orgtheory.net

is academia meritocratic?

Over the last few weeks, we have a lengthy discussion of professional issues in sociology. An issue that comes up is whether academia is meritocratic. I believe that this is a very tricky question. So let’s start with one possible definition of meritocracy:

The degree of meritocracy in a field is defined by the correlation between rewards and what participants believe to be observable measures of performance or quality. We say that fields with a stronger (or weaker) association of performance measures and rewards is strongly (or weakly) meritocratic.

Thus, meritocracy is when people who achieve more at work get more stuff. Of course, this definition is itself open to criticism. There may be fields where there is no consensus over what counts as good. Another problem is that many fields are opaque and it is hard to measure quality. E.g., did your lawyer really do well on your case? In practice, it is often hard to tell.

An issue that I avoid is that the ability to do well may not depend on how hard an individual works or the talent they have. A child who goes to a school in a poor neighborhood may not even have the chance to take an advanced math class., and thus may not be competitive for a selective college. And it’s really out of their hands. That is why you have to distinguish between meritocratic decisions and the justice of resource allocation before the decision. One can be fair, while the other is not. They are related, but distinct issues.

Now, let’s get back to academia. Is academia meritocratic? Let me focus on job market and simply admit that there are pre-job market inequalities that deserve a separate discussion. Well, it turns out that there is a literature on academic job market performance and it shows that academia has both meritocratic and un-meritocratic components. Let’s start with the meritocratic parts:

There is evidence of un-meritocratic components of the academic labor market:

  • In many studies, there is a correlation of labor market outcomes and gender, even when controlling for # of articles and other relevant performance measures. It may be the case that there is outright prejudice. It may also be the case that gender is correlated with other behaviors that are judged differently by the labor market. Erin Leahey has a series of papers, for example, arguing that gender is correlated with specialization in research, which is correlated with labor market outcomes. Meritocratic? It’s up for debate.
  • Studies like Burris (2004) that show that elite programs dominate the market and people are often judged by status of the PhD program, even when there is evidence of publication.

As an issue of social science, I think it’s fair to say that academia is somewhere in the middle in terms of how meritocratic it is. At the top of the hierarchy, it’s clear that there is a lot of hard work and halo effects at the same time. Faculty at top programs are constantly fighting for space in top journals. It’s nearly impossible to get tenure at a research university without good publications. But still, many hiring decisions rely on prestige, image, who your adviser is, and so forth. At the macro level, as these studies show, there is a persistent correlation between GPA, GRE, and publications and labor market outcomes.

At the level of advising  people, I’d say the following: academia is meritocratic enough. Not perfect by a long shot, but there is enough openness so that working hard is a rational strategy and you aren’t wasting your time. Academia is a great example of where acting as if everyone is virtuous is probably the smart thing to do.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2012 at 12:04 am

Posted in academia, fabio

63 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Meritocracy, and the assumption that it’s a good thing, is one of my pet peeves. As IQ superhero James Flynn wrote, meritocracy is inherently self-limiting.

    Basically, “meritocracy” means that individuals with more merit get the goodies. From the American Heritage dictionary: “A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” As Flynn points out, this leads to a contradiction: to the extent that people with merit get higher status, one would expect they would use that status to help their friends, children, etc, giving them a leg up beyond what would be expected based on their merit alone.

    Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get. That is, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy.”

    In your example above, your statement, “elite programs dominate the market,” could well be considered as evidence that the system is meritocratic, in that getting-good-jobs-for-your-students is one of the goodies that come with merit. It goes like this: academia is a meritocracy, one of the perks of merit is high salary (Harvard pays better than the local State U.), another perk is status, another perk is lower workload, another perk is to get the best grad students as R.A.’s. And one way to attract these top grad students is . . . to make sure they get good jobs at graduation.

    Like

    Andrew Gelman

    February 13, 2012 at 1:01 am

  2. The best treatment of the issue remains English sociologist Michael Young’s dystopic “The rise of the meritocracy.” Required reading for anyone who desires a pure merit-based system for allocating anything.

    Like

    peelpelhog

    February 13, 2012 at 1:27 am

  3. If we focus on the academic job market, then it is meritocratic enough, as you say. However, as you also point out, academia is not detached from its foundation of an unequal educational system. So as it becomes more meritocratic, it’s arguably also becoming more discriminatory against those people who did not actually have equal resources to compete in college admissions…and continues from there to the academic job market. In general, the ideal of a meritocratic system is based off of a perception of a just allocation of resources in society. The focus on individual “merit” and “ability” neglects that neither are develop in a vacuum. This is something that drove much of the development in the Eugenics Movement and arguments that racial privilege and disparities were built off of “natural” meritocracies; that ability and merit were individual, built off of group affiliation, and immutable, fixed, and preordained (when you add in the religious beliefs to justify racial disparities). Meritocracy, in general, is also based on many writings, including those of Thomas Jefferson, which envisioned a meritocratic system as a new version of aristocracy where people would put the important decisions in society in the hands of the “cream that rose to the top”, so to speak, who were chosen by some “objective” criteria.

    One last thought relates to the actual question “is academia meritocratic?” Many questions and discussions revolve around an idealized understanding of education as “the great equalizer”, that schools and colleges can produce a meritocracy or actually help those disadvantaged to become the top 1% in society. Moreover, that education has some “rising tide” influence on societal outcomes that the further you go, the better socioeconomic position you find. However, this glosses over (to say the least) the abundance of education research that finds schools produce inequality and disparities of all kinds “from the word ‘go'” (preschool) and this continues until the academic job market. So, context definitely matters in discussions of meritocracy.

    Like

    hillbillysociologist

    February 13, 2012 at 1:41 am

  4. As the person who started this most recent fracas by using the term “meritocracy” in claiming that academic departments do look for people with demonstrated talent who are “underplaced”, I just wanted to say that I agree with Andrew Gelman’s comments. In doing so I continue to believe there are differences in academic merit (just as I believe there are differences in the artistic merit of the novels I read or the plays I watch), even as I recognize that “merit” in this sense is multidimensional and often contested. And, for the record, I’m also agreeing that this “merit” is itself a product of unequal and distorted access to education and resources, and that the talent of disadvantaged people is more likely to go unrecognized by the advantaged.

    What I’m signing onto agreeing with Gelman about is that it is a big problem that economic livelihood is tied to “merit” (as AG says “those with merit get more goodies”) and it is a big problem that this logic is used to concentrate resources in the hands of a few.

    Again, and again: recognizing the logic of individual rationality (or even departmental rationality) in a given competitive system is different from a system-rational analysis of the perversity of that system. It would seem that our ranking of institutions and our coupling of pay and benefits with both institutional ranking and individual ranking is the motor of the system-level perversity.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 13, 2012 at 2:00 am

  5. Fabio saying that academia is meritocratic enough is almost like hearing a middle class white male saying that middle class white males have no privilege over people from other background.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s easy for you to say that academia is meritocratic enough, considering you went to a really prestigious undergraduate program, then one of the most elite universities for graduate school, and now work at one of the best programs in the country. I understand that Indiana has an eye for students from smaller, less prestigious schools, but Indiana might be the only school in the top 15 schools that uses this strategy. And even at Indiana, you’ll spend more time working as a TA than working on publications, while those who did get into Harvard, Princeton, etc, are publishing and working on their own research.

    Like

    currentgradstudent

    February 13, 2012 at 2:39 am

  6. AG, so what’s the better system? If you don’t want a meritocracy, where those who succeed according to the rules of the system are rewarded, then how society/a discipline/etc. be structured when resources are scarce? Let’s assume that some will do better than others; if so, then merit seems the most reasonable way to distribute resources & status. As Fabio says, it’s not perfect, but perhaps better than the alternatives??

    Like

    interdisciplinary grad student

    February 13, 2012 at 3:14 am

  7. Interdisciplinary:

    Setting aside all value judgments, Flynn’s point (with which I concur) is that meritocracy is an unstable concept. As illustrated by the above example, where the importance of “connections” is both evidence of meritocracy and also evidence of lack of meritocracy. I would prefer a world where connections were not so important, but that is difficult in a meritocratic context, given the clear benefits of such connections to the beneficiaries of meritocracy. I defer to others to suggest processes that would have less “ocracy” to them. I’m not the person to make such proposals, partly because I have no good thoughts here and partly because I am myself a willing beneficiary of aspects of meritocracy.

    Like

    Andrew Gelman

    February 13, 2012 at 3:40 am

  8. The problem with the idea of meritocracy is that it assumes merit is a specific thing. However, there are a variety of different ways that merit could potentially be measured. I do believe that academia rewards the thing it sees as merit, but I don’t necessarily believe that the things we are measuring are in fact “observable measures of quality.”

    Like

    Mikaila

    February 13, 2012 at 3:46 am

  9. Thanks to everyone for all the insightful comments. A few quick responses:

    @Andrew Gelman: It sounds like you and I agree. We both agree that academic labor markets are riddled with network effects. I also agree that network effects associated with cohort X can (and do) stem from merit based rewards of cohort X-1. We both agree that these should be reduced. But I will still defend my original point: there is still a non-trivial amount of merit based reward in the system. If you want to drop the terminology, fine.

    @currentgradstudent: I wrote in the original post, “academia has both meritocratic and un-meritocratic components.” I do not deny that people enjoy structural advantages. In fact, I allude to this issue at multiple points. Other posts have addressed it in detail. And as you point out, I myself have enjoyed some fairly massive advantages during my career. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that public displays of excellence are correlated with career success. There’s a massive literature documenting this fact. That’s why it’s not an “either/or” issue. Academia has structural inequality built into it, but it has multiple opportunities for mobility. Both exist and the research backs up that point.

    You also mentioned Indiana. Let me take a moment to showcase my program. To be blunt, Indiana is a poor state. It was never rich and has remained poor. Not as poor as some parts of the South, but poor enough so that we are *always* behind in graduate student stipends. Our 2012 stipends don’t even match what some Ivy League grad students were getting ten or fifteen years ago.

    Indiana is at a big disadvantage. To be honest, some IU programs accept their position. Low rankings, horrible placement. Others, such as soc, make an active effort overcome the obstacles associated with the structural disadvantage of being a university in a moderately sized agricultural state. Yes, people have TA, but we have a culture of professionalism. Every student is expected to publish and we are very hands on. We also expect people to develop a strong portfolio. The result? Probably the best placement record in the profession. Some other schools may place a few more folks in elite positions, but we place in research 1’s, regionals, and liberal arts. Sure, it’s hard for us to compete directly with other top programs, but an obsession with building quality does lead to amazingly good results.

    @ow, mikalia: You are correct that merit is multidimensional, but that doesn’t undermine that the proper advice to give to individuals is to focus on clearly recognized forms of excellence. My analogy: if I were in 1960, I would admit that African-Americans, women and other minorities have gotten atrocious and reprehensible treatment. There are massive structural inequalities that people have to deal with. But still, I would say: “work at hard at school, get good grades, be excellent at work.” Why? Because if X% of the people are racists and sexists, that still leaves 1-X% of people who will give you a fair shot. Same thing with academia, be excellent so when a window of opportunity shows up, you’ll be prepared. Life aint’ easy, but it’s easier if you try to be good at your job.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 13, 2012 at 4:20 am

  10. Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection .

    Like

    plerudulier

    February 13, 2012 at 5:15 am

  11. […] is-academia-meritocratic […]

    Like

  12. One question that refuses to go away is: How just is our meritocracy?

    Given that we are a society that prizes efficient outcomes, how can we identify and address the inequities that may result from current selection processes?

    Is it time to review how scholarships and other honours are awarded?

    How can we enhance equality of opportunity without too great a sacrifice in competitiveness and efficiency?

    Nobel laureate Amartya Sen described meritocracy as an intuitively appealing but ‘essentially underdefined’ principle.

    It is underdefined because much hinges on what counts as merit. And in a meritocracy, as in any other system, the idea of the good, and therefore of merit, is defined by that system’s winners.

    Those who have scaled the ladder to reach positions of influence have a duty to continually review the practice of meritocracy, to ensure it still serves the values of justice and equity upon which much of its appeal rests.

    We need to get to firmer grips with how meritocracy works in our society if we are to prevent it from enshrining inequity.

    As a system built on the rule of merit, it is often tied to non-discrimination, that is, selection for scholarships, jobs and other honours must be blind to race, gender, age or class differences.

    But in trying to isolate merit, ‘it can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society’, argues political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan.

    http://www.asiaone.com/News/Education/Story/A1Story20080831-85193.html

    Like

    JAMES

    February 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

  13. Maybe we should think about how we would like the academic system of performance and rewards to work in an ideal world. We would like to think that people who did high quality research that increased knowledge, and who worked hard to disseminate their findings through peer reviewed publications, got the rewards, right? But here are some of the things that I think mean that many academics who fulfill those criteria will not get rewarded for them:
    1. Working in an institution where high teaching and service demands make it very difficult to allocate enough time and effort to research and publication (regardless of how hard you work. Eventually the candle meets in the middle!) Small volumes of published output will not yield attention to one’s research that in turn yields rewards.
    2. Publishing research that does not yield high volumes of citations (on my side of the Atlantic citation counts are becoming more and more important for ‘measuring’ quality). I think there are many things that affect citation volume that are not related to quality, including, publishing in an area that is not currently fashionable or that is a niche subject within your discipline, publishing based on data from a small country; publishing interdsiciplinary work (in a number of disciplines there appears to be an allergy to citing outside the discipline).
    3. Making career transitions in an ‘untimely’ fashion. This can happen for a whole range of reasons, the most important of which is probably starting and raising a family, transitions which also have different and unequal consequences by gender. This is probably not strictly an issue of ‘meritocracy,’ but social scientists have been happy to argue in favour of compensating for these forms of inequality in other fields, why not in academia?
    I’m sure people can think of lots of other reasons why ‘working hard’ is not likely to work for everyone. The point is that there are huge feedback loops/ path-dependent processes that mean the simple correlation of outputs and rewards is unlikely to be strong evidence in favour of meritocracy.

    Like

    Jane Gray

    February 13, 2012 at 9:54 am

  14. @peelpelhog: Yes, and I would go further to point out that Young actually coined the term, “meritocracy.” If Sen (@JAMES) might have troubled himself to read Young, where the term “meritocracy” is not left “underdefined,” he might have checked the “intuitively appealing” bit at the door. In fact, it looks like more than one contributor might benefit from reading Young.

    @fabio: The portrait of the state of Indiana you paint is curious. Last time I looked, Indiana was, by the labor force numbers, the most industrialized state in the U.S. Far from being the “agricultural state” you suggest, it is actually well below average in terms of the size of its agricultural labor force. 33rd or 34th, last time I looked.

    Like

    Steve

    February 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  15. @steve: It is weird. The reason Indiana looks industrialized in statistics is that the state includes the city of Gary, an industrial area around Chicago. The rest of the state is one mid-large city (Indy has about 700k) and tons of small towns and farms. In essence, it’s agricultural.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm

  16. Meritocratic? In one of my more cynical periods, a political scientist named Don Herzog cautioned that it was a mistake to think merit didn’t matter. Merit, he announced, explains three percent of the variance in academic placement. That sucks, of course, but it’s the three percent that job seekers have some influence over, so it makes sense to focus on what you can control.
    This past year, 538’s Nate Silver explained that campaigns and candidate quality could explain up to the same three percent of the vote in presidential elections. (Most of it is economic conditions.) To look at news coverage, it seems that 3 percent gets a disproportionate amount of attention, but it is the slice that’s somewhat actionable.
    Meritocratic enough? I can’t imagine a good answer to that one (thanks, Jane Grey), and the definitions of merit are scattered and fluid.

    Like

    David S. Meyer

    February 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  17. Apologies, I meant Jane Gray. Thanks also to currentgradstudent. Complete endorsement of Andrew Gelman’s posts on the instability of “merit.”

    Like

    David S. Meyer

    February 13, 2012 at 4:38 pm

  18. Just calling attention to two rather different arguments on the table: (1) meritocracy exists and is bad — the Gelman argument (and the one I signed onto) — and (2) there is no academic meritocracy, “merit’ (understood as producing high-quality academic research) has no meaningful connection with economic or status rewards in the academy — an argument I think is basically wrong.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  19. Academia is a tautological meritocracy.* It thus makes no sense to argue whether it is “really” one because it has to be one. In academia the very fact of recognition (e.g. acceptance at a prestigious journal or press) retroactively determines the quality of what is recognized; not because what gets recognized has no “objective” features, but because we are going to use standards of appreciation that are for the most part homogeneous and fit to the object that gets recognized, especially towards the top.

    From this perspective, Jane Gray’s point 2 is bizarre because it implies that somebody’s research can be of quality without any of her peers actually recognizing that it is in fact of quality. I just recommended that three papers be rejected from various journals last week. I thus imposed my view of what is publishable (and thus who should get the rewards) on the field. It would be bizarre therefore, if the next issue of AJS and ASR was filled with articles that I did not recognize as meritorious. Surprisingly enough, most issues of AJS and ASR are filled with articles that I in fact find meritorious. Is this a gigantic coincedence? No. It is evidence that the field is humming along just fine, since it is producing producers who judge each others productions with a similar set of principles. This means that for most part cries of “academia is not a meritocracy” should be retranslated to mean “I am not inside the group that gets to make quality and allocation decisions within this field.”

    Note that this is the same brain cramp that afflicts those (like the NRC) who think that under the prestige rankings, there exists a “really real” ranking of departments that might or might not correspond to the “mere” prestige rankings. Under this fantasy, there is something like “departmental quality” that can exist without being recognized. These people forget that the prestige rankings *are* the rankings; Berkeley and Princeton are top departments because they are the ones that get recognized as the top departments; that the “objective” characteristics of the department will (more or less) match is no surprise, because presuming otherwise would imply that we (who in fact produce these rankings) are afflicted with some sort of systematic cognitive, perceptual or appreciative disability. Most academics are not disabled in that way (although some are). After the perceptual system of prestige is set, everything else is self-fulfilling prophecies (best depts get the best students) + cumulative advantage (those depts sent their best students to the other best depts).

    Because academia is for the most part, a fairly well-functioning recognition system, we can still have fun arguing about recognition failures at the margin: the brilliant scholar who is somehow not yet recognized for his genius (something like academia’s Jeremy Lin) or the deadwood whose best years are behind him/her but is now coasting in one of the top 20 departments. That’s fun to talk about, but beyond that it does not impugn the fact that talking about the counterfactual (academia not being a “meritocracy”) when we control the very standards of merit with which we judge one another is semantic nonsense.

    * AKA “fields.”

    Like

    Omar

    February 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm

  20. I think it’s useful to consider a few analogies. What if rewards were solely based on how fast you can run five kilometers? The measurement problem becomes trivial. Some people–the disabled, but others as well–would suffer unfairly. But there would be very few barriers to entry, just the effort and space to run. Elite runners would only be able to pass on their genes to their kids, who would have to earn their own rewards on the track. It’s probably as close to a meritocracy as you’ll see in real life.

    On the other hand, consider pro wrestling. Sure, you have to be big and charismatic, but there are steroids and “talent” is impossible to measure objectively, so it is defined by audience viewership. Merit is whatever the audience says is merit, to paraphrase Omar. The rewards are almost completely driven by the people behind the scenes who write the scripts and introduce new wrestlers to the audience. You can’t break in without their assistance.

    Basketball, on the other hand, is somewhere in between. You have to have incredible athleticism and ability, but networks matter here too, and merit is slippery. The Knicks, for example, gave Eddy Curry a six year, $60 million contract. They also gave–or more accurately, were forced to give–Jeremy Lin a chance to show his ability, but it’s easy to imagine a league that is not Linsane, where a guy who is capable of putting up 20-10 a night is languishing on the bench and then shuffled off to Europe.

    The question is whether sociology is like track and field, basketball, or pro wrestling. I think it’s more like basketball than anything. But if forced to choose, I’d say it’s more like pro wrestling than track & field. It so happens that the most influential sociologists (pardon the oxymoron) select what they view are the most promising students, but I believe that, if they really wanted to, they could get a mediocre student a job at a top-10 R1 without any difficulty at all.

    Like

    flunkingsocialstudies

    February 13, 2012 at 10:03 pm

  21. I don’t want to spoil the fun now that we’re at the inevitable “classifying classifiers, classified by their classifications” stage of such debates, but I couldn’t quite digest this @fabio:

    “The reason Indiana looks industrialized in statistics is that the state includes the city of Gary, an industrial area around Chicago. The rest of the state is one mid-large city (Indy has about 700k) and tons of small towns and farms. In essence, it’s agricultural.”

    I would have thought that the reason that Indiana looks industrialized is, well, because it is. As I mentioned, no other state in the country has a bigger share of its workforce in manufacturing. I am also awestruck by the agricultural “essence” thing. We don’t even have to throw out, a la Gary, Philly and Pittsburgh to make PA more agricultural than IN, it already is. Likewise, we don’t need to throw out LA, SF, or SD to make CA more agricultural than IN, it already is. Indeed, thirty-odd other states have a larger share of their workforce in agriculture than IN. All peripheral to the discussion here, but just for the record…

    Like

    Steve

    February 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm

  22. @Steve: You are right about manufacturing. The Chicago suburbs are part of Indiana and its not right to arbitrarily exclude them. But my point is that Indiana doesn’t have a whole lot of money compared to peer schools, nor do we have the status of Michigan or Berkeley. Yet, we still achieve excellence in sociology because we try very hard and use some decent strategies.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 13, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  23. @Omar: I think it is not so long ago since there was a debate about whether or not prestige sociology journals like ASR were in fact recognizing excellence across the full spectrum of sociological research – for example in qualitative sociology. I think your argument is bizarre because it implies that judgement of quality is uninflected by power, subjectivity or ignorance (to name a few factors that might be in play).

    But I don’t want to make too much of this. I’m not trying to argue that academia is some kind of monolithic system of oppression. No doubt everyone is well-intentioned and hard work reaps its reward at the margins!

    Like

    Jane Gray

    February 14, 2012 at 10:35 am

  24. @Jane Gray: specifically about ASR, as an ASA journal it is regularly audited and it is repeatedly found that the acceptance rate at ASR for qualitative work is as high as or higher than for quantitative work. The mix of quantitative and qualitative articles in ASR is a function of who chooses to send articles there. None of this keeps people from making attributions like the one you made.

    What fascinates me is that AJS actually is controlled by one department, shows evidence of an in-house bias, and obviously has its own “tastes” for what it publishes, but draws many fewer random attributions of bias.

    The big difference between the journals is page-length restrictions at ASR, which make AJS the more attractive outlet for people with long articles.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm

  25. @Jane: yes, if you understood my comment as suggesting that I do not subscribe to a theory of human subjective judgments of quality within fields as driven or distorted by such ghostly entities as “power” and “ignorance” but instead as driven by a (more or less) adequate matching between reality and dispositions, then you got what I was saying. Although I still do think that human subjective judgments are in fact driven by subjectivity.

    Like

    Omar

    February 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm

  26. @olderwoman: I genuinely don’t mean to be contentious. I fully accept what you say about ASR and did not wish to imply any attribution – just to record that there was a debate (whether justified or not).

    @Omar, I’m afraid I really don’t get what you’re saying now, so I’m going to stop saying any more myself!

    Like

    Jane Gray

    February 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm

  27. I used to think academia was a meritocracy, until I received my first journal rejection.

    More seriously, once we acknowledge that meritocracy-ness isn’t a binary condition, it raises all sorts of interesting questions, or at least interesting in a navel-gazing sort of way. Is sociology more or less meritocratic than, say, economics, or some other discipline in which there is (a) greater agreement about the criteria by which “excellence” is measured, (b) more rigid and agreed-upon status hierarchies (e.g., among departments), which has all sorts of implications for both sorting and self-selection, and (c) less inherent disciplinary concern with the advantages stemming from structural locations in a status hierarchy, equity, etc.

    Like

    krippendorf

    February 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

  28. @Fabio: Re: Indiana: “Yet, we still achieve excellence in sociology because we try very hard and use some decent strategies.”
    You’re missing the point of what I was trying bring up earlier. Indiana has an amazing department (I had a hard time when declining their offer)… you guys have some of the best faculty in the country, which means that professors can get resources other departments cant get. So it becomes a never ending cycle. The point is, it’s not just about trying hard and using decent strategies. People who are lucky enough to fall into a school with higher resources (which in most cases will be the result of them having more resources) will have a much easier academic trajectory than their peers. Currently, academia is not “meritocratic enough” for people form lower SES, women, people of color, etc.

    Like

    currentgradstudent

    February 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  29. Omar wrote, “if you understood my comment as suggesting that I do not subscribe to a theory of human subjective judgments of quality within fields as driven or distorted by such ghostly entities as “power” and “ignorance” but instead as driven by a (more or less) adequate matching between reality and dispositions, then you got what I was saying.”

    You call power and ignorance “ghostly” concepts, but they are meant in Jane Gray’s case as analytical terms. An “adequate matching between reality and dispositions” is actually the remarkably ghostly, passive description. Omar, how do “reality” and “dispositions” match up except through mechanisms like power? Isn’t understanding how reality and dispositions match up, instead of just saying they do, the task of the sociologist? My reading of your disagreement is that Jane Gray is trying to analyze a given situation and make statements about its reality and you are trying hard not to.

    Like

    Austen

    February 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm

  30. It occurs to me that part of the debate here is that there are two different definitions/measures of meritocracy and merit being employed.

    One is defined as ‘good work’, so a meritocracy is where the most meritorious research rises to the top. The other seems to be ‘good workers’, where a meritocracy would be when the most meritorious people rise to the top. A system could be a meritocracy on either singly or both together.

    What the doubters seem to be arguing is that the system is not meritorious for people, even if it might be for work. Though how you disentangle the two is difficult.

    Like

    cwalken

    February 14, 2012 at 7:10 pm

  31. @currentgradstudent:

    I do appreciate your point – IU has very strong faculty (thanks for the compliment!) and graduate students benefit from that. But there is an additional point – how do you think we retain such a strong faculty? Is it budget? An Ivy League reputation? Based on budgets and overall academic reputation, I would guess that our rank would be me much lower. Year after year, we fail to match outside offers.We often lose job recruits to other more prestigious programs.

    The way we do it is that we think very, very carefully about hiring and maintain a culture of professionalism in supporting faculty. We focus on what we can actually do – and it works. I doubt we’ll ever have the resources to battle for prestige at the top of the tier, but the history of IU soc shows that there are ways to compensate for structural disadvantages.

    Finally, at the individual level, I humbly disagree with you. I don’t think that academia is *completely* rigged against low SES students, women, and minorities. Why? Because there are enough chances for showing excellence that are not rigged in favor of people from wealthy backgrounds. For example, GRE scores matter a lot in admissions and you can actually study for them and improve. There are dozens of books that tell you how to master GRE tests. I read many files from student this year – some of whom got admitted – who took the GRE many times and improved. At the graduate student and faculty level, I have found there are multiple ways to show excellence in ways that rely less on resources. For example, I’ve seen many students successfully publish using free data like the GSS, NES, or NELS. Another is simply to volunteer to work with someone.

