Briot and Soulié, “History of administrative and service workers at the University of Vincennes”

Continuing our coverage of research on university staff, the French sociologists Guy Briot and Charles Soulié have recently examined the politics of French university staff in the 1970s, in “Histoire des personnels BIATOSS de l’université de Vincennes : de l’AG permanente au règlement intérieur (1968-1980).” In English, that’s “History of administrative and service workers [personnels BIATOSS] at the University of Vincennes: From direct democracy to internal regulations (1968-1980).” Their paper is a chapter in an edited volume, De l’Université de Paris aux universités d’Île-de-France, which I haven’t read in full, but which documents the postwar expansion of public universities in the Paris region.

Briot and Soulié document an exceptionally militant political culture among the staff of an experimental university, the University of Paris 8—Vincennes-Saint-Denis, founded in 1968 after the massive protest movement of that May-June [liens ici vers Un mythe à détruire et vers le site web sur l’histoire de P8]. The fieldsite is close to my own interests, since my fieldwork on French higher education focused on this same university forty years later, after it had been relocated from its original site at Vincennes to a new campus in Saint-Denis. I note that Soulié has long supported my own ethnographic research on this campus, where he also teaches — the world of critical research on higher education is not so large. Briot for his part was formerly the secretary of the Paris 8 Sociology Department, which places him in the unusual category of administrative staff conducting reflexive research on their own institutions.

One might think that the very definition of this research object, “administrative and service workers,” was straightforward. In fact the title of the paper reveals important cultural differences in higher education organization. In France, non-teaching staff are typically labelled with the acronym “personnels BIATOSS,” a bit of institutional jargon that designates Librarians, Engineers, Administrators, Technicians, and Service and Health Workers. As Briot and Soulié point out, this acronym thus includes a very diverse population “belonging to different trades,” such that “ultimately there are few relations between these separate worlds,” including everything from janitors to campus-wide administrators (208). Nevertheless, the French term BIATOSS is generally used where a North American might speak of generically “staff” as opposed to “faculty,” or where a British speaker might refer to “non-teaching staff.” The long acronym, BIATOSS, incidentally, is a typical bit of French bureaucratic jargon, of the sort that makes the French university system especially hard for outsiders to comprehend. Making things even more complicated, as Briot and Soulié note, the very acronym has evolved over time. Librarians (bibliothécaires) for instance were not originally included, since at one point they were assigned to a different arm of the state apparatus that worked in concert with the public university system, rather than being part of it.

This leads us towards the real cultural and institutional difference here. While a North American might expect that “administrative and service workers” are generally legal employees of the university in question, in France most permanent university staff were in fact civil servants, and thus technically employed by the French state apparatus rather than by the university per se. And as public universities were a national public service, they were also integrated into other public services. To this day, “social services” like dining and housing are not technically part of a specific university campus, but rather are provided by different arms of public administration working on the same site [link: CROUS]. Recent university reforms have transferred payroll functions away from the state administration to the public universities themselves, and it is possible to have a work contract (especially a temporary contract) directly with a French university instead of a civil servant status. Still, I must emphasize that an American notion of “campus workers” only corresponds loosely to the French “personnels BIATOSS,” in legal terms.

What does translate more directly is the negatively defined, low status nature of non-teaching work. As Briot and Soulié remark, “one can say that these are the ‘invisibles’ of this universe, a professional group that is symbolically dominated in the main. That’s what’s emphasized by the privative term ‘non teaching staff’…” (207). At the same time, what Americans would call “opposition to authority” was taken to a level that is to my knowledge absolutely unheard of in the North American academy today. It is not that the staff was not institutionally subordinate at Vincennes, in relation to the teaching staff. But qua dominated group, this group remained exceptionally politicized for several years following the creation of the university (and as my own research in 2009-11 showed, this political culture persisted in part forty years later).

