Elites, Social Networks, and the Historical Profession

By Mark Sholdice

My research examines the role played by small groups of people working towards common ends.  In other words, I am fascinated by elites.  Having spent almost ten years of my life in several universities, I am also intrigued by the role of elites in academia.

In early December I came across a study which reported that a handful of graduate political science programs dominated hiring in that field in the United States.  Robert Oprisko’s research, published in preview in the Georgetown Public Policy Review, shows that just eleven programs account for over half of all tenure-track hiring by political science departments (or to put another way, the graduates of about 10% of all departments represent half of all new hires).  Oprisko concludes that “there is a direct correlation between institutional prestige and candidate placement.”  Yet he adds: “Of course, this is somewhat expected given that the most prestigious programs are often also the ones that have the highest numbers of students. As we move forward with this project, we will control for institution size and output.”

I wondered about how the size of these elite departments may account for their preponderance in hiring.  Using the historical profession in the Canada and the United States as roughly similar to political science, I did some quick-and-dirty calculations which I’d like to share.

One result I found is that a small group of US universities supply most new history PhDs, and that PhD students in these departments are more likely to graduate than their peers in smaller programs.  I took data from the American Historical Association’s on-line guide to Canadian and American PhD programs in history to evaluate enrolment and graduation rates.  I discovered that there are about 8736 PhD students in approximately 150 history programs in the US.  The 31 departments in the top quintile based on size have around 3969 PhD students, or about 45% of the total.  Overall, the US minted 787 history PhDs in 2011-12 (not including history of science and other specialist programs), of which schools in the top 20% produced 395, or just over half.  While this may be an aberration in the data or the result of mistakes in reporting, I think it is a finding worth further study.

Unfortunately I lacked easily accessible data in Canada on history PhD graduation rates.  But I did discover that the five largest Canadian PhD programs (i.e. 20% of all Canadian PhD programs) only account for about 9% of total number of PhD students.  Thus, PhD training in Canada is far more widely distributed than in the United States.

I would like to find further data that correlates graduation rates, program size, funding, and other variables for PhD history programs in Canada and the United States, and to see this data linked to a similar study as Oprisko’s.  I suspect that “elite” universities dominate history tenure-track employment because of their prestige and established social networks in hiring committees.  But I also think that program size, graduation rates, and funding play a significant part as well in this overrepresentation.  Current efforts at “internationalization” (i.e. a shift in new hiring away from North American and European history, towards other parts of the world) in many departments may also account for this trend, as larger departments seem to produce a relatively larger number of PhDs in non-European, non-North American specialities.

Elitism and academic employment is also linked to a potential research project I would like to undertake in the future (or someone else with strong quantitative data skills): a social network survey of the historical profession in Canada since the late-nineteenth-century.  This idea came to me after I stumbled across “The Philosophy Family Tree,” a project begun by Josh Dever at the University of Texas at Austin.  This effort links philosophers to their advisors and  creates a genealogy through the centuries.  For instance, Dever traces back five generations of advisors to Susan Stebbing (1885-1943), a British analytic philosopher.  I was also aware of musical “lineages” that trace music students and their teachers back to the early modern period (see for instance Paris Smaragdis’ musical family tree, which links him to J.S. Bach).

I thought a similar exercise might be interesting to apply to myself and other friends in my PhD program at the University of Guelph.  I connected two of my colleagues, through four generations of advisors, to Donald Creighton.  It was interesting to discover that I am a fifth generation “descendant” of J.M.S. Careless.

This raises other questions for me: are certain lineages more successful in replicating themselves in the historical profession?  If so, what are the reasons for this success? Is it access to resources and the power of social networks across history departments? Are there other factors to consider?

I’ve long been surprised that academics, who are otherwise very active in analyzing power relationships in society, have yet to fully investigate these patterns in their own institutions and professions.  But it seems clear that new initiatives such as Oprisko’s are underway to further understand such trends.

Mark Sholdice is a PhD candidate at the Department of History, University of Guelph, which forms the Tri-University Program in History with Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier universities.  His current research is a transnational study of the movement for the public ownership of hydroelectricity in New York and Ontario in the early-twentieth-century.

9 thoughts on “Elites, Social Networks, and the Historical Profession

  1. Very interesting piece Mark. I’ve been thinking about a relatively similar project: typing all the names from all the acknowledgements sections of academic history books in a giant file, and doing a network analysis to see which names are most associated with which. That would be a great and relatively “feasible” (if, of course, you can afford several research assistants) way of making a genealogy tree for the history profession in the U.S–and I guess in Canada as well…

  2. That sounds like a very interesting project. And yes, it seems that the shear expense of data-collection and entry is a barrier to such studies.

  3. Hi Mark – interesting article.

    What precentage of Canadian citizens have Ph.D.s (no matter in which country earned)? This would seem simple information to uncover, but I’ve not been able to. And of course it would be good to know what percentage are women.

    best wishes from an ‘independent scholar’ (thereby hangs a tale) in Montreal.

  4. Thanks very much Mark. I can at least take satisfaction in, since 1995, being one of those women. :]
    Like you, I haven’t been able to find figures specific to History.
    best,
    SC

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