This really interesting comment by Benjamin Geer on yesterday’s Sociology of Intellectual Faddishness post meritted reproduction in its own right:
1. Long-term academic employment is hard to obtain, but once you’re in, it’s not difficult to keep your job indefinitely without doing much more than publishing variations on the theme of your PhD topic. This is particularly the case in the US, where tenure effectively eliminates any incentive for senior academics to engage with new ideas, never mind produce new ideas of their own.
2. Academic employment and job security in the social sciences depend heavily on social capital. If you’re on good terms with a lot of people in your cohort, you can readily form mutual appreciation societies (what Bourdieu called cycles of consecration), in which A writes the preface of B’s book, B writes a positive review of C’s book, C invites A to contribute a chapter to an edited volume, and so on. Everyone involved gains prestige without having to face criticism of their work. The uses of social capital also take other, more complex forms; see the article “The academic caste system: Prestige hierarchies in PhD exchange networks” by Val Burris.
3. The high importance of social capital is a symptom of the fact that the social sciences have relatively low autonomy in Bourdieu’s sense, meaning that there’s barely any consensus about which knowledge you should be required to master in order to be a social scientist, or about the criteria that should be applied in evaluating research. In fields with higher autonomy (like mathematics), your prestige depends mostly or entirely on how good your work is, in terms of objective, accepted criteria, but in social science, it’s relatively easy to convert all sorts of other capitals (like social capital) into prestige. Thus you often find that everyone thinks X is a good scholar because other prestigious people think X is a good scholar, but nobody can say exactly what it is that X has done well. Since X’s prestige doesn’t depend on any actual results, it can’t be challenged on the basis of new results; hence X doesn’t have to engage in any substantive debates about new ideas.
4. Since it’s not clear what you should have to know, a viable strategy is to get away with knowing as little as possible. This strategy favours superficial conformism (which is perhaps more what you and Max were talking about): people adopt mantras without thinking much about what they mean, as a way of displaying their good taste, i.e. signaling that they’re the right sort of person, the sort one would want to work with. Everyone who uses this strategy is complicit in pretending that these mantras refer to theoretical concepts whose validity has been conclusively demonstrated. It’s in their interest not to discuss exactly what that presumed validity is based on, because if they did, it might become clear that some of these concepts rest on flimsy intellectual foundations. Such critiques would ultimately increase the autonomy of the field, which wouldn’t be in the interest of those who adopt the strategy of knowing as little as possible, because it would require them to know more. Anyone who rocks the boat will have a hard time accumulating social capital, and hence will not benefit from the phenomena described in (2) above.
5. PhD students are in a structurally very weak position in relation to their supervisors and examiners, who wield absolute power over their future careers. They’re supposed to make an original contribution to their field, but in doing so they have the potential to undermine the work of these powerful gatekeepers. This is a clear conflict of interest, and leads many PhD students to self-censor.