I look at Stephen Karlsons interesting question: why do people pursue Ph.D.s that will not result in academic employment. I treat this as an example of the how anthro and econ see the world.
The intersection of anthropology and economics is badly marked, and on a rainy night, its easy to miss it altogether. The city put up street signs a few years ago, but one of them fell down and the other was stolen. There are stop signs but most people sail right through them without stopping. I mean, really, why bother? In this neighborhood, what are the chances youre going to hit something?
Quite so. Anthropology and economics work from different assumptions. They dont parse the world the same way. They have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for one anothers “burning questions. Its almost as if they occupy different domains or dimensions. In point of fact, this intersection very often doesnt.
Except today. I discovered the exemplary blog of Stephen Karlson called Cold Spring Shops. (With thanks to Brain Brew Blog for the connection.) Karlson writes like a wizard. He takes up important question. His blog is a joy. At the moment, Karlson is thinking about an interesting little puzzle: why it is that some people take Ph.D.s when there is no realistic hope of full academic employment, tenure or a sustaining career.
Dr. Karlson writes:
Let us suppose that there is common knowledge on the part of aspiring Ph.D. students in some disciplines that they face a great risk of never landing a tenure-track job, let alone tenure, and those who do so succeed will still be paid much less than otherwise comparable people in other disciplines or in industry. Why, then, do so many people participate in that market? What other constraints are they operating under, or what objectives are they pursuing, that we don’t fully understand?
Karlson contemplates two explanations, one Stiglerian, the other Stiglitzian. The first supposes that the “persistence of an anomaly is evidence of an efficiency we haven’t thought about carefully enough. The second supposes that “conditions conducive to allocative efficiency almost never hold in practice.
I want to propose an anthropological explanation. On one reading, this may be taken as evidence for the Stiglerian argument. On another, it can be taken as a refutation of the Stiglerian argument. Let me say in advance that this argument is going seem a little cynical. And it is. As anthropology and economics get to know one another better, in the long term it will be impossible to say which is truly the more dismal science.
I think its possible (and without the ethnographic work, I am just speculating) that some people take Ph.D.s that will never bring them academic employment with the full knowledge that it will never bring them academic employment. There are two possible reasons.
First, I think that people raised in the humanities and social sciences in the post modernist regime created by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, are inclined to see the world outside the university as unrelieved by the possibility of interest, hope, curiosity, surprise or engagement. (And here, in too telegraphic summary, is why: the postmodernists say that we cant generalize about the world because our analytic categories are unstable, but, whew, we dont have to because it is all about power. [And you thought I was cynical.]) This is perhaps a Stiglerian “efficiency we have not thought about. The value of the degree is not the employment it is supposed to bring. It is its short-term prolongation of protected status.
Second, I think its possible (and now I am entirely out on a limb, but surely thats what blogging is for) that people take Ph.D.s is order to “spike their careers. Once you have a degree in an exalted field (from, one hopes, an exalted school) and no employment, you have established grounds for an act of world repudiation. You can now claim to be worthy of higher things, to have be refused those higher things, to have been forced to retire from the world, and that you are now entitled to nurse, cultivate, and frequently vent an dystopic view. The world has done you wrong. You have replied by withdrawing from it, and no one can blame you. In sum, the value of the degree is that it allows you to disengage from the world with full justification.
Lets go back to the intersection of anthro and econ. Economics goes looking for the actors rationality, the pursuit of advantage. This is almost always the smart thing to do, and anthropology does it too rarely as if Adam Smiths assumptions are peculiar to our culture and should never be exported in the study of other cultures. Anthropology goes looking for the ways in which people build and embrace ideas about the world. It cares about behavior that is purposive because it makes the world make sense.
And thats I think whats going on here. This apparently irrational moment of consumer behavior, the purchase of a Ph.D. that will not bring employment, is actually knowing and deliberate. It is an act of self and world construction. It allows the individual to make certain claims to identity. It allows them to build and to occupy a certain understanding of the world.
Is this Stiglerian? Better, would Stigler (returned) accept this as a useful, intelligible explanation of the question in question. (More pressingly: what about Karlson?) Probably not. This is an “impasse between the two fields. What economics sees as irrational, anthropology finds witting, rational, deliberate and of course spectacularly odd.