Recently I received an e-mail that prompted me to think once again about commensuration -- the social process of providing meaning to measurement. The study of commensuration involves analyzing the form and circulation of information and how counting changes the way that people attend to it, as discussed in articles by Wendy Espeland and Mitchell L. Stevens and Espeland and Michael Sauder.
The e-mail came from the editor of a special issue of an American journal in my field, concerned my contribution to the issue, and contained a recommendation based in current metrics governing the worth of ideas: "There is one thing I want to encourage you to consider doing, namely have a look at a couple of preliminary and relevant articles from other contributors to the special issue. If you acknowledge each other’s work it will clearly add to the feeling of having a special issue that is relatively well-integrated, plus add to the impact factor of each other’s work." He had dared to request out loud that we game the system, a practice generally discussed in whispers.
The editor is a particularly ambitious young man, who is bright, works hard, and wants to scale the rungs to the top of academe. There are lots of young academics who fit that description, but other non-tenured full-time faculty to whom I mentioned the e-mail were appalled. "You’re kidding," one said, as a look of disgust took over his face. A young woman to whom I forwarded the quote replied promptly: "That impact factor comment in the letter is a little depressing -- are we academics really that pathetic?"
Perhaps because I am a sociologist, that e-mail got me to thinking about the measurement of value in academe. (I had contemplated the politics of self-promotion previously, when another untenured researcher had asked me to "like" his work on Facebook.) Certainly the practice of measuring human value is not a new thing. Economists have long conflated wages with the measurement of human value, as writers from Karl Marx and Adam Smith to today’s neoliberals have clearly shown. (Smith was for conflation; Marx was against; the neoliberals don’t even know that such conflation can be challenged.)
When I was a kid in the 1950s, someone had calculated the worth of the chemicals in the human body -- $1.78. I remember being surprised that a body was worth so little instead of being shocked that someone had even performed the calculation. Today I’m not taken aback to learn on a website that someone has calculated “the lucrative uses for the roughly 130 pieces of body tissue that are extracted, sterilized, cut up, and put on the market” -- $80,000. As I age, I am becoming harder to shock. After all, there is a cadaver industry. At least three television dramas, "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," "The Closer" and "The Mentalist" have reminded me that evildoers will plot to obtain body parts and will kill to make their way up the list of people awaiting transplants.
I don’t think I am naïve. I have heard discussions of impact factors before, mostly when people evaluate their colleagues’ scholarly contributions to decide whether they deserve promotion or tenure. Usually, the term refers to a metric that supposedly summarizes the worth of a journal, calculated by the number of citations per article that it has received either in other journals (as given by either the ISI Web of Knowledge or Scopus) or in books and journals (Google Scholar). There is some variation in how a journal scores, depending on which company is reporting. Scopus emphasizes science journals; ISI includes humanities and social science journals; Google Scholar adds books. The meaning of the metric is simple: the higher the score, the better the journal. It follows that the higher the impact factor of the journals in which a candidate publishes, the worthier the candidate. Thus, a candidate for tenure whose publications are all in journals with high impact is worthier than a candidate who publishes is lesser journals, all else being equal (though of course, it never is). I once heard a biologist praise a candidate for tenure, because he had published in a journal with an impact score of 4.5, which is quite good in most branches of biology and off the charts in the social sciences.
Impact scores affect subfields. Just as the top molecular biology journals have higher scores than the top environmental biology journals, so too within any one discipline, some specialties score higher than others. The more people work in a subfield or a specialty within that subfield, the higher the potential impact factor. Last year when Gender & Society, the journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, had the fourth highest score of the 132 journals in sociology, the organization’s list-serv celebrated. Several people looked forward to telling the news to colleagues who had poo-pooed the study of gender so that they could eat their words.
Impact scores also affect whole universities. Several years ago, top administrators at the University of Chile advised some professors to help improve the institution’s international ranking by publishing in “ISI journals.” (This is also an instruction to publish in English, since the Web of Knowledge is more likely to include English-language journals in their calculations than journals in other languages.) Already one of the top ten institutions of higher education in Latin America, this public university is locked in competition with the private Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
And, of course, impact scores affect the journals being rated. Supposedly, given the choice of two journals that might accept her work, the canny professor will submit to the journal with the higher impact score. The more articles submitted, the more rejected, the better the articles published – or so the theory goes. Editors keep track of their journal’s score and publishers list the scores on their websites. Last year, like other members of one editorial board, I received a joyous e-mail announcing that journal’s impact factor and celebrating its relative achievement. By its fourth year, it had risen to the middle of the pack in its subfield.
