Luck, chance, and happenstance? Perceptions of success and failure amongst fixed-term academic staff in UK higher education

Loveday, Vik. 2018. Luck, chance, and happenstance? Perceptions of success and failure amongst fixed-term academic staff in UK higher education. British Journal of Sociology, 69(3), pp. 758-775. ISSN 0007-1315 [Article]

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What does it mean to attribute success to ‘luck’, but failure to personal deficiency? In 2015/16, more than 34% of academic employees in UK higher education institutions were employed on temporary contracts, and the sector itself has undergone a substantial transformation in recent years in terms of expansion, measurement, and marketisation. Based on two waves of interviews conducted with fixed-term academic employees at different career stages, the article explores the narrativisation of success and failure amongst staff working at the ‘sharp end’ of the so-called neoliberal academy. Arguing that precarious employment situations precipitate the feeling of being ‘out of control’, the majority of the participants’ narratives were characterised by a distinct lack of agency. The paper explores the recourse to notions of chance and the consolidation of ‘luck’ as an explanatory factor in accounting for why good things happen; however, in tandem with this inclination is the tendency to individualise failure when expectations have been thwarted. While accounts of fixed-term work are suffused with notions of chance and fortune, ‘luck’ remains an under-researched concept within sociology. The article thus concludes by considering what the analysis of ‘luck’ might offer for a fuller, politicised understanding of processes at work in the contemporary academy.

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This work was supported by the British Academy under grant number SG142753.


Academic identities; agency; casualisation; employment; higher education; individualisation; luck; responsibility.

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31 July 2017Accepted
7 September 2017Published Online
September 2018Published

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Date Deposited:

07 Aug 2017 12:22

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2019 01:26

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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