Prized Vocations

A sociologist speculates on the nature and function of awards. Scott McLemee considers the merits of the argument.

July 14, 2010

I know a professor who enjoys as much success as any of his colleagues would ever want: an endowed chair, numerous books from major publishers, and a position in the leadership of his professional organization…. This is the short list. But he once pointed out that something was missing from his CV. He had never won an award.

This came up a few years ago, not long after I’d won one award and been listed as the finalist for another. My initial assessment was that he was pulling my leg. But there was something mildly forlorn in his manner, and this did not seem like irony. Though neither was it envy, exactly. My worldly status is pretty small beans; and heaven knows that no money was involved in my award -- unlike, say, receiving an endowed chair. (That goes on my tombstone: No Money Was Involved.)

And yet the element of longing was unmistakable. So much so that I have pondered it ever since -- not in regard to my friend’s personality, as such, but for what it implies about the role of prizes and awards in general. More than fifty years have passed since Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in a work of social satire. It was not meant as a term of praise, by any means. He worried that the rise of meritocracy would be destructive of social solidarity -- filling those at the bottom with despair, and those at the top with ever more perfect arrogance.

This was a good guess. The term has long since lost any critical force; the very notion of meritocracy now seems self-legitimating. But prescient as he was, Young did not anticipate the excess of desire that the system might generate – and not only among individuals. The giving and getting of awards creates its own expansive dynamic. As the number of awards proliferates, so do the committees required to nominate and judge them. (Upon receiving an award, one’s chances of being co-opted onto such a committee approach 100 percent.) This situation may be beyond satire’s power to illuminate, although the Nobel for Literature should certainly go to anyone who manages it.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of Theory, Culture, and Society contains a paper called “The Sociology of Vocational Prizes: Recognition as Esteem” by Nathalie Heinich, research director in sociology at the National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris. It draws on interviews with winners of French literary and scientific awards -- although the data so harvested appear in the paper almost as an afterthought.

An old joke has it that natural scientists discuss findings and social scientists discuss methodology. In this case, one might go a step further; the center of gravity is almost metaphysical. And appropriately enough, perhaps. Heinich’s argument is that understanding the social function of awards should go beyond more or less economic analogies -- i.e., the award increases one’s access to consumption goods, either directly or by enhancing one’s power -- and instead look to the dimension of “ ’intangible’ outcomes.”

But this is not a matter of what Heinich calls “mere psychology.” Rather, the granting and receiving of awards is part of the intricate and interdependent processes of social recognition within democratic societies -- about which, see half a dozen or so sociologists and philosophers (Norbert Elias, Axel Honnith, Nancy Fraser, etc.) on the dialectics of respect and esteem.

The paper feels like the prolegomenon to something much longer: a book that would interpret how the drive for prestige operates in institutions where the spirit of collegiality must reign. Heinich is, in short, framing questions rather than giving answers. But what’s interested me about the paper, after reading it three or four times, are the passages when you get a whiff of her fieldwork.

Beginning in 1985, Heinich interviewed a dozen French authors who had received major literary awards, including the Nobel. In 2002, she conducted another 16 interviews, this time with “mostly French-speaking” scientists who had received the annual Jeantat Prize for research in medicine and biology.

She defines both literature and science as “vocational” endeavors -- borrowing from the old religious sense that a vocation is a calling: one that involves both demands and rewards that are distinct from those of the market place. (On this point, an American would tend to use the word “professional,” although the differences of implication would require opening a very much longer parenthesis than this to discuss.)

But the relative isolation involved in writing makes it a more purely “vocational” activity than is the work of scientists, which is conditioned by access to institutions and infrastructure. And this -- by Heinich’s account – means that literary awards tend to have a much larger impact on recipients than do scientific awards.

“There is no formal recruitment procedure” for poets and novelists, she writes, “no regular permanent salary, no career marked out in advance, no official titles and ranks, no regular collaborators, and no work premises to go to every morning to meet with one’s colleagues. Given such a weak socialization of the activity and the uncertainty of its value, a big literary prize can be a great event in the life of a writer. For a scientist, however, winning a prize is only one element among many within the highly structured stages of professional recognition … [which include] laboratories, procedures of institutional recruitment, the system of varied and peer-reviewed publications, collective work, the material registration of proceedings, the regular handling of considerable financial resources, etc.”

This study in contrasts is not beyond all dispute. Writing is a solitary activity, but the literary life also has its own politics and economics, even among the poets.(Especially among the poets, is my impression.) Interviews with playwrights might have generated very different data about the relationship between vocation and socialization.

And Heinich seems to treat literary prizes as falling outside the normal routine of a writer’s life -- while the sheer proliferation of awards now makes them a routine part of one’s daily awareness. The announcement of winners for awards come by e-mail at a steady clip. Indeed, one arrived as I was revising this.

So there is plenty more work to be done on the sociology of literary awards. But let me go on to cite an interesting observation from Heinich’s interviews with 16 Jeantat Prize-winning scientists:

“Only three of them, including two non-native speakers of French, have hung it on their office wall. The rest have stored it ‘somewhere,’ sometimes ‘in a nice place’ (but not on the wall) in their apartment, sometimes only to be put away by their spouse, and sometimes to be later packed away in a drawer or box, where nearly all of these prize winners would be hard put to find it again. ‘Don’t ask me where it is!’ begs one of the awardees, while another confesses, ‘I’ve got a lot of plaques; they’re collecting dust at my place. And I think the Jeantat Prize must be there, too, collecting dust.’ ”

The sociologist notes that “this openly asserted discretion on the part of the interviewees concerning the display of prizes is clearly a pronounced cultural trait that distinguishes them from prize winners from the English-speaking world, who seem to have no qualms about proudly displaying their distinctions.”

Asked to account for this reluctance to put the award up for all to see, one of the Swiss interview subjects responded that it might be a lingering effect of Calvinism. Either an awful lot of French biologists are of Huguenot extraction (someone should look into this) or the Puritans had less effect on American culture than is commonly supposed.

Of course, another explanation is possible, such as Heinich’s hypothesis. Anglophone cultures are, she writes, “often marked by the competitive spirit.” In them, “victory consecrates the good player but does not, however, signify an agonistic wish to eliminate the adversary.” By contrast, there is “the value of cooperation in Latinate cultures, where formal equality prevails and any claim to excellence appears as a moral shortcoming.” Hence “victory must not be asserted by the winner, only designated, more or less clearly, by others.… On the one hand, then, a performance imperative reigns, and on the other hand, a modesty imperative.”

Perhaps -- though as a worldly colleague points out, Sarkozy's effort to turn French educational and research institutions into so many lean, mean, reputation-generating machines may yet tip that fine balance.

And on this side of the water, all the awards anyone may ever find wall space to hang will never quite silence the feeling that, after all, you'd best keep nose to the grindstone. "For the night cometh, when no man can work," as we recovering Calvinists sometimes say.


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