To me, an agreement to cite one another’s work accepts the proposition that citations indicate the quality of an individual’s research. That theory receives concrete validation every time that the members of a promotion and tenure committee check how many citations a candidate has received. I’ve seen cases where committee members were so wedded to the measure that they could not hear that the candidate had received few citations because he was in an emerging field and also could not accept that members of such fields don’t score so well on impact measures. When enough people can attend a convention to discuss a supposedly nascent idea, Marshall McLuhan once said, that idea is no longer innovative. McLuhan might well have been discussing the circulation and impact factor of journals.
I find it worrisome that all of these uses of impact factors may shape a field. I've heard tell that after preparing a self-evaluation for a quintennial review of his department, one social science chair urged his colleagues to publish articles rather than books. Articles garner citations more quickly. If everyone published articles, he thought, the department would collect citations more quickly and so would zoom up the national rankings of the quality of departments in its field. The chair forgot to mention that in his discipline, journals tended to publish one kind of research and books, another. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he was essentially telling his colleagues what sort of scholarship they ought to do.
Unhappily, as I think about all of this measurement, I am forced to examine my own practices. It's just too easy to audit oneself and to confuse the resulting number with some form of self-worth. When Google Scholar announced that intellectuals could have access to their citation count, as well as their scores on the h and i10 indices, I first Googled the indices. (I found, "an h-index is the largest number h such that h publications have at least h citations." An "i10-index is the number of publications with at least 10 citations.") Google Scholar was also good enough to tell me the scores of a newly promoted professor and of a potential Noble laureate. Then I looked myself up. After several weeks I realized that by auditing my citation and indices much as I might check my weight, I had commodified myself – my worth to both my department and my university -- every bit as much as the cadaver industry has calculated the worth of my body parts.
I like to tell myself that checking my citation count is only a symbolic exercise in commensuration. After all, no one knows the exact financial worth of each citation of each scholar working at each research university, let alone for scholars in my discipline and subfields. In contrast, the cadaver industry is dealing in concrete dollars and cents. I find the discrepancy between these calculations comforting. I advise myself: since it is only symbolic, my self-audit does not yet qualify as commodification. As Marx might have put it, I have not yet paid so much attention to my product (published research) that I have confused the value of the product with the dignity of the maker. I care about that; I’m discussing my dignity.
But then I think again. My self-audit of my own citation count expresses obeisance to the accountability regime that increasingly governs higher education. (An accountability regime is a politics of surveillance, control and market management that disguises itself as value-neutral and scientific administration.) Sure, the young scholar who had sent me that e-mail advocating mutual citation felt he was advancing his career and protecting himself from failure. But I, too, have been speeding the transformation of higher education from an institution that stresses ideas to one that emphasizes measurement and marketability. I am ashamed to say that in this job market, I would feel hard-pressed to tell the young man to ignore his citations and just do his work.
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality.
The adventurous reader browsing a newsstand in the 1940s could sometimes find a periodical called Sexology. This was not, in spite of its title, a specialized medical journal, but rather a mass-market title in the empire of Hugo Gernsback. The publisher had invented science fiction -- or at least the expression “scientifiction,” which eventually fissured into something easier to pronounce. Sexology was, like Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine. For that matter, it was also full of amazing stories, many of them sent in by readers.
Not that it was Penthouse Letters, avant là lettre. Anxiety was the dominant tone, not arousal. People who wrote in to Sexology tended to be perplexed by what their libidos were doing (or wanted to do, in any case) and they were looking for advice. And among the regular authors dispensing it was one D.O. Cauldwell, M.D. -- a general practitioner who had served as a military doctor and picked up a smattering of Freudian and Jungian ideas along the way.
I became aware of Cauldwell’s psychosexual journalism while studying the Midwestern publishing house of E. Haldeman-Julius, which had roots in the old Appeal to Reason, an extremely popular Socialist Party newspaper during the first two decades of the 20th century. By the late 1940s, it derived more revenue from reprints of literary and philosophical works than it did from socialist pamphlets. But what really kept the press afloat were the booklets (more than a hundred of them) reprinting Cauldwell’s work. There was Female Homosexuals -- Lesbians -- Tell Their Stories and The Intimate Embrace and The Diary of a Sexologist. None of this sat well with J. Edgar Hoover, and the fact that Cauldwell’s oeuvre contained at least half a dozen volumes on transvestism cannot have helped.
