Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Philosophy Is Incredibly White -- but This Does Not Make It Unusual Among the Humanities

Tina Fernandes Botts and colleagues have recently posted a fascinating analysis of the shockingly low numbers of black- or African-American- identified philosophers in the United States. According to their data, 1.3% of U.S. philosophers self-identify as black (compared to 13% in the general U.S. population).

Now I was all set today to work up some speculations on why philosophy is so different from the other humanities and social sciences in this regard (a favorite hypothesis: a disciplinary addiction to the cult of genius plus a high degree of implicit bias in anointing geniuses). Then I went to the Survey of Earned Doctorates to look up some of the raw data. There, I found that the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy is not so unusual among the humanities, if one digs down into the subfield data.

Since I suspect some other philosophers might also be surprised to discover this, I thought I'd aggregate the three most recent years' data by humanities subfield (U.S. citizens and permanent residents only), considering only subfields with consistent SED classifications across the period and excluding general and catch-all categories.

Starting with philosophy we see:

  • 84.5% white
  • 6.8% Hispanic 
  • 3.0% Asian
  • 2.0% black or African-American
  • 0.0% American Indian
  • 3.6% multi-racial, other, or unknown

  • (Respondents describing themselves as Hispanic were not counted toward any other category.)

    Looking only at "white" and "black", here are all the other coded humanities, bolded if either the white percentage exceeds or the black percentage falls below that in philosophy:

    Foreign Languages:

  • French & Italian literature: 87% white, 3.4% black
  • German literature: 91% white, 1.2% black
  • Spanish literature: 51% white, 0.9% black (45% Hispanic)

  • History:

  • American history (U.S. and Canada): 82% white, 7.3% black
  • Asian history: 53% white, 0.8% black (38% Asian)
  • European history: 90% white, 1.6% black
  • History, science, technology, and society: 85% white, 2.7% black
  • Latin American history: 50% white, 6.6% black (41% Hispanic)
  • Middle/Near-East studies: 84% white, 0.0% black

  • Letters:

  • American literature (U.S. and Canada): 78% white, 6.6% black
  • Classics: 91% white, 0.4% black
  • Comparative literature: 73% white, 4.0% black
  • English language: 79% white, 7.1% black
  • English literature (British and Commonwealth): 86% white, 1.7% black

  • Other humanities:

  • American/U.S. studies: 60% white, 14.6% black
  • Archaeology: 85% white, 1.6% black
  • Art: 81% white, 1.5% black
  • Drama/theater arts: 78% white, 5.8% black
  • Music: 77% white, 2.7% black
  • Musicology/ethnomusicology: 78% white, 2.6% black
  • Music performance: 79% white, 2.2% black
  • Music theory and composition: 87% white, 0.5% black
  • Religion/religious studies: 81% white, 4.3% black

  • These data thus stand in sharp contrast to the gender data, where philosophy is unusual among the humanities in remaining overwhelmingly male. Philosophy is joined by French, German, and Italian literature, English literature, classics, European history, archaeology, and music theory in being mostly non-Hispanic white folks.

    Now in a way it's not too surprising that the study of German and Greek literature, European history, etc., should tend to disproportionately attract white folks. After all, the average white person probably identifies with such literatures and histories as part of her own ethnic or cultural heritage more than does the average non-white person. Perhaps, then, the best explanation of the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy is similar: Despite aspiring to be a broad, topically-driven inquiry into fundamental questions about truth, knowledge, beauty, and morality, perhaps philosophy as currently practiced in the U.S. is experienced by students as something closer to the study of a piece of ethnically European cultural history.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Also see:
    Why Don't We* Know Our Chinese Philosophy?
    Citation of Women and Ethnic Minorities in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    and
    SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers.

    11 comments:

    Amod Lele said...

    Well, one can't imagine Middle Eastern history being experienced as "a piece of ethnically European cultural history", except to the extent that ALL humanities disciplines are experienced that way, even after decades of Edward Said. There seems to me a more basic explanation: a humanities degree requires a very high level of investment relative to payoff, one that people raised poor are less likely to pursue given the more pressing need for immediate economic benefit. I wonder what the numbers would be like if you could control for socioeconomic class?

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Amod: I don't entirely disagree. I suspect the causes are multi-factorial, including both what you suggest and my implicit-bias-genius-myth hypothesis and probably some other things besides.

    One striking fact about the data, not emphasized in the post, is that once one gets outside the ethnically European, what tends to happen is a mix of whites and people of the relevant ethnicity and very few from other ethnicities.

    The Middle Eastern history case is complex, though, I think, for at least two reasons. One is that it presumably includes Biblical history, which might be a non-trivial portion of the PhD's, especially at religious institutions, and which is probably experienced by most U.S. whites as part of their cultural heritage. Another is that our typical ethnic categories strain a bit with Middle Eastern cases.

    Anonymous said...

    Despite aspiring to be a broad, topically-driven inquiry into fundamental questions about truth, knowledge, beauty, and morality, perhaps philosophy as currently practiced in the U.S. is experienced by students as something closer to the study of a piece of ethnically European cultural history.

    This doesn't really seem warranted by (at least a quick glance at) the data. The numbers for mathematics and the hard sciences don't seem appreