ON THE FRONTLINE: Higher Education, Platforms and the Market of Symbolic Goods – A Case for Platform Academic Capitalism in Brazil

ON THE FRONTLINE: Higher Education, Platforms and the Market of Symbolic Goods – A Case for Platform Academic Capitalism in Brazil

Mario Azevedo and Aliandra Lazzari Barlete

In 1999, Brazil’s National Research Council (CNPq) set up the Lattes Platform which aimed to gather information about the knowledge production and research networks existing in the country. The possibility of concentrating information in one place seemed unlikely, or even impossible, given the size of its higher education (HE) system. In 2017, there were almost 2,500 institutions, 400,000 academics and 8.3 million undergraduate students.

Twenty years on, Lattes plays a central role in academic life in Brazil: having a Lattes CV is required to perform any type of academic activity, from applying for graduate programmes to accessing research funding and grants. In 2017, there were 3.5 million CVs registered in the Lattes Platform. These are regularly updated by the academics themselves. In fact, registration on the platform requires a national taxpayer number (CPF). As a publicly-funded platform, the information shared on Lattes is openly available and free of charge for anyone to access. It should be emphasized that Lattes is not a social media platform because the networking happens outside Lattes; but often informed by the platform as a source of academic information. Lattes is not only a platform for academics to exhibit their value by uploading their CVs. It soon became a mining field of data, ready to be explored commercially.

In this article, we argue that the case of Lattes is more than a platform influencing academic life in Brazil; it is, in fact, a case for platform academic capitalism. Lattes can be seen as a medium of virtual exposition of accumulated academic capital in the market of symbolic goods (or in the academic social field). It is no news that the system of exchanges between producers and consumers of goods takes place through virtual platforms – resulting in the concept of ‘platform capitalism’. As Kornberger and colleagues explained, platforms act as third party mediators of goods and consumption, but not its value. Platform capitalism is not in contradiction with other classification essays of the “New Spirit of Capitalism”, as Chiapello and Boltanski suggested, such as, digital capitalism, algorithmic governance, fourth industrial revolution, or the smart factory (i.e. automation, cybernetic systems, Internet of things, cloud computing). Thus, we argue that the concept of platform capitalism can be applied to the academic field as a metaphor for a supposed symbolic goods market, as proposed by Bourdieu. The use of big data systems and virtual platforms for the registration and attestation of confidence of the academic production and circulation of ideas would be the fabrication of a “platform academic capitalism”.

Towards Platform Academic Capitalism
To make a case for ‘platform academic capitalism’ as a theoretical construct to understand the changes in the academic social field, we propose to think about the impact of platforms in this field using Bourdieu’s analysis of the market of symbolic goods. This analytical framework allows us to understand the impact, changes and motions as a field of forces in relationship. A social field comes into existence under three conditions. First, a social actor (or social player) needs to be willing to play the game, but with a proper habitus that implies a (re)cognition of the game’s rules and other players. Second, like any other games, it is necessary for there to be a challenge, such as a material or symbolic object that is worth to be disputed. Third, social actors (players) must have libido and illusio, as a kind of deep mental motivation, to enter and stay in the game. Bourdieu defines illusio as the fundamental belief in the interest of the game and in the value of the objects of competition inherent to the game. Libido, like libido sciendi and libido cognoscendi, libido is the desire that mobilizes the vital energies for action (learning, knowing, playing etc).

The academic field is a social space occupied by actors with symbolic passports recognized by their peers, allowing the national, international or cross-border circulation of ideas. In a practical way, the means of circulating ideas that can acquire symbolic and material value are books, scientific journal articles, academic annals, newspapers, documentaries (films); physical or virtual mobility (courses, conferences and lectures); translations and interviews.

This dynamic of the academic social field is inserted, simultaneously, in the logic of academic capitalism, as described by Slaughter and Leslie. The authors explain academic capitalism as referring to market-like behaviours in competitions for funding from external providers. If thinking with Bourdieu, we also understand that academic capitalism as composed of symbolic goods that allow academic to play in the social field of academia. In other words, the social actors also regulate their actions with attention to what the market of symbolic goods gives value or, alternatively, to what the market itself considers as a value of exchange.

“Your data is our data” or the other way around “open data are open market”: the curious case of Indeorum
Lattes became a source of business for private companies aiming to ‘transform information into knowledge’. Indeorum is a good example of a business that manipulates data from publicly-funded academic platforms, such as Lattes. The company offers 4 ‘solutions’: (a) analysis of research groups; (b) analysis of scientific production per researcher; (c) search tool for researchers’ competencies; and (d) tracing individual scientific production. It provides consultancy services for the use of data sources which are public, free and open access. Amongst its clients are public research agencies and institutions, which compose Brazil’s academic field, such as CAPES (Ministry of Education’s agency for training highly skilled resources), Brazil’s academic Internet backbone RNP, and the Paraná State Research Council (Fundação Araucária). In its branding exercise, Indeorum employs sentences such as “Data Mining: We extract, you analyse (Lattes, Sucupira, Qualis, Impact Factor)”; “Data Science: We have identified patterns and extracted information of high relevance for your organisation”; and “Artificial Intelligence: Supporting organisations in the challenges to increase their market competitiveness”.

What to make out of it?
What can we expect when symbolic goods become a source of profit for private companies? What kind of market is in the making? How should we interpret this phenomenon in which private companies extract public data from public platforms and further stimulate academic production and the formation of academic platform capitalism? Is it a new academic field in the making, or is it still the old one, yet with new actors, structures and struggles?

The Brazilian academic field is now reshaped by private data management. We understand it to be a case of platform academic capitalism when private firms make use of the data available in public platforms, such as Lattes. Indeorum’s management of Lattes’s data is an example of reshaping the academic social field in Brazil. The consequences are twofold. First, it generates a market for a third-party platform that profits from manipulating data that was collected in a publicly-funded structures. Given that using Lattes is not a matter of choice for Brazilian academics, but a necessary condition to perform (any) academic work, companies like Indeorum profit from the output of Lattes. Second, it generates a complex political economy, in which the outputs of the data generated is resold back to publicly funded institutions, such as CAPES.

How can we understand this phenomenon? Platforms such as Indeorum, add a new layer of complexity in the understanding of academic capitalism and of platforms in the HE sector in Brazil. If capitalism is a system which allows the exchange of goods at a certain value, these new private platforms deal with this kind of capital, too: the accumulation of academic experiences is a mode of capitalisation in this sense (academic capital accumulation). The shape of an academic CV registered in a (publicly funded) platform, such as Lattes, serves as a report of symbolic academic promissory notes or symbolic academic banknotes representing the accumulated symbolic academic capital. At the same time it they enable academics to assume ‘market-like behaviours’ (habitus) to increase their competition for symbolic profits or even material gains within their national systems of education. In turn the information that is openly available becomes a profit-making tool for private companies, such as Indeorum. The fact that public institutions are interested and willing to pay for these services invites us to think further about the complexity of this novel way platforms act in creating  academic capitalism.


Mario Azevedo is a Professor at the State University of Maringá (Paraná, Brazil). He is a CAPES Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and researcher of CNPq (Brazil’s National Research Council) E-mail: mlnazevedo@uem.br. Personal Twitter handle: @mario_azevedo.  Aliandra Lazzari Barlete is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate of Faculty of Education, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. E-mail: arl59@cam.ac.uk. Personal Twitter handle: @AliandraBarlete.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Dylan Nolte on Unsplash.