Celebrity-Worship And Dysfunction in Social Science

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Rick Hess is releasing his EduScholar ranking tomorrow and we should expect a flurry of tweets and even university press releases bragging about people’s position on that measure. Even though Rick’s ranking (for which I serve as a nominating committee member) is a completely made up thing that has never been validated, people within our field act like it is incredibly important and care intensely how they are ranked.  I suspect that Rick knows this and that the ranking is epic-level trolling on his part.

But the field’s over-reaction to this unimportant ranking is a sign of its obsession with celebrity-worship. Even though almost no one outside of a few hundred people within our field cares about who we are or what we do, the folks within the field are crazed with a desire to have status and power in this universe that no one else even notices.  It’s as if we are in high school and everyone is obsessed with being accepted by the small circle of cool kids.  No one outside of your high school knows or cares who the cool kids are, but to those in the high school it feels like the most important thing in the world.  This is pretty much what education policy and other social sciences look like.

This excessive concern with status within our field is both the result of and contributor to a series of problems.  In economics, which seems the most afflicted with celebrity-worship, we see power and status concentrated in a small number of people within a small number of departments.  That small clique effectively controls the top journals in the field, dominates the main professional association, and has disproportionate influence over who is hired and tenured at those few departments.

Not surprisingly, this concentration of unchecked power leads to a variety of abusive behaviors.  People at the top of this status system can more easily maintain their power and help their friends, which is not only grossly unfair but also hinders a truly meritocratic pursuit of the best people, ideas, and research.  In addition, because those at the top are predominantly white and male, this strict status system excludes women, minorities, and all other newcomers who may differ from those with greater power.  And this concentration of unchecked power has also likely contributed to sexual harassment, intellectual theft, exploitation, and generally rude behavior.

Many people are beginning to speak out about these abusive behaviors.  There were several panels at the most recent ASSA meeting to document these issues and discuss what to do about them.  While this is all very encouraging, I fear that people may be missing what I suspect is the heart of the problem.  We can’t fix abusive and anti-intellectual behavior in social science by replacing a male-dominated status hierarchy with a more gender balanced system that still concentrates status and power so severely.  We suffer under a good old boy system, but we would continue to suffer even if they thought they were good, were women, and much younger.  The problem is the unchecked concentration of power and status.

I think we would be much better off if control over the main journals and professional associations was dispersed outside of a small number of people at a small number of institutions.  Boards for journals and professional associations tend to be self-replicating bodies that draw from the same incestuous pool.  They should consider adopting by-laws or at least norms that push them to consider finding new members outside of their familiar, friend and colleague circles.  It would also be helpful for professional associations and journals to adopt real grievance procedures so that intellectually dishonest or personally abusive behavior could be considered with due process and treated with appropriate sanctions.  My personal experience is that this is not happening.

But even more important than changing association and journal rules and procedures, we need to abandon the culture of celebrity worship.  No one in education policy or other social sciences is actually that important.  At most they are King of the Lilliputians.  At worst they are folks who were excluded from the in-groups in high school now taking their revenge by terrorizing those beneath them.  For the most part, no one in the outside world cares about who we are, what journals we publish in, what rankings we get, etc…  None of us are celebrities.

People at the top of our status system only have power because we have given it to them by acting like they are celebrities and that their position really matters.  The solution is the same as when we were in high school.  The only way to avoid being terrorized by the in-group is to stop caring about the in-group.  They just don’t matter.  Form your own chess club, play D&D, and ignore the football team and cheerleaders.

So when Rick’s ranking comes out, have a good laugh and think about how much those who are striving to be at the top of some silly list are wasting their lives. When high school is finished no one will remember or care that they were once really cool.

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11 Responses to Celebrity-Worship And Dysfunction in Social Science

  1. George Mitchell says:

    My first exposure to the supposed world of independent scholarship came in the 1990s. Talk about naive. My wake-up call included an article in a respected criminal justice journal. It described the work of a gubernatorial commission on which I served (and dissented). The article was a joke. And then of course there is the K-12 field. I recall some early advice from Paul Peterson about the connection between university schools of education (suppliers of teachers) and public schools (hirers of teachers). Paul politely asked me why I might be surprised that so much academic scholarship was hostile to policies opposed by the public school establishment.

    And then of course there are the stories familiar to many of highly qualified scholars whose tenure trajectory was stymied by scholarship that did not conform to a certain view of educational public policy.

    Jay’s ideas for creating an environment of more truly independent scholarship are welcome. Could it be possible that those now in control could cede some of that power? Could one or more new journals be launched with peer review protocols that clearly chart a new course?

  2. matthewladner says:

    Is the young Asian woman in the first picture a celebrity of some sort?

  3. In the top photo the celebrity is Justin Bieber, who is on the right. Matt was making a joke by pretending that he didn’t recognize him and acting as if the other person was the celebrity.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    The trolling will only be epic-level if Betsy DeVos is #1.

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