the Freudian model of neurosis (based on conflict, law, interdiction) is replaced by the Janet model of depression, whose principle is insufficiency, the deficit, according to which the individual is below the expected[vi].

But let's return to academic productivism. Production quantity, rankings, etc. will serve to hierarchize both institutions and researchers. In the gymkhana, what is at stake is the dispute for specific capital, economic resources, visibility, prestige, power.

It is not that the market fully penetrates the University or privatizes it: it is its criteria, its logic and its absolutely accelerated and predatory temporality that also colonize the way of doing science. In this new way of doing science, which is no longer so new, everything happens as if the ultimate objective were, after all, more to increase the curriculum (“make it competitive”, says the jargon) than to produce something truly meaningful. .

The effects of productivism – we read this in the various works on the subject, as well as we perceive it in everyday practice – are sliced ​​works, aiming at greater yields, and whose quality is often impaired, from form to content (after all, it is necessary to meet goals whose deadlines are increasingly tight).

A patent contradiction highlighted in the literature on the subject is that the demand for first world productivity standards takes place in conditions of precariousness and underdevelopment, from the infrastructure of public universities to the remuneration of professors and researchers (cutting policies, freezing scholarships and wages, work intensification, social devaluation, etc.).[vii]

But what we would like to underline is that this academic productivism movement – ​​which involves the global development of capitalism and institutional reform policies of the State (the formulation of the so-called “Managerial State” or “Business State”) – has become, over the years, years, a culture, an ethics, a ethos, modifying the very conception of what it means to do science. Young female researchers, already formed within this culture, tend to internalize, naturalize and reproduce the vital principles of academic productivism, such as individualism, performance, competition, search for individual recognition, and so on.


Neoliberal rationality and mode of subjectivation in the academy

Academic productivism is thus part of what a number of authors have been calling, for some time now, neoliberal rationality., from Foucault, passing especially by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval to Wendy Brown, among others.

We are not going to expand here on the history of neoliberalism and its policy of flexibility and production of precariousness and inequalities. Let us first define neoliberal rationality: it is nothing more than a set of values ​​that determine the current way of life – the way of being, thinking, acting, feeling, appreciating, in short, the very conception of life. It goes beyond, therefore, the notion of neoliberalism as a specific economic and political doctrine, as an ideology or even a government regime.

The principles of this rationality are precisely performance and competition. More specifically, the business paradigm (speed, innovation, efficiency, goals, results, flexibility, versatility) that guides not only private companies and public institutions, but the individual's relationship with others and with himself. In other words, it means that neoliberalism also produces social relations, ways of living, subjectivities[viii].

As a culture, academic productivism dispenses with external coercion: self-engagement constitutes the habitus academic and produces a subjectivity that is not only dominant (since it tends to impede other ways of life) but also exhausted (internal pressure is often reported as suffocating). One of Michel Foucault's most striking lessons in his course dedicated to neoliberalism is the explanation of the sophisticated way in which his technology of power operates: in this form of management, it is about governing (in terms of conducting conduct) from the rationality of the governed themselves.

Academic productivism established, in this sense, a sociability and a way of life basically guided by productivity (always buoyed by quantitative metrics), establishing that the results must be duly recorded and disclosed (in addition to producing, it is also necessary to know how to manage public relations : marketing, disclosure, communication – and, as the doctrine says, all on its own. Being at the top is also a matter of successful self-management).

Despite the difference in relation to the capital at stake, everything happens as if the homo academicus[ix] had incorporated the operating mode of the homo economist contemporary[X]: the current mode of subjectivation in the academy is also that of self-entrepreneurship, of a relationship between oneself and oneself marked by excess, competitiveness, individualism, investment strategies, self-engagement (self-exploration can also figure there as a form of servitude voluntary).

It is worth remembering that competition and individualism also work as strategies to demobilize collectivities. That is, just as neoliberalism acts by de-collectivizing society (“there is no society, only individuals”, cried Margareth Thatcher), academic productivism also empties collective spaces (collegiate bodies, assemblies, unions, etc.), after all, it is necessary not to “ wasting time” in the name of “career”, subject to productivity metrics. As the literature on the subject has already shown, full mobilization for production logically implies political demobilization. Even recognition via individual performance tends to make collective projects unfeasible.

In short, the socially dominant mode of subjectivation captured a potentially refractory space such as the University. A “society of entrepreneurs” is, after all, the goal of companies, governments and educational institutions[xi]. The effect of this mode of subjectivation – or what Dardot and Laval called “ultrasubjectivation”, which is the constant self-overcoming, the beyond oneself, the paradigm of high-performance athletics diffused in the social fabric, “you in your best version”, will say the speech coaching motivational – can only be the production of an exhausted subjectivity.

This reality weighs even more on the shoulders of graduate students, since their precarious conditions are not only subjective[xii] (which is already a lot!), but also objective. In addition to the competition and pressure to meet deadlines, participate in conferences, publish articles, there are also particularities such as the orientation relationship, uncertainty about the future (intensified with the scarcity of public tenders and a systematic policy of devaluing science and of teaching), forms of harassment (moral and sexual), socioeconomic vulnerabilities, difficulties in obtaining scholarships and, even when obtained, the situation is of economic precariousness (as is known, since 2013 there has been no readjustment of the value of Capes and CNPq scholarships ; and their devaluation policy is systematic: if, in 2008, a doctoral scholarship was equivalent to four minimum wages, today it is equivalent to only two). It is urgent to think which country project is at stake in the face of such a lack of incentives for young researchers.

