On Priests and Jesters

In the book that launched his career, Simone Polillo (2013) writes of the sociological conflict between so-called conservative and wildcat bankers. The conservative bankers ally themselves with government lawmakers to have strict laws on who is considered creditworthy. Their goal is to maintain the dominance over who gets to receive credit. These conservative bankers get challenged by wildcat bankers, who expand the realm of creditworthiness, and then force other financial institutions to also loosen their financial standards or they won’t get the same share of the business. What is considered creditworthy is, thus, subject to historical change.

For us sociologists, the view of the binary conflict has substantial heuristic advantages, and very much defines the conflict sociological perspective. The classic thinker in conflict sociology is Karl Marx, who divided the social world in two classes, who are battling each other in the social economy: the feudal lords against the bourgeoisie, and the capitalists against the workers.

When the French Revolution happened, the political terms “left” and “right” were created. The left signified the people, who sat on the left of the podium in the national assembly and consisted of the Jacobins and the radicals. These were the people, who screamed for an end to the monarchy, the beginning of equality, freedom, justice, a new calendar, new science and the new republic. On the right sat people, who defended the status quo, the monarchy, the aristocracy, what is known and what is familiar. Edmund Burke (1790) had famously attacked the French Revolution for throwing overboard all the institutions, which retained stability in France. He pointed to the bloodshed, the devastation, the mass executions and the near civil war as the inevitable outcome of the revolution. Eventually, Napoleon Bonaparte took over and the masses were flocking to him, so as to re-embrace stability. But the radicals naturally deserve a fair hearing too: who would consider it just when a few people own much of the wealth of society while letting people, who do all of the labor, live in poverty?

The overall point in this contention is simply that there are binary social forces that signify social conflict and usually contain the element of change. The one force tends to be conservative and wants to preserve what is already there, and the other force is discontent with the status quo and wants to shake things up. In this post, I focus on the community that I know best: academia. Whenever I meet academics, I evaluate them based on their substantive research interests, their intellectual persona (which not everyone has, e.g. pure positivists, who “do science”, but do not live and breathe it and retain curiosity in many aspects of life- and I do admit that my experience in Oxford has spoiled me in my views), and on whether they are academic priests or jesters.

This might sound like very harsh terminology to use to evaluate colleagues, but it became crystal-clear to me once I found myself on the ‘jester’ side of the fence. (Priests being more conservative can afford to be ignorant on this distinction, similar to whites not having to worry about race relations because they belong to the dominant racial group.) Let me begin by where this term comes from: the ardent Polish communist and anti-cleric, Leszek Kolakowski, eventually became an ardent anti-communist and cleric. What an intellectual biography! In his later years, he compared Marxism to a religion because of the eschatological element that all contradictions will result in a final resolution and that all human suffering will be dissolved in a final day of judgment.

Ardent Marxists become priests (conservative), who defend the catechism with rational and less rational arguments, and their critics become jesters (radicals), who reject any form of rigid thought and value a high degree of skepticism (Connelly 2013; think of Popper’s (1963) principle of scientific falsifiability, which Marxism does not meet in his eyes). Within Christianity, we have ‘priest’ priests, who uphold the actual catechism, and the ‘jester’ Martin Luther types, who simply question the catechism (though sometimes becoming priests for the new religion themselves rather than perennial critics, like Noam Chomsky).

For academics in general, I consider a priest to be someone, who wants to maintain strict standards in his field and in his profession, and a jester is someone, who has a general sense of those standards, but might be critical of them and welcome alternative standards.

A priest might ask whether someone is asking legitimate research questions, citing the appropriate literature, applying the right method the right way. When they are at the journal referee, hiring and tenure evaluation side of things, they will be the most uncomfortable to deal with.

A jester is fine when all of these factors are somewhat fulfilled, but direct most of their energy to speak of their substantive interests in the research. When they are on the evaluation side, they are purposefully lenient, and probably have a good understanding that scholarly life is about the leisure of thought and independent inquiry rather than six top journal articles and the academic press book. Sure, devote your life to science, but don’t forget to smell the flowers.

