• Category Archives Blogs by Tony
  • The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

    College is not just about learning, it is about status and hierarchy, too. So what do the fine nineteen year-olds at UC Berkeley think about us at low ranked Chico State? And how do we think about the snobs at UC Berkeley? Dismissiveness, preening, and sour grapes are part of the ranking game.

    Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. We posture because status has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, the labor economists tell us that the more productive labor is, the more money, prestige, power, and honor will be acquired via the blind mechanisms of a marketplace that knows only productivity. But this ideology while important, belies what many of us intuitively know about the real world. Status is not only dependent on the mechanisms of a blind market, no matter how efficient it may be, but also is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what university you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace. And as study after study have shown advantage in the labor market also depends on legally pernicious status categories like race, gender, religion, and social class.

    Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market that sees only productivity, and a social world tuned into status distinctions based on relationships. As labor economists (and university administrators) assure us, what is learned at the university makes labor more productive in the marketplace. But, this is not the whole story. Because, universities are not only about the acquisition of skills valued in the marketplace. Attendance at a particular university is also used as a status marker to determine how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual has. Were this not the case, no university administrator, parent, high school student, college counselor, or anyone else would pay any attention to the college status rankings published each fall by US News and World Report and other rankers of college and university prestige. And for this reason, it is interesting to think about what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. And of course these views are not the same because, after all, status matters. Thus, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley have one way of viewing their privileges and advantages in what they presume to be a competitive life in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) do too. But our views about the justice of Berkeley graduates’ privileges are different.


     Why Chico State Does Better at Undergraduate Education than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant

    I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley. The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates. Berkeley’s classroom teachers or what they call “discussion leaders” are often inexperienced graduate students, and not the big name (and well-paid) research professors on the letterhead who may be widely published but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also freely gives students credit for time the faculty do not teach. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in spring 2011 had 279 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section that was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours. In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with about 40 students, and Chico students received only three hours credit for this. As for Berkeley’s undergraduate students, they themselves are among the smartest and hardest working high school students in California. And, at the end of four years at Berkeley, they may well still be smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley rather than one the students brought with them fro high school.

    Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hire faculty because they want to teach undergraduates for their career. Big name or not, undergraduates routinely interact with experienced faculty hired for demonstrated teaching skills, even though they may also write books and academic articles just like the big names at UC Berkeley. It may well be true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students that California has. But Chico State takes California’s second best students, and makes them into really talented people. One day, I would like to see Chico challenge Berkeley on “value-added” in terms of student learning. I am confident that Chico grads would best Berkeley grads in terms of how much they learned from their classes between the day they walked in the door and the day they graduated. After all, it does not take much to take the straight A student from high school, and then turn them into a college graduate like Berkeley does. Chico though takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And Chico State does it for less tax money than do the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. Chico State’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report got it wrong when they published their college rankings last September, and informed us that again, UC Berkeley was the number one national public university while Chico State didn’t even make the list.

    A Little Sociology: The Relationship between Status and Achievement

    But this paper is not only a rant about Chico and Berkeley. Rather it is about the nature of status and how alongside market forces status distinctions shape what colleges do and think. I think Chico would best Berkeley in a fair comparison of undergraduate quality of education, but then I teach at Chico, and naturally take some pride in what we do. And so more than self-righteous navel gazing, this paper is also an exploration of status systems work to allocate unequally both prestige and access to opportunity outside the blind mechanisms of the labor market. As such, this paper draws very heavily on sociologist Max Weber’s[1] description of status inequality in ethnicity, occupational categories, and caste. By extension, this also applies to how college rankings reported by US News stratify America’s system of higher education.

    So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolizes goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at Chico State. They do this through their power to award status markers for and assign prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, teach the same things about sociology and economics, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, be selected to divide up federal grants, and become the arbiters of the institutions which award academic status. More to the point, US News asks Department Chairs working at places like Berkeley to determine their own rankings as well of that of everyone else. And not surprisingly the smarty-pants from places like Berkeley tautologically conclude that since they are paid more, they must do a better job at teaching, and therefore deserve another raise because their ranking in US News is so high [2]. (When I was a chair at Chico State, I never had a phone call or email from US News soliciting my opinion about the quality of undergraduate programs at Berkeley—so goes it in the game of status). Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs which I wrote about in my rant. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact ranking has nothing to do with the anonymous mechanisms of labor markets, which Weber as writes, status systems run by US News in fact abhor.

    Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensures that we will coexist in a system of mutual repulsion and disdain. My rant about Berkeley’s underserved status is typical of how a subordinated group emphasizes its own honor by disdainfully pointing out the pretensions of the dominant (In this respect, I guess I am a typically ungrateful and unappreciative subordinate). But the dominant group also has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past and present. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Thus both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor to be the highest one, a fiction cultivated in avoidance strategies which mean among other things that Chico’s students chances of getting into graduate school at UC Berkeley are virtually non-existent.

    But at Chico we too protect our honor from the pretensions of Berkelyites. At Chico we routinely explain how our secret honor is hidden from the rest of the world, including US News, and particularly the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. We also need to explain why so few National Merit Scholars come to Chico, and why so many of our students routinely take so few classes while working at tedious minimum wage jobs while attending Chico State.

    Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and how pretensions of people like me are the result of envy, jealousy, and sour grapes. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination (Chico). According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past, which explains why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders who made the glory of Berkeley possible are heroes. There are regular remembrances of these heroes on special days, in the names of buildings, scholarships, and other tokens acknowledging their role in creating the deserved glories of the present. The message is clear to Berkeley grads: they are special and deserving of their exalted place in the world. And by implication the rest of us are losers.

    At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not be about a glorious past (we don’t have a plausible one), but about why our clandestine honor is routinely hidden and ignored. What is more, buried in the story we tell about ourselves will be an assertion that one day we will overcome the odds, and our secret glory will be revealed.

    Chico’s Story of Hidden Honor

    At Chico State, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. The story follows much along the lines I ranted about above. I describe the easy access to faculty Chico students have, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California (Davis in my case), I typically tell visitors that I learned to teach undergraduates at the UC, but I became good at it only at Chico. The ideology I describe is one that explains away Chico’s stigma as a second rate public university in a manner which highlights our special, albeit unnoticed skills. Our mythology about our hidden honor goes something like this: If you would look closely at Chico State student, you will find that they work harder in the “real” world. After all Berkeley students tend to be richer and more spoiled. And because they have better high school grades they are more likely to have scholarships. This means that they rarely are exposed to the reality of a job in the dining commons, local restaurant, or camp counseling during the summer. Chico students also write better because real professors (not graduate students) grade their papers. And because all the hyper-competitive self-absorbed nerds from high school went to Berkeley, our students develop collaborative relationships in classes. This means that Chico State students are better prepared to be part of the teamwork found in the modern workforce. Chico’s applied hands-on approach encourages students to be involved in businesses, schools, and government as “real people” not theoretical drones ungrounded in the real world. Our students will never labor as a heartless drone holed up with a calculator screen and spreadsheets for fifty years as would a Berkeley student. Rather they will work in offices inhabited by real people.


    Image of Wildcats

    All this of course avoids the fact that Chico students are perceived as being a bunch of drunks. But wait, there is secret honor even in this distinction. Chico’s Business School routinely brags about the “social skills” of their students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is actually a strength; it means that employees have already learned how much alcohol they can hold and shall not—how shall I put this delicately?—throw upon the lap of a client during their first year on the job as would a socially unsophisticated nerd from Berkeley.[3] In short, we at Chico have a providential mission to save the culturally inept Berkeleyites from their own social cluelessness. Whole organizations would undoubtedly collapse if it were not for the strategically placed Chico State student who quietly and competently smooth’s large egos, and connects the human elements necessary in every organization. Or to borrow a Biblical saying, we believe that in the end days, the last will be first, and the first will be last; in the end, say in fifty years, the honor of Chico State will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy. Undoubtedly, this will happen when one of my colleagues is plucked from obscurity and awarded a Nobel Prize in something, or an alum is elected president of the United States. After all if Eureka College’s Ronald Reagan, and Texas State Teachers College’s Lyndon Johnson can become president, why not someone from Chico State?

