Archive for the ‘sinecure’ Tag

Sinecure and credentialism

I’ve been reading a book by Randall Collins. His book The Sociology of Philosophies (1998) made a major impact on me. In a direct way, and it was for this reason a dutch colleague referred me to the book, his demonstration of splits and concretizings of intellectual circles gave us an hypothesis to use in domain analytical research. It boiled down to the notion that no school of thought can tolerate more than six theoretical paradigms (or ideas if you prefer) at once without either splitting apart (schism, as it were) or ejecting competing points of view until a tolerable level is restored. I first went looking for this in the evolving domain of music information retrieval and sure enough, as a new research interest it opened its arms widely and expanded rapidly, but once query-by-humming had been achieved the society (it had been first a symposium, but at this point it became a society with bylaws, officers, and a scope statement) quickly reigned in acceptable research. Others have found similar evidence (Hoeffner in Social informatics, for example, LIU diss. 2012).

It’s a marvelous book all by itself of course, if very long. The critical realization I had while reading it was that I had spent almost two decades working with doctoral students who not only were not forming a school of thought around my work, but likely would never conduct any research after their dissertations, and certainly would never contribute to growth of my theory of instantiation. (Although, to be fair, near the end of my time at LIU several students did take up domain analysis and contribute to the cumulative effect of domain analytic research in knowledge organization, although to the best of my knowledge none of them has conducted or published any follow-up work.) And with that I determined to move elsewhere while I still had energy to take on new students.

Somewhere last fall I read about Collins’ much shorter 1979 work The Credential Society, and I’ve just finished reading it after proudly hauling it to Copenhagen, Heraklion, Amsterdam and back. It also is a remarkable work, hence this post, and I think it will have something to contribute to domain analysis, although at present I’m not quite sure how.

The book is about the myth of technocracy, that as society evolves and technology becomes more complex and we become ever more highly educated so as to deal with technology and (here’s the myth) therefore society gets better, people get richer, everything becomes more egalitarian, etc., etc. You’ll recognize the myth. In a short 220some pages Collins shatters this myth, demonstrating that no amount of education has made any difference and neither has technology. In fact, the only evidence about career and social status that makes sense is the age-old truth that (male) children follow in their father’s footsteps in both career and social status. I know, you want to protest, and so do I. My parents weren’t professors (but, my biological father was a musician and my biological maternal great-grandfather was an ordained pastor … hmmm). As usual, I’m not doing the book justice, you’ll have to read it.

Two things stood out for me. First the notion that we have accomplished a sinecure society. Sinecure, he writes, means literally “without care” and refers to a job in which there is actually little work. Collins points out that society has succeeded at installing a sinecure society by making most work into what once would have been leisure. Most of us read, write and think as work these days. Once upon a time that would have been a life reserved to only those who did not need to work.

The other idea, and here probably is the connection to domain analysis, is that professions secure their concretization and hence their survival with rather medieval approaches to credentialism. The easiest example from the book is the practice of medicine, which has the highest status and salary potential in our society, and for which the education (which is lengthy and expensive) has almost nothing to do with the practice except to confer the credential. As Collins shows, most medical practitioners learn on the job from other practitioners. But the mostly upperclass male medical doctors have succeeded with their credentialing in shutting out all other actors in healthcare from orderlies to nurses to social workers, most of whom labor for little in feminized professions. I know, this isn’t pretty. Collins takes on engineering and law too, but I won’t go into that here.

Along the way his narrative about the evolution of higher education in the US through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is about the clearest explanation I’ve seen, although it is consistent with the same trajectory painted by Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club (erm, can you paint a trajectory? oh well, a topic for another time). All of us who make our livings and livelihoods as professors ought to have a better sense of how things got this way and I recommend both books for that reason.

I’ll keep pondering this of course. I think somehow we might be able to discover that a concretized domain is also somehow credentialed. Evidence of that might be useful for determining who the relevant actors are in the evolution of a domain ontology at any given moment. As it said, it needs some pondering.