Standard Stories for Hiring Decisions in Political Science

by on 2013-01-09 in Duck- 4 Comments

Update: so the very first commentator revealed how much this was the product of a bad cold. Indeed, I’ve completely misnamed the post. It shouldn’t be “standard stories” but “contextual assumptions.” The most important rhetorical commonplace, in my experience, is exactly what the commentator said: “quality” of research and presentation. What I’m interested in is the broader issue of how we know what quality is and why we care about it–what are the appeals that adjudicate those issues?  

Why do political science departments in research universities make offers to particular candidates? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I think listing common justifications is a good place to start thinking about the question. So here are some standard arguments, distilled down to their essence, for hiring decisions:

  • Signaling that we are a high-quality department;
  • Improving our rankings in either the short- or long-term;
  • Resolving gaps in our course offerings;
  • Resolving gaps in our methodological toolkit;
  • Reinforcing strength in a niche specialty;
  • Improving diversity in the immutable characteristics of our faculty; and
  • Giving some subset of scholars in the Department additional people to talk to.

But do these explain decisions? It should be obvious that a number of jobs are tailored to fulfill specific teaching and research needs. But there are obviously other proceses at work. Of these, I have a few tentative (and linked) hypotheses:

  1. In practice, the most common arguments invoke reputational and status considerations.
  2. Sometimes they do so directly, but even those that aren’t inherently about the department’s reputation often make some kind of appeal to conserving or enhance its status.
  3. It isn’t so much that these concerns drive decisions for everyone involved. Often, I suspect, factors related to individual ontological security, in-group bias, and other considerations play a more important role.
  4. Rather, appeals to status and reputation provide a “rhetorical commonplace” over which these other issues get fought.

Does any of this make sense? If not, chalk that up to a congested head and a long day of entertaining and eight-year old.

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  • Pizzza

    So quality of research doesn’t matter at all in your view? I’d hate to be in your department. Conversation about hiring decisions in mine over the last 5 years have centered on discussions about the presentation and written material that the candidate provided. I’ve never heard any serious arguments from status or reputation. Indeed we’ve not offered jobs to some candidates despite their reputation as measured by the number of offers from elsewhere they have received.

  • dnexon

    It is obvious from your comment that I am being unclear: assesments of candidate quality are, in my experience, exactly as you describe. The issues I’m taking about are more basic: why do we care about quality and how do we adjudicate between different criteria of quality? These may not even be explicitly discussed.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    In Dan’s defense, I read his post as decisions at the interview stage. Ostensibly research quality has already been established at that point. But that brings up a useful point, which is how research quality is assessed. I’ve seen searches at two different institutions and I think reputation and status play a role in assessing candidates, *including assessing the quality of their work*. I don’t think it is explicit most of the time, but it is in the mix. I suspect if my clone were created and had a Name-your-top-tier-program PhD, with the exact same publications, he would get a lot more offers owing to the impact of reputation and status. I agree that number of offers received probably doesn’t play much of a role, but reputation and status as factors go far beyond that.

  • Dan Nexon

    Actually, I wasn’t even thinking about the status of PhD-granting institution, but that clearly plays a large and pernicious role in initial hiring decisions (as is documented in a number of studies). As my italicized update tried to clarify, I’m trying to get at why we care about “quality” and come to a conclusion about what that means.

    FWIW, the quality of the job talk is an incredibly artificial indicator.