    Steeped in History

    Kingdoms of This World…

    While typically Berkeley and Chico faculty do not run in the same circles, I can still walk on the Berkeley campus, and also browse their web-site. What you find is a presentation of self that is different from Chico’s. Berkeley doesn’t dream of Nobel Prizes, they already have them. Indeed, the list of current Nobel Prize winners (7) is only three clicks from Berkeley’s home page (along with the 13 deceased prize winners, and then one more click to the 24 alumni winners—who says that nerds aren’t the best?). Department rankings are only a click or two in another direction, where a page indicates, “In the most recent National Research Council study, 35 of Berkeley’s 36 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields in terms of faculty competence and achievement.” In case you don’t have a web-browser, go on the UC Berkeley campus, and you will see ostentatious privileged parking places reserved for Nobel Laureates. Buildings are named for outstanding scientists including those who developed the atom bomb in World War II, rich alumni like William Randolph Hearst, and other heroes who have graced Berkeley’s campus. In short, while Chico’s promise is still in the future, Berkeley’s Kingdom is in the here and now and they are going to let everyone know about it. The University’s web page preens with history, leading UC Berkeley to conclude with the self-satisfied observation that “[Already] In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as ‘the best balanced distinguished university in the country.’” Nothing is shy, or hidden, or clandestine here. It is out in front for all to admire.

    The implication of all this self-promotion for Berkeley’s undergraduates is that only the very best will be admitted; only the intellectual elite will be given admission to the hallowed grounds. Sometime in their first week on campus, it will be made clear to them that because Berkeley is the best, they too must be the best, a form of tautological reasoning that insecure 18 and 19 year olds embrace enthusiastically. And indeed they are the best, at least in terms of high school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and the other things that UC Berkeley and others at the top of the current status heap value highly. And this in turn justifies the self-satisfied assertion that only the best recognizes the best, and in this way the inequality of the American higher education system is perpetuated, seemingly ad infinitum. And as a result throughout their careers, they will give each other pay raises, jobs, honors, appoint each other to boards of directors, in the belief that being of high status is an end in and of itself.

    But There are also Kingdoms of the Coming World…

    None of the things that Berkeley brags about on its website addresses the undergraduate excellence like small classes, contact with faculty, etc., that we have at Chico. But even I will admit that Chico is weaker on one thing: presentation of our history. There is no “history of Chico State” link to our home page, nor as far as I can tell, any other place. There are no obvious lists of the accomplishments of our faculty (no Nobel Prizes) and our buildings are mostly named after obscure northern California counties. Despite over a hundred years of history, there are few illustrious faculty, donors, or alumni bragged about. On the President’s page, there is a brief mention that CSU Chico is one of the highest ranking public colleges in the West, but unlike Berkeley, the source is not cited.[4] More significantly though for an essay about the nature of status stratification, is the focus of two prominently displayed slogans on Chico State’s web page. “Today Decides Tomorrow” is mentioned in both the President’s welcome page, and is emblazoned above the door of the Kendall Hall, one of the few buildings to bear an illustrious name, former president Glenn Kendall. The second prominently displayed slogan is the campus’ latest goal, which envisions Chico as becoming a center for sustainability education. So on the home page for months was a large green hot link reading “Our Sustainable Future” and led to a list of planned programs designed to position Chico in the future.

    What both of these slogans of course represent is the belief that Chico’s unseen glory is the future—tomorrow as the slogan says. The future may be ours, and by extension not Berkeley’s. Someday, Chico’s mythology goes, an illustrious figure will emerge—in Weber’s terminology a messiah figure—who will demonstrate how quietly but excellently we have been delivering for California all along. In this respect I suppose it is fortunate to have so many buildings named after obscure counties. They are sitting there, waiting to be named for people who will give Chico great sums of money, our first Nobel Prize winner, or better yet invent an even bigger bomb! Best of all, those of us who have been around awhile will get to divide up the resources differently, meaning we will get a big pay raise, putting us ahead of even UC Berkeley: in this promised future, we will be of this world, and no longer have to worry so much about tomorrow!

    The Persistence of Status Stratification

    Of course, the status inequality between Berkeley and Chico is hardly unique. Such inequality inherently permeates the relationships which order our hierarchically ordered modern society. I could have as easily written this essay about the relationship between Chico and the local Community College, Butte College. I am sure that the faculty there are acutely aware of the differences in pay and teaching load (i.e. they get less money and grade more papers). They will undoubtedly have the same uneasiness and chip on their shoulder relative to Chico State, and with equal faith await their first Nobel Prize winner and the arrival of a messiah figure in the form of a hundred million dollar endowment.[5] What this illustrates are not the implicit differences between Butte, Chico and Berkeley, but the nature of status and honor within society. Ultimately, status, unlike market economics, is a zero sum game. For one institution or person to have more status, another institution must have less.

