Hierarchies of Prestige and Circles of Esteem

Here’s a question: what is the metric of success for a comparativist working in a U.S. university?

I’ve thought about this a lot during this trip, which exposes me to a completely different community of colleagues than the one that I engage with normally. That community is made up of other comparative/IR scholars at (primarily) American universities. It’s an imagined community–I know only a fraction of these people personally–but it exists nonetheless. Roughly speaking, among this community success is defined as publications in good journals and university presses, lots of citations by others writing in those journals and presses, training grad students who can land academic jobs, things like that. Prestige is earned among this community by lots of publications and lots of successful students.

But here, in Indonesia, I engage with a remarkably different set of people. Almost none of them are faculty. Instead, they work for think tanks, NGOs, the Indonesian government, foreign donors, or international financial institutions. Very few of them care about whether I can land an article in World Politics. Almost no one cares about “the literature” and whether or not I’m “contributing” to it. Instead, these people are deeply motivated by practical concerns: policy and policymaking, contemporary social problems, and everyday politics. Success for these people means one of two things. It might mean saying something really profound about contemporary Indonesia. Alternatively, it might mean actually making a difference in the daily lives of regular people. There is little chance that something profound about Indonesia will show up in the AJPS (although I’m trying). Prestige, instead, comes from making a difference, however small, in Indonesians’ lives.

There’s nothing special to Indonesia about this second way of thinking about success. I would imagine that nearly every comparativist finds himself going to the countries that s/he studies and encountering a different audience for the work that s/he does, one less concerned with the currency of academic publications and more concerned with real politics. (People who only do cross-national regressions or historical archival work are exempted from worrying about what it means to be successful.)

Robert Cribb–whose wife is also a flutist!–has written about “circles of esteem” among various types of communities of Indonesianists. I think that the analogy travels to different types of work on Indonesian politics, one of which favors academic conceptions of success and awards prestige based on research output, and the other which has a practical conception of success and awards prestige accordingly. The U.S. tenure and promotion system is heavily biased towards the former. On the hierarchy of prestige, academic publications outrank public service. A book >>>>> helping to craft a policy that saves the lives of 100,000 people, the latter being rather difficult to summarize on an academic CV. One awesome backhanded complement that political scientists like to throw around is that someone is “like a public intellectual,” which means that his or her research is, at best, shallow. I have to say that the first conception of success does make sense to me–without weighing in on whether or not I’ve been successful so far, or will be in the future, I greatly enjoy writing articles that I try to get published in good journals, and I like talking about this with other people who are trying to do the same thing.

That said, I don’t know if there’s anything that I enjoy more than what I did yesterday: attend a discussion of religion and cosmopolitanism in contemporary Indonesia at a new NGO, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia. I presented some of my research on this topic, and then we just chatted for a couple hours (the audience included both a representative of the International Republican Institute and a jilbab-wearing Pilates instructor). I wouldn’t want to say that I said something really profound or made a difference to anyone in that room, but I do want to suggest that putting together that sort of public conversation on a topic that’s important to the real lives of lots of real people is not less important than getting an R+R from a good journal. And when I look at the meaningful work being done by some friends and acquaintances who work for the World Bank or for Bank Indonesia or for AusAID or whatever, I’m just in awe. (I’m especially in awe when they also manage to write that work up and get it published in the best journals…that’s just not fair.)

Every time I come to Southeast Asia, and spend my time engaging with this other set of friends and colleagues, it reminds me that the hierarchy of prestige in the American research university is by no means the only metric for considering yourself successful.