Mapping the field – What makes a professor in linguistics?

Analysing academic worlds is very straight forward – that’s at least what one might think!

There are these researchers doing their research in a particular way depending on their discipline and their research field, working in strong international networks and publishing in journals of global renown. However, once our team started to dig into this we weren’t sure, any longer, if there is only one academic world or rather multiple worlds, depending on the administrative culture and the institutional structure of academia in a particular country.Things are relatively clear if we look at a single country. However, as soon as we started trying to compare the institutional part of academic life in different countries, we ran into trouble: What is a higher education institution? To what extent do French elite institutions like the Grandes Écoles have equivalents in other countries? Does becoming a full professor in Germany have the same requirements as in the UK? Does professorship entail the same sort of activities and responsibilities in the whole academic world? Subsequently does the professional title convey the same sort of prestige in each country? What are the research fields and how are they defined by the researchers of these fields? In order to answer this kind of questions we started to collect information that researchers provide on their websites and in their online CVs.

Comparing fields of research in Linguistics, Sociology, Semiotics and Postcolonial studies across France, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States, we found out, for instance, that careers in France are much more streamlined by official bodies such as the National Council of Universities (CNU) who classifies researchers according to the content of their PhD thesis and some publications into different disciplinary sections. In contrast, in the United Kingdom careers seem to have a little bit more flexibility in terms of the discipline. For instance, professors in a linguistics department can hold a PhD in sociology. As in the UK not every university has a Linguistics department, professors of Linguistics may often be found in other departments such as departments of languages, communication or philosophy. And then, one can find people in Linguistics departments that have degrees in Computer Sciences or Cognitive Sciences and also do their research in these disciplines – should they be regarded as linguists?

From this perspective one realises it is sometimes difficult to judge if a researcher should be identified as a linguist just by browsing his/her webpage. If we wanted to understand better academic careers of linguists in general, we had to come up with some criteria for what we would consider a linguist. This entails lengthy discussions – we will share with you some of the fruits of our labour in our next blog entries. A first step, for the moment, was to pay close attention to people who hold full professorship. Studying their cases would allow us to gain a deeper insight into possible trajectories that one could take in an academic career. Would there be any collaborations or typical institutions that one has to pass through before becoming a professor? Are there typical trajectories for specific research fields?

In order to develop our ideas about professors in linguistics we first needed to define who we would consider as a professor in linguistics. When running through the websites we learned that on the professorial level, in the UK, linguists can be professors or hold a chair at universities. They are often part of centres dedicated to linguistics and sometimes part of other departments. Often but not always they hold a PhD in Linguistics. Contrary to the French case, in the UK, for a professor working in a linguistics department, it is not necessary to hold a PhD in Linguistics; therefore, a PhD in Linguistics was not established as a first determining criterion to identify linguists in the UK.

The following criteria, which are summarised in the schema below, helped us to decide if we would consider a certain professor as a linguist: Whether a person is either a professor working in a linguistics department or centre or a Professor of Linguistics constitute two determining criteria. If one of them is fulfilled, one of these two following criteria must apply:
– The person must have a PhD in linguistics or publish under his/her own name in linguistics journals.
– Finally, the person’s research interests have to fall under one of the various sub-fields e.g. language acquisition, phonetics, psycholinguistics, discourse, etc…

Seems complicated? Maybe this flowsheet will make things a bit clearer…

database checklistNEW

** Click to enlarge

Using these criteria, we found 474 linguistics professors in France (or Directeur de recherche), 563 in Germany, and 155 in the UK. With some reservation, we can say that this represents the approximate number of professors in 2015 when we went through all institutional webpages of universities, research centres and other higher educational bodies [1]. However, we realised that especially in France researchers are not always represented on the websites of their universities but rather on the websites of the research laboratory to which they are affiliated to. Hence, in France the research laboratories and research centres appear much more important for the positioning of researchers in their field than universities or departments. These numbers taken alone seem already to suggest that there are some substantial differences in the institutional structures of the three countries – especially between the UK and the continent.

If you are interested in how we go further and what else we can learn from this kind of data you are invited to follow the upcoming blog entries on the mapping of the field. This series on the mapping is for those of you who want to embark on a research trip from the comfort of your office chair withstanding, of course, the risk of eyesight damage and serious brain exhaustion.

[1] For the US the case is a bit more difficult, due to the high number of universities and colleges in the US, the team has not yet been able to fully crunch the numbers for this case.

Ronny Scholz

Project Manager of DISCONEX

Image: University of Warwick, archives

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