    As Max Weber wrote, status systems are about sorting out who has advantages and who does not. Dominant ideology aside, it is not simply the provision of rewards on the basis of the blind labor market; indeed, status systems are about the privileged avoiding the mechanisms of the blind marketplace. The labor market may in theory be blind, but employment resumes still prominently indicate what college you attend. Highlighting such a status achievement is as important in the seeking of privilege as the skills learned, and tells to others where you belong in the pre-established pecking order.

    So, from Weber’s perspective, the mystery of why neither UC Berkeley or Chico State use much of their web-site plugging the quality of undergraduate education is not so baffling. Berkeley spends its time asserting the importance of past Nobel Prize winners, and Chico dreams of tomorrow because they are, respectively, a dominant university seeking to preserve its status, and a subordinate institution dissatisfied with the status quo. The good news is that while such status distinctions persist and are evident in how each institution presents itself, they are also malleable. No currently dominant institution started out that way, which is why messiah figures (in Berkeley’s case the Nobel Prize winners) become so prominent in the mythologized histories they publish. Symbolically such heroes mean a lot, even though in delivering the core product of the institution—quality undergraduate classes to 19 year olds—they are irrelevant. This means that while Chico State may not be tomorrow’s dominant Berkeley, an institution like Chico, meaning anyone of the hundreds of undergraduate colleges, will find its rightful place in the sun, which in its own vicarious way gives us all hope.

    [1] This essay draws very heavily on Max Weber’s classic essay “Class, Status, Party” which has been published in both From Max Weber, and Economy and Society. The essay was also recently retranslated by Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, and others, as “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Staende, Parties,” and published in the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010).

    [2] Institutional reputation, which US News calls “peer assessment” comprises 25% of US News’ measure of university quality. Reputation is calculated by asking Department chairs at research universities like Berkeley what they think of themselves, and everyone else. The chairs indicate what their gut level feelings are which not surprisingly are that people like them are better than people at places like Chico State. The other 75% of the rankings are mostly made up of qualities students bring with them from high school like grades and SAT scores (15%), how much money alumni give (5%) and faculty pay (20%). Retention rates (20%) of all the numbers US News uses is the only one that has much to do with undergraduate education, although it too is not a direct measure of the quality of classes.

    [3] This is what President George H. W. Bush (Yale and Skull and Crossbones Fraternity 1948) notoriously did in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.

    [4] Number three in the MA granting public institution category for the west—source US News)

    [5] Indeed, there was a brief flurry of hype at Butte College in 2011 when rich alum Aaron Rogers quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory. But Aaron has yet to return the love, or cut a check, and has instead has highlighted what he apparently believes is a stronger college connection—at UC Berkeley.

    Berkeley Playboy

     Images by: Brad Nail


  • Privilege In Life, Privilege In Death

    By: Tony Waters

    To provide some broader context about Marc Thompson’s murder…Julie and I talked on the phone last night about two different cases that have been in the newspapers of Butte County, California, recently, where we live.  Two years ago, a young man was tragically lost during the annual Labor Day river float–a fun-filled day of drinking and floating by privileged students and their friends from out-of-town, who celebrate the beginning of the school year in Chico.  The story made local headlines for days. Attention from the Sheriff’s Department, and local press was abundant.  Several days later, the body of the young man was found, a victim of drowning. Julie and I discussed the contrast with how local powers responded to Marc’s murder last night on the phone.

    Anyway, the quick story behind Marc’s death was that he left a local casino where he enjoyed playing poker.  His burning car, and his body inside it, was found just a few hours later in a remote area.  Instead of the massive attention from the press and Sheriff’s Department, the story was quickly swept under the rug, except from notice by alternative newspapers like a local paper called The Synthesis, which is where UC Berkeley grad Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff writes and edits.

    I hope that Julie and Emiliano pursue this story.  As Julie notes, Marc was an African-American man from a poor area of Butte County (i.e. Oroville). But, he was also well-known in the community for both his activism, and cheerful curious nature (I knew him mainly for his cheerful curious nature, even though he was not in any of my classes!).  Because he was in Lee Mun Wah’s movie, he was also a local celebrity!

    I have no idea why anyone would want to kill Marc. I don’t know if the motivation was robbery, racial, personal, or anything else, and the police are not telling us yet.  I do know that every time I Google for more information about his death, the websites at the local newspapers and sheriff’s office come up blank, though.  I conclude that the police just do not seem to care enough about Marc’s death, the extremely odd circumstances, the lack of “closure” for Marc’s family and friends, or that there are very strange murderers running around Butte County.  Given such circumstances, I cannot fathom why the murder of such a well-liked young man has so rapidly disappeared from the “running conversation,” to borrow a term from the Blumer article Julie cites.


