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.

Not terribly surprisingly, there is a good deal of overlap between this list of the largest graduate departments and the highest ranked departments in 1994’s National Research Council rankings. The orders of the departments don’t correspond perfectly, though; for instance, UCLA was #9 in the rankings but is #1 in terms of its output of scholars.

One of the most striking things about this graph, to my mind, is how it shows that the top 20% of departments have produced a highly disproportionate share of all Ph.Ds. The top producing departments are way ahead of the ones lower down. Consider what happens when we aggregate the graph into fifths (“quintiles”):

anthro phds by quintiles

What this shows is that the top 20% of departments produce almost half of all doctorates (45%), while the top 40% of departments together produce 67%. This of course isn’t anything like as unequal as the distribution of wealth in America. But it does indicate that the biggest departments, in terms of their production of scholars, yield a very large share of the anthropologists in our profession. The top three departments alone, Berkeley, UCLA and Chicago, produce more than one in ten of all new anthropologists (11%).

I suspect that there are some effects of large scale at work here, such that it becomes easier to maintain a large department once it is already in existence, because it will have a large network of alumni who can then help to find jobs for new students coming from that department, because it will spread its reputation wider and wider across the discipline, because this wide reputation will then in turn be helpful in attracting new students. Correspondingly, on a personal, subjective level, the anthropologists who I know or whose work I know come disproportionately from the bigger departments on this list. Demographic dominance is of course not identical with intellectual dominance in the discipline, but there does seem to be a fairly definite connection between them.

All the while, of course, the tiniest departments are very tiny, producing just a handful of Ph.Ds over the decades. Consider another graph, showing the distribution of departments that produce a given number of doctorates.

anthro departments by phds produced

This graph has a long tail: a relatively small number of high-producing departments are out there on the right-hand side, isolated from the majority of the departments, which concentrate around the 50-130 doctorates span. (Again, this is a graph of how many departments have produced how many doctorates in total over the last two decades.) I have no idea why there’s such a spike at the 100 PhDs mark, but that’s clearly the modal point in the graph. Curiously, as we go off to the left (and see also the bottom of the first graph above), we find a bunch of departments that have produced virtually no PhDs at all: Alabama, Arkansas, Maine and Wyoming have each produced one single doctorate over this period, while Nevada has produced three, and Florida State and the California Institute for Integral Studies have each produced nine. Nine PhDs over 21 years is less than one each year, so one has to imagine that there are some departments with very tiny PhD programs (probably they have larger MA programs with just the occasional doctorate conferred).

I have the feeling looking at these graphs that demographic dominance is one of those brute facts that probably exerts its effects in silence, by dominating not so much any particular outcome but rather the space of possibilities, of ideas, of available people that constitutes the discipline’s historical trajectory. It does make a difference that right now, today, there are 322 Berkeley grads floating around out there in our field, whereas there are only 155 from CUNY and 71 from Minnesota and 36 from Utah and 14 from the University of Illinois-Chicago, six blocks from where I lived last year. Remember, this is 322 Berkeley grads over the last two decades: they don’t constitute a single social group, mostly likely, but they probably do have some commonalities that are products of their departmental and institutional origins, they do constitute a large realm of recognition as against a smaller department’s small realm of recognition.

What kind of difference this makes is not so easy to pin down. But I do recall that when I was in college and I proposed going to Santa Cruz (which has produced 38 PhDs in 1987-2007, i.e. less than two yearly), my college anthropology teachers said: I’m sure it’s great, but it’s tiny and you’d never get a job. I don’t know if that’s true in this case, but one thing seems clear: size matters, when it comes to anthropology departments today. We have, in fact, a somewhat centralized discipline when it comes to the manufacture of scholars. One might reasonably ask whether that is a good thing and what other forms of disciplinary organization might look like or whether they are even imaginable.

3 thoughts on “Dominant departments in American anthropology

  1. Another thing to think about is how the relative (un)popularity of the field of anthropology might contribute to the concentration of PhD conferrals. It seems to me that, if graduate students in anthropology were equally distributed amongst universities, an individual department would be so tiny as to make self-sustenance virtually impossible. I suspect that, if you inflated the numbers of each department proportionally, to the level of, say, English graduate programs, the distribution might look similar.

    Nevertheless, I think the point you make is a significant one, because even if the numbers for anthropology are merely a scaled down version of the numbers one would see in more popular fields, it doesn’t change the fact that the educational experiences of anthropologists will tend to be more homogeneous as a result of there being fewer of them.

    I guess my observation bears more on the possibility that the popularity of an academic field will directly influence–to a measurable extent, at least–how centralized it is. Of course, that’s predicated on my admittedly unscientific, probably haphazard guess standing up to scrutiny.

  2. Economies of scale? It would also be interesting to know the ratio of degrees awarded to jobs received for each school.

  3. Hi Max & Ben,

    Yeah, it would be great to know if other, larger fields are less concentrated than Anthropology. My impression is that even in a big field like English there are some highly prestigious departments whose graduates probably get more of their share of available jobs… but I don’t know if this prestige would correlate with any kind of demographic dominance. Not so much, perhaps, if there are a large number of less prestigious but also demographically large programs.

    Max, it is in fact the case that very many anthro phd programs are very tiny already — admitting half a dozen a year or less. All those departments who’ve produced 100 phds over the last 20 years are, clearly, producing no more than 5 per year on average. Which is a pretty small graduating class. Your comment about anthropologists having more homogeneous educational experiences is really interesting and provocative, but would have to be tested thoroughly against these “middle-sized” departments that are actually quite small, and compared also with the situation at larger departments. We can’t assume that larger departments are necessarily educationally homogeneous — there can be a lot of internal pedagogical variation within a large program. But you’re right; homogeneity could still manifest. I’m working on an essay about one of the major required courses in Chicago, right now, actually.

    Ben: Yeah, unfortunately I don’t think there are national data sets on jobs received. (Even figuring out how to measure jobs received is a bit of a challenge, it turns out if you look at CIRGE’s study on anthropology phds 5 years out.) The thing about economies of scale is interesting — certainly it’s possible to centralize certain kinds of common resources (computer labs, lounges, core courses) in larger departments. On the other hand, “economy of scale” is an expression that can lead to misuse. If there are faculty who are on 50+ advising committees and they’re so busy that their advisees feel guilty about making appointments to see them (and I do know of these cases), is that an “economy of scale”? Arguably yes, from an external viewpoint, but from the inside it just looks like degradation of the personal relations of graduate education. What do you think?

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