A Sociologist Amongst Philosophers

by Kieran Healy on December 29, 2004

Not only is it “MLA Season”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/003045.html, it’s also time for the meetings of the “American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division”:http://www.apa.udel.edu/apa/divisions/eastern/. The APA meetings are scheduled at this time of the year because, as is well known, philosophers hate Christmas — even if a good number of its senior wranglers do their best to look like Santa. So here I am in Boston. This year I even have a professional excuse to be here, because I’m doing some work on the relationship between specialization and status amongst philosophy departments.

Unlike most academic associations, the APA doesn’t have a proper national meeting, just regional ones. But the Eastern APA is the biggest, partly because there’s a high concentration of philosophers on the East Coast,[1] but mostly because the job market happens at it. Like the MLA, Philosophy departments interview their shortlist of 10 to 15 candidates at the meetings, with a view to whittling them down to three or four for campus visits. Personally, I don’t believe this stage adds any useful information to the recruitment process, unless you are interested in whether a candidate can sit comfortably in a cramped hotel suite.

I nearly got an interview at the APA myself a few years ago, when I accidentally sat at the wrong table in an empty conference room, put my feet up and started reading some book or other. After about half an hour some people started filing in to the room, but I wasn’t paying attention. Then two guys (one with a Santa beard-in-training) sat down at my table. “Mr Robertson? We’re from East Jesus State University,”[2] said one of them, “Shall we begin?” I should have said yes, but of course instead I was a coward and mumbled something about not being Mr Robertson. Pity: I’ve become quite good at bluffing my way amongst philosophers, and I might have gotten a fly-out.

fn1. Every single Mets fan, for instance.

fn2. Not its real name.



Jason Stanley 12.29.04 at 3:03 pm

Can you say more about the work you’re doing? It sounds really interesting. I’m very pleased a good sociologist is starting to look at philosophy departments…


Ken Houghton 12.29.04 at 3:11 pm

I’m really pleased that Met fans can be referred to as “philosophers”; clearly means the bar has been (1) lowered and (2) opened.


Ophelia Benson 12.29.04 at 5:11 pm

Say hi to Julian and Jeremy if you see them. Or say Phooey or Yaboosucks or Don’t you two look silly, or whatever pops into your head. Or just stare incredulously, or laugh, or point and laugh. One of those.


Fritz Warfield 12.29.04 at 5:51 pm

You say:

“Personally, I don’t believe this stage adds any useful information to the recruitment process…”

I think this is correct only if interviews are conducted very badly. And I believe that many interviews are conducted very badly. But surely we can learn important things in APA interviews that aren’t readily available in standard job files. For example, we can learn lots about candidates’ Areas of Competence (and about any Areas of Specialty for which we don’t have a writing sample). And even where we have several writing samples, we can learn whether candidates know the areas more broadly than indicated by the writing. Some candidates with an AOS in, say, ethics, work primarily in meta-ethics and don’t know much of anything about normative ethics. Others who work primarily in meta-ethics know the field quite broadly (including normative ethics and some areas of applied ethics). These distinctions aren’t always apparent in a file, but can be discovered in APA interviews.

We can also have discussions with candidates about how they teach and why they teach that way (not simply “what syllabus?” but also “what goals?” and “what approach?” and “why that syllabus and approach given those goals”?

We could, I suppose, get this information by having candidates fill out more detailed written forms, but can’t we also get this information in a 45 minute APA discussion?

I’m *guessing* that your main point is that APA interviews in which departments shout back and forth with candidates about their primary research (as evidenced in the writing sample) are a waste of time and add no helpful / relevant information to the process. Sadly, that’s how many departments interview. But we don’t have to do it that way.


Matt 12.29.04 at 6:18 pm


On the topic of sociology of philosophy, I wonder if you’ve looked at the huge fat book (about 900pp) by Randell Collins “The Sociology of Philosophies”. I’d looked at it _very_ briefly when it came out (late 90’s, I think) but also think it was largely ignored by philosophers, and I vaguely recall those who reviewed it being annoyed by it. That’s compatible, of course, w/ it being good. I’d be interested to know if you know of it and if you think it’s any good.


John Quiggin 12.30.04 at 7:50 am

” The APA meetings are scheduled at this time of the year because, as is well known, philosophers hate Christmas”

When the AEA used to hold its meetings in this week, it was rumored that the reason was that this was the only time of the year when economists lacked a good excuse for avoiding their families.


Keith DeRose 12.31.04 at 6:59 am

Personally, I don’t believe this stage adds any useful information to the recruitment process

I’ll go along with that, Kieran. Not only does the convention interview stage not improve departments’ decisions by enough to justify the huge waste of time & expense involved, but I think departments actually end up, after all the bother, making worse decisions than they would if they just went all the way down to the three or so candidates to come to campus on the basis of dossiers alone.

However, we should note the possibility that this stage has benefits for the field, even if it doesn’t yield them by improving departments’ decisions. Indeed, the convention interviews may help precisely by making departments’ decisions worse.

Often, multiple departments are trying to hire the same candidate. This especially happens at the “top of the heap” — those viewed as the best candidates. Those departments that lose the competition for their first choice then offer their job to other candidates, but it takes a while for the whole thing to work out, and it can be quite a mess. Perhaps if the hiring process were more rational, you’d get still more departments trying for the same candidates, and the mess would be even considerably worse! So maybe we’re better off with this extra bit of irrationality in the process?

(But if that’s how the interviews help, we could get the same effect, without all the bother, simply by weighing in in the appropriate amount the results of some random process, like rolling dice, into each department’s decision.)


Allan Hazlett 01.02.05 at 3:32 am

I was having dinner with a smart philosopher last year who told me that he had read about a study which compared how well a person did in the 45 minute APA-style interviews with how well they ended up performing in scholarship and teaching over the course of the next few years (or something like that). The study found that doing well in these sorts of interviews was actually not correlated at all with academic excellence. I’m not a creative enough Googler to find this study, but I remember being kind of appalled to learn about it.

The reason the Eastern division meeting is at Christmas is because having a healthy personal life is negatively correlated with productive philosophical output, as Nietzsche demonstrated decisively when he noted that none of the famous philosophers he could think of were married. By making all philosophers spend their late 20s missing Christmas, they ensure that they will consistently snub boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s family holiday gatherings, miss out on the healthy warmth and unconditional affection of their own families’ get-togethers, and run their nerves up so high that they anually get so wasted on New Years that they embarass themselves to the point of complete social withdrawl that lasts into February – all this combines to ensure that the philosopher will remain lonley, depressed, and pumping out treatises for the rest of his or her natural life.


Matt Weiner 01.02.05 at 5:16 am

Keith–funny, I just heard about your theory during the APA. It seems to me that if we want to introduce an element of noise into the process we’d be much better off rolling dice–there’s the possibility that interviews just lead to multiple departments competing for the candidate who can sit most comfortably in a cramped hotel suite. (In other words, it’s worse to have a factor that might introduce a systemic bias than a factor that’s completely random.)

Allan–I kinda figure that the job meetings are then because it’s the only time nobody has class. Also, wasn’t Bishop Berkeley married?

Kieran–Wish I’d seen you. Hope you gathered some good data.


Keith DeRose 01.02.05 at 7:01 am

The study found that doing well in these sorts of interviews was actually not correlated at all with academic excellence.

I hadn’t heard of such results. Based very unscientifically on cases I had observed, I was supposing that there was a very slight positive correlation. Experience seems to indicate these things are close to worthless, but it would seem at least to me quite strange if there were a negative correlation, or zero correlation. But if someone has actually done a serious study & found no correlation at all, believe them instead of me.

So, I was assuming a very slight positive correlation. I thought that interviews make departments make worse decisions despite this positive correlation because the correlation, I thought, is very slight indeed, and evaluations of interviews crowd out other, more reliable, considerations (involving the evaluation of dossiers).


Keith 01.02.05 at 7:05 am

if we want to introduce an element of noise into the process we’d be much better off rolling dice

Right: If it’s really noise you need, better to go for pure noise.

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