The Duck of Minerva

Standard Stories for Hiring Decisions in Political Science

9 January 2013

Update: so the very first commentator revealed how much this was the product of a bad cold. Indeed, I’ve completely misnamed the post. It shouldn’t be “standard stories” but “contextual assumptions.” The most important rhetorical commonplace, in my experience, is exactly what the commentator said: “quality” of research and presentation. What I’m interested in is the broader issue of how we know what quality is and why we care about it–what are the appeals that adjudicate those issues?  

Why do political science departments in research universities make offers to particular candidates? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I think listing common justifications is a good place to start thinking about the question. So here are some standard arguments, distilled down to their essence, for hiring decisions:

  • Signaling that we are a high-quality department;
  • Improving our rankings in either the short- or long-term;
  • Resolving gaps in our course offerings;
  • Resolving gaps in our methodological toolkit;
  • Reinforcing strength in a niche specialty;
  • Improving diversity in the immutable characteristics of our faculty; and
  • Giving some subset of scholars in the Department additional people to talk to.

But do these explain decisions? It should be obvious that a number of jobs are tailored to fulfill specific teaching and research needs. But there are obviously other proceses at work. Of these, I have a few tentative (and linked) hypotheses:

  1. In practice, the most common arguments invoke reputational and status considerations.
  2. Sometimes they do so directly, but even those that aren’t inherently about the department’s reputation often make some kind of appeal to conserving or enhance its status.
  3. It isn’t so much that these concerns drive decisions for everyone involved. Often, I suspect, factors related to individual ontological security, in-group bias, and other considerations play a more important role.
  4. Rather, appeals to status and reputation provide a “rhetorical commonplace” over which these other issues get fought.

Does any of this make sense? If not, chalk that up to a congested head and a long day of entertaining and eight-year old.