Academic hierarchies

I was having a conversations with some colleagues of mine on Friday, and was telling them about my experience at Víkingaheimar Museum in Reykjanesbær. I mentioned that in Iceland, as in most of Scandinavia, there is a very "flat hierarchy", which means that the metaphorical distance between the person on top and the person on the bottom of the hierarchy is very small. Icelanders do not go around showing a lot of deference to their president, and the same is even more true for anyone in a position of some authority. The Scandinavian tradition is one of equality, and that the role one plays in the work place or society does not make one "better" than anyone else.

So I was joking with my colleagues about how different this was than my experience working at a large American corporation. There, the hierarchy was very clearly marked. I sat in a room with 12 other cubicles. We had grey carpeting and tan cubicle dividers. Around that room were 6 doors. 3 of those doors opened to modest sized offices without windows, 2 of those doors opened to modest sized offices with windows, and the final door opened to a large office with big windows. The carpet in the modest size offices was grey and dark green. The carpet in the large office was all green. Appropriately enough, of course, those of us who were low rung clerks sat in the cubicles, middle management sat in the modest offices, and finally the big boss had the big office. The hierarchy was marked in every possible way, even down to the carpeting, so none of us would ever forget it.

Compared to Corporate America, academia in the U.S. is not very hierarchical. But it is still hierarchical, definitely. I do not know the top professors in departments other than my own, I would never presume to call them by their first names, and I was a nervous wreck approaching Meg Conkey to be my outside advisor, because she is a luminary in her field. But the chair of my department does not get any kind of different office than anyone else, and graduate students are generally treated with a lot of respect. But then we are a Scandinavian department, and we are at Berkeley, a public institution with a strong hippy culture.

Oddly enough, I think academia in Iceland takes some effort to establish and maintain hierarchy, more so than some other fields. But I could be wrong about that.


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