Trends in graduate student funding in anthropology

anthro grad funding

This may be the last of my demographics posts for a bit, as I have to leave town for this coming week. But I think this may be one of the most important for anthropologists to examine — grad students in particular. Turns out there are NSF statistics on evolving financial support over time. Here I present the general picture for our field between 1972 and 2006 — the last 35 years.

Here are the major conclusions I’d draw:

  • Unfunded (euphemistically “self-supported”) people comprise an enormously large fraction of the graduate student body. It used to be above half (56.6% in 1977). Now it’s down to about a third (35%), but that, of course, still means that one person in three has no financial support from their institution.
  • The fraction of people with fellowships used to be very low, falling as low as 15.6% (in 1982), and is still a relatively scanty 24.7% of all graduate students. Barely 1 in 4 gets fellowship support, in other words.
  • The fraction of grad students who support themselves by teaching has been rising. In 1977, it used to be as little as 17.3%; it has risen to 30.8%, the largest single form of institutional funding.
  • Research assistants have formed a fairly small though very slowly growing segment, currently 9.6%, which is fairly close to their average share of 8.8% over the last 35 years.
  • Overall, more people are getting some sort of funding than they used to, mostly through slow growth in teaching and fellowship support. 65.1% of all students currently get some kind of support.

It’s good to see that things are improving. But one would like to think that our field overall could manage more financial support for the more than 1 in 3 grad students who are getting nothing.

When I get a chance to come back to this, I may look at federal funding across the social sciences, or perhaps compare funding trends across disciplines….

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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Theoretical insult poetry & half forgotten pedagogy

I quite liked this laconic description of a pedagogical scene.

About ten years ago while a graduate student at Cornell I studied Pali with a linguist of southeast Asian languages, James Gair, co-author of A New Course In Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha.

I retain little of it now but recall a string of sunny mornings in Jim’s office under the eaves overlooking the quad, light coming ovoid through the round window as I combed my pencil through the suttas while being corrected and encouraged by Jim, cheered by the smiles in his giant beard.

A lot of pedagogy eventuates in forgetting, and it can only be called a stroke of luck if that forgetting happens to supplement itself with smile-laden facial hair. In this case, the forgetting is being accomplished by a curious poet, Gabe Gudding — whose course in writing I in turn mostly forget. (It was while I was in college.)

Gabe, a poet, describes poetry thus:

Poetry is the country music of literature. Given to schmaltz, nostalgia, over extension, socio-emotional reactivity, and alienation from material reality. The flipside is the hipster reaction to this: flaff, whathaveyou, langpo, N/Oulipian generativity (hipster maximalist masculinist compulsive text generation), irony as a modal approximation of self-awareness, and a conflation of experiment in form with soi-disant radical politics (the result being merely a more extravagant quietism). Our capacity for delusion is almost total.

If you read the rest of this interview you’ll see that he is attempting what reads like a most curious integration of prose poetry and Bourdieuian sociology of poetic production. There’s a certain resonance, it strikes me, at the level of illocutionary force, between Gudding’s absurdist insult poetry and Bourdieu’s rhythmically intense complaints about academia. Let’s try a quick comparison.

Here’s Bourdieu at the height of his tirade of reproaches to academia in the introduction to homo academicus (p. 19):

“There are no doubt few worlds which provide so much scope, or even so much institutional support, for the game of self-deceit and for the gap between the representation experienced and the true position occupied in a social field or space; the tolerance granted to this gap doubtless reveals the inner truth of a milieu which authorizes and encourages all forms of splitting the ego, in other words all ways of making the confusedly perceived objective truth coexist with its negation, thus permitting those most lacking in symbolic capital to survive in this struggle of each against all, where everyone depends on everyone else, at once his competitor and client, his opponent and judge, for the determination of his own truth and value, that is, of his symbolic life and death.”

Bourdieu of course always disowned all “personalistic” readings of his poems… er, sociological analyses. But still. Compare with a passage from Gabe that contains, really, a rather similar message, albeit in a somewhat different rhyme and register:

“For I would more expect a Pigeon to tote a rifle

than a wise syllable issue from your cheesepipe.

And as your nose is packed with Error I advise you to pick it often.”

Does this last line not sum up Bourdieu’s whole theory of ceaselessly vigilant reflexivity in a nutshell?

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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Against the concept of academic politics

A question that people sometimes ask me about my project is: why aren’t you more interested in the “internal politics” of the departments you work on?

My objection to this question, which has been strengthening for months like steeping tea, is the following: strictly internal politics aren’t actually politics. “Academic politics” as commonly discussed is an oxymoron and a terminological error. Loosely speaking, I would draw the following distinction: politics is about social change; but “academic politics” are merely a form of internal quarreling central to the reproduction of institutional order.

Now I agree, as someone is sure to object, that the internal affairs of a department can involve scheming and bickering and back-room deals; yes, they involve structures of power and domination, (occasional) resistance and (very seldom) subversion; certainly, they have institutionalized decision-making processes, like democratic voting or dictatorial edict. And some of these structures and processes are commonly thought to be political. But to call all of this stuff “academic politics” is, in my view, a confusion of certain means used in politics, with politics itself.

What is politics, then? — one might reasonably ask at this point. Or less grandiosely, what do I mean by politics here in this post? The term politics is obviously used to refer to a bunch of semi-overlapping things: for one thing, there’s the official “political sphere” (the thing one discovers in the politics section of the newspaper with its speeches and pundits); for another thing, there’s everything that people do to interfere with and alter social reproduction, which only seldom overlaps with the “political sphere”; for another thing, the term “politics” can be applied to anything — it becomes a traveling metaphor that can be used in whatever other contexts one likes. I guess my view, not terribly well formed but sufficient for this argument, is that politics (in those modern worlds that have it as such) is the key secular boundary zone between the sacred and the profane, a space filled with both utopian projections of nonactual, future (and presumably “better”) worlds and with bitter and inevitably compromising struggles to implement some fractions of these utopian projections.

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The researchable researcher

Turns out that, apropos of my post today about instrumentalism and field friendships, there are a couple of thought-provoking posts by John Jackson (univ. of pennsylvania) called “The presentation of self in ethnographic life” plus part 2 of the same post. He starts by pointing out that fieldwork has long been facilitated by a certain amount of strategic self-presentation, even strategic ignorance, in the field situation, while back at home in the university, one of course presents oneself as an expert. But, he points out, now that ethnographers’ work and presentations are easily available online, their field informants can easily look up what’s being said about them, making the ethnographers’ strategic self-presentation that much more constrained. Ethnographic representation, in short, becomes more accountable when it’s digitally available and when one works with internet-savvy populations. This is, for Jackson, a mixed blessing, an advantage for ethical discipline but a potential limit on the kinds of productive slippages in self-presentation that catalyze ethnographic work. As he puts it (in part 2):

It makes sense to think about how ethnographers are re-disciplined in a world where their backstage (back “home”) continues to shrink. That might just be another leveling of the ethnographic playing field, maybe even a welcome one, but it does demand that we reconfigure the ethnographic context to include the kinds of feedback loops and post-fieldwork exchanges that the Internet and other new (increasingly inexpensive) technological outlets facilitate.

Needless to say, such a problem is thought-provoking when it comes to this blog, which obviously serves to make my analysis of French universities immediately accessible to any French universitaire who cares to search for my name.

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