Perspective on sociology’s academic hierarchy and debate

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Keep that gate. (Photo by Rob Nunn, https://flic.kr/p/4DbzCG)

It’s hard to describe the day I got my first acceptance to American Sociological Review. There was no social media back then so I have no record of my reaction, but I remember it as the day — actually, the moment, as the conditional acceptance slipped out of the fax machine — that I learned I was getting tenure, that I would have my dream job for the rest of my life, with a personal income in the top 10 percent of the country for a 9-month annual commitment. At that moment I was not inclined to dwell on the flaws in our publishing system, its arbitrary qualities, or the extreme status hierarchy it helps to construct.

In a recent year ASR considered more than 700 submitted articles and rejected 90% or more of them (depending on how you count). Although many people dispute the rationality of this distinction, publishing in our association’s flagship journal remains the most universally agreed-upon indicator of scholarship quality. And it is rare. I randomly sampled 50 full-time sociology faculty listed in the 2016 ASA Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology (working in the U.S. and Canada), and found that 9, or 18%, had ever published a research article in ASR.

Not only is it rare, but publication in ASR is highly concentrated in high-status departments (and individuals). While many departments have no faculty that have published in ASR (I didn’t count these, but there are a lot), some departments are brimming with them. In my own, second-tier department, I count 16 out of 27 faculty with publications in ASR (59%), while at a top-tier, article-oriented department such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where I used to work), 19 of the 25 regular faculty, or 76%, have published in ASR (many of them multiple times).

Without diminishing my own accomplishment (or that of my co-authors), or the privilege that got me here, I should be clear that I don’t think publication in high-status journals is a good way to identify and reward scholarly accomplishment and productivity. The reviews and publication decisions are too uneven (although obviously not completely uncorrelated with quality), and the limit on articles published is completely arbitrary in an era in which the print journal and its cost-determined page-limit is simply ridiculous.

We have a system that is hierarchical, exclusive, and often arbitrary — and the rewards it doles out are both large and highly concentrated.

I say all this to put in perspective the grief I have gotten for publicly criticizing an article published in ASR. In that post, I specifically did not invoke ethical violations or speculate on the motivations or non-public behavior of the authors, about whom I know nothing. I commented on the flaws in the product, not the process. And yet a number of academic critics responded vociferously to what they perceive as the threats this commentary posed to the academic careers and integrity of the authors whose work I discussed. Anonymous critics called my post “obnoxious, childish, time wasting, self promoting,” and urged sociologists to “shun” me. I have been accused of embarking on a “vigilante mission.” In private, a Jewish correspondent referred me to the injunction in Leviticus against malicious gossip in an implicit critique of my Jewish ethics.*

In the 2,500-word response I published on my site — immediately and unedited — I was accused of lacking “basic decency” for not giving the authors a chance to prepare a response before I posted the criticism on my blog. The “commonly accepted way” when “one scholar wishes to criticize the published work of another,” I was told, is to go through a process of submitting a “comment” to the journal that published the original work, which “solicits a response from the authors who are being criticized,” and it’s all published together, generally years later. (Never mind that journals have no obligation or particular inclination to publish such debates, as I have reported on previously, when ASR declined for reasons of “space” to publish a comment pointing out errors that were not disputed by the editors.)

This desire to maintain gatekeepers to police and moderate our discussion of public work is not only quaint, it is corrosive. Despite pointing out uncomfortable facts (which my rabbinical correspondent referred to as the “sin of true speech for wrongful purpose”), my criticism was polite, reasoned, with documentation — and within the bounds of what would be considered highly civil discourse in any arena other than academia, apparently. Why are the people whose intellectual work is most protected most afraid of intellectual criticism?

In Christian Smith’s book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (reviewed here), which was terrible, he complains explicitly about the decline of academic civilization’s gatekeepers:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing.

Note he is complaining about people criticizing published work, yet believes such criticism undermines the blind peer-review system. This fear is not rational. The terror over public discussion and debate — perhaps especially among the high-status sociologists who happen to also be the current gatekeepers — probably goes a long way toward explaining our discipline’s pitiful response to the crisis of academic publishing. According to my (paywalled) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “publish” is “to make public.” And yet to hear these protests you would think the whisper of a public comment poses an existential threat to the very people who have built their entire profession around publishing (though, to be consistent, it’s mostly hidden from the public behind paywalls).

This same fear leads many academics to insist on anonymity even in normal civil debates over research and our profession. Of course there are risks, as there tend to be when people make important decisions about things that matter. But at some point, the fear of repression for expressing our views (which is legitimate in some rare circumstances) starts looking more like avoidance of the inconvenience or discomfort of having to stand behind our words. If academics are really going to lose their jobs for getting caught saying, “Hey, I think you were too harsh on that paper,” then we are definitely having the wrong argument.

“After all,” wrote Eran Shor, “this is not merely a matter of academic disagreements; people’s careers and reputations are at stake.” Of course, everyone wants to protect their reputation — and everyone’s reputation is always at stake. But let’s keep this in perspective. For those of us at or near the top of this prestige hierarchy — tenured faculty at research universities — damage to our reputations generally poses a threat only within a very narrow bound of extreme privilege. If my reputation were seriously damaged, I would certainly lose some of the perks of my job. But the penalty would also include a decline in students to advise, committees to serve on, and journals to edit — and no change in that lifetime job security with a top-10% salary for a 9-month commitment. Of course, for those of us whose research really is that important, anything that harms our ability to work in exactly the way that we want to has costs that simply cannot be measured. I wouldn’t know about that.

But if we want the high privilege of an academic career — and if we want a discipline that can survive under scrutiny from an increasingly impatient public and deepening market penetration — we’re going to have to be willing to defend it.

* I think if random Muslims have to denounce ISIS then Jews who cite Leviticus on morals should have to explain whether — despite the obvious ethical merit to some of those commands — they also support the killing of animals just because they have been raped by humans.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Perspective on sociology’s academic hierarchy and debate

  1. I have never published in ASR – not for lack of trying. However, I do remember the day – really the moment – that I got a contract from a university press for my book “Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru” as that was the day that I believed my future to be secure as a tenured professor with all the perks that come along with that.

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  2. Gosta Esping-Andersen

    I agree with you that there is something fundamentally awry with ASR (and AJS too for that matter). Yes, the ASR is the flagship journal of the discipline — at least for Americans — and yet it only too rarely publishes flagship sociology, the kind of articles that open your eyes to new analytical horizons or that stimulate new research agendas.

    To me, the burning issue is not so much whether they published a half-recycled paper. At the core of the problem, as I see it, is that the ASR has lost track of its mission. It has become way too biased in favor of hyper-specialized themes, while it should also actively encourage provocative and mind opening ‘grand’ sociology (C.W. Mills, let alone Durkheim, would not stand a chance today).It appears instead to have become the preferred outlet for hyper-polished PhD thesis chapters or for the nth study of gender identities.

    All told, the journal needs more than anything else to take a few steps back, and focus much more on the central questions and controversies of the discipline. And, yes, the discipline of sociology needs to do exactly the same. Yours as always,

    Gosta Esping-Andersen

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Usually i am not reading that type of posts about sociology but i must say that. It was interesting.

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  4. Wow, you are seriously willing to bite the several hands that feed you (like calling your own department “second-tier” and referring frankly to the fact that you make a lot of money, and just TALKING about the entire subject of privilege within academia).

    Only a tenured faculty member (or an independently wealthy one, or a crazy or foolish one) would ever take such a step. As I understand it, this is exactly what the tenure system is for. You have to admit tenure has done its job today🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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