On Academic Labels and the Genesis of Norms
I recently had to write a short bio of myself (an autobio?) because Samer convinced me to throw my name in for student rep for the Academy of Management (AoM) Communication, Digital Technology, and Organizations (CTO) division. In writing that bio, I got thinking about the labels that academics give themselves to establish their domain of expertise, and to signal the community to which they belong (which in turn signifies in some ways how they see the world and engage in studying it.
I study how organizations use technology, think about technology, talk about it. I used to work in the Communications, Media, and Technology (CMT) division of Accenture within the Applied Analytics practice. So I think I'm a good fit. But I have no real experience with the AoM's CTO. I also happen to have the odd distinction of having a previous PhD. In the original draft of my bio, I had mentioned my prior PhD in Ecology. Samer, knowing in some detail about the content of my prior PhD, preferred the label PhD in Computational Systems Biology, which more accurately described what I did within the broader field of Ecology.
Both labels are right, similar to how my current PhD could be called a PhD in Management, or a PhD in Strategy and Organization (which is the name of the division of the PhD Program in Management at the Desautels Faculty of Management to which I belong). Even more accurately, I could say that I am working on a PhD in the Sociology of Organizations, or Organization Theory, as these labels further specify my point of view, the scholars from whom I inherit vocabularies, and who the intended audience of this stage of my research career is. The Ecology label evokes, to some, the academic in a jungle in Costa Rica, taking samples, perhaps, or the researcher in a greenhouse, tending to her flock of butterflies. My experience, especially towards the latter half of my first PhD, was rather more in silico. In the end I decided to say that I have a prior PhD in Computational Systems Biology because this label signified a more technological point of view, apropos of CTO.
This process of appropriating and translating identity labels from another field to signify intent in a present field reminded me of a conversation I had with the great Henry Mintzberg this week, where we were taking about how norms are formed and adopted. Henry was referencing the founding of the Jesuit Order, and talking about how in certain communities, social norms are often standardized as a coordination or control mechanism. Norms are usually inherited from social forbears, and are "taken for granted" as things one must do. A case like the Jesuit Order, which is a relatively young order, offers the opportunity to observe how these norms begin. In Henry's estimation, founders get to pretty much make up a set of practices which will then get reified (taken-for-granted-ified) in the subsequent generations of acolytes. My counterpoint about the genesis of norms was that even these founders inherit norms from other similar social groups, as a form of lateral transfer of social practice and knowledge, which then gets mutated and translated to meet the needs of the present. In the case of the Jesuit order, the founders would have inherited norms from other holy orders contemporary to the founding of the. Jesuits, in terms of how someone belonging to a holy order should dress and look and act and speak, which would have been modified to signal who the Jesuits wanted to be.
I wonder, then, about the existence of patterns of inheritance of vocabularies and practices associated with the genesis of expert knowledge communities or other epistemically bounded communities?
How are these patterns of inheritance impacted by the identity-signaling needs of these new communities?
Relatedly, how do new expert entrants into these communities recombine labels and vocabularies from their former and intended communities, and how is this latter inheritance/recombinance process impacted be the entrant's identity-signaling needs?
Image from: Polz, M. F., Alm, E. J., & Hanage, W. P. (2013). Horizontal gene transfer and the evolution of bacterial and archaeal population structure. Trends in Genetics, 29(3), 170-175.