The Mobile Knowledge Worker Dilemma: Constructing Alternative Ecological and Social Theories of Care – but Unable to Live Them?

Workers in the production and transmission of knowledge – researchers and teachers – are central to the processes of capital accumulation in the twenty-first century and thus, in one way or another, key to climate production. To survive, the proletarianized sell their labor, while the precarious majority among them are also forced to be constantly mobile, both contributing to carbon emissions and neglecting care for human and non-human others, as scholar-activist Nelli Kambouri argues in her contribution to the “Allied Grounds” text series.


As a precarious academic, I have been living between jobs for many years, working on several projects for different institutions at the same time. Precarity has a profound impact on my daily life and work. Although it is stressful to work on several projects at the same time, workers in knowledge production like me who do not have stable jobs cannot choose or turn down offers because we have to make sure that we would be able to cover periods of unemployment and lack of income.

We are also constantly worried about low and late payments, indeterminate working relationships, and the extraction of time and knowledge. Precarity makes it difficult to focus, and research projects are constantly adapted to the frameworks of different funding opportunities. Exit strategies for professional development often involve frequent travel or migration away from home.

In my case, home is in a state of debt, a society that has become increasingly bankrupt, racist, and sexist, and that offers very little – mostly informal – protection for precarious academics. Nevertheless, home is also a place where I have built valuable social relationships, friendships, family ties, and intellectual and affective affinities that are an integral part of who I have become and how I feel about the future.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The desire to transform this fragile home into a stable one, no matter how broken by precarity, is a strategy doomed to academic failure. The decision to stay, to refuse to become more academically mobile, as contemporary norms expect all academics to do, can be seen as a kind of professional suicide. Academic immobility is read as a weakness, a sign of indeterminacy and lack of purpose and commitment that haunts all of us who have settled in places where we cannot escape precarious academic conditions.

Constantly moving to new academic environments

For precarious researchers from the periphery of global academia, mobility has become the only official and viable strategy for survival. It is funded, praised, and seen as an indicator of scholarly commitment and professionalism. What the enthusiastic narratives of academic success silence, however, is how academic mobility often becomes an unwelcome and enforced path, especially for caregivers who must leave behind dependent members of their families or communities to pursue new academic careers far away from them.

While mobility is not always part of a forced trajectory, it is very often temporary, uncertain, and fragile. Although decisions to become academically mobile are shrouded in an air of intellectualism that silences the politics of gender and care, these issues continue to resurface in gendered academic life. It is misleading to think of academic mobility in entirely gender-neutral terms.

Decisions to move to new academic environments for temporary, low-paying, and precarious jobs are difficult and often painful. Indeed, academic mobility is not a one-way, linear movement toward professional success, but usually involves a constant back and forth that often affects one’s mental health and well-being.

Several questions arise: how to raise children from afar? how to support relatives, partners, friends from abroad? how to deal with nostalgia for social relations in the home country? how to cope physiologically with frequent traveling? how to organize schedules that are not stressful while traveling? how to rethink one’s relationship to academia when one cannot find a stable home?

Environmental and social costs

Furthermore, one of the strategies that many of us have used in the past to support the rhythms of a mobile academic life as precarious subjects is to immerse ourselves in the frequent use of low-cost travel and platformed accommodation, which has enormous environmental and social costs. As with gender and care, the environmental footprint of academic mobility is rarely considered in academic career paths.

There are various online tools that might allow us to rethink travel for meetings, research, conferences, workshops or teaching, but the environmental and social costs of these tools (usually provided by the major profiteers of so-called “surveillance capitalism” who have large carbon footprints) are hardly considered. Meanwhile, face-to-face meetings continue to be praised as more humane and professional. As a result, both options – embodied/offline and disembodied/online mobility – remain mystified and correspondingly under-reflected.

For precarious academics, short-term and precarious jobs can also mean a lifestyle that involves frequent trips back and forth to the places we call home, where the people we care for are located. This creates a paradox. Although precarious academics can contribute to the production of knowledge, to the construction of alternative ecological and social theories of care, as well as ecological and feminist approaches and models that challenge the destructive effects of contemporary capitalism, they are often unable to make these alternatives work in their everyday mobile lives precisely because funding values mobility.

The mobility of precarious academics differs from that of privileged academic elites, who enjoy institutional security and the ability to limit their travels to the essentials. The mobility of precarious researchers stems from the precariousness of their work and the need to get closer to the corporate centers of knowledge production, which in turn often implies the creation of care gaps.

Tackling the nagging paradox

Academic mobility brings to the fore a curious nexus of social and environmental damage that we must inflict in order to achieve academic success. As Felix Guatarri noted in the “Three Ecologies”: “wherever we turn, there is the same nagging paradox:on the one hand, the continuous development of new technoscientificmeans toresolvepotentiallythe dominant ecological issues and reinstate socially useful activities on the surface ofthe planet, and, on the other hand, the inability of organizedsocial forces and constituted subjective formations to take holdof these resources in order to make them work” (p. 30).

As precarious academics, we participate in this paradox both as creative scholars imagining new models of coexistence with others, human and non-human, and as subjects who systematically fail to take up social and environmental resources and put them to work. Precarity is thus intertwined with environmentally destructive practices of knowledge production that require us to hide the costs of our mobility.

It is time to rethink academic failure and success in terms of this paradox. The refusal to be mobile as a precarious academic may be a form of resistance to the ecological damage caused by intensive travel obligations, but it is also a form of resistance to conceptions of work that silence reproduction and care. These two aspects are intertwined: an ethics of care for humans and non-humans must be integrated into the assessments and evaluations of academic careers and trajectories.

What if we valued more those who choose to celebrate those who do not fly often, those who choose to build caring relationships within and beyond academic institutions? What if the organization of academic labor were no longer perceived in terms of neoliberal notions of seamless and rapid mobility, but in terms of the needs of the precarious, for whom the temporary but also the digital is the norm?

Conceivably, the refusal of academic mobility could lead to new precarious subjectivities associated with its machinic extensions, and to new cartographies of knowledge production that challenge the unequal structures of global academic institutions. Dispersed universities and research projects divided between the Global North and the Global South would be based on slow movement, infrequent face-to-face interactions, and a priority on attending to the human and non-human around us.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here:

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