Prestige Bias in Philosophy


In this paper, I argue that prestige bias is both the first and the final hurdle to make academic philosophy more inclusive….  Prestige bias is a first hurdle to diversity, because countering it provides a wide-reaching way to make philosophy more diverse even if we did not increase our efforts to increase diversity specifically. By actively working against prestige bias in our assessment of doctorate-granting institutions, journals, topics to work on, and authors to follow, we can get diversity on the cheap, so to speak. We can cast a wider net in recruiting and retaining young philosophers, and many philosophical ideas can flourish. Prestige is also the final hurdle, because prestige bias has been relatively unchallenged compared to other forms of bias. Philosophers are becoming increasingly aware that sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism are not only morally wrong but also bad for the profession…

We can make the discipline only truly inclusive once we abandon prestige as a measure of quality. I start out by examining prestige bias in academia, focusing on philosophy. I then examine whether prestige bias might be justified by the claim that prestige is an imperfect but useful and quick heuristic of some other quality, such as raw philosophical talent or brilliance, or, in the case of journals, quality of argumentation. I show that this isn’t the case, and that there are reasons to suspect that prestige is often valued for its own sake, which creates worrying patterns of exclusion in philosophy, in particular for disabled, non-English speaking, female and other minority groups. I offer some concrete suggestions to counter prestige bias.

The above is from the abstract of “Prestige: the first and final hurdle for a more inclusive philosophy” by Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes). At the link you can find the abstract and the presentation slides (the paper itself is not yet available online).

Some thoughts of mine on the topic:

1. There seems to be a difference worth noting between prestige bias and biases regarding race, gender, sexuality, disability, class. If, under some conditions, we found that the biases in the latter group were in fact helpful in identifying philosophical quality, we would take that as a reason to find those conditions objectionable. In contrast, if prestige bias were in fact helpful under certain conditions in identifying philosophical quality, it is not clear that we would take that as a reason to find those conditions objectionable. In other words, we are open to the possibility that prestige tracks quality, even if, as a matter of contingent fact, it now doesn’t.

2. Prestige bias seems to arise, at least in part, from the outsourcing of judgment of philosophical quality: to rankings of departments, to the “consensus” on the quality of journals, to social stereotypes, etc. Such outsourcing saves time, and has the psychological advantage of being part of the dominant status quo practice. But it is easy to see that if too many people outsource too often and too thoroughly, then the system spins apart. Prestige becomes increasingly untethered to current and accurate assessments of quality, and pre-existing status hierarchies calcify.

3. Given the nature of philosophy, it seems implausible that there could be a metric that tracks philosophical quality as such. Yet, clearly, some philosophical works are better than others. If there are to be qualitative comparative assessments of philosophy, then it would seem that they would have to be within narrowly defined genres (e.g., contemporary analytic work on personal identity over time), in regard to some specified respect (e.g., rigor, creativity, plausibility, etc.), and, likely, in regard to some philosophical aim (e.g., arguing for a comprehensive theory, exploring new territory, raising problems for existing views, etc.). This makes comparative judgments of philosophical quality rather complicated. It also makes it unlikely that philosophical quality maps onto one other thing—especially something as messy and opaque as judgments of prestige.

4. It is tempting to read criticisms of prestige bias and dismiss them as “sour grapes.” That is a way of not engaging with arguments and evidence.

Here’s a previous post on prestige in academia.

Discussion welcome.

Samarra Mosque

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