The Knowledge Polity: Teaching and Research in the Social Sciences

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A notable feature of academic life is its open-ended nature and the freedom to pursue what interests you in a variety of forms. Of course, what makes academe desirable can also make it frustrating. One of us had a provost at a liberal arts college who liked to say that, “You should spend 9/9’s of your time teaching, 3/9s of your time on research, and 1/9 of your time doing service work.” Another of us had a chair who used to say, “Research and teaching are weighted equally, with research weighing a lot more.” In the rush to teach that next class, make that next meeting, or draft that overdue response to a coauthor, the lack of systematic information about core aspects of the job – as reflected in these takes – can be both enervating and, at times, infuriating.

In sharing our versions of these stories, we realized the need to interrogate basic narratives about what academics do. We were motivated by deep concerns about equity. The professoriate should reflect the society it researches and teaches about, all members should have access to resources and publishing outlets, and, of course, all members must carry the load of responsibilities necessary to conduct academic affairs at the department, university, subfield, and society levels.

Thinking about academia in this way led us to see the paucity of some models of knowledge production, especially those focused on pipelines. While such models accurately describe the many steps of publishing research, they fail to highlight how communities and institutions, directly and indirectly, influence whether there is research to review, who funded it, who it is produced with, who reviews it, and who accepts or rejects it. It’s not nearly a village, but it does take an organized set of institutions and scholars to produce and publicize knowledge.

In our book The Knowledge Polity: Teaching and Research in the Social Sciences, published this spring by Oxford, we try to fulfill these needs. The bulk of the book examines what and how much we do, and why. We distributed surveys to just about 9,000 political scientists and sociologists in 2017. We first randomly selected 308 American Political Science Association member departments, gathered all affiliated faculty emails, and surveyed them. We then identified sociology (or cognate) departments in those same universities and repeated the process. The response from sociologists (21%) was a bit higher than that for the political scientists (17%); to no one’s surprise, the response rate from economists (in a companion study in 2019) was so low as to be unusable. This means we have 1,485 responses detailing faculty members’ social ties, personalities (as in the Big 5 as well as risk aversion), demographics, home lives, and, of course, their varied activities in research, teaching, and service. We discuss the composition of the sample in some detail in an Appendix.

The book addresses some big, perennial questions:

  • How much do we publish in journals and books?
  • How much time and resources do we devote to research and how are those resources linked to our track records?
  • How much time do we spend teaching given our course loads?
  • How much do we review and write for public outlets (e.g., blog)?
  • And how do these patterns vary by race and gender given their relative concentration across ranks and disciplines?

Gender is a primary focus of the book (we had a non-binary option, but it was selected by only one respondent). It was especially interesting to study gender in our dataset, given the difference in composition between political science (~40 percent women) and sociology (~ 60 percent women). We expected to find that gender gaps, such as in publication rates, were reduced in sociology as a result. What we found, however, was that there were larger and more persistent gender gaps in sociology, though they were not absent in political science. Examining the data by rank, many gender gaps were much attenuated or were localized to a particular rank. Even if publishing had few gaps between men and women, some gaps were persistent, such as the degree of submitting research to top journals.

Looking at race and ethnicity, we find no significant gaps in submissions and publications in the past year in either discipline. However, faculty of color are less likely to submit to top journals, especially in sociology, and Black and Latino/a faculty also have fewer career publications and lower H-indices than their white colleagues. The Black-white gap in career metrics might be narrowing, as it is much larger for senior than junior faculty, though gaps between Latinx and white faculty persist at both the junior and senior levels. There are many possible explanations for this that we discuss in the book, one of which is that journals have been and perhaps continue to be inhospitable to work about historically underrepresented groups, which women and racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to produce.

From a wide-ranging set of analyses, we reach four conclusions. First, although much of our book focuses on context, some of the most enduring relationships we discover relate to personality (as measured via standard social-scientific inventories). For instance, many of us see the journal review process as conflictual, so it is no surprise to find that more agreeable people have greater levels of publication anxiety (we develop a measure of publication anxiety; it describes reticence to engage that process). Since women are more agreeable, and not just in our sample, this personality dimension is a prime mover in the gender gaps we observe.

Second, online and offline networks shape individuals’ responses to academic life. For instance, co-authored projects move more quickly through the pipeline and are more likely to get an R&R (at least that is how our sample reported it). But coauthorship has other important effects  –  it can help individuals overcome personality traits that would otherwise encourage delay. Faculty who lack the personality trait of conscientiousness report projects that drag out longer than others, but having coauthors results in those projects moving as quickly as among the highly conscientious.

Third, our data reveal the critical role of institutions in structuring work conditions. Just two variables – type of degree program (PhD vs MA vs BA) and professional rank (i.e., non-tenure track versus assistant, associate, or full professor) – tell us a good deal about one’s teaching, research, and service output. PhD full professors spend the most time on research and the least on teaching, but they are not the most productive in terms of articles  –  they publish at the same rate as assistants. However, they are much more likely to have written a book in the past year.

Fourth, while our disciplines show few differences and share much in common, more journal space (often 6 issues versus 4 in political science) appears to make sociologists more relaxed about the publication process: they submit less, publish more, report suffering fewer rejections, have less publication anxiety (using our new measure), and take somewhat longer to develop projects.

We argue that viewing academe as a polity in which citizens have rights and responsibilities better fits the reality of what is very much a system of shared governance over knowledge production. There are so many places where other faculty have input into how researching and teaching comes together that models focused on individuals toiling away in their offices ring hollow. It’s no surprise that three political scientists thought ‘polity’ was the right metaphor, but asking who gets what, when, and how  –  a classic definition of politics  –  sure seems to illuminate the dynamics of academic knowledge production.


Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University in Granville, Ohio and is an affiliated scholar with PRRI.

Amy Erica Smith is an associate professor of political science and a Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Professor at Iowa State University.

Anand Edward Sokhey is an associate professor of political science and starting July 2022 will be the director of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Comments 2

Hina Khanna

July 13, 2022

I agree with you in a lot of things and your blog make me aware of many things but at the same time I think that both research and playing games are equally imporant. I am a teacher and I feel that childern understand a lot of difficult things a lot easier via playing games.

anu sree

August 6, 2022

Studying social sciences gives students an understanding of the real world around them. Students learn about places, cultures, and events around the world, what conspired to make them the way they are, and can make inferences about how the rest of the world works.

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