Monday, July 7, 2014

The Logic of Invidious Comparison: Political Science Edition

One of the books that most influenced me has been Donald Horowitz's Ethnic Groups in Conflict.  He borrows heavily from social psychology to argue that ethnic group politics is heavily conditioned by social psychology.  That individuals base their self-esteem on how their group is doing and how other groups are doing relative to their group.  Denigrating other groups makes one's group and oneself seem better. 

He calls this the logic of invidious comparison, and it helps to explain not just ethnic conflict within countries and conflict among countries but also less serious stuff like how much we end up caring about how well our sports teams do and how badly their rivals do.

Why do I raise this now?  Because the website where aspiring and practicing political scientists can trade insults anonymously, Political Science Rumors, has become so obviously a place where Horowitz's logic (and that of the social psychologists he borrows from) applies so strongly.  The general tendency is to focus on the rankings of schools and their performance on the job market--which means that people's egos and their incomes are potentially at stake if reputation matters so much more than the work. 

Lately, the focus has shifted, perhaps because we are in between job markets (the poli sci job market starts to kick into gear in the fall with the first applications due in mid September and the first interviews taking place mostly in October and beyond), we now see heaps of posts taking shots at different subfields.  People are trashing Political Theory, then they pile on International Relations and so on.

Given that most people are not that competitive beyond their subfield, why should they care about which journals matter to those in another subfield?  If people get tenure in place x because there are many respected IR journals that count towards tenure, how does that matter to anyone else in another subfield?  If these people at place x get denied tenure, it is very, very unlikely that the new job that might emerge from this denial would be in another subfield.  So, there is no real rational reason to care so much about what each subfield tends to value, yet the subfield trashing goes on. 

The logic of invidious comparison seems to make the most sense to me.  One denigrates IR to make one feel better about one's own subfield and improves one's own self-esteem, and IR people denigrate other subfields to make themselves feel better.

Of course, making sense of anonymous posts is a waste of time, but it is my time to waste ;)  Still, Horowitz's stuff gives me a good understanding of not just ethnic conflict, but the World Cup and posts by unnamed people.  So, woot for Horowitz!

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