Italian Social Science: Generalized Low Quality?
| Nicolai Foss |
In conversations with Italian colleagues I have often been struck by the sad cynicism, sometimes even spite, with which they talk about Italian academic institutions. There is mention of “barons,” backstabbing, secret deals and networks, “the Roman approach,” the Illuminati and whatnot (OK, perhaps not that specific secret society) that hinder fully realizing the potential of Italian social science. To be sure, the situation cannot be entirely debilitating as there is quite serious research being conducted across a number of Italian universities (and as a frequent visitor to both Bocconi and Luiss Guido Carli I can testify to this). But, there is clearly a perception of rot among Italian academics themselves .
Here is a quite controversial 2009 paper, “L Words: The Curious Preference for Low Quality and Its Norms,” by famed rational choice sociologist, Diego Gambetta and philosopher Gloria Origgi. The paper begins thusly: “We have spent our academic careers abroad, Gloria in France and Diego in Britain. Over this long period of time each of us has had over a hundred professional dealings with our compatriots in Italy – academics, publishers, journals, newspapers, public and private institutions. It is not an exaggeration to say that 95% of the times something went wrong. Not catastrophically wrong, but wrong nonetheless.”
The reasons for “this cocktail of confusion, sloppiness and broken promises” that, allegedly, is Italian academia, can be located in a peculiar equilibrium, described as the “L world.” This is not, as one might think, a world described by the PD-game, but rather a situation in which both (all) parties agree on delivering high quality (H) and both (all) deliver low quality (L), and, as Gambetta and Origgi explain,
[o]n the face of it, it looks as if they sell each other a lemon, and yet:
• Nobody seems to complain.
• When we got L in return for giving H and complained, the L-party seemed more annoyed than apologetic. They seem to treat this as excessive fussiness.
• H-doers do not seem to receive much admiration, quite the contrary, they elicit suspicion. As an Italian university ‘barone’ once put it, “You don’t understand Diego, when you are good [at your work] you must apologise”.
• ‘Italians’ end up in LL even if they are playing a repeated game and plan to trade with each other in the future. In other words, they are not deterred from dealing with each other again and do not expect the other party to be deterred by getting L.
• They do not abandon the H-rhetoric, and, more or less explicitly, keep promising high standards.
• A feeling of familiarity develops among L-doers: L-prone people recognise other L-prone people as familiar, as ‘friends’.
It may be that the L-world is, for historical and institutional reasons, particularly descriptive of Italian academia (I have heard similar things said by Spaniards, Germans and Frenchmen, though less emphatically). However, it would seem that strong L-elements are likely to arise in any system that is effectively shielded from foreign competition and in which payoffs from H efforts are low (or, because of punishment, lower than for L efforts), and in which salaries are low (the latter characteristic may, however, be endogeneous to the system being of the L variety).
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