The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Status, Cliques, and the Political-Science Job Market

December 5, 2012

There are many things I find unsurprising about Robert Orisko’s claims in the Georgetown Public Policy Review about hiring patterns in academic political science. Among those are the disparate reactions produced by its summary in Inside Higher Education.

In brief, Orisko argues that academic political-science hiring displays dynamics more associated with status-conserving cliques than an efficient market. This tracks with (more sophisticated) comparative studies of hiring patterns which suggest variation across different disciplines. As Kieran Healy discussed of the earlier study back in 2003, “placement is deeply embedded in systems of departmental status that bear little resemblance to a properly functioning market.”

Indeed, as Healy summarizes as the 2003 paper:

The paper confirms the intuition that there are self-reproducing departmental status systems within disciplines. Job candidates in all disciplines are exchanged in a well-defined manner between three classes of departments. Class I departments, at the top, exchange students amongst themselves and supply lower-tier departments with students but do not hire from them. Class II departments are on the “semi-periphery,” generally exchanging candidates with each other (though there is a hierarchical element to this) and also sending students to Class III departments, which never place students outside of their class and usually do not hire students from within their class.

This broad structure applies to all disciplines, though some draw sharper boundaries than others between Classes I and II. (In Sociology, for instance, the differentiation is particularly strong.) Within Class I departments, there’s a good deal of variation across disciplines in the degree of factionalization within the elite departments and the solidarity of the exchange system, as measured by within-class exchanges of students. Economics has the most cohesive elite faction and its “dominance over the entire discipline is overwhelming.” Class I Psychology departments, by contrast, are considerably more decentralized, with three contending factions. Different measures bring out different aspects of the structure. Economics scores highest on all exchange-based measures of hierarchy and solidarity.

In his own discussion, Orisko worries that trends in the US political-science job market will exacerbate the privileging of pedigree over merit:

As the academic market tightens up, there are fewer positions available and more graduates than needed. Many universities are losing the ability to place their own students within academia. The theoretical consequence of such hiring practices is that hiring committees often appear to favor people like themselves rather than candidates from schools like the ones in which they work. Therefore, when committees are made up of professors from prestigious institutions, they might be more likely to hire candidates from similarly prestigious institutions. This practice reinforces the perceived inferiority of their current institution. The prophecy of good academics graduating from a handful of dominant programs becomes self-fulfilling and the market landscape bleak for the vast majority of PhD programs.

As I mentioned at the outset, the emerging discussion on social-science blogs is itself pretty predictable in its broad contours. John Sides passes along without comment. Mike Munger thinks that there’s no problem at all: nothing to see here but a well-functioning sorting procedure:

I’ll admit that perhaps academic rank of PhD institution is more important than it “should” be (and I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll admit it).  But if admissions processes are based on grades, recommendations, and GRE scores, and if the top ten PS departments* choose the 150 best applicants each year, wouldn’t it be amazing if those departments did NOT dominate the job market?  Let’s assume that the admissions criteria are only 50% predictive of later success.  Still, year after year, 75 of the best young political scientists in the country are going to the top ten departments.

Gabriell Rossman makes a similar claim — with a simulation. But he’s a bit more circumspect than Munger, noting that:

Of course, keep in mind this is all in a world of frictionless planes and perfectly spherical cows. If we assume that lots of people are choosing on other margins, or that there’s not a strict dual queue of positions and occupants (e.g., because searches are focused rather than “open”), then it gets a bit looser. Furthermore, I’m still not sure that the meritocracy model has a good explanation for the fact that academic productivity figures (citation counts, etc) have only a loose correlation with ranking.

The problem, of course, is that it requires a great deal more work to figure out whether we’re looking at meritocratic sorting or status-conserving behavior.* I don’t think I need to elaborate how getting a PhD at a prestige institution creates opportunities that simply aren’t available at lower-tier schools or how these opportunities help translate into first jobs that themselves confer access to superior economic, social, and cultural capital. And, of course, both the degree-granting institution and the first job are themselves treated as evidence of scholarly merit.**

My best guess is that status-based explanations, in both their indirect and direct form, do a significant amount of work in explaining hiring patterns. I suspect that many of the stories we tell ourselves about “meritocratic sorting” are, in fact, rationalizations for the status-quo hierarchy of academic capital in the field. At the very least, we ought to much more seriously consider the possibility that we are, like Aristotle, naturalizing social inequality via circular reasoning.

What do you all think?

*Experiments might help, but would never make it past IRBs.
**Indeed, we’ve already seen sub-communities in the field of international relations respond by creating their own cliques and hiring networks, e.g., both the so-called “posties” and “midwestern quants.”

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.