  • Einstein, Aristotle, and Life Without Parole

    Tonight there was a great discussion in class about Einstein, Aristotle, and a character I wrote about at Ethnography.com a couple of years ago, Mr. Life Without Parole (LWOP). Mr. LWOP was a 21 year-old inmate confined by California to one of its high security prisons, and from there sent into “solitary confinement.” It was there I met him.  And it was there he pointed out to me that “Life could be worse,” since after all, he could be looking at death by lethal injection, rather than life without parole. Well, yeah….

    The discussion tonight in class was in part about E. T. Hall’s anthropological book The Dance of Life, one of my favorite books about culture. In the book, Hall claims that culture is more about Einstein, who pointed out the “everything is relative,” rather than Aristotle who believed that an objective truth existed out there, if we could only figure out what it was.

    So what was Mr. LWOP, Einstein or Aristotle? The answer of course is that he was an Einsteinian, pointing out from the dark depths of “the hole” that everything, even prison sentences are relative, and indeed, things could be worse.

    Which of course doesn’t solve the question of what an inmate on California’s death row might have to say—but somehow the human spirit is indeed more Einsteinian then Aristotleian, and always searching for a glimmer of hope relative to something, anything that might be worse.


  • Fatuous, Naïve, or Bold? The Wonderful World of Peer Review


    Fair warning from an anonymous peer reviewer of one of my academic articles…

    The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following…

    Yes, that’s me: inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic! And so forth. If you share that sentiment, do not read further.

    I posted a blog about peer review for the first time in July 2008 after being pummeled in the peer review process. Some anonymous yahoos out in peer-review land accused me of the above transgression and more. What can I say? Only that someone else later thought about the same paper the following.

    This is a strong paper that makes some interesting connections between advances in contemporary neural science and some early observations from America’s first sociologists. While it treads ground familiar to anyone who has taken introductory sociology (elementary patterns of socialization, affectivity as a social product, empathic understanding), the paper marries this more familiar work to recent ideas emerging from neural science. This makes it a novel contribution. In particular, the claim that sociologists have known of the imminently social character of human beings all along and didn’t need fMRI to discover it, strikes me as a bold one, but a claim that is worth making, especially since it reaffirms the value and relevance of sociological concepts to those beyond the discipline’s boundaries.

    But even the journal receiving that review rejected the paper. My neural science paper may have been bold, but that review was not enough to get the paper actually accepted for a long time. I guess reviewers and editors were more into the “naïve” evaluation, and so the paper went down in flames repeatedly. This phoenix of a paper actually went through four or five years of peer reviews, in the process collecting a range of laudatory and insulting reviews.

    It is somehow believed that “peer review” is the gold standard of academic achievement. Really?

    Here is what a couple of hotshot editors are reported by the non-peer reviewed Wikipedia to have said:

    Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of Journal of the American Medical Association is an organizer of the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, which has been held every four years since 1986. He remarked:

    “There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.

    Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, said:

    “The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than just a crude means of discovering the acceptability—not the validity—of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.

    But the assumption about the “gold standard” persists even in the context of well-publicized    scandals involving well-funded high fliers in fields like physics, human cloning, and cancer research that all indicate that peer reviewers at journals like Science and Nature are somehow sloppier than the social scientific journals I typically send my papers to. Indeed, so far as I know, none of the journals where I publish have such a sordid record (certainly SocJournal does not!), but the journals I send my papers to can indeed send me back nasty reviews.

    Despite all this, I still think peer review does often add to the seriousness of academic publication. Plus, if you did not have peer review, as is often said, you are no better than a newspaper, a blog or (horrors) Wikipedia!

    But, that does not mean that peer review is always encouraging, nurturing, or even fair. Sometimes peer review is only tin beneath the gold plate. Peer review with the cloak of anonymity permit insecure scientists the chance to level the artillery at potential competitors. Editors in turn do not always do their part by protecting writers from the more unreasonable attacks. Does this make for better science? Maybe. My own view is that in the long-run peer review makes for a more careful and conservative science–if that is “better.” But in the short run it often adds fuel to the insecurities of the most vulnerable in our midst—the graduate students, untenured faculty, and others who are kept at arms length by self-described anonymous tenured “gatekeepers.”

