An ethnography of grant review

Over the last couple of weekend lunches I’ve read Michéle Lamont’s  How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Here’s the (slightly hype-y) blurb from Harvard University Press:

Excellence. Originality. Intelligence. Everyone in academia stresses quality. But what exactly is it, and how do professors identify it? In the academic evaluation system known as “peer review,” highly respected professors pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the work of others. But only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what is said. Michèle Lamont observed deliberations for fellowships and research grants, and interviewed panel members at length. In How Professors Think, she reveals what she discovered about this secretive, powerful, peculiar world.

I think “peculiar” is the most apt of the adjectives in that last sentence, because Lamont didn’t really address the interface between the grant-review process and the outcomes – it was more concerned with the processes of deliberation and the construction of norms of quality that go on. A really interesting read, particularly if you are US-based social scientist (the “study population”). I found myself itching to know more about the cultural differences that might occur, between for example the US, the UK, and Europe; or between the social sciences as construed in the book (from economics to English literature) and the behavioural and life sciences (psychology, biological anthropology, biology). But those are interests motivated by my own disciplinary and geographic situation.

I took two things away from the book: the first, Lamont’s message that quality/excellence are a bit ineffable, but that in general people “know it when they see it”, regardless of disciplinary background. The second was that there are two levels of the process that the applicant has no control over: the  mix of people and perspectives on a grant review committee, and the alchemy of how they reach their decisions about what is quality and deserves to be funded and what is not. These seem to be almost completely unpredictable, and would encourage me, if a grant proposal were rejected somewhere or sometime, to resubmit it elsewhere.

The book is very readable, with a great mix of synthetic commentary and verbatim quotes from the reviewer participants. Gave me a real insight into the decision-making criteria used by more interpretive disciplines/individuals, too.

Note: have been travelling and busy, but a return to regular postings next week. Starter for 10 will go monthly from now on, too.
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