michele lamont vs. fabio & bourdieu, part deux

Last week, the Social Science History Association had an “Author Meets Critics” panel about Michele Lamont’s book “How Professors Think,” which we’ve discussed here and here. Based on comments left by readers and my own impressions, I raised the following points:

  1. Lamont needs to”get tough” with respondents. It seems as if she accepts too much the ethos of “pragmatic professionalism” provided by the respondents. Consensus magically emerges in a room of rival disciplinary culture. That was Thomas’ point.
  2. Lamont needs to be more careful about what can be accomplished with an ethnography of that field site. The sort of multi-disciplinary consensus is an artifact of that field site. My point is that this is still extremely important. Elite fellowships can set the tone for the rest of the profession.
  3. Lamont needs to focus on outcomes. Does the creation of excellence have any tangible effects?

Summarizing, here are Professor Lamont’s responses:

  1. She uses introspection to inform her ethnography. Sure, people sometime have ulterior motives, but they also have other motives. As Benjamin Greer pointed out, this is also an attempt to move away from Bourdieu’s extremely skeptical view, where everything is a lie meant to promote social status. Lamont then aligned herself with Boltanski on that point. Since I am not knowledgeable about Boltanski, I am not sure exactly how that theory gets you beyond the habitus theory. Well versed orgheads should chime in here.
  2. She did acknowledge that the original title was “Cream Rising,” which suggests a study of elite choice making instead of a broader study of academic culture.
  3. I can’t remember if she addressed outcomes, but it certainly is a great future project.

Other panelists raised different issues. Steve Epstein raised the issue of generalizability (see point #2); Regina Werum wanted more analysis of the grant screening process; James Evans claimed that Lamont’s quantitative analysis is not as informative as it appears, at least when using information theoretic measures. If you were there, or want to add one last word on the book, please use the comments.

Written by fabiorojas

November 22, 2010 at 3:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure I recall any real mention of “ulterior” motives in the book. I’m willing to accept that motives are mixed, but that’s precisely what I was missing when reading Lamont’s book. Everyone seemed just pretty well-intentioned but working under difficult circumstances. You would have thought that her access to their “frankly” expressed opinions, would have turned up something more, shall we say, “interesting” about how funding decisions are made.



    November 22, 2010 at 11:25 am

  2. I think Michele wants her e back.



    November 22, 2010 at 12:23 pm

  3. Her e is there, it’s just in the wrong place. It’s her è that’s missing.



    November 22, 2010 at 1:02 pm

  4. Fabio’s “hip hop” shoes tried to steal the show, but his tiny pink baby dino water bottle wouldn’t let them.



    November 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

  5. omg, tina. you’re adorable.


    Jenn Lena

    November 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm

  6. They call it kawaii, and there is no more powerful weapon in the young turk’s arsènal today.



    November 22, 2010 at 7:11 pm

  7. Thanks for your comments, Fabio. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. And yes, the baby dino stole the show (did not notice the shoes though).

    In response to the outcome question, I pointed that the book documents and analyzes representations of academic excellence, which deserve to be studied whether or not attitudes determine behavior (not much) as representations are at significant part of social reality (see our late Emile…. ) especially in the study of judgment making and negotiation…. We should not let psychologists define the agenda of our discipline. We should focus on the questions that we are uniquelly equiped to answer.


    Michele Lamont

    November 23, 2010 at 7:47 am

  8. interesting remark on psychologists. It may touch on old disputes between micromotives and macrobehavior. Rather than just choose one (in Lamont’s case, macrobehavior) I think a stronger defense would be to take the micromotives thesis on directly and assert that in the cases under study there was a shared decision criteria, namely excellence or “truth”, which would mediate against micromotives that deviate from the shared criterion.

    In addition, taking a psychologist’s view, the assertion of excellence might set an anchor that others measure themselves by. Apologies if I’m taking Dan Ariely too literally here.

    There are many sorts of committees, here I’m thinking of March and Olsen’s garbage can organizations, but Lamont’s are a restricted type of evaluative body and not the same as March and Olsen’s.

    A contrast to Lamont’s view might be the Italian academic bodies discussed by Gambetta and Origgi, which play a two-faced game where high standards are asserted but low standards are rewarded. But I suspect Lamont would consign such bodies as out of her scope.



    November 24, 2010 at 4:39 am

  9. […] How Professors Think by Michel Lamont […]


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