    In short, peer review discourages challenges to the status quo, even though such challenge is what good science is about in the first place. Most crucially, writers without a thick skin are discouraged from pursuing ideas further (whether good or bad), all because some anonymous reviewer had a fight with their spouse or teenager that morning, and took it out in the peer review.

    Scientific Publication—The Theory.
But I still think that the ideal of peer review is good. The theory is that rational, unbiased, and anonymous experts evaluate the work of others to verify whether an idea is new, rigorous, and important enough for publication. You submit a paper to a journal, and then the editor selects unbiased experts within your discipline to read what you have written.

    Anonymity is important to this process (ideally both the reviewer and reviewee do not know who each other are), because there are friendship cliques (and elites) within the scientific community. Papers judged by editors as “possible for publication” are thusly sent to reviewers selected for their expertise without the name of the author. The reviewers then submit their reasons for acceptance or rejection to the editor. Such reviews ideally entail 2-3 pages (single spaced) discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a paper’s data and argument, which are then sent anonymously back to the author. Often, suggestions are made about literature that is missing, irrespective of whether the paper is accepted or rejected.

    Authors hope that this results in a “revise and resubmit,” though “reject” is more common. With revise and resubmit, a paper often has about five reviewers (plus the editor) who read and make anonymous comments. Because so many minds are focused on the development of the paper, the overall quality, rigor, and accuracy is often improved. Survive this, and you might get a final acceptance which is important to an academic community which controls jobs, promotions, and the distribution of status.

    Between first submission, and the final arrival of a paper in print, months, and possibly years may pass. This care is why your professor prefers to see you cite the American Journal of Sociology, American Anthropologist, or Social Forces, rather than Newsweek, CNN’s website, Wikipedia, or even Encyclopedia Britannica (Socjournal of course is in its own category which will indeed be apparent to the PhDs graduating in 2020!). All of these sources may edit for content and style, though they may not go through the formal peer review process which is so careful and conservative.

    The result in the peer-reviewed literature is a science which academics (and especially graduate students) pore over. The peer-reviewed literature is more considered valid and reliable because it has been through a “rigorous” review process. Acceptance rates in the most prestigious journals are often less than 10%, meaning that only the peer-described “very best” is published. Often unsaid is that the rest is rejected but often submitted to a less prestigious journal, or perhaps finds itself into publication in an “edited collection” prepared by a group of colleagues interested in a shared subject. Note that neither of these final two conditions are all that bad, since they do indeed put a new idea “out there” for that diligent graduate student to find. Indeed, today “out there” includes the readily accessible world-wide-web open to everyone, while that prestigious publication is tucked by a pay-wall accessible only to those with expensive library privileges. Still, the stamp of approval from a “prestigious” journal makes it more likely to be noticed by the “right” audience.

    Scientific Publication—The Practice
Anyway, that’s the theory of peer review. As I indicated above in my 2008 blog, in 2007-2008, I went through the process with two separate articles and a book proposal four times in six months, and only sometimes did the process meet the ideal. The book proposal resulted in a contract, and eventually a book, Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood (2012). The article on neural sciences was flat out rejected once within a few weeks, and then shortly after received from a “rejection but you can submit again.” This “reject but resubmit” eventually resulted in another flat out rejection after another round of peer review. The third paper about African history was rejected, and the editor recommended I pay attention to one reviewer’s comments, and submit to another journal. I did that, and it was published about a year later.

    Altogether, the reviews during just those six months incorporated the opinions of six reviewers. Two reviews were brief, insulting, and without redeeming value. They dismissed my work in a few short lines. One was insulting, but made good recommendations about things that should be incorporated in the article. One was frustrated with my “sloppiness” but the reviewer thought the paper was worth a “revise and resubmit” which the editor did not give me. The fifth thought the paper was worthwhile, but needed to be fleshed out more, and the editor gave me the “reject but you can resubmit in a revised form.” The last was the “accept.”
In other words, three of the reviews were constructive, and reflect the very best of the peer review process. Two of them reflect the worst impulses found in the review process. The one which was insulting (called me naive, etc) still gave some good suggestions.

    Here is a sampling, with some of my own ripostes, which six years later in 2014 still make me feel better!

    …There is little that is based on original research and no substantial intellectual or theoretical content…I am sorry to be so negative, but this [paper] is simply a non-starter. (This comment was on the 40+page Africa Studies paper, and the whole review was only about six sentences long. This reviewer has an ego problem and is lazy).

    The second review on the same paper was three pages long, and pointed out in excruciating detail a number of errors on my part:

    Despite this rather frustrating sloppiness [which was pointed out in excruciating detail], I am willing to see the author revise and resubmit… (ok, ok, you got me this time…I will go back and fix things).

    Comments on the neural science article included the following. First the extremely short dismissive review:

    This leads him to highly fatuous arguments… (Not as fatuous as your silly review).

    A second comment on the same paper:

    The author is hampered by an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of the basic principles…which leads him to make ludicrous statements like the following. (This review included some good references to what the reviewer thought were key to the discipline. I will cite the suggested references, but also note that they present an inaccurate, naïve, and highly simplistic understanding of basic sociological literature…which also leads to ludicrous statements. Except I will say this with more respect, and not anonymously).

    The neural science paper was then resubmitted to another journal. After I fixed a number of issues later raised in the second review, I received the following comments back in 2010:

    I’m very sympathetic to one of the paper’s central claims…but I don’t believe that the paper as a whole has a sufficiently clear and sustained focus… What exactly do the two ideas have in common (apart from a central metaphor) and how do they differ? What can we learn from the comparison… But to make a substantial contribution to this more general debate, it would need to canvas a range of examples,… and to break some ground; advance some new arguments or shed new light on old ones. (This comment ended in a rejection and resulted from the comment below from the editor. But thanks for the thoughtful comments!)

    The editor in the rejection letter responded:

    I agree with the reviewer’s opinion that the basic line of thought in this paper is interesting and plausible. But I think the reviewer is also probably right that these basic ideas need more sustained development… (Ok, you have a good point. I will do it, and in the submission to another journal incorporate some of the specific points raised—thanks for being encouraging even though this was not an acceptance!)

    And finally a note from the one acceptance out of the four submissions, on my book proposal about “Bureaucratizing the Child”

    I’m not sure if I have a plan to order things differently than they are currently ordered, but it strikes me as potentially a little awkward…(I think that this reviewer was probably right—but any type of acceptance after so much rejection makes me pretty happy!)

    My own strategy for working with this range of commentary, is to assume that anything complimentary is entirely correct, suggestions for including other books as a citation should generally be followed, and that anyone that includes words like “fatuous,” “naïve,” or “ludicrous” means that I have a really good paper that justifiably ruffled feathers, and I should try again. As for the reviewer? That person is in need of psychiatric help.

    What I like about Anonymous Peer Review.
So there you have peer review, from the nasty to the constructive. If you are ever asked to do a peer review, I would urge you to avoid the nasty side—visit a therapist instead. Be constructive in your comments, even if your conclusion is to “reject.” Remember too, that many papers go through many iterations—papers are only rarely accepted on the “first try.” My own experience is that papers might be accepted on the second to fifth try. Or even the twelfth try.

         My mirror neuron article holds my record, having been rejected by a motley collection of psychology, sociology, and biological journals between 2008 and 2012. Who would have guessed that it would be eventually accepted by a Philosophy of Science journal? But of all the papers I have written, in my view it is the most original—and perhaps this is why it was most difficult to get published. First keystrokes were in 2007, first submission in 2008, and actual publication was in 2014!

    Usually—though not always—the peer review process is a constructive part in developing a paper. There are many journals out there, and a rejection is sometimes the luck of the draw. How could the editor have known that the reviewer he met a conference five years before had tortured frogs as a child, or was also going through a bad divorce? So ignore the comments about being naïve, simplistic and ludicrous which probably tell you more about the reviewer’s mental health than the quality of your paper. Fix what is fixable, while recognizing that good papers by definition displease.

    While peer review sometimes (but not always) eliminates some poor scholarship, in my view the greatest contribution peer review offers is the capacity to encourage and nurture good scholarship. Some of the more prestigious journal in sociology note this, telling reviewers that despite the fact that 90% of the submissions are not published, comments are important because eventually many papers are published elsewhere. What they don’t note is that they are also rejecting some of the best sociology, because of the inherently conservative nature of peer review.

    Indeed, many of the most important and revolutionary ideas were first described in remoter areas of the academic literature. In part this happens because the papers were first nastily received at the prestigious “mainstream” journals which are so heavily vetted by the big shots. It is only after validation in the nether reaches of a discipline that the great ideas make their way into the more “prestigious” mainstream literature.

    Which still doesn’t explain how fraudulent papers get through the “rigorous” process at places like Nature and Science.   I still can’t figure out how the fraudulent writers managed to get their papers published when so many anonymous reviewers come after my papers with chainsaws!



    Reference List

    Waters, Tony (2014). Of Looking Glasses, Mirror Neurons, and Meaning. Perspectives on Science. Behind Paywall available here:


    Prepublication Version available here: https://www.academia.edu/5064752/Of_Looking_Glasses_and_Mirror_Neurons–Manuscript_Version


    Waters, Tony (2012). Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child. New York: Palgrave MacMilllan.

    Free Chapter Available Here. Also can recommend to libraries! http://www.palgraveconnect.com/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9781137269720.0005


    Waters, Tony (2009). Social Organization and Social Status in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Rukwa, Tanzania. African Studies Quarterly 11(1)




  • Privilege, Honor, and Meetings


    Cheese Squares, Olives, and Power without Responsibility. Gentry, Blue Blood, and Privilege. Max Weber’s ideas about Honoratioren, Voting Cows, and Power.

    Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune, and then sit in a hot black robe with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like potted plants. In fact, when I sat on a stage last May at Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students felt.


    But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings. In academia, Academic Senate meetings come to mind as places where esteemed faculty arrive, stand, clap, vote “aye,” and are confused (at least that was my experience when I was on Faculty Senate some years ago). Moving further afield, there are the boisterous political conventions Weber himself writes about where Honoratioren arrive to enthusiastically legitimate decisions already made behind closed doors. Student councils, annual meetings at churches, and corporate boards of directors also have such rituals. For that matter, as again Weber himself points out, there is Congress and other Parliamentary bodies, all places where honored and confused Honoratioren come to listen, vote aye, clap, provide legitimacy for pre-prepared, and finally return gloriously to their homes flattered but confused.


    Honoratioren invited for their notability and prestige, ratify decisions about which they may have little understanding. Indeed, to make such rituals work, the professional “party whips” in places like Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber calls Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting cows,” content and sated notables who are herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1] Weber wrote in “Politics as Vocation,” that we potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at either end of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00.


    Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, pour the coffe, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren. Oddly, at such meeting, the lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” who served the coffee and shove files under our noses, are sometimes the real “deciders” to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.


    We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly. But really, this essay is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently re-translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, as Weber points they out, don’t know that much what they are doing; and are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of the organization they legitimate with their sage advice. Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).


    But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed, as Weber points out be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s “voting cow” metaphor is good—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?” So what is the best translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better! So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.” And, “Moo!”   Reference: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).   [1] Or just maybe, as Rousseau once wrote, they may even be led to the slaughterhouse! But that is going too far for now.


  • Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond and Anthropology

         Ok, Anthropology, one day after my post on Nicholas Wade, and that post gets more hits than the last five or six posts here put together.  I get it, you like Nicholas Wade, and especially complaining about him.  You don’t like biological reductionism, and think that such studies are used to reinforce racist ideologies.  For what it is worth, I more or less agree.

    But for some reason you don’t want to read stuff that critiques biological reductionism on its own terms, and opt for those presented by the anthropology’s favorite bogeymen, which from recent activity in the blogosphere seem to include Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and Razib Khan. I know because I follow the hits on this blog, and my academia.edu account, and the hit masters are those posts which mention those three names.  In contrast, my April 30 post about six inches below this post is doing realtively poorly, as is the article it mentions “Of Looking Glasses and Mirror Neurons….” Which was published last month in Perspectives on Science.  It is about The Looking Glass Self, a fantastic concept from sociology, and the advantages of using it rather than that favorite of the biological world, The Mirror Neuron Hypothesis.  Please read this rather than the latest diatribe about Nicholas Wade, or the others.

    And if you want a further dose of social scientific critique of biological data, go read Jonathan Marks What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  It is better to read these classics, then to spend time complaining about the latest from Nicholas Wade or Jared Diamond.  There are plenty more great citations to social scientists like Susan Engel, Omar Lizardo, Timothy Ingold, Richard Wilkinson, Pierre Bourdiue in the bibliography of my article—believe me sociology and anthropology are in an excellent position to create an alternative to biological reductionism—just do it!

    Anthropology is a wonderful subject—show the world how wonderful it is by practicing it, and have the confidence that the rest of the world will notice.  I certainly have.