Image: Pablo GarciaSaldaña

On Academic Celebrity

Friday 9th October, 2015

Peter W. Walsh

Research on celebrity is growing fast. In English-language publications since 2000, the phenomenon has attracted several books of scholarly analysis and a dedicated journal, Celebrity Studies. However, in all this research, one form of celebrity has been unjustly neglected: celebrity within academia.

As few as two sociology articles have tried to explain the rise of academic celebrities. The first, by Michèle Lamont, ‘How to become a dominant French philosopher: the case of Jacques Derrida’, analysed the successful legitimation of Derrida’s philosophy in the diverse cultural markets of the United States and France. The only other sociological study of star academics appears to be by Stewart Clegg, whose 1992 article, inspired in both form and title by Lamont’s study, was published in The Sociological Review as, ‘How to become an internationally famous British social theorist’. It analysed the success of Anthony Giddens.

Yet the potential presence of celebrity, often characterised as the froth of modern life, in universities, domains associated with the serious pursuit of such high-minded ideals as truth and beauty, raises pressing sociological questions.

First, how does celebrity within academia differ from that without; does it emerge under special conditions and exhibit distinctive characteristics? Second, how might the phenomenon be studied? Third, is academic celebrity really a frivolous distraction from the truly important things in academic life, or does it have a greater significance? That is, what are its consequences; might celebrity influence appointments? And finally, is academic celebrity problematic in its consequences? Can celebrity status, for example, exempt scholars from the accepted standards of academic scholarship, or bias evaluation of their work?

To get the ball rolling, I propose that academic celebrity, far from being the froth of university life, is in fact an important feature of it. It is embedded in academia’s institutional structure and culture, and exerts potentially wide-ranging and important impacts on universities, scholars, and students. Some of its effects warrant critical scrutiny. For example, academic celebrity may entail what Robert K. Merton has coined the ‘Matthew Effect’: the disproportionate cumulative advantage of already-famous scholars relative to those who have not yet made their mark. Might this result in ever greater and unwarranted inequalities of academic status, prestige and power, including celebrities’ essentially unearned domination of the intellectual attention space?

There are perhaps further dangers and injustices of academic celebrity, and as social scientists, sensitive to issues of power and fairness, and with a trained scepticism of conventional forms of hierarchy and authority, our analysis of this phenomenon seems long overdue.  

Now that Clegg’s fascinating Sociological Review article has been made open access for all to read, it would seem fitting to call on colleagues to add to our understanding of this most important subject.

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