the sociology of the dr. jill biden brouhaha

The Jill Biden doctorate controversy is one the lamest public events in a long time, rivalling the tan suit debacle, the “binders full of women” blow up and the endless mockery of presidents who play golf. And for the record, I definitely side with Jill Biden’s defenders. A doctorate simply means scholar or teacher, a doctorate of education is a real advanced degree, and it’s appropriate for professional situations, as long as your aren’t in a hospital. And yes, I also agree with her defenders that the original WSJ post was cranky and condescending, to say the least. And also, yes, if you were offended by the WSJ column, you just got gaslighted.

Here’s the real sociological question: When can you use your professional title in society? When are you allowed to assert status in a way that would be recognized by others as acceptable? Aside from monarchs and perhaps the most elite of political leaders like a US President or Prime Minister, I think the answer is only in professional settings. Here are some examples:

  1. A medical doctor goes to a Subway sandwich shop and demands that the person at the counter, whose title is actually “Sandwich Artist,” demands to be called “Dr. Karen.”
  2. A medical doctor goes home and demands that her spouse call her “Dr. Karen.”
  3. The high school principal, who has an Ed. D., asks to be called “Dr. Karen” during faculty meetings.
  4. The medical doctor asks that a nurse call her “Dr. Karen.”
  5. The medical doctor asks that other doctors call her “Dr. Karen.”
  6. A medical doctor is in conference with her lawyer over a non-medical legal issue (e.g., closing a real estate deal) and wants to be called “Dr. Karen.”

I think #1 and #2 are wrong, as these are either informal settings like family or out of expertise settings. #3 is fussy but people would go along with it. Schools are more chill than hospitals, but the hypothetical principal is the leader and wants to be recognized as such. #4 and #5 would also be accepted because, like #3, Dr. Karen is in the relevant professional setting. #6 is actually ambiguous. A legal consultation is certainly a professional setting, but Dr. Karen’s medical degree is not relevant. In practice, we might say that Dr. Karen actually has earned her title and merits the honorific, but it’s not needed and a bit fussy. I think that Jill Biden would be justified using Dr. in policy settings, as it’s actually normal. For example, in a formal meeting at the Department of State, it would be normaly to introduce an expert on Chinese politics with a Ph.D. as “Dr.” Everyobody obviously knows that the hoorific refers to scholarly expertise, not medical expertise. Biden, for example, might asked to speak at the Department of Education and her Ed.D. is obviously relevant. Super elites, like Presidents and monarchs, seem to over ride these considerations and people will use the honorific without problem in most settings.

Personally, I will tell graduate students to call me by my first name because they’re colleagues in training. I tell undergraduates to use “Mr. Rojas,” since that was what my father used. And if it was good enought for him, it’s good enough for me. Students from the South will insist on “Professor” or even “Doctor.” Since it’s in the obviously professional setting of a university, it’s fine by me. Finally, just because the public has conflated medical training with the word “doctor” doesn’t mean that the title should be dropped in non-medical settings.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 17, 2020 at 5:49 pm

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Confused about # 3. The degree is relevant to the setting and the purpose of the meeting, and would be just as good for anyone taking part, not just for the leader. It’s a recognition of accomplishments outside of any workplace and its hierarchy, and should be seen as such.

    In fact that’s the main point of having credentials.


    Don Frazier

    December 17, 2020 at 6:23 pm

  2. I actually agree with you on #3, as it is obviously relevant. But I have noticed that teachers often roll their eyes in meetings in the Ed.D. in the room uses the title. On technical grounds, they concur, but it is not the gravitas that the PhD or MD has in their professional settings.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 17, 2020 at 7:09 pm

  3. This is the perfect time for you time jump into LinkedIn on this thread.

    And I will send people from that thread here — but, you will have more traction by commenting on LI.


    michael webster

    December 18, 2020 at 12:59 am

  4. An EdD is a professional credential, not recognition of academic excellence.

    It requires less than a JD, and nobody in the US would call a lawyer “Doctor”. (Even “esq” is more pompous than I can stomach.)

    An MD is also a professional credential, not a doctorate. However, physicians are not called “Doctor” because they have a degree with “doctor” in the name. Physicians were called “Doctor” long before the MD was invented — because they doctor (that is, alter) people.

    I have an academic doctorate. My colleagues call me “Doc “, but it’s purely jocular. (I hate my first name, and almost nobody besides my wife and my parents knows what it is).

    I would consider myself a pompous ass in the first degree if I asked anyone to call me “Doctor”. I would consider any engineer who asked to be called “Doctor” – including one who has an academic doctorate – a pompous ass in the first degree.

    Mrs Biden can call herself anything she wants — including “Grand Duchess Jill of Ruritania”. But I reserve to myself the right to consider her a pompous ass in the first degree, and I see no reason to humor her.

    I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.


    Family Values Lesbian

    December 19, 2020 at 1:42 am

  5. Using the equivalent of Mr. is much more fraught for women, for obvious reasons, and any analysis of the use of Dr. for women that ignores that is missing one of the central points about why we might insist on people using an honorific that does not run into those issues. Many women and POC also have experience being dismissed or disregarded in settings like #6 and the use of Dr. can gain us the same minimal level of respect that your average mediocre White man just expects to receive as a matter of course. Personally, I have come to quite like Dr/Professor first name, as that retains the appropriate respect while still permitting for some informality.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 20, 2020 at 9:58 pm

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