Italian Social Science: Generalized Low Quality?

1 July 2012 at 8:33 am 8 comments

| 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).

Entry filed under: Ephemera.

Ockham’s Razor Handbook of Economic Organization

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  1 July 2012 at 7:24 pm

    There are exceptions, I am sure that Jack Birner delivers H consistently. Of course he is a CR Scholar.

  • 2. Scott Masten  |  2 July 2012 at 8:37 am

    I think that this is fairly common, if only in certain environments. I first encountered it on a part-time job in the building and grounds department of a local college when I was in high school. Working at a steady speed, I was frequently told by the full-time employees to slow down; in their words I was “killing the job.”

    But more to the point, the Chronicle of Higher Education had a post this weekend under the heading “The Claggart Syndrome,” the teaser for which reads “Why do faculty members who stand out at community colleges for their accomplishments in writing or scholarship end up being viewed with suspicion by certain colleagues?” (

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  2 July 2012 at 8:43 am

    Scott, It is a general phenomenon, of course. Leibenstein’s _Inside the Hierarchy_ (can’t recall if that is the exact title) is great on this ….

  • 4. Scott Masten  |  2 July 2012 at 8:47 am

    “Inside the Firm: The Inefficiencies of Hierarchy.” As it happens, I reviewed the book for the Antitrust Bulletin when it first came out, though it’s been years since I returned to it. Time to take another look.

  • 5. stevepostrel  |  2 July 2012 at 10:07 pm

    The Gambetta-Griggi paper neglects the possibility of a stag-hunt game with risk-dominant equilibrium. Their surrounding narratives, however, don’t make that seem like a good fit to the outcomes they observe.

  • 6. Georges  |  3 July 2012 at 8:02 am

    Is it that true? And if they are part of the game and acting strategically (not only in analytical terms), the conclusions might be different!

  • 7. Rafe Champion  |  4 July 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Jack Birner currently lives in Italy, he is Dutch by birth and he is also an Austrian, a deep scholar of Popper and Hayek (among other things). He was a keynote speaker at the previous International Conference on Aust Ec in Argentina.

  • 8. Italian social | Zxr12  |  5 September 2012 at 2:41 am

    […] Italian Social Science: Generalized Low Quality? « Organizations … […]

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