Solidarity and Hierarchy in Academic Job Markets

by Kieran Healy on November 11, 2003

Via Brayden King, I’ve come across a nice paper by Shin-Kap Han in the current issue of Social Networks, which my colleague Ron Breiger co-edits. The paper is a network analysis of the exchange of job candidates in a number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Though academics talk about “the job market,” it will not surprise you that placement is deeply embedded in systems of departmental status that bear little resemblance to a properly functioning market. Indeed, the paper finds that the discipline that makes the study (and promotion) of markets its specialty is the one with the highest degree of elite solidarity and hierarchical control over the placement of its graduate students.

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.

There’s an old article by Arthur Stinchcombe called “A Structural Analysis of Sociology” which, only half-jokingly, treats the exchange of job candidates in sociology from the perspective of Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology: departments are tribes, graduate students are women to be married off, and areas of specialization are clan-markers that help define which exchanges are appropriate and which are taboo. Han’s paper does a nice job of quantifying the structure of exchange in graduate students and demonstrating how it varies across disciplines. It wouldn’t do prospective graduate students any harm to have a clear picture of this social structure in mind—together with a grasp of their own potential place in it as a unit of exchange—before applying to grad school.

{ 12 comments }

1

markus 11.11.03 at 10:09 am

is this the reason why studying something obscure and thereby creating a monopoly doesn’t work? ;)
Besides, it seems to prove that academia is inherently hostile to the free market, so no wonder there’s all those liberals in there.

2

dsquared 11.11.03 at 10:40 am

Economics scores highest on all exchange-based measures of hierarchy and solidarity.

Let the rationalisations begin …

3

Brad DeLong 11.11.03 at 3:56 pm

Well, our students go out early–way too early–before they’ve finished even one article. They’re bright young things sold on the basis of potential.

We at Berkeley do keep saying that there is a clear market failure on the used junior market, and that we ought to try to pick off people two or three years out who are “underplaced” and hire them…

4

Edward Castronova 11.11.03 at 5:21 pm

It makes sense that a discipline more concerned with form than intellectual substance relies on arbitrary markers of quality to make personnel decisions. When the theories of both Smith’s student and Miller’s student have the same number of true ‘aha’ moments in them (0), how can you tell them apart other than to note that Smith’s program is ranked higher than Miller’s?

5

dsquared 11.11.03 at 5:39 pm

We at Berkeley do keep saying that there is a clear market failure on the used junior market, and that we ought to try to pick off people two or three years out who are “underplaced” and hire them…

I keep sayin’ that “sayin’ ain’t doin’” but I never seems to do anythin’ about it!

6

paul locasto 11.11.03 at 6:20 pm

I wonder what impact an analysis of non-humanities disciplines would have on this hypothesis. At issue is whether the humanities have bench-marks that allow them to behave as a functional market. As Dr. Castronova points out, how should one measure schools of thought which both have no ‘aha moments’?

Relatedly, do applied disciplines where ‘sucess’ can be measured at least in some forms independent from the system (i.e. schooling, theoretical background, what’s ‘hot’) that produced them –function more like efficient systems?

Furthermore, does this relate to the wide-spread downsizing of the humanities across academia in favor of more “success-orientated” (read: money-making) disciplines?

7

Kieran Healy 11.11.03 at 8:33 pm

I wonder what impact an analysis of non-humanities disciplines would have on this hypothesis. At issue is whether the humanities have bench-marks that allow them to behave as a functional market.

It would be nice to think that somehow markets and scientific truth would be positively correlated, but I doubt it. The structure of careers in many sciences is even more hierarchically organized than the humanities and social sciences — the Postdoc “journeyman” stage is fully institutionalized, getting established is about builing a lab in a position to attract grants and so on.

8

paul locasto 11.11.03 at 10:18 pm

The structure of careers in many sciences is even more hierarchically organized than the humanities and social sciences  the Postdoc journeyman stage is fully institutionalized, getting established is about builing a lab in a position to attract grants and so on.

Yes I know it too well (being a post-doc myself). I might have read things wrong, but I was under the impression that the issue was how certain programs can be analysed from a ‘tribal’ (i.e. Class I vs. Class II) perspective. There just seem to be more ways of bucking the ‘class’ system in other disciplines (such as grants, publishing etc). You can get hired at Harvard and Stanford even if you come from a Class III school. Whereas in other (more theoretical? ) disciplines, if you did not graduate from an Ivy league school, you will not be hired by one. This of course is a wide generalization, but I wonder if the general point holds true. Anyhow, interesting article

9

Armature 11.12.03 at 12:35 am

BTW if you work for an institution that has a subscription to Elsevier journals, but don’t have Social Networks lying around your office, you can get the full PDF of Han’s paper from here:

http://tinyurl.com/umdo

10

brayden 11.12.03 at 1:41 am

For those of you without an institutional affiliation, Han has a link for the paper on his website.

http://www.staff.uiuc.edu/~skh/TR.pdf

11

nick 11.12.03 at 6:21 pm

It’s an intriguing paper, to which I really ought to devote more reading time than my early skimming.

It should be said that this kind of structure was at least acknowledged by one of my tutors, who advised me, as an Oxford DPhil in English heading out to the US, to seek gainful employ with a ‘good second-division university’, based on the premise that the Ivy League tends to recruit talent from its own and its peers, work it into the ground without any hope of tenure, and turn bright-eyed academic hopefuls into bitter husks. By contrast, a junior position in the ‘semi-periphery’ is considered a better place from which to launch one’s academic career, with less of a rat-race and more space in which to expand.

That’s why I’m a little surprised by the ‘self-loop’ described in the paper, but it might be the case that there are better reasons for Class I graduates to head to Class I institutions.

I’m particularly intrigued by the ‘inbreeding’ and ‘outbreeding’ of academic staff: the notion that while ‘feeder’ institutions don’t like to hire their own for junior positions, they’ll gladly send them out for ‘seasoning’ and bring them back when tenure’s at stake. That’s less the case at Oxford (an inbreeder if ever there was one) but I can see the logic behind it.

12

Nasi Lemak 12.01.03 at 4:20 pm

Oh, damn, left this comment too late. Well, Nick, you’re wrong, in a Crocodile Dundee sense: Oxford’s not an inbreeder (Honestly. Among junior research fellowships and so forth there are actually quite a lot of non-Oxford people.) *Cambridge* is an inbreeder.

I’ve never heard of anyone getting a JRFship there who didn’t already have a Cambridge connection, usually through being a graduate/undergraduate.

And I spent two years there before fleeing, so I did meet quite a lot of JRFs.

(I think there is some basic Oxford insecurity that means it wants to import good people from elsewhere to try to keep up, while that wonderful Cambridge insularity means they see no need to correspond with the rest of the world but merely wish to incubate the careers of their best and brightest.)

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