Thursday, July 08, 2010

A word on status issues in the biz

It's always anthropologically or sociologically interesting to attend mixed economist-lawyer gatherings, as I have been doing in Munich and also do with great regularity in the U.S. The overall status relationship between the groups is clear: economists in the aggregate have higher status, although in particular pairwise groupings the lawyer may be higher-status. (Of course, a shared assessment requires that both individuals know who the other is.)

Before saying more, I should interject here that I personally am anti-hierarchical and detest status rankings. Deference makes me very uncomfortable whether I am the giver or the receiver. This is partly personality and partly absorbed ideology (I grew up mostly in the 1960s, which effectively ended in 1972 at the earliest and 1974 at the latest). But if you are a member of the human species, then unless you have Asperger's Syndrome or some such condition, I think you cannot avoid being keenly conscious of status issues in any social milieu that you find yourself in. It's there, whether or not you choose to act as if it matters.

Against this background, economists vary from those having zero interest in talking to lawyers, to those having a negative presumption that is very hard to overcome (even if you know a lot of the secret handshakes), to those who make individualized judgments and are very willing to think that lawyers can have interesting ideas, knowledge, and insights. (I'm equating here intellectual interest in talking to a person with status judgment about her, but in academics these categories exhibit strong overlap.)

So far as all this is concerned, the main difference between Europe and the U.S. is that most of Europe has had significantly less lawyer-economist mixing than the U.S. (One further byproduct for me, of course, is that economists in Europe are less likely than those in the U.S. to know anything about my work, or should I pompously say about "who I am.") But Munich, where I am now, is much more U.S.-like in this regard, as settings such as the Max Planck Institute have allowed much lawyer-economist mixing to occur.

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