Cauldwell documented the range, intensity, and terrific flexibility of the American libido at least as well as Alfred Kinsey, but without leaving a comparable trace in the historical record – although he is now recognized as the first person writing in the English language to use the expression “transsexual” which appeared in one of his Sexology articles in 1949. (The neologism already existed in German medical literature, and it is possible he picked it up.) The pamphlets on transsexuality are now among the rarest items by Cauldwell. In 2001, the peer-reviewed International Journal of Transgenderism devoted a special issue to Cauldwell, reprinting some of his work and otherwise treating him as a pioneer: “a popular writer disseminating information and helping to create a climate in which such things could be discussed in a more open and liberal way.”
The good doctor is absent from the pages of Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin’s The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia University Press), and in a way that is understandable. Cauldwell was not what anyone would call a careful researcher or deep thinker, and his work veers oddly between the sensible and the sensationalistic. Beemyn and Rankin, by contrast, have gathered an enormous amount of data, much of it statistical, and they exhibit all the probity that being vetted by an institutional review board would demand. They are contributing to an established and developing body of knowledge. (Beemyn is the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts. Rankin is an associate professor of education at Penn State.)
The term “transgender,” they explain, subsumes those undergoing or considering sex-reassignment surgery, but is “a general term for all individuals whose gender histories cannot be described as simply female or male, even if they now identify or express themselves as strictly female or male.” Such is the common usage now. But it only serves to underscore the originality of Cauldwell's work, since he meant "transsexual" in roughly the same sense and regarded it and cross-dressing as just part of the continuum of human behavior.
In any case, Beemyn and Rankin are far more methodical than their somewhat erratic predecessor. In 2005 and '06, they conducted a large-scale survey of transgender people by preparing a detailed questionnaire that they circulated online via appropriate listservs, support groups, and the like. Not quite 3,500 individuals completed the survey, of whom 400 agreed to detailed follow-up interviews by phone or e-mail, or in person. Interview subjects were asked to review the transcripts “to make sure their responses were presented accurately and in their own words.”
The questionnaire and interview protocol cover some fairly generic demographic categories -- age, race, citizenship status, sexual orientation, etc. -- but most questions are transgender-specific: “At what age did you begin to feel ‘different’ from others? … How did you experience this ‘difference’? … At what age did you first understand that there were [sic] a group of people whose gender identity or expression did not coincide with their birth sex?” Quite a few questions focus on the difficulties, and in some cases dangers, of being openly transsexual, including how comfortable subjects feel in their interaction with family members, co-workers, and strangers.
And while the very term “transgender” serves to challenge the sexual binary as a way of categorizing people, the range of options for designating gender identity has proliferated wildly. Among those surveyed who had been designated female at birth, the authors note, “45 percent refer to themselves today as male, 36 percent as transgender, and 13 percent as ‘other,’ ” while about half of those in the survey carrying a Y chromosome “now describe themselves as female, 35 percent as transgender, and 6 percent as ‘other.’ ”
Complicating things further is the researchers’ finding that “6 percent of the female-assigned and 12 percent of the male-assigned individuals continue to identify with their birth gender” but “still consider themselves to be transgender because they cross-dress, present part-time as a different gender, or otherwise challenge gender norms.”
The variety of information gathered by the researchers -- and the range of identity and experience subsumed under the heading of “transgender” -- make it difficult to generalize about Beemyn and Rankin’s fine-grained statistical and qualitative analysis of trans life in recent years. Some things do stand out, though.
A majority of respondents in whatever category reported that they “sometimes or often hid their transgender identity.” The psychological benefits of openness seem to be matched by a corresponding degree of risk. Forty percent of those “who reported that they were out to all of their friends were the most likely to state that they had experienced anti-transgender harassment with the last year” (with comparable experiences reported by those who were open about their status “to their nuclear families, extended families, and colleagues”) while only 10 percent of those who concealed their transgender identity indicated they had been harassed.
“Fewer than 10 percent of respondents confronted the harasser at the time (or sometime later),” Beemyn and Rankin note, “and only 6 percent lodged a complaint with the appropriate authority.” A reluctance to involve the police is understandable: other researchers have found that fear of being harassed by the police is common among transgender people. (See, for example, the recent video of a transgender woman being stunned with a taser gun by rangers while she stood with hands in the air.)
The situation on college and university campuses is sometimes better, but it should not be overstated. Of the students, faculty members, and administrators surveyed by Rankin in an earlier national study, 92 percent of transgender respondents “reported that they were the targets of harassment because of their gender identity.” While a growing number of educational institutions have incorporated “gender identity and expression” into their nondiscrimination policies, the authors say that more than 90 percent of two- and four-year colleges have taken no steps at all “and remain completely inaccessible and inhospitable to transgender students.”
The indicators of just how much of an uphill battle trans people still face -- as if things hadn’t changed that much since the days when Sexology magazine was around -- colored my initial reading of the book, and made it seem kind of depressing. I wrote to the authors to ask if they thought otherwise.
“In my mind,” responded Beemyn, “the study shows dramatically different experiences by age. While it may have been largely depressing for people in previous generations, it is often much less so today. Younger trans people in general are not going through prolonged periods of denial, self-repression, and uncertainty; have connections with other trans people from a young age; have role models and mentors; and are able to find friends and partners who support their gender identity.”
Rankin seconded that point. And fair enough: the authors report that 90 percent of their respondents, of whatever age, “realized that they did not fit in with others of their assigned gender by the end of their teen years” -- with large majorities having already felt that way before adolescence, and about one in five experiencing gender dissonance from early childhood on. Most subjects in their 30s and older indicated that they had tried to hide or repress such feelings for long periods, and “more than half of the older participants did not meet another transgender person until they were at least forty years old.”
The contrast with the experience of younger participants in the study couldn’t be more stark. “Among the twenty-one interviewees who were between eighteen and twenty-one years old,” write the authors, “only four indicated that they repressed their sense of gender difference throughout childhood and adolescence,” while “more than two thirds … had already met other transgender people by the time they began to identify" that way.
The formidable array of data presented by Beemyn and Rankin shows that discrimination, humiliation and assault remain facts of transgender life. But at least some of the interview subjects may have more energy to fight them, since they won't be at war with themselves. In time, they will probably take self-respect for granted. If so they ought to go read one of Cauldwell's pamphlets. Even that much information and sympathy, inadequate though it now seems, was once incredibly hard to find.
Robert C. Post’s Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom, published by Yale University Press, is a succinct and tightly argued book, and its subtitle, “A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State,” clearly signals a calm sobriety that can't be taken for granted. It covers topics that typically provoke controversy more often than thought.
Academic freedom and the First Amendment come up for discussion, most of the time, when some conflict is under way, with the ideological battle lines already drawn. The editorials on either side write themselves. And that’s to be expected. Knee-jerk reactions are a pretty shabby substitute for civic virtue, but it’s not like you can respond to every dispute in the public sphere by arguing from first principles. The urgent task is to defend a position.
Post, who is dean of the Yale Law School, is not writing in that rut. The arguments in Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom were originally presented at the Northwestern University School of Law when he delivered the Julius Rosenthal Lectures there in April 2008. Opening the book, my first move was to check its index for the names of certain culture-war belligerents who were much in the news back then. (You can probably guess which ones.) They are, happily, absent from its pages. Post is thinking about structural questions -- not commenting on recent affairs, as such.
Rather than indulge in the columnist’s privilege of going off on tangents, let me offer a précis of the book, followed by some very brief remarks.
That the First Amendment exists “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail” is a familiar and venerable argument, originally framed by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. almost a century ago, and invoked in Supreme Court decisions many times since then. The bit in quotations marks just now, for example, is a typical instance from 1969. The formulation has been assessed and contested at great length by legal theorists. Whatever its merits or deficiencies in general, however, the “marketplace of ideas” argument is no help at all in understanding the relationship between the First Amendment and what Post calls “the production of expert knowledge.”
Expert knowledge is produced within disciplines that regulate what counts as knowledge and what doesn’t. Disciplines involve methods, practices, and judgments that make preempt a laissez faire attitude. And that is a good thing. “If a marketplace of ideas model were to be imposed upon Nature or The American Economic Review or The Lancet,” writes Post, “we would rapidly lose track of whatever expertise we possess about the nature of the world.”
