three forms of academic capital

Kieran’s talk, as expected, was very good. In a few weeks, ICOS will put the audio up on the Internet. But for now, I’d like to articulate a point that was raised in post-talk cookies and coffee session: why is it that some topics are low prestige in philosophy but high prestige in other fields? My question was motivated by continental philosophy – considered piña colada by mainstream philosophy, but high status in literary studies and such.

My answer: Start with Abbott’s observation that occupational status is boosted when the group has exclusive access to knowledge and skills (e.g., only certified MD’s can practice medicine). Then, you notice that academic disciplines and specialties boost their status in the same way, like being math based (e.g., econ). By my count, there are three forms of intellectual capital in the academy:

  • Academic Connoisseurship: Knowing a lot about an area, and knowing the academic way of writing and talking. Basically, all disciplines have this.
  • Demanding jargon: Developing terminology and ways of talking that’s inscrutable to outsiders.
  • Math/technology: Turning everything into math, or you require the use of technology and experiments.

The flip side is a selection process. People are attracted to certain disciplines because they seek specific kinds of knowledge. The people in a history program, for example, have bought narrative as the way to convey knowledge.

So let’s get back to continental theory. In philosophy, you have people who are willing and able to adopt symbolic logic – so math stuff wins, continental theory is seen as garbage. In the rest of the humanities, people prefer thick description and narrative, and many don’t have symbolic skills, so various math invasions lose to continental theory (e.g., cliometrics, stilometry). In soc, I think we’re between “jargon” and “high tech,” since we like thick description and statistics.

Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2009 at 12:15 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. I think those are three reasonable ideal types of academic capital. However, I’d add that they seldom are useful without some presence of each other. Specifically, in regards to quantitative virtuosity, Espeland and Stevens (1998: 331) argued,

    “[Q]uantitative technologies are the province of weak elites and … they are resisted by those whose authority depends on expert judgment, character, or informal knowledge.”

    Without some sort of degree of unique professional/intellectual treatment or theory (in Abbott’s terms), quantitative wizards are mere technicians. Their positions are even more precarious if they lack the flexibility to adapt to changing technologies and procedures, which can render their specific technical skills outdated, if not obsolete.

    Even in a very mathy discipline with a clearly gradated status hierarchy, like economics, scholars win the Nobel Prize for their broad ideas and contributions to the field and beyond. Even if esoteric math and technologies were the lingua franca of the field, and were necessary to communicate credibly within it, math alone seems insufficient more often than not.



    April 19, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  2. ksiler – you make a good point. Theory has high status in almost all disciplines – although theory has a different meaning in economics than it does in sociology – but empirical analysis must be coupled with theory to be seen as making a solid contribution. Simulations and mathematical modeling tend to be valued because they are so tightly linked to theory, not because of the prestige of the technical skills.



    April 19, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  3. […] muchos han ensayado explicaciones sobre el trobar clus. Quizás la más persuasiva es la que lo ubica junto al saber técnico y al conocimiento experto en un campo dado como herramientas para c… [x]. Respecto a su dinámica, un oficial de la misma mesa planteó que su léxico no es fuente de […]


  4. […] that preclude them from engaging with other disciplines. Here’s my take on the topic (e.g., yes, philosophers like formality, and other humanities types don’t), which was written in response to Kieran’s Michigan talk on status within the philosophy […]


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