Tag Archives: disciplinary ecology

Dominant departments in American anthropology

anthro phds by dept 2

In case you ever wondered which departments dominate my discipline — anthropology — in America, here we can get a pretty clear sense of demographic dominance, at the very least. I’ve added together the total number of PhDs awarded by each of these departments over the last two decades (1987-2007, 21 years total) and we can see that some departments have produced far more than their share of new doctorate-wielding anthropologists.

UCLA and Berkeley are tied for the greatest production of scholars, at 322 total, with Chicago next at 296, Harvard and Michigan some way behind that at 253, University of Texas-Austin just behind there at 248, University of Florida at 220, University of Arizona at 219, Columbia at 211, and then on down the line.

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Doctoral production in anthropology and the social sciences

Yesterday I considered the fact that, in terms of its production of undergrad degrees, anthropology is relatively small and about the same size as ethnic studies, with sociology and economics far above, and political science (cum-public-administration) far still above that.

But things look a bit different if we turn to look not at undergraduate degrees but at the doctoral degree production that’s essential for the reproduction of the teaching and research body of the profession. (Haven’t had time to look at Master’s degrees so far; I suppose that master’s degrees would serve a joint role as both an intermediate academic credential and a semi-professional credential, and are a stepping stone to the doctorate in some cases, but this requires more research.)

evolution of social science phds

At the doctoral level, anthropology is no longer at the bottom of the charts; over the past forty years it has climbed from being one of the smallest social science graduate fields to being roughly similar to sociology. In 2007, anthro graduated 519 new PhDs while sociology was at 573. Economics, nonetheless, clearly appears to be the dominant social science discipline (demographically speaking), though political science has approached it on several occasions and even surpassed it for a few years earlier this decade.

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Disciplinary socio-demography, and anthropological prejudice against quantification

“Is it worth learning quantitative skills?” I remember asking a pair of action researchers some years ago. “They’re useful insofar as they give tools for understanding social processes,” they said.

But I didn’t follow up on that at all until I recently started reading the “socio-demographic” work of Charles Soulié, a Bourdieuian French sociologist of universities whose research interests are fairly close to mine. The premise of this research is something like this: by examining the comparative history of enrollments and teaching jobs across disciplines, one can examine what Soulié calls the “evolution of the morphology” of academic fields. This isn’t very hard-core quantitative research by statisticians’ standards, I note — he doesn’t exhibit tedious anxieties about the uncertainties in his sources, nor does he propose mathematical models or major statistical analysis of his data. The methodology seems to be, in essence, visual inspection of the evolving demographics of disciplinary enrollments. He takes these as indicators of things like the “relative position of sociology in the space of disciplines,” and comes up with findings that are like:

  • Sociology produced half as many graduates in philosophy in 1973, but now things are reversed, and in 2004 sociology produced 2.6 as many graduates as philosophy. This is an indicator, for Soulié, of sociology’s rising comparative importance in the university system (and philosophy’s stability, which in context was a relative decline).
  • In 1998/99, “the fraction of children of professionals and upper management rose to 28.4% in letters and human sciences, against 23.1% in sociology and 38.1% in philosophy” — which tells us something important about the comparative class basis of sociology vs. philosophy at that point in time [updated to clarify: these examples refer to French academia].

I find this kind of thing quite interesting and revealing – hence this series of posts on the demographics of my own discipline – but I wonder about its epistemological basis. What does it mean, actually, that one discipline has more students enrolled than another? Is it right to speak of a competition between disciplines for students? What makes one discipline more “attractive” or “desirable” than another at a given moment? It’s not like students pick their courses based on a completely rational response to a job market, or even an idea market. In fact, it’s not clear that “market” is a good description for these kinds of systems; as Marc Bousquet has often argued, talk about the academic “job market” (for instance) disguises the fact that university administrators actually dictate the academic job system, by deciding to opt for hiring adjuncts, grad students, etc. Likewise, shifts in degrees issued, in enrollments, etc, may not necessarily be the result of “competition” or market forces (whatever one’s stance on the empirical existence of said market forces). There can be other kinds of systematic processes at work; the “morphology” of the disciplines as revealed in their enrollments doesn’t tell you everything about processes of interdisciplinary conflict and coexistence.

But the brute fact remains that there have been major historical shifts in how many students anthropologists educate, and major shifts in how large our discipline is vis-a-vis other disciplines. And these aren’t just arbitrary. They need to be explained, if we’re to understand where our discipline actually exists in the world. When American anthropology is educating a small fraction of a percent of college students, that’s not something that just happens by chance.

I feel here the strong sense of a bias in my own discipline against quantitative analysis. It’s somewhat jarring, from the narrow confines of an anthropologist’s culturalist background, to look at these comparative figures. In cultural anthropology, I think there is a widely shared consensus view today that goes something like this: culture is inherently qualitative, folded over on itself in swathes and patches and wrinkles of rich, dense symbolic significance; it would necessarily be deformed, or at best severely limited, by any effort to reduce it to a general and/or quantitative analysis. Among cultural anthropologists, numbers and quantitative facts are apt to be taken not as means of analysis, but as objects of cultural analysis and symbolic forms in their own right. So we get studies of the cultural effects of perniciously quantifying, rationalizing, neoliberal projects; and we see arguments about how the obsession with the quantitative is itself merely another local cultural phenomenon, and not a privileged, master form of knowing about the world. Often these kinds of arguments are made casually, in passing, or are simply taken for granted, inscribed in our disciplinary habits.

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Anthropology within the American social sciences

To continue this week’s project of elaborating on anthropology’s disciplinary context and structure, let’s see where we fit in relation to the other social sciences in our production of bachelor’s degrees.

social science bachelors evolution

As with the more general university situation, all fields have been growing, albeit with a major dip in the mid-seventies to late-eighties, which is again probably due to the Baby Boom ending. It’s obvious that the biggest field by far is political science — though my figures for political science also include public administration, whose more marketable vocational potential may explain the overall predominance of this discipline. Economics and sociology, in blue and green, have been somewhat similar for decades — while sociology was far more popular from the ’60s into the ’70s, economics overtook it between 1980 and 1994, and since then sociology has pulled ahead slightly but not that much. One notices a curious correlation, probably spurious I suppose, between the economics degrees issued and the political party holding the presidency: throughout the Reagan/Bush 1 era, economics is ascending; then it drops substantially under Clinton; then it rises again around when Bush 2 comes into office.

I note in passing that linguistics is absolutely tiny and barely visible (a thin brown line at the bottom of the graph). Our own discipline, anthropology, is pretty low on the charts too; and it also has a very close partner on the graph, which is area and ethnic studies. It turns out, somewhat unexpectedly, that anthropology and ethnic/area studies have been very closely linked in undergraduate enrollments since the 60s. Let’s look at this in more detail.

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Anthropology in the American disciplinary landscape

evolution of disciplines

I often feel that my discipline, anthropology, doesn’t sufficiently discuss its own structural situation in the academic world. Where do we fit in the ecology of disciplines? In the national competition for student enrollments? How many anthropologists are there, exactly? And what is the structure of our academic labor system; what fraction are tenured, tenure-track, contract, part-time? How many of us work outside the academy? Which departments are dominant or central in our profession?

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