There is a complex and constant tension between the need for untrammeled argument in the public sphere, on the one hand, and the disciplinary protocols that constitute expert knowledge.
I have the right to an opinion about what causes cancer and can express it -- although the fact that I am not a medical researcher or doctor limits what I can do with my ideas practically (without going to prison anyway), not to mention how seriously the theory will be taken.
Which is, all things considered, probably for the best. Of course I may feel that it is terribly elitist, and that the state has no business deciding what counts as good medicine. But in reality, the state has handed over to the medical profession the task of determining the criteria for what counts as real knowledge. The profession also imposes those limitations on its own members.
Or rather, the discipline of medical science establishes a set of conditions in which claims and counterclaims can be tested and adjudicated. The medical profession attends to how the knowledge so created gets put into practice. Nobody else gets to vote.
This hypothetical example (mine, not Post's) is offered it in hopes of making more concrete his careful argument that the tension between open public debate and the self-regulation of established intellectual disciplines is, on the whole, both necessary and salutary. Furthermore, it is in keeping with an interpretation of the First Amendment that stresses its role in the “securing of an informed and educated public opinion with respect to a matter which is of public concern,” to use another SCOTUS formulation, from 1940. That emphasis is quite distinct from -- even potentially in conflict with -- notions that the First Amendment should primarily ensure the right of self-expression or encourage free trade in the marketplace of ideas.
Post's thesis, then, is that academic freedom ensures the production of knowledge (and the reproduction of expertise) through disciplines that serve “an informed and educated public opinion” by clarifying “matter[s] … of public concern” -- but are, in turn, insulated from public opinion. The state must defer to the protocols and the findings of disciplines, which regulate themselves. If a certain theory or idea isn’t being taught or taken seriously within a discipline, that is not a violation of the freedom of speech -- no matter how many people think the theory or idea has merit.
That, then, is a supercondensed version of the book’s salient points -- or some of them, at least. Here are a few quick supplementary observations I made along the way:
Post has been writing and thinking about academic freedom and the First Amendment for a while (see this earlier Inside Higher Ed interview, for example) but his Rosenthal lectures seem less like a summing-up than the preface to a much larger project. He writes that “judicial efforts to safeguard the value of democratic competence ultimately depend upon a constitutional sociology of knowledge.” That sentence is, I suspect, the zygote of a multivolume treatise.
The book does not mention Stanley Fish, which is surprising because he and Post have been interlocutors in one another’s arguments since at least the early 1990s. There are similarities between their perspectives, and differences that are striking, and if somebody wanted to work all of them out in a paper, that might be interesting. In any case, one point in particular seems relevant to the volume at hand:
In an article appearing in the Texas Law Review a couple of years ago, Post wrote that Fish tries "’to find a way to exclude political controversy from the classroom” by making sure that “classroom discussion never affirms or denies the truth of particular propositions … [nor] the desirability of particular forms of action.” Teach the controversy, just don’t take a position, and presto! Problem solved.
Post suggests that Fish is blinkered by “disciplinary parochialism” as a literary critic. The advice would not work in biology, for example. Evolution is a scientific theory. Creationism is not, however it is packaged, and no matter what they decide down at the state legislature. “Political controversy comes to biologists simply because they are doing their job,” writes Post. “Fish’s diagnosis to the contrary notwithstanding, doing one’s academic job confers no immunity from the culture wars.” The exercise of some forms of disciplinary expertise will trip ideological land mines no matter what.
Finally: Post's title, Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom, appears on the dust jacket in such a way that it seems to spell out an anagram: DEAF. This is certainly an accident. Then again, it seems fitting for a book on such controversial matters, since the debate over them seems, much of the time, like a dialogue du sourds.
In today's Academic Minute, Julia Mickenberg of the University of Texas at Austin explains how the political climate of the 20th century influenced children’s literature. Find out more about the Academic Minute here.
A federal advisory panel has asked scientific journals not to publish some details of experiments involving certain viruses, saying that the information could be used by terrorists to create and spread deadly viruses, The New York Times reported. The panel does not have the power to force the journals to keep anything secret, and suggested that the journals find ways to share information with scientists to allow them to further advance work on the viruses. The editor of Science said that the journal was considering the request and might hold back some information.