Considering the current mode of subjectivation in the academy and such objective precariousness, it is not surprising that tsunami psychological distress also among graduate students. Studies find alarming rates of anxiety disorders, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, insomnia, stress, depressive disorders, among others[xiii]. As in society in general, such disorders and psychic suffering are often interpreted at the University as a sign of failure, incapacity, inadaptation. Indeed, neoliberal rationality is based not only on the principle of unlimited individual capacities, but also on unlimited individual responsibility, so that success or failure depends exclusively on the “scientist-entrepreneur” and the management of his own health.

It is not new that industrial civilization is in crisis. The transposition of the predatory mode of production of industrialism to the University also transforms everything from the way of doing science to the way of relating with others and with oneself. We are facing a way of life whose integral mobilization for production indicates a total exhaustion: climatic, environmental, physiological and psychological.

Everything happens as if we were, also in science, alienated in productive activity in an industrial way. The mathematician Alexander Grothendieck already drew attention to this aspect in the 1970s, questioning the continuity of scientific research in these terms, that is, when devoid of social meaning[xiv].

Indeed, even today we cannot help but ask what might be the relevance and social function of a “paper” published in English, in the USA, which has nothing to do with national and local issues, which escape international editorial interests. Or else, what good is scientific-technological development in agriculture for humanity when people are still dying of hunger? This is an intrinsic contradiction of capitalism, as has been known since Marx, and the scientific-technological activity that takes place at the University cannot ignore it.


* * *

We know that science, by definition, is a collective activity, based on the principle of cooperation and collaboration, a vector diametrically opposed to that of individual competition. Another sociability, different from the productivist one, could emerge from this basic conception of community.

Universities and the science that is practiced in them occupy a privileged place to criticize and self-criticize the predominant form of subjectivation, also asking what and whom science should serve. It is not new that part of the human and social sciences already makes this reflection, thinking about possible alternatives. It's hard to find a way out. As the authors of The new reason of the world, it is easier to escape from a prison than to escape from a rationality.

For the time being, the strategies to withstand the blow have been individual, nothing structural: physical exercises, meditation, attempts at disconnection, various therapies, not to mention the duo Ritalin and rivotril as a compression and decompression resource. In any case, just as the implementation of the productivist culture took place through the adhesion and incorporation of the policies by the actors in their daily practice, the reaction or refusal can only also be collective from the Universities themselves and the actors themselves (we think, specifically, on the role of the human and social sciences in this regard).

It is true that it is difficult to face this question today, in the midst of denialism and the national and planetary cultural war, when the defense of the University, science, research, knowledge, teaching is urgent, however childish it may seem. In any case, even if the current struggle for survival makes the struggle for intellectual autonomy unfeasible, the issue of subjectivation in science as well – that is, the mode of production of researchers’ stocks based on business logic – must not escape the horizon through the normalization and simple adaptation. Otherwise, expressive stampedes can approach as another danger.

*Elton Corbanezi is professor of sociology at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT). Author of Mental Health, Depression and Capitalism (Unesp).

Text developed from a presentation at the round table “Productivism and mental health in graduate studies”, at the 7th Forum of the Graduate Program in Sociology, at Unicamp, on November 22, 2021



[I] See

[ii] See!/5.html.

[iii] Cf. SGUISSARDI, Valdemar; SILVA JR., Joao dos Reis. The intensified work in the Federals: postgraduate studies and academic productivism. 2nd Ed. Uberlândia: Navegando Publications, 2018.

[iv]See ARANTES, Paulo. “Academic Capitalism”, available at

[v] Cf. SILVA, Franklin Leopoldo. “The university experience between two liberalisms”. Social Time (USP), v. 11, no. 1, 1999, p. 1-47.

[vi] See EHRENBERG, Alain. La fatigue d'êtresoi: dépression et société. Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1998.

[vii]It is worth emphasizing that such conditions may not necessarily imply peripheral scientific production, but rather a process of subjectivation that Fabrício Neves designates as “peripheralization”. Such a process is the effect of a self-depreciated scientific order in relation to the “centralization” processes that attribute legitimacy and validity to scientific knowledge coming from central locations in the geopolitics of knowledge production. Cf. NEVES, Fabrizio. “The peripherization of science and the elements of the irrelevance management regime”. Brazilian Journal of Social Sciences, v. 35, no. 104, 2020.

[viii] See DARDOT, Pierre; LAVAL, Christian. The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society. Trans. Mariana Echalar. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

[ix] See BOURDIEU, Pierre. homo academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1984.

[X] Cf. FOUCAULT, Michael. Birth of Biopolitics: course given at the Collège de France (1978-1979). Trans. Edward Brandao. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2008.

[xi]Cf. LAVAL, Christian. “Precariousness as a 'style of life' in the neoliberal era”. Trans. GiselyHime. Paragraph, v. 5, no. 1, 2017, p. 101-108.

[xii]Cf.LINHART, Danielle. “Modernisation et précarisation de la vie au travail”. CEIC Papers, no. 43, CEIC (Center for Studies on Collective Identity), Universidad del País Vasco. Available in:

[xiii]Cf. COSTA, Everton Garcia da; NEBEL, Leticia. “How much is the pain worth? Study on mental health of graduate students in Brazil”. Polis, Latin American Magazine, no. 50, 2018, p. 207-227. See also, for example, the following articles published in Folha de São Paulo:;

[xiv]Cf.GROTHENDIECK, Alexander.“Allons-nouscontinuerlarecherchescientifique?”, conference held at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), in 1972. Available at Accessed on 24 Nov. 2021. The transcript of the conference can be found at

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