Beyond the Academic Ethic, #3–Professionalization as a Power System, & Degenerate Professionalization.

By Stephen Turner



Stephen Turner is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. You can read more about him and his work HERE.



#1: Introduction

#2: The Liberal Theory of Science, & Professionalization


Professionalization as a Power System

The history of disciplinarization has been written many times, for many disciplines, but for what follows a brief summary is useful in order to understand what followed the failure of these projects. At the time of the formation of these disciplines, science had already taken a more or less modern disciplinary form, and by virtue of its practical applications, especially in chemistry, had established a “professional” identity apart from the academy. In the US, and at roughly the same time in other countries — the UK preserved amateurism longer, and preserved a kind of museum of academic eccentrics at Cambridge and Oxford immune from outside influences. Ironically, this last group was the source of many of the professionalizing ideas in the humanities (cf. for philosophy, Searle, 2015). The first wave of professionalization in the US was at the time of the formation of disciplines, roughly 1890 to 1905. This was followed in the 1920s by a series of “news”: the new history, the new political science, and by large changes in related disciplines, as well as the humanities. This generation asked variations of the question Robert Merriam, consigliere of the Rockefeller philanthropies and proponent of the new political science, asked about political theory: “will our older friends have to go?” For the time being political theory, which was included in the field as part of the original construction of the discipline, survived. Similarly for the other fields — pockets of less professionalized scholarship persisted, though often in a lower status.

The postwar period saw a reinvention of the impulse to scientize, which treated the previous attempt as a failure. “Behavioral science,” and its hallmarks of quantification, attitude studies, and a different set of statistical techniques, taken mostly from social psychology, dominated this effort. Previously social science statistics had required a staff with rows of calculators to produce correlations, so quantification at this level was rare; now a set of tables and Chi-square tests of significance sufficed. With computerization this changed again, and new methods requiring more number-crunching power were used, and the older kind of correlational analysis returned, because it no longer required the human labor of the past. This movement was a “success” in academic terms, inasmuch as it attracted foundation funding, and then government funding, and quickly came to dominate the labor market in the relevant fields. There was a self-conscious sense of ridding these fields of “intellectuals.” As W. F. Ogburn put it,

There are a number of criteria which have been considered of high value in the past which I think should be of decreasing value in the future. If we agree that the goal of sociology is too scientific I would not pay too much attention to scholarship as such in the Department of Sociology. Obviously in the humanities its place is at the top. I would be inclined to subdue interest in social philosophy though of course it has a place somewhere in the university curriculum. My guess is that the role of theory as formerly held is due for some deflation. Scientific theory is of course not. The old time conception of theory is really something of a grand synthesis or system of ideas, none of which are ever set up in the form that can be demonstrated scientifically. Theory in both sociology and economics has largely been a system of ideas. (Ogburn, ca. 1953)

The subsequent history of this department and the rest of academic social science proved to be the realization of this ideal — scholarship was out, “science” was in. And the conflict between the two was evident: scholarship belonged somewhere, but somewhere else.

These newly configured fields recruited students with intellectual or broadly “political” and reformist interests and turned them, with a certain amount of bullying, into professionals. The original flame of intellectual interest did not completely die out among the students, but there was no question of who had the status and power in these fields. And there was no return to the past: this generation of postwar scientizers obliterated the older kind of scholarship by ignoring it. Even the canonical classics were reduced to snippets, as was done by the Columbia sociology department, which taught them by providing sheets of out-of-context paragraphs that were selected because they related to the new vision of the field. Something similar happened in field after field: in philosophy the great thinkers of the past were reduced to simplified argument forms, and those forms were what was taught.

The younger generation rebelled against this new order. The generation of 1968, installed Pitirim Sorokin as the President of the ASA, and Hans J. Morgenthau as president of the APSA, in defiance of their elders. And they read and identified with C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1959), a book that has still not lost its power. But this was not a success story; it was a tragedy. As Edward Shils pointed out in a brutal review of the book in World Politics (1961), there was no intellectually realizable program there, but instead a reversion to historicism and an endorsement of works of “a degree of pompous vagueness which,” Shils says, were reminiscent “of the windy formalities of the University of Frankfurt before Hitler closed down German sociology in 1933” (1961, p. 613). Shils was an idiosyncratic product of the 1930s, an amateur sociologist who never received a degree in the subject, an admirer of European intellectuals, and initially an enthusiast for the post-war professionalization of sociology, an enthusiasm that soon waned. In this review he acknowledges and agrees with much of Mills’ critique of the sociology of the time. But both the review and the book are better understood as a lament for academic values that were already fading into irrelevance.