I was amazed to find that in 1979, 56.7% of the staff rejected “the very principle of internal workplace regulations” which stipulated rules about work hours, attendance, and the like (219). Instead, many of the staff defended a remarkably non-traditional aspiration to be judged strictly by “work delivered,” and therefore to be left alone to manage their own work processes. As the authors conclude:

Vincennes est donc une institution où des formes « d’auto organisation » originales se sont développées et articulées notamment autour de la notion de « travail fait », qui signifie notamment que ce qui importe n’est pas tant que les employés soient formellement présents de telle heure à telle heure, mais que le service attendu soit finalement rendu. Bien évidemment, la réalisation de cette utopie a reposé sur des conditions sociales, historiques et politiques de « possibilité » spécifiques, notamment liées à la place de l’institution considérée dans le champ académique de l’époque, comme à la taille, à la composition et aux fonctions des collectifs de travail concernés. On peut penser que le mode de gestion à la fois communautaire, horizontal et très politique de Vincennes la place sans doute aux antipodes du management « rationnel » d’aujourd’hui.

Vincennes was thus an institution where original forms of “self-organization” developed, centering especially on the notion of “work done,” which meant that what mattered was not so much that the employees were formally present at such and such hours, but that the expected service was ultimately delivered. Of course, the realization of this utopia depended on specific social, historical, and political conditions of possibility, linked to the institution’s place in the academic field of the period, and to the size, composition and functions of the work groups involved. One might conclude that Vincennes’ communitarian, horizontal and highly political mode of administration [gestion] sets it at the antipodes of today’s “rational” management.

If you read French, you can read the paper to find out more about the details of this history. But in any event, this case is comparatively important, I think, as an instance of dominated university workers becoming politicized and making their own demands about how to organize the workplace. Of course there are many labor organizing projects on contemporary campuses, but these are typically more for service workers than for administrative or “white collar” workers, and they very rarely go so far as to contest the very possibility of workplace regulations as such. This case thus shows that even the most familiar institutions of modern corporate discipline do not always “go without saying.”

I note as a point of comparative method that Briot and Soulié’s sociological interests are quite different from what one would typically find in American sociology. The most striking difference is about the treatment of race: here they never discuss race directly, although immigrant janitors do get some attention as the “symbol par excellence of the exploited worker” (210). On the other hand, they devote significant attention to age, politicization, educational level (interpreted not just as a matter of “human capital” but as a form of social affiliation with the events of May 1968), and residence location (since living in Paris is generally more bourgeois than living in the banlieue). And they are highly attuned to the demographics of gender difference, noting for instance that the administrative staff were something like 2/3 women (as far as the limited data can tell us), whereas among technicians and manual workers (ouvriers) the gender ratio was reversed.

Moreover, the authors are highly attentive to internal schisms between different sectors of the university workforce. Their paper raises the intriguing prospect of a more general sociology of university workers that does not just examine one or another type of campus labor, but that thinks more structurally about the relations between parts of the university labor system. This is the hallmark of the heritage of relational thinking that Pierre Bourdieu did so much to popularize. In this “relational sociology,” nothing social just is in itself, but rather everything is relational and positional. U.S. social researchers know that in the abstract, of course, but in this Bourdieuian style of French social research, systems of relations are treated more historically and structurally than one would find in any current Anglophone ethnography.

I do still have a few questions for the authors. What did everyday life look like on campus? What was the relationship between campus labor and the structures of campus space and facilities? Granted that it is a highly segregated domain, what specific kinds of social relationships did develop between different kinds of staff (including teaching staff)? To what extent were boundaries between teaching and non-teaching staff blurred, or could non-teaching staff still participate in the intellectual life of the institution? (Briot and Soulié observe that some activist administrators were also adjunct teachers, termed chargés de cours.) And on a more political front, how did internal staff unions develop over the years, and to what extent could they intervene in the precarious status of many campus workers? I gather that Briot and Soulié are continuing their research on Vincennes university staff, so perhaps their future work will examine everyday space and labor organizing in more detail.

You might also be interested in our growing Zotero bibliography of work on labor in higher education.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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