    If you obsess over questions like “who teaches at Harvard?”, then yes, the world is dominated path dependencies and structural disadvantages. But there are nearly 2,000 (yes!) institutions of higher education in this country that offer 4 year degrees. There are about 175 research intensive schools. Many are quite excellent and are great places to work. And you will increase your chances of getting a quality job by doing the right things, even for people who come from humble backgrounds.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 14, 2012 at 7:52 pm

  32. Fabio, I agree with your larger point, but I don’t think the GRE is a great example of ways to “show excellence that rely less on resources.” The GRE was $160 a pop last year — more if you are outside the US, and double that if you need to take a subject test for your field — and has enough add-on fees to make an airline blush (score reports! practice booklets! receive your scores by phone! reschedule! reinstate scores!). Yes, you can take it up to 5 times per calendar year, but to a low-SES applicant, taking the GRE even once is not a trivial up-front outlay. (ETS offers a limited number of “fee reduction” certificates of 50% off to eligible applicants, but it’s only for the first test.)

    Like

    krippendorf

    February 14, 2012 at 10:06 pm

  33. @Kirppendorf:

    You are right. Basically, all forms of education carry costs. Nothing is free, which gives high SES kids a benefit. But what is cheaper and more accessible for the low SES students who want to move up?

    – scoring well on the GRE over two or three tries ($1000 for 3 tries, plus a few reports)
    – going to high status private school (>$100,000)

    Not even close. The GRE gives you the same career boost and it’s about 1% of the price. Standardized tests have biases, both financially and culturally, but they are by far the best way for a low income student to earn some mobility in the academic system.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 14, 2012 at 10:13 pm

  34. @Austen: We don’t need sociologists to tell us “how” reality and dispositions match up. *That* they do is what makes *any* sociological analysis possible. They only way that they wouldn’t do so is if people were pathologically disabled. If people were in fact like this (e.g. incapable of recognizing and adapting to what hits them in the face), then we would be out of business from the get go. We don’t need special theories invoking unseen, conspiratorial processes (e.g. “power”) to account for that. It is not that the world is not in fact full of those phenomena that sociologists love to trot out their “power theories” to account for, it is just that they are better ways to actually describe them that do not require the postulation of some sort of arbitrary hiatus between persons and the world.

    Like

    Omar

    February 14, 2012 at 10:20 pm

  35. 1. Omar, you still have exhibited no interest in asking, given differences in dispositions, what makes one group’s dispositions more or less realistic than another group’s, in a given case? Is it the objective merit of one over the other? Perhaps. Is it the social power one group has to influence socialized understandings of reality? Perhaps. The point is it’s an empirical question. And empirically speaking, as an analytical representation of how reality comes to be thought of as reality, I’ll take power (knowing that you still have to define it and operationalize it) over any other one single concept known to sociologists.
    2. Using power as a category to analyze reality is not the same as conspiracy-mongering, though I feel condescending in even having to point that out.
    3. Knowing that people are capable of adapting to what hits them in the face is not to say that their dispositions perfectly represent reality. It is to say their dispositions allow them to adapt to reality by showing to be generally good representations in experience. For example, a tea-party member can be so sure that Obama is a secular-socialist-anti-American-islamist, and this disposition is reinforced when the tea-partier sees an image of Obama bowing to a Saudi king. Is this disposition realistic? There is always a gap between reality and the way reality is thought about. Your position that mind and reality perfectly match up is sociologically untenable, and I wonder how a research program arises from it.

    Like

    Austen

    February 14, 2012 at 10:46 pm

  36. Austen, you are right of course: if the philosophical premises that you find so appealing (which require us to throw a representational veil between minds and worlds) were true then it would be hard to imagine how a sociological research program that denied those premises would be feasible.

    Like

    Omar

    February 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm

  37. Omar, my criticisms aren’t philosophical as much as empirical. For example, given reality is made up of differences in dispositions, what makes one more realistic than the other? If minds and worlds perfectly match up, how do you explain my disposition vis a vis Obama contrasted with a tea-partier’s disposition vis a vis Obama? Are they both perfect manifestations of reality? How can that be?

    Like

    Austen

    February 15, 2012 at 12:38 am

  38. We don’t need special theories invoking unseen, conspiratorial processes (e.g. “power”) to account for that.

    The critique Omar is invoking here is a strong one—maybe stronger than Austen realizes, I think—but it also has its own serious problems, which even the sharpest remarks from John Levi Martin are not quite capable of dispelling all on their own. One of these is that Martin (whom Omar relies on in this thread) is not able to provide any good arguments why his field-based concepts are intuitively graspable and congruent with the experience of ordinary agents, whereas those of his opponents are preposterous gerrymanders. To an uncommitted eye, the social theory of fields is at least as (potentially) mystifying as some of its competitors.

    A second issue is that the phenomenological approach Omar gestures towards here—and which Martin argues for at length in The Explanation of Social Action— has no straightforward explanation for how to get without loss or distortion from true first-person experience-in-and-of-the-world to the necessarily second- or third-order descriptions of this experience that social scientists must build their analyses on. They have a strong case that many social-theoretic concepts are hopeless monsters. And they have a strong case that the phenomenology of social action is distorted in much contemporary theory. But I haven’t seen a positive case for believing that field-theoretic approaches are immune to exactly the same problems.

    One way to rephrase Austen’s resistance to Omar’s line is Marx’s remark that “Science would be superfluous if the apparent form of things immediately coincided with their essence.” I don’t think it’s implausible to say that much of natural and social science—up to and including the development and application of the very abstract concept of ‘field’, in different ways—can be seen as a very difficult effort to poke holes in the “representational veil” of experience to get at what lies behind it. I’m not saying this is a true picture of scientific activity. But it won’t do to just repeatedly insist that the veil be torn down, or say it doesn’t exist in practice and so shouldn’t exist in theory, or just claim the theory of fields escapes errors associated with conceptual monsters like “average religiosity” just because it sees those concepts are monstrous.

    Like

    Kieran

    February 15, 2012 at 1:40 am

  39. Kieran, I’ll resist the Marx remark as well, because a gap between mind and reality maintains itself throughout the scientific process, too. Science instead offers a path forward, not instead of but in spite of the gap, as does art, and ideology, and the rather unscientific habitus. My question is, what lines of research are better off by saying dispositions and reality perfectly match up? What kinds of situations does it allow us to better understand? What should one study, and why should one study, if by thinking we have already by definition matched our understandings of reality with reality itself? My sense is Omar’s theory, as presented in this thread, is a recipe for purely theoretical or philosophical agendas, not research meant to explain specific cases. (I would submit power is important to explaining any particular case in the social world, but my point is what analytical concepts, at all, does Omar’s approach offer?)

    Like

    Austen

    February 15, 2012 at 1:58 am

  40. I’m happy to move back to the concrete world, but I will complain that it is Austen who keeps moving this discussion towards useless abstractions (like “power”) not me. And by the way I have no “approach”; I began with a set of observations all of them much more empirical than any of Austen’s contrived examples.

    I think the challenge of whether we can come up with a way to redeem both phenomenology and third person description can be partially met. I think that we can make some progress here, because we are all members of a mutual recognition system, so the bet is that describing it is a field should make sense of the regularities that we all routinely experience than other descriptions that have to resort to the usual unseen, ghostly processes or the useless abstraction working behind our backs. In that respect, I want to add that Austen first jumped into the defense of Jane Gray whose own description of how things work was repeatedly pointed to by other people as being (empirically) inaccurate or distorted. I would not doubt that if Austen were to tell us how she thinks things work, we would find that her description would be also seem equally alien to most people’s sense of where the regularities that we see in academia come from, because bugaboos like “power” would show up everywhere.

    So here are those observations again:

    1) Academia is a mutual recognition system. Recognition systems meet the criteria to constitute (autonomous) fields if the producers have partial or total control over the standards with which they judge each other’s productions. These systems have to be “meritocracies” by design, because producers “decide on” (more accurately, they inherit) the standards that they apply and judge one another by those standards. A mutual recognition system also necessarily generates steep stratification among producers based on quality standards. Agreeing on the standards makes you de facto accept the hierarchy as “legitimate.”

    2) These standards cannot be arbitrary, contrived, or rigged, because they are generated routinely by the very people who are subject to them and are the result of real acts of judgment that retrieve the quality of the productions so judged. They are not produced by “power” or some objective abstraction that is not recognizable by the person. When I reject an article I do so because it is *bad*; not because power made me do it. Self-sustaining fields reproduce themselves by training newcomers to apply those standards dispositionally, so that you develop a “taste” for the kind of work that is considered to be the best and a distaste for that which is not up to task.

    3) If (1) and (2) obtain, then the so-called “objective” qualities of the productions so judged will tend match the judgments of quality bestowed on them; this is a substantive (not philosophical) sense in which there is no arbitrary relation between reality and subjectivity. Instead, the capacity to retrieve the quality of work as “good” or “bad” is unproblematically experienced as a feature of the work (because it is!) and is the result of applying a disposition.

    (4) If (1)-(3) are true, then your stance towards the prestige system generated within the field necessarily reveals your position within it. Statements like “the objective qualities of work do not reflect the rewards that it gets” (which are non-sensical because they imply a collective state of delusion to which only the speaker appears to be immune) should be re-translated to mean “it would be nice if the standards with which this kind of work is judged were changed because right now it gets the shaft and I’m totally excluded from that club.” Conversely, statements such as “for the most part academia is a meritocracy” should be translated to mean, “my productions match the standards of quality judgments in this field and I’m happy with these standards; so please keep them just as they are.”

    This implies that:

    (a) There are no Robinson Crusoes in academia: if you are the only one who thinks you are genius you are probably not one.

    (b) There are no chicken littles: if you are the only one who has insight into the how the entire system is built as an arbitrary structure of privilege in which powers that be impose oppressive standards on hapless others, then that just means that you were not invited to the party (or are probably a grad student or both).

    (c) There are no trees that fall in forest that nobody hears. If you are the only one who thinks that your work is of quality then it is probably not of quality.

    (d) Academic prestige systems tightly reflect the objective stratification of resources. That is, there is very little “error” in the prestige system. If you correlate departmental (or personal) reputations against any contrived “objective” criterion correlations will be on the order of >=0.80. That’s why it is useless to try to find objective things that will replace the perceptual things. The expectation that these will not match is once again the misguided child of the theory that says that judgments and reality are not systematically linked.

    (e) And to go back to the original topic: a tautological meritocracy can in some ways go against, but in other ways be quite reflective of exogenous (racial/ethnic, gendered) features of the stratification system. Not because weird objective abstractions hover above these fields controlling people (although there are plenty of racist and sexist academics) but because standards of judgment and the relevant features of the productions so judged will necessarily conform to the modal experiences of those who generated them in the first place. This sort of routine, unconscious exclusion can happen without any conspiratorial mechanisms at play, and even with the best (inclusionary) intentions of those who apply them.

    Like

    Omar

    February 15, 2012 at 3:31 am

  41. I agree with you on the analysis of prestige, by the way—as you know from the Philosophy ranking stuff you saw a while back.

    Like

    Kieran

    February 15, 2012 at 3:50 am

  42. Omar’s reason e is what makes his argument difficult for me to accept. It doesn’t matter if the exclusion is conspiratorial, it is still occurring. The problem isn’t in the application of standards of judgement, it is in the unequal distribution of opportunities that allow one to meet those standards.

    Viewing academia as a field in which the producers reproduce the standards cannot account for the accumulation of advantage vs. disadvantage that, say, students in a Top 5 vs. a Top 30 program will face over their respective terms in grad school. Top 5 Student may get an ASR/AJS article and it would no doubt meet the standards as they are defined and shared by the majority and therefore be meritorious and worthy of a job. But Top 30 Student had very real obstacles in place to producing an article, dissertation, or whatever of equal quality. There just won’t be the same outcome. As I understand it, Omar’s argument discounts (or just ignores) this difference as a reason why different quality work is produced in the first place. But that is why the concept of an academic meritocracy is problematic.

    Like

    anotheranonymousgrad

    February 15, 2012 at 4:21 am

  43. @Omar:

    True geniuses do get ignored. Average Smarts don’t. Einstein is an example and the most recent Jeremy Lin is another.

    Like

    jon

    February 15, 2012 at 4:59 am

  44. jon: in what universe was Einstein ignored? Or was this some kind of sarcastic dig at omar’s argument that I am too slow to get?

    omar: as an outsider to field ideas, I found your exposition unusually clear.

    andrew: I believe you are confusing the claim that the academy is a meritocracy with the claim that a meritocracy is good or just. See Andrew Gelman’s comment.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 15, 2012 at 6:07 am

  45. @olderwoman:

    Directly from Wikipedia entry on Einstein:

    “After graduating, Einstein spent almost two frustrating years searching for a teaching post, but a former classmate’s father helped him secure a job in Bern, at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property, the patent office, as an assistant examiner.[33] He evaluated patent applications for electromagnetic devices. In 1903, Einstein’s position at the Swiss Patent Office became permanent, although he was passed over for promotion until he “fully mastered machine technology”.[34]

    Much of his work at the patent office related to questions about transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time, two technical problems that show up conspicuously in the thought experiments that eventually led Einstein to his radical conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.[35]

    With a few friends he met in Bern, Einstein started a small discussion group, self-mockingly named “The Olympia Academy”, which met regularly to discuss science and philosophy. Their readings included the works of Henri Poincaré, Ernst Mach, and David Hume, which influenced his scientific and philosophical outlook.”

    Actually Einstein’s mentor didn’t think very high of Einstein. The system works (but what doesn’t?). But do you agree it’s too slow and some talents have to work really hard to have that breakout moment?

    Like

    jon

    February 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm

  46. Of course it is meritocratic–because those at the top say so! And, that is why sociology looks the way it does. Cream rises to the top!

    Like

    NoEinstein

    February 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm

  47. @olderwoman:

    I don’t disagree with much of what Omar argued for. But some of the statements there are just bit too definitive.

    Like

    jon

    February 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm

  48. Continuing from Wikipedia: “During 1901 the paper Folgerungen aus den Capillaritätserscheinungen was published in the prestigious Annalen der Physik.[36] On 30 April 1905, Einstein completed his thesis, with Alfred Kleiner, Professor of Experimental Physics, serving as pro-forma advisor. Einstein was awarded a PhD by the University of Zurich. His dissertation was entitled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions”.[37][38] That same year, which has been called Einstein’s annus mirabilis (miracle year), he published four groundbreaking papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy, which were to bring him to the notice of the academic world.

    By 1908, he was recognized as a leading scientist, and he was appointed lecturer at the University of Bern. The following year, he quit the patent office and the lectureship to take the position of physics docent [39] at the University of Zurich. He became a full professor at Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1911. In 1914, he returned to Germany after being appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (1914–1932)[40] and a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, with a special clause in his contract that freed him from most teaching obligations. He became a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. In 1916, Einstein was appointed president of the German Physical Society (1916–1918).[41][42]”

    In 1901 at age 22 !! he published a paper in a prestigious journal. By 1905 he had been taken up by the academy and by 1908 at age 29 was recognized as a leading scientist and had a prestigious position.

    The reality is that the academy — in the sense of elite high-level science — immediately recognized talent when it saw it, even in a person who’d been overlooked in the low-level teaching schools.

    Nobody has ever said your high school teachers recognize your talent. It was a claim about the academy.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 15, 2012 at 1:48 pm

  49. @olderman:
    But the point is that even though Einstein is such a genius, he had to start with a job in a patent office for a few years to work so hard to prove himself plus his mentor kind of ignored his talent.

    Like

    jon

    February 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  50. I am just going to be even more obnoxious and point out that the differential distribution of perceptions as to whether the distribution of prestige is fair or not is itself strong evidence that a field exists and it is strong. This distribution should also be boringly predictable.

    Like

    Omar

    February 15, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  51. Omar, I wonder why you respond to me but never answer the questions I raise…are they unclear? To call my statements abstract is to not read them. Maybe they are unclear, or unsmart, but then they are unclear, unsmart attempts to ask how your approach yields empirical explanations of social phenomena. I don’t yet see how you do research, other than looking up which theorist said this and which theorist said that. So, given differences in dispositions within any given field….

    Like

    Austen

    February 15, 2012 at 2:05 pm

  52. jon: This whole “meritocracy” thread started with my offhand remark that academics at elite institutions pay attention to under-placed talent. The Einstein story confirms this claim, it does not refute it. Elite academic science recognized good work when they saw it, even from a guy working at a patent office. Einstein had access to the science journals of his time, read them on his own and with friends, and was able to engage them and write papers that conformed to the standards of academic quality. The only framework within which this could possibly be understood as not confirming the ideas of academic meritocracy is in the snobbish elite idea that smart people ought to be recognized for their sheer genius before they ever actually do anything.

    Now, in fact, there are plenty of good refutations of my original remark, specifically that a few instances that I am aware of where that happened (which include my own career–much less distinguished than Einstein’s) do not invalidate statistical patterns of unrecognized talent. But the unrecognized talent is unrecognized. There are a lot worse outcomes than having a job at a “tier 3” college. Misunderstood geniuses languish as custodians or factory workers or drug dealers. They never get the chance to get the training and reading that allows them to turn their raw genius into work that can fit into the “merit” standards of the academy, or they lack the access to networks that allow them to publish and their work sits in boxes or file drawers.

    The whole idea of Einstein as misunderstood and unappreciated genius is pretty much a myth. It is very interesting that it is an oft-repeated myth. It is interesting to reflect on why it is such a popular myth.

    Like

    olderwoman

    February 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm

  53. A view from the UK. I heard from a member of an interview panel that interviewed me at Warwick Business School that the Dean of the School commented after my interview ‘We don’t want people like that here’, I have no faith in the meritocracy of the academic job market (the job went to an attractive female PhD student with one publication in a journal I had also published in who was studying at Cambridge and supervised by a member of the interview panel). In my experience, personal biases of one or two members of an interview panel are far more important than demonstrable achievement or future potential. The job I now have is certainly proof of that.

    Like

    Robert

    February 15, 2012 at 10:19 pm

  54. It appears to me that many claims made on meritocracy are unfalsifiable. As Robert’s example suggested, there is no denying that there are blatant biases/prejudices/personal preferences and/or subtle forms of these camouflaged with “meritocratic” reasons. Since we all claim to be social scientists, I am curious whether there is good solid research out there on this issue (is our academia meritocratic). Otherwise what we are arguing about is merely speculative, feelings clothed with smart words, or references to references to references….

    Like

    jon

    February 15, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  55. In order for the data to be falsifiable, we would have to do a MUCH better job of operationalizing the variable “merit.” This is a complex task–we would have to know what we were really looking for, and we would have to know separately what we were looking for at different points on the career trajectory (merit for an undergraduate is very different than merit for a senior scholar, obviously). We would also need to operationalize “career success” (for example, if you determine that employment at an R1 is “success,” you leave out people like myself who actively chose not to apply to R1s because we wanted teaching-intensive careers). Once we have operationalized both merit at any particular level of the career trajectory and success at the next level of the career trajectory, it would be a (relatively) simple task to empirically verify the percent of success determined by merit at the prior level.

    IMO, we would find that we do not all agree on how to operationalize merit. To me, this would be the greatest evidence for the lack of meritocracy–how can it exist if we don’t even know what we are measuring?

    Like

    Mikaila

    February 16, 2012 at 12:05 am

  56. @olderwoman:
    “The Einstein story confirms this claim, it does not refute it.”
    If the system worked so well/relatively well, I am curious why Einstein didn’t even find a teaching job in the first place. Here I have to admit that it is possible that the academia back then might operate totally differently than the one does today. But there are no obvious signs of that. What I was arguing about is not that Einstein didn’t get picked up by the system. The system did. But it’s obvious that the system malfunctioned even for Einstein, at a time when he should’ve been an easy sell. Note that for a genius like Einstein, he would’ve stood out in any working system. But how long did it take?

    “Einstein had access to the science journals of his time, read them on his own and with friends, and was able to engage them and write papers that conformed to the standards of academic quality. The only framework within which this could possibly be understood as not confirming the ideas of academic meritocracy is in the snobbish elite idea that smart people ought to be recognized for their sheer genius before they ever actually do anything.”

    This part seems to confirm my argument that he had to work unusually hard. He already had his dissertation (or dissertation paper) done, and he should’ve had enough to prove himself as a top-notch physicist back then. Some natural scientists can get their tenure by just solving one problem, usually a very difficult one. Yes, he had access to science journals, but of course not an easy access (just compare access to journals at Harvard and that at a small regional university). He could’ve been more productive without this detour. Or, it could’ve been worse since such a setback might help produce his perseverance. He succeeded because of his genius, unusually strong passion, and of course perseverance, not that meritocracy worked for him. His genius outshined the system, simply put it.

    Or, it might be that Einstein was a total underdog, as he indicated many times later in his life, “Nobody expected me to lay golden eggs….” But this is a case about genius. So much for Einstein, fun to rave about, but a real surreal case.

    Like

    jon

    February 16, 2012 at 12:34 am

  57. It seems to me that Omar’s line of reasoning neglects (or willfully ignores) the possibility that quality judgments are socially constructed. It rests on the strong premise that quality standards are not only objective, but also exogenous. However, we have all been trained in (put through the mill of) PhD programs and institutionalized as to how we should evaluate quality (it’s not that we came with an exogenous standard of evaluating academic contributions). Works not perceived as fitting these norms, for example, works not fitting structural templates that we are used to seeing, will have a lower likelihood of getting published, irrespective of the inherent quality of the academic contribution.

    Btw.: “Although I still do think that human subjective judgments are in fact driven by subjectivity,” is a tautology that defies relatively objective standards of logic reasoning. In that sense, I am not saying that objective standards do not matter at all, but that subjectivity, which may be engrained in institutionalized norms, has its role in our evaluations of quality and, therefore, in the attribution of merit. On the other hand, if you haven’t come across numerous papers published in the best journals but that you thought were crap, you are either incredibly lucky or less critical than I am. But it is the pub that counts more than its quality.

    Like

    Daniel

    February 16, 2012 at 1:03 am

  58. Daniel:

    (1) appeal to “social construction” is just an excuse to introduce the standard model of subjectivity as governed by arbitrary…(what else?) constructions. You are right in noting that I reject that. But note that the fact that you are surprised that I do so, and that you introduce this premise with an implicit: “but how can any sane person think otherwise?” says more about the dogmatic status of the social construction thing than about its validity or usefulness as an analytical starting point.

    (2) You are half right on you second point. I thought I was clear in claiming that quality judgments are both objective and fully endogenous to the field. This is only a contradiction from the social constructionist premises which presuppose that “objectivity” is some sort of thing that is independent of cognition. We can have full endogeneity and objectivity too, because the instruments that we use to make judgments of quality are no less objective than the properties of the productions that are subject to judgment.

    (3) As I pointed out above, talk of “inherent” quality not recognized by anybody is nonsense. If something has quality it will be recognized by somebody. Now, note that it is a non-sequitur to conclude that there won’t be disagreement on quality orderings. There have to be, otherwise there is no field. Fields are premised on disagreement. Disagreement (contra the “Obama is a Muslim” example) does not imply arbitrariness of the principles that govern the putatively opposing judgments, nor does it imply a “neutral” reality that can be “constructed” any which way that we want. Once again, the conclusion that disagreement implies arbitrary construction is a non-sequitur derived from the social constructionist brain cramp.

    Like

    Omar

    February 16, 2012 at 2:19 am

  59. OK, Omar, I think I get it. Is your argument that academia has to be meritocratic by definition, because merit only exists insofar as it is recognized by the community (or sub-communities) of academics?

    Isn’t that a pretty trivial understanding of what we do? By that definition, Einstein’s theory wasn’t a better understanding of reality until his peers recognized it to be so. But perhaps you would argue social science knowledge is different?

    But even accepting the, ahem, merit :) of your argument, I still don’t get why there can’t be injustices in the distribution of rewards relative to effort? There is something in between a putative Robinson Crusoe and a perfectly just distribution of effort and reward. If I accept your point that something that has quality will be recognized by somebody, it still makes a difference who that somebody is, how many somebodies make the recognition, and whether or not they sit on the editorial boards of prestige journals (to give just one example).

    And I reject your assertion that power is a bugaboo or ghost! Power is the empirically observable set of everyday practices whereby privileged individuals and groups ensure that matters ‘go their way,’ at the expense of other people. We don’t have to posit a conspiracy to recognize this (and I’m not making any allegations). Most of the time privileged people enact their power in a relatively ‘unthinking’ way because in their everyday business they mobilize resources (cultural, social, economic) that other people don’t have – or at least not in the same quantity.

    None of which is to deny that a goodly proportion of the distribution of reward in academia is attributable to variations in effort and quality of output. Those variations just don’t explain all of it.

    Like

    Jane Gray

    February 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm

  60. @Jane Gray wrote “Power is the empirically observable…”

    I think that’s the basis of the disagreement. At no point in this thread has Omar indicated any interest in empirical observations, or in offering explanations of particular cases. Research matters little when you believe, as Omar does, that “we don’t need sociologists to tell us ‘how’ reality and dispositions match up. *That* they do is what [matters].” It’s sociology by assertion.

    Like

    Austen

    February 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm

  61. So in essence it seems we are just talking about less than perfect correlation or noise in the relationship between quality and merit. Agreed. Generally higher quality will prevail. In fact, I had in no way concluded or suggested that disagreement implies that socially constructed quality standards would be arbitrary. However, a social construction of quality norms could result in the rejection of high-quality work. For example, institutionalized expectations as to what good research ought to look like may result in biases against unconventional research. This parallels the social psych literature, which holds plenty of evidence that quality judgments are biased by criteria unrelated to objective quality. In this sense, that quality is “not recognized by anybody” is not the point. The point is that for academia to be fully meritocratic, tautologically, quality would have to be recognized undistordedly by the true order of merit. This could only happen if products were published in this order in the journals to which the community attributes the greatest merit.

    By the way, while I am not a big fan of the idea that everything under the sun is socially constructed, I personally believe quality standards in academia are – on a larger scale (i.e., within disciplines or within geographical limits; try to take an econ paper to soc or vice versa) as well as on a smaller scale (i.e., within smaller communities or “cliques”).

    Like

    Daniel

    February 17, 2012 at 7:39 am

  62. Psst, Omar, they need you over here now: why is our children meritocratic enough a matter with Kansas (http://scatter.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/bageant-rainbow-pie/)?

    Like

    RD

    February 17, 2012 at 11:26 am

  63. I am trying to wrap my head around this all myself, so feel free to call me names if I have it wrong (nothing too hurtful though, please).

    When I read Omar saying “we don’t need sociologists to tell us ‘how’ reality and dispositions match up.’That’ they do is what [matters],” I think he is saying that to think otherwise or differently would invalidate the existence of sociology as a “field” of inquiry, for it would mean the knowledge created and accepted as sociological is arbitrary and open to interpretation by any one individual (the extreme social constructionist position). When in reality, what is accepted as valid and real within the field is a matter of agreement among the producers operating within that field. And such knowledge exists and is known (despite the many disagreements within the field), and because of its existence the field is relatively well formed (strong as Omar puts it).

    But in line with Kieran (I think), I don’t necessarily see how the field approach as an abstraction from reality (second-order or third order explanation) is any more “real” than other ways in which we attempt to explain the world (e.g. making sense of the lived experience of why some people get to tell me what to do at work (power) and why in most instances I am willing to go along with it (authority)). Yes, Omar begins with concrete observations about the world, but once he attempts to explain these phenomena with the idea of a field (and even more the idea of a strong versus a weak field), he moves beyond the first order experiences of most people (at least for right now—for I think the idea of a field has not yet been accepted within the field).

    Like

    DD

    February 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm


Comments are closed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: