Friday, April 03, 2009

Armchair Sociology of the Profession, part 3: A Manifesto on Geography and Social Networks

(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)

I’ve spent most of my philosophical life hanging out in philosophy departments up and down California, partly by luck but also by disposition. This year, however, I’ve been living on the East Coast and I’ve been struck by the difference geography makes to the profession. (Caveat: In what follows, I frame things mostly in terms of differences across coasts, but I expect that many of these factors are at play to lesser and greater degrees in the interior of the U.S., and these issues will certainly be salient to philosophers coming into the US from abroad. But I write in terms of coastal examples since that is what I know firsthand. Also, I'm going to focus on West Coast disadvantages, ignoring some of its clear advantages in non-professional ways.)

Consider the dense network of terrific departments in the Boston and New York areas. This proximity is conducive to a range of interactions and a degree of inter-departmental familiarity that is much harder to reproduce nearly anywhere else where geographic clustering of departments is not so tight. MIT, Harvard, BU, BC, and Tufts are all closer to each other than are two schools that are frequently thought of as relatively close, geographically speaking: Berkeley and Stanford. The latter are more than 10 times as far apart from each other as those Boston area schools! Although I didn’t bust out Google Maps to check, I’m pretty sure the same is true of the L.A. area schools vs. those Boston schools, too— the distances on the left coast are much larger. So, in places like NYC and Boston, you’ve got a density of philosophers and departments that can’t be matched elsewhere. And, indeed, something like this is true on the North Atlantic coast as a whole, at least in comparison to the West Coast.

This isn’t to say that there is as much interaction in the greater Boston and (I imagine) New York areas as an outsider might expect—professors everywhere are over-extended and can’t participate in everything. Still, there are lots of effects, many indirect and apart from philosophical feedback and interaction. Here are some:

First: financial effects. It is cheap to go to local talks and conferences in at least the North Atlantic states, because the distances are not huge and the transportation options are good and comparatively inexpensive. So, if you’ve got a fixed research account, you can afford to go to comparatively more conferences than your West Coast brethren on the same budget. Similar economies of distance come into play on the interpersonal axis as well. If you have a family, and a partner who is willing to put up with you going away for professional travel without family, it is surely easier to do so when you can be gone for shorter periods of time, which closer geographic proximity permits.

Second: effects of professional esteem. In a previous post, Eric wondered about the curious stability of UCR’s rankings. I had some things to say about it in the comments, but one of the things I floated was the hypothesis that departments will fare less well in reputational rankings if they are not part of a densely networked collection of departments. Since, if I’m right, this is partly driven by geographic proximity, geography ends up having an impact on things like the Gourmet Report, the perceived quality of degrees for a given graduate program, and so on. That is, philosophers will more highly rate departments they are familiar with, but if familiarity is partly a function of geographic relationships, than geographically isolated departments will suffer from a geographic bias among evaluators, and this propagates through the profession in complicated ways.

Third: early careers. A big problem here is the Eastern APA, where everyone goes to look for a job. Pretty much everything about the Eastern is bad, but for West Coasters it is invariably more so. It is more expensive to get to, more time-consuming to go, and one is less likely to have faculty advisors and supporters present when you get there. It would be interesting to compare how East and West Coast job candidates fared over several iterations of the market if all the East Coast candidates and none of the West Coast candidates had to suffer the effects of jet lag and time zone changes, of having diminished numbers of advisors, committee members, and departmental mentors present during the hiring bloodbath, and so on. My bet is that putting the meeting in San Diego for a few years would help the performance of West Coast folks and hurt the performance of East Coast folks. Anyone want to try?


Fritz McDonald said...

These are interesting points. I'm skeptical about the idea that location has an adverse effect on perceived reputation of departments. Pitt, the University of Michigan, and Notre Dame are pretty far (in geography) from other top-ranked programs, yet this does not seem to have any adverse effect on their place in the gourmet report rankings.

Peter W. said...

The fact that Pitt, Michigan, and Notre Dame are highly ranked doesn't show that their reputation isn't adversely affected by location. Maybe those same faculties would be ranked even higher if they were in the Northeast.

Of course another possibility is that the factors described will be less detrimental to the strongest faculties and have more of an effect on faculties that are strong but not in the top rank. At a certain level of prominence, philosophers in your field will be reading your work wherever you are located so ease-of-networking becomes less important (which isn't to say that it doesn't matter at all). My guess is that the factors you describe apply generally, but have a more powerful effect on departments outside of the top 20.

As armchair sociology goes, I think your theory is very plausible, but of course it's not as if there's an experiment we could conduct that would prove it to the satisfaction of those who are more skeptical.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't know, Peter, the San Diego experiment sounds pretty good to me! (Less chance of being snowed in, too.)

Brian said...

One (possibly outdated) data point I wanted to add to this discussion. As my post-doc at Syracuse was drawing to an end I applied to a bunch of schools on the east coast, and a bunch of schools on the west coast. The application included recommendations from people who were then pretty well known on the east coast, but not so much on the west coast (i.e. Ted Sider and John Hawthorne).

In the end I got to the interview (or equivalent) stage at every east coast job I applied for, and at precisely one of the west coast jobs I applied for. And that was CalTech where Alan Hajek was then chair of the search committee, and he knew me from Australia. In the end I was hired at Brown.

Since I was coming from the east coast side of things, the split between the east and west coasts didn't end up costing me (to say the least). But it was really striking how differently I did on the two coasts, and the equivalent kind of split would not be a lot of fun for someone coming from the west coast.

My (very unscientific) opinion from the last few years on the east coast is that there's much more contact with Europe in philosophical terms than with the west coast (with the odd exception of Bellingham). And that has I think a big reputational effect, which manifests itself directly in Leiter rankings, and indirectly in things like job searching.

Michael Metzler said...

I vote for San Diego. Currently 70 degrees, sunny, with perfect humidity - light breeze of course. What better place to do philosophy? I'm only ten miles from UCSD, but feel pretty well disconnected geographically from the world of philosophy- just a feeling.

Manuel Vargas said...

I'm inclined to think that if there is a geographic effect, it is likely less pronounced for top-notch departments, but still present to some degree. So, I suspect, if Notre Dame were located in Manhattan or Boston, it would have even greater esteem that it has, but perhaps not dramatically more. Similar remarks hold for very good but geographically isolated departments (I'm thinking of places like Arizona, Michigan, Texas, et.c) In short, I'm with Peter W.

And Brian, thanks a ton for the comment. I know we aren't supposed to draw robust conclusions from a single piece of data, but I'm counting that as decisive support for my theory of geographic location's relevance to early careers.

Maybe those of you going to the Pacific can, after the APA bit on discrimination, propose to move the Pacific at the current time of the Eastern. Then, we'll just insist that it makes more sense for the hiring to happen at the Pacific, given weather considerations.

Chris Alen Sula said...

There are certainly location-based anomalies in the history of philosophy, even recently, such as J. L. Austin and C. L. Stevenson hearing of each other's work but not reading or meeting each other (actually, I believe one may have read the other's work eventually, but I forget the direction). At present, I think you're right that location has some indirect influence on the field, but it may be diminishing with the advent of online communication, online conferences, the prevalence of travel, etc. Still, as you and some of the comments point out, it's probably personal connection that's really running the show.

I'm just coming across your three posts now, but I'd like to point out work I'm doing with David Morrow to visualize and map some of these trends: We have a forthcoming paper called "Naturalized Metaphilosophy" up at that speculates about the sociological and psychological mechanisms that drive the field. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

Also, there's a Google map of Ph.D. Programs in philosophy at

Super V said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Manuel Vargas said...

Chris- Thanks for the tips. Your project sounds really interesting, and I look forward to see the project grow. I imagine you know of the Philosophy Family Tree project. It would be great if there were a way to combine the information in your databases!

For those who haven't seen the Philosophy Family Tree, go here: