Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mobsters and Academics: Signaling Incompetence

In his review essay on Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, Scott McLemee touches on a mode of communication that's common between mobsters and academics:

Rather than getting involved in running a restaurant or dealing drugs, they [the mafiosi] joke about their cluelessness in such matters and simply collect payment for "protection." But this professed incompetence (evidently quite well-demonstrated on the rare occasions that a mafioso tries to go legit) makes them strangely "trustworthy" to those using their services: "If [mobsters] showed any competence at it, their clients would fear that they might just take over."

Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, the struggle for advancement often involves a great deal of horse trading. "The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. Debts and credits are even passed on from generation to generation within a professor's 'lineage,' and professors close to retirement are excluded from the current deals, for they will not be around long enough to return favors."

The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of "some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride.... Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts."

Well, one also has the impression that the author is here on the verge of writing a satirical novel. But a friend who is interested in both the politics and academic life of Italy tells me that this account is all too recognizably accurate, in some fields anyway. Gambetta calls the system "an academic kakistocracy, or government by the worst," which is definitely an expression I can see catching on.

This may seem like a tangent from comparative criminology. But Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso's way of signaling that he can be "trusted" within his narrowly predatory limits

"Being incompetent and displaying it," he writes, "conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one's own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity.... In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts."