is economics more insular than i thought?

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler discusses a paper by Chicago undergrad Zhengye Chen on status in the economics profession:

Of the 138 Ph.D. economics programs in the United States, the top fifteen Ph.D. programs in economics produce a substantial share of successful economics research scholars. These fifteen Ph.D. programs in turn get 59% of their faculty from only the top six schools with 39% coming from only two schools, Harvard and MIT. Those two schools are also the PhD origins for half of John Bates Clark Medal recipients. Details for assistant professors, young stars today, American Economics Association Distinguished Fellows, Nobel Laureates, and top overseas economics departments are also discussed.

This is consistent with other research on the academic profession. The top 5-10 programs dominate any given academic discipline. See, for example, Val Burris’ now classic article on elite sociology programs. What I found interesting is that economics is even more concentrated than other disciplines. Two schools with almost 40% of the market share? Wow.

Commenter MJT links to a paper by Helsinki econ professor Marko Tervio from the Review of Economics and Statistics showing that economics is even more concentrated than other disciplines:

Of all the faculty at the top 10 economics departments, 79.6% received their Ph.D. inside the top 10. For mathematics this figure is 58.3% and for comparative literature 63.2%.

This is consistent with prior work showing that economics has a more enclosed culture relative to other fields. For example, a  finding is that most economics journal article citations are overwhelmingly within economics (90%+!). Historical reviews of economics emphasize the degree to which economists will try to separate themselves from other fields. I wonder if this is a long term state, or just a relic of the post-1980s move toward the purification of the discipline.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. Just as a FYI, Robert Oprisko has recently examined similar questions in political science. Here’s a summary of the research:

    It was written up in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and other media outlets as well.


    W. K. Winecoff

    February 13, 2013 at 12:13 am

  2. ‘Tis not the only variable involved: but Neuman points out toward the back of his networks text that academic citation network valence distributions follow power laws. People economize on conveying ideas by citing authority. This leads to a path dependency.

    Academia, whether it fits our strong notions of meritocracy or not, seems to well-fit a herd model of information dispersion.

    Broadly, I think this is the reasons all organizations tend toward hierarchy in some degree — power may after all be reducible to information asymmetry. It does not necessarily follow this is a normatively bad arrangement, and in fact it is more than likely one we, in a world of voluntary entry and exit to and from organizations, vote for. Every time someone champions an organizationally flat structure, we find out it was a daydream (e.g. Healy’s recent paper on open source software).

    The problem with the academy, and economics especially, is there are strong-form cultural beliefs that protecting hierarchical rents is good for finding The Truth. That is a strange belief for economists to disproportionately ascribe to, setting up barriers to entry and all.


    Graham Peterson

    February 13, 2013 at 12:26 am

  3. It doesn’t appear to difficult to “break in”, however. Looking at just the top few economics departments, and there just at young tenured/tenure-track faculty, I see folks with PhDs from Leuven, Pompeu Fabra, Toronto, St. Gallen, British Columbia, Iowa, Toulouse, Penn State, Boston University, EHESS, UCL, Duke, Wyoming, Georgetown – that’s out of only 80 or so total young faculty. Given how homogeneous economics training is, it seems reasonable that the concentration of faculty from top departments is much more related to selection before the PhD than any blocking of talent by elites.



    February 13, 2013 at 12:42 am

  4. One random thought on the dominance of Harvard and MIT: I wonder if they are more dominant than any two programs in other fields in part because they are both prestigious and quite large relative to the job market. If Econ programs have a relatively high ratio of graduate students to faculty compared to political science, sociology, etc., perhaps due to the relatively large number of other jobs available (in and out of academia), the potential for dominance is much larger. The top 10 Sociology departments couldn’t each hire a Princeton grad each year; the top 20 Econ departments can hire a Harvard grad each year.


    Dan Hirschman

    February 13, 2013 at 12:43 am

  5. @afine: sure, and it’s hard to distinguish what a “barrier to entry” really is outside “we got the guys with the guns to threaten people with fines and jail time unless they do X.” But costs are substantially higher to enter economics than other disciplines — this is a supply and demand issue largely. Economics programs have roughly the same supply as other social science programs, and receive treble and quadruple the demand. Students sacrifice quite a bit more to get in (it’s not clear the modal economics student enjoys, or benefits professionally in the long run from graduate real analysis courses as an undergraduate).

    There is one striking barrier to entry in the academy: tenure. On my view this institution does more to promote ideological homogeneity and intellectual inertia than it does the sanctity and guarantee of innovation. I was just saying that these intellectual affects, mostly created by the material incentives tenure engenders, is exacerbated by the methodological fashions in economics particularly, which create a rather homogenous culture. This is not to discount entirely the *astounding* progress the discipline has made in the last century, and the litany of meaningful contributions still pouring out.


    Graham Peterson

    February 13, 2013 at 1:03 am

  6. I really ought to get me some tenure before I say stuff like that… m’ahwell.


    Graham Peterson

    February 13, 2013 at 1:07 am

  7. I wonder how this works for sociology. Not just in terms of hiring (which I assume is heavily impacted by selection into grad school) but more generally in terms of what topics and methods are considered legitimate (e.g. the ones that other sociologists try to emulate and adopt).

    What is the sociological equivalent of Princeton in political science or MIT in economics? Do we have a department that others in the field look to as a model?

    My own perspective is that sociology seems like a more fragmented or diverse field with considerable epistemological differences across departments. While the top 30 or so departments are pursuing a social scientific agenda that seeks a systematic understanding of social reality for its own sake, in the rest of the field there is also a strong interest in advocacy and prescriptive claims, which might influence how the public comes to see sociology.

    In this sense, what top departments do in sociology may not be as influential across the field as other schools might not share their epistemological goals.



    February 13, 2013 at 1:10 am

  8. Dan: Good question. We have some other cases. English programs are large but you see a little more dispersion. Econ is definitely an outlier here.



    February 13, 2013 at 3:33 am

  9. Graham: If you get to a point in your career that you sit on a graduate admissions or junior recruitment committee, you’ll readily see status-based barriers to entry at work. Even in sociology, you’re looking at 200 files, only two or three of which really stand out as excellent (and you know you’re going to be competing for these folks with higher ranked schools), followed by a large group of “great but not perfect” students who all start to look about the same around the 30th file.

    From this latter group, a committee of people with quite different tastes and with different weighting algorithms for different selection criteria have to select 15-20 (grad students) or 3-5 (junior jobs). Add to this the fact that search/grad admissions committees are on a strict time frame, they have very low information (especially about candidates that aren’t getting letters of recommendation from people in the committee’s network), and in most cases they include members who just want to get the job done and over with. You wind up with perfect conditions for status-based selection, at least according to the sociological literature. You don’t need to rely on guys with guns — and, in top econ programs, it is still mostly guys — arguments.

    As for why econ is more status-selective than other fields, it could be that economists are more likely to buy into a worldview that says that there aren’t barriers that prevent free “market” competition for slots at the best undergrad schools (for grad admissions) or grad schools (for junior jobs), or that social networks don’t matter at all, etc.



    February 13, 2013 at 11:24 am

  10. […] “is economics more insular than I thought?”… […]


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