The 1960s was a decade of institutional triumph for the professionalizers, and of creeping intellectual failure. The students they attracted and kept, once it became clear that the projects had failed, were either careerists who believed in the project only to the extent that it advanced their careers, or were intellectually and politically inclined against the project and openly hostile to it. Thus it came to pass that the generation of 1968, clever and energetic, found themselves in the 1970s and 80s with a collapsed job market and a collapsed and dying program of professionalization. This core fact extended to the whole of the humanities and social sciences with the exception of economics and perhaps linguistics. The emergence of post-modernism was not the cause of the failure of all of these professionalizing programs, but a symptom and a restatement in flowery language of the obvious: that the programs had fractured into pieces that no longer fit together nor made sense apart from the larger failed program that had originally generated them. There was going to be no “science of society,” or of politics, of culture, nor were any of the systematizing projects of philosophy going to be any more than academic games.[i] The post-modernists were assigned the blame for this failure. But to quote Cavafy, “Those people were a kind of solution” ([1904] 1992).

Degenerate Professionalization

To understand this change, and its effects, it is necessary to address some painful issues. The key issue is this: science professionalized successfully, though not without its own issues of overproduction and waste. But the standards of science and the standards and reality of non-science fields differ dramatically. The use of science standards for non-science fields is an inevitable consequence of the need to balance the claims of each. But because science is the tail that wags the dog of the university, and also the source of its main claims to public utility, science sets the standards for everyone. These standards are, however, impossible for the humanities and social sciences to meet. The money is not there for large grants, and there are no patents or marketable technologies, or very few. And we come to a basic fact. The project of professionalization in the humanities and social sciences failed, and the analogous project in the sciences succeeded. In both cases the effects on traditional academic values was devastating.

The intellectual side of this failure in the social sciences and philosophy is a familiar story. Both were influenced by Logical Positivism, which promised to make each of them into sciences or something like science. In each field the project ran into trouble, then critics, then to the collapse of the very idea. This is traditionally ascribed to post-modernism and Kuhn, and both placed a mark on what followed and constitutes the present situation, but post-modernism was less a cause than a symptom: the corpse of the professionalization project was already rotting. Within Logical Positivism there had already been a debate that had surfaced fatal criticisms. The Kuhnian alternative provided a way of thinking of science that avoided these criticisms. In the postwar era the scientization of the social sciences had been significant as a way of getting rid of traditionally minded scholars: the motto of Whitehead quoted by Merton at the time was “a science that hesitates to forget its founders is lost” (Merton [1957] 1968, p. 38).

But the positive project of making social science into science was a disaster. The “laws” and confirmed theories that were supposed to be the hallmark of science never appeared, and the statistical methods that were supposed to underpin this science produced many “results” and an empowered class of researchers, but nothing like science. In science itself there was also a failure: the Unity of Science movement, which provided an intellectually serious goal for science and a model of science as a project, disappeared as science itself professionalized into separate domains.

The consequences of this for the present are simple enough. Science is no longer a possible model for the humanities and social sciences. The truths of professionalized science are not the all-embracing ones posited by the unity of science movement, but truths that are patentable, impactful, and usable for regulation or policy decision-making, and objective in a practical, technological sense rather than a transcendental sense. This is a model that is not available to social science or the humanities, except perhaps in areas like demography, economics, machine cognition, and so on. But without this model of truth the humanities and social sciences, organized as professions but incapable of being professions in the originally intended sense, nevertheless are faced with the basic realities of intellectual life. About this we need to be clear: the basic fact of intellectual life is that it does not pay for itself. All knowledge regimes, of which professionalism is only one, need for there to be a source of income and support that derives from something other than the intellectual work itself. The academic regime in science derives this support from grants and teaching. In the humanities and social sciences it derives from teaching, and for a few highly exceptional people — public celebrities — from lecture fees and writing for the public, or writing widely used textbooks. Professionalization was a way of marketing teaching in which the students did not become merely learned, but mini-professionals in their field.



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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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