Now, some people may say that it is the academic institution, which forces us to become priests, even if we don’t want to. Let’s not forget that the academic standards for tenure have increased because the universities are minting too many graduates relative to the available tenure employment. And as a sociologist and institutionalist, I would be foolish to ignore these structural constraints, especially because it’s by making this point that we see our field’s value-added. But all of these forces don’t matter at the individual level even if they matter at the structural level. We strangely still see both priest and jester types even as the academic competition has become harsher.

Another complication to the theory is that single individuals may be both priests and jesters but at different contexts. Think of a lenient grader for students and a harsh reviewer in academic journals or vice versa. This is true, but I am just dealing with Weberian ideal-types, and will not be able to make a comment on variations in all cases (though that is ultimately the goal of the ideal-type: to compare the real cases with the ideal-type).

We also need to qualify the theory for older vs. younger faculty, which I made in an earlier post (Liu 2016). It is from my experience that the older faculty (jesters) tend to be more relaxed than the younger faculty (priests), and that could be the result of the fact that graduate training has become more rigorous for the younger cohort of teachers. It could be that coming fresh out of the methods training that one want to apply those standards as strictly as possible. It could be that the harsher tenure environment ups not only the standards of “good research” but also the general expectations of it. This is similar to the education credentialing phenomenon widely observed in sociology (Collins 1979). As more and more people get a college diploma, it is worth less in the labor market, and will be expected of all job applicants rather than make the degree holder stand out from the rest of the crowd. For whatever reason, the inclination of the older faculty is generally associated with more relaxed standards.

Let me use an example of an academic workshop that I attend. I am relatively new to this kind of academic format, where all the participants read one person’s work, usually a dissertation chapter or a draft journal article, and criticize it. There is one discussant, who writes the critique up, and the rest just chime in with comments and verbal feedback. The research area is not particularly of interest to me, but the critical attitudes of the audience was. I distinguish between three types of people in the workshop: the senior professor, who is also the convener, or jester; the junior professors, or the priests; and the graduate students, some of whom becoming priests and others being loyal to jesters.

The senior professor would lean back in his chair and listen intently without ever raising any questions or criticism. He would nod along with interest, and laugh when everyone else does. It seems like he is just attending the meeting to learn something about the paper and the research. The junior professors pay close attention to the arrangement of the paper (footnotes vs. main body; topic sentences, paragraph structure, logic), the rhetorical impact, the citation of the ‘proper’ literature, the use of evidence. “We know how this academic game is played, so make sure you tick the right checkboxes.”

With the graduate students there is not much of a clear pattern, and most line up between the extremes. I suspect that the younger graduate students retain their default jester position, because of their inexperience with critically evaluating arguments and papers. Given enough time and continued exposure to the comprehensive experience of academic life, they might adopt the same mentality as the junior professors. As of now, I consider myself a jester, because the structural flaws in the papers that I read are not so interesting or not so obvious as much as the content of the argument and whether it poses any substantive interest to me.

Conflict drives historical progress, as Hegel might have claimed. It is only when conservatives and radicals, priests and jesters clash that new truths are uncovered. The priests are the standard bearers of orthodoxy, while the jesters are trolling and questioning those standards. What the two sides have in common is that a conservative cannot live without the jester and that a jester cannot live without the priest, because without the critics, there is nothing that needs defense, and without a standard bearer there is no standard to be violated. One of my jester professors (on par with a bon vivant intellectual) said, “There are two types of people. Those who divide the world in two and those who don’t.” To perfectly contradict herself, I considered her to be part of the latter category (if we exempt the first sentence in the quote). She enjoyed social theory and considered all social science discipline as being related and one. She likes to violate conceptual boundaries and occasionally pontificate on topics dear to her heart. And I think she also likes to smell the flowers.

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