Thursday, February 16, 2023

U.S. Philosophy PhDs Are Still Overwhelmingly Non-Hispanic White (Though a Bit Less So Than 10 Years Ago)

Nine years ago, I compared the racial and ethnic composition of U.S. academic philosophy, as measured by PhDs awarded, with that of the other humanities. I found -- no surprise -- that a large majority of Philosophy PhD recipients were non-Hispanic White. I also found, somewhat more to my surprise, that this did not make it unusual among the humanities. Digging into the details suggested an explanation: Many of the subfields of the humanities, e.g., German literature and European history, specialize in the European tradition. Such subfields were typically as predominantly White as philosophy or even more so. Subfields of the humanities specializing in non-European traditions, e.g., Asian history, tended to be not nearly as White, with substantial proportions of PhD recipients identifying with the racial or ethnic category associated with the region.

At the time, I suggested the following hypothesis: Philosophy might be overwhelmingly White because students tend to perceive it as something like an area studies or cultural studies discipline focusing on the European (and White North American) tradition. (See Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield for an articulation and critique of this way of seeing academic philosophy as practiced in the U.S.).

Nine years later, I find myself wondering to what extent the pattern still holds. Time for an update!


Before presenting the results, two nerdy methodological notes (feel free to skip).

Methodological note on ethnic and racial categories and non-response rates: These analyses rely on the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED aims to collect data on all PhDs awarded in accredited U.S. universities, and typically reports response rates over 90%. The most recent available year is 2021 (response rate 92%). Data are based on self-report of ethnicity and race. The top-level category split is temporary visa holders vs. U.S. citizens and permanent residents. U.S. citizens and permanent residents are divided into Hispanic or Latino, not Hispanic or Latino, or ethnicity not reported. Respondents who identify as not Hispanic or Latino are then divided into the racial categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, White, More than one race, or Other race or race not reported. The analyses below exclude temporary visa holders and respondents who did not report their ethnicity or race or reported "other".  In Philosophy, 76% of respondents indicated that they were U.S. citizens or permanent residents (18% indicated that they were temporary visa holders, and 6% presumably did not answer the question), and among the U.S. citizens and permanent residents, 5% either reported "other" or did not report their ethnicity or race.

Methodological note on disciplinary classification as "Philosophy": Before 2021, the SED had a two philosophy-relevant subfields, "philosophy" and "ethics", which were generally merged in public data presentation. (In a custom analysis I requested several years ago, I found that "ethics" was only a small number of doctorates.) Starting in 2021, there are three philosophy-relevant subfields: "History/philosophy of science, technology and society" (68 PhDs awarded), "Philosophy" (399 PhDs awarded), and "Philosophy and religious studies not elsewhere classified" (degrees classified as broadly within the field of philosophy and religious studies but not designated specifically as philosophy or specifically as religious studies; 67 PhDs awarded). "Ethics" no longer appears to be a category. My analysis will focus only on the "Philosophy" group. For comparison, in 2020, 460 PhDs were awarded in "Philosophy" or "Ethics", and in 2019, 474 PhDs were awarded in "Philosophy" or "Ethics". It is likely that most of the degrees that would have been classified in 2020 as "Philosophy" or "Ethics" are classified in 2021 as "Philosophy". However, since it's unlikely that the number of philosophy degrees awarded declined by 13% between the two years (from 460 to 399), it is likely that a small but non-trivial percentage of degrees that would have been classified as "Philosophy" or "Ethics" in 2020 are now classified as "History/philosophy of science, technology and society" or as "Philosophy and religious studies not elsewhere classified". In short, the 2021 "Philosophy" degree category is probably largely comparable but not exactly comparable with the earlier "Philosophy" and "Ethics" degree categories.


Philosophy, 2021 PhDs (290 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 9.0%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.0%
    • Asian: 4.1%
    • Black or African American: 2.8%
    • White: 81.0%
    • More than one race: 3.1%
For comparison, among all PhD recipients (30,830 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 9.3%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.3%
    • Asian: 9.8%
    • Black or African American: 7.9%
    • White: 69.1%
    • More than one race: 3.5%

Philosophy PhD recipients approximately match PhD recipients overall in percentage Hispanic or Latino.  Among respondents who are not Hispanic or Latino, Philosophy PhD recipients approximately match PhD recipients overall in percentage who report being more than one race, but compared with PhD recipients overall, Philosophy PhD recipients are substantially less Asian, Black, and (perhaps, though for numbers this small, chance fluctuations can't be ruled out) American Indian or Alaska Native.  Finally -- as these other numbers imply -- philosophy is disproportionately White.

Rewinding 10 years to look at the "Philosophy" and "Ethics" combined category from 2011 (367 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 4.9%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.0%
    • Asian: 3.8%
    • Black or African American: 2.7%
    • White: 87.2%
    • More than one race: 1.3%
Here we can see the tendency, as I've noted before, toward increasing percentages of Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and multi-racial philosophy PhD recipients, while the numbers of American Indian/Alaska Native and Black/African American philosophy PhD recipients remains disproportionately low, with little to no increase.

How about field by field? Among the 300 "detailed" fields of study -- NSF's finest-grain division -- Philosophy is the 40th Whitest (by percentage non-Hispanic White). NSF no longer includes categories for French & Italian or German literature, which used to be very White area studies categories, but several European / North American area studies categories remain in the new classification. All are at least as non-Hispanic White as Philosophy. Specifically:
  • European history (89.7% non-Hispanic White) [in 2011: 92.7%]
  • Classical and ancient studies (88.4%) [in 2011: 92.6%]
  • American history (U.S.) (86.3%) [in 2011: 81.5%]
  • American literature (U.S.) (85.3%) [in 2011: 82.6%]
  • English literature (Britain and commonwealth) (81.6%) [87.9%]
Note than in the humanities "classical" and "ancient" typically refer to ancient Greek and Roman culture and not, for example, ancient China, India, Africa, or the Americas.

Note also: Of course, European history and literature and U.S. history and literature are not exclusively White! However, as with Philosophy, the contributions of people we would now racialize as White tend to be centered.

Other PhD subfields with comparable or higher percentages of non-Hispanic White PhD recipients include music theory and education, meteorology/ecology/geology, animal sciences, and astronomy/astrophysics. Possibly, music theory and music education as typically taught in U.S. PhD programs tend to emphasize the White European and White North American traditions.

If we look at the humanities and social sciences more generally, they tend to be more ethnically and racially diverse than philosophy and the European area studies programs. For example, the social sciences overall are 66.7% non-Hispanic White; foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics overall is 61.3% non-Hispanic White; and general history (without a regional focus) is 71.2% White. The humanities overall is 76.3% non-Hispanic White, but of course that includes substantial numbers focusing in area studies or philosophy.


I draw two conclusions:

First, the pipeline of PhDs into philosophy in the U.S. remains over 80% non-Hispanic White, despite recent gains in the percentage of Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and multi-racial philosophy PhD recipients.

Second, the moderate increase in ethnic/racial diversity in PhDs -- from 87.2% non-Hispanic White in 2011 to 81.0% in 2021 -- is not part of a general trend toward increasing diversity in European and North America focused "area studies" PhDs, which generally remain about 80-90% non-Hispanic White.

These two observations are consistent with the view that academic philosophy is to some extent, but perhaps to a decreasing extent, still experienced by students as an area studies program focused on a certain aspect of European and North American culture or literature. I wouldn't lean too hard into that possible explanation, though. Probably at least a half-dozen other plausible hypotheses could be constructed to fit the data, and there are some non-area-studies fields, like meteorology/ecology/geology, that are even more proportionately White that Philosophy, for reasons I cannot guess.

1 comment:

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Just an idea, Eric---not saying it solves the puzzle: custom and tradition are chance propositions. Why is this so? Because there is both wisdom and ignorance at play. Accordingly, one relying on either is but a coin toss away from success or failure.

(A less rhetorical note, though possibly aligned with custom and or tradition: white people love to argue. It gives a great adrenaline rush.)