Against Hierarchies

Being too tired to do anything else, last night I had a rare look at the television and found an interesting programme on RTÉ One called The Confessors which I watched to the end. The theme of the show was the tradition of the confession box in the Irish Catholic Church. As someone brought up in the Anglican tradition, the confessional has always been a bit of a mystery to me, which is one reason I found it interesting. It also touched on a number of wider issues (including the possible role of the seminary at Maynooth in establishing Ireland as an outpost of Jansenism. Some of the priests contributing to the programme also talked very frankly about the systematic sexual abuse of children by priests and the way it was covered up by the Church.

I was very interested to hear several of the contributors complaining that this problem was exacerbated by the power structure of the Catholic Church which made it easy for complaints to be stifled.

That discussion reminded me of thoughts I’ve had previously about harassment and abuse in other contexts (not of children) and the way they are suppressed by official hierarchies. This problem extends to universities, whose management structures often resemble those of church hierarchies, even down to the terminology (e.g. Deans) they have inherited from their origins as theological institutions.

This sort of structure creates a problem that is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about (especially sexual) harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

These unhealthy power structures will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. Having more roles filled on a rotating basis by members of academic staff rather than professional managers would help. On the other hand, the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognizing that there is a structural problem.

7 Responses to “Against Hierarchies”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    I could have written essentially the same text about another blatant abuse of power in academia. 😐

  2. I think an ‘upward appraisal’ system or some mechanism with junior staff being able to provide assessment of more senior colleagues in management positions would be useful.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it would also help if senior staff consulted more with junior staff before making decisions to make the latter field more involved.

      • Agreed, but speaking as a former manager it is important to stress that consultation does not mean that any opinions or suggestions will automatically be taken on board. It is vital to consult with staff and hear what they have to say, but authority for something must ultimately rest with those with the responsibility.

  3. It’s a difficult balance between the speed of response you get with a hierarchy through clear decisionmaking, and a more consensual (perhaps even democratic) system. An example I am familiar with is the difference between NASA and ESA contract awarding after competoive bidding; in the NASA system the result is published by the Deputy Assosiate Administrator or some such publishing a memo and putting his name to it – “I have decided…” compared to the ESA system where a committee makes a decision and a Senior Board reviews it – and then an anonymous recommendation goes to an intergovernmental committee. That leads to quicker decisions by NASA, but as you say the hierarchical structure has other problems.
    I have a nasty suspicion that in any system the bullies and abusers will find a means to behave badly – however well a system starts it eventually settles down with a “process” and that allows people to work the system to their own advantage. At one time there was a fashion for “360degree” annual appraisals – I don’t know if they still exist, but while they seemed a good idea at the time they soon settled into a pattern similar to what was in place before.

    Bring back ostracism!

  4. Abuse happens in any system where a person has power over a vulnerable person. The church is an obvious case, but nursing homes, entertainment, and as you say, education and science have it as well. Astronomy does not have a good record.

    What I found most difficult is that in a particular case, it turned out many of the staff knew about the problem, but collectively had gone silent and had ignored it. The excuse afterwards was that the person was considered harmless. It wasn’t. The reason that victims don’t complain is that they don’t trust us to deal with it. Often they are right.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    In the New Testament there were many episkopoi in a single congregation (eg, at Ephesus in Acts 20). The Greek word simply means ‘overseer’. This is the word translated in ecclesiastical context as ‘bishop’, although in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism its meaning has been inverted and there are many congregations under one episkopos.

    It is true that the church structure in the New Testament is described, rather than prescribed; but persons who take the New Testament as truth should ask themselves by what authority – presumably not less than the authority responsible for the New Testament – was the original structure changed?

    Moreover the consequences of this inversion and the development of a hierarchy are now distressingly obvious. In an organisation that is in the morality business, the overseers actively cover up misdoings by those beneath them, to avoid embarrassment. I have occasionally said that I would be content for the bishops of the Church of England (which I quit 18 years ago for nonconformism) to be merely useless, but as it is they are far worse than useless. In the Catholic system the Irish people I know all say that it is the cover-up in almost every diocese, rather than the abuse in a small number of parishes per diocese, that has wrecked the standing of the Catholic church in Ireland. Last week’s IICSA report into sexual abuse in the Church of England will probably lead to a similar outcome in England.

    As for confession, James 5 states: “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another”. Nothing there about confession to congregation leaders: you choose someone you trust to discuss the matter with.

    Jansenism was a good movement in Catholicism, and one of its main men, Antoine Arnauld, was a pioneer of the theory of probability, being co-author of La logique, ou l’Art de penser (1662), a work known as the “Port-Royal Logic” because it was associated with Port-Royal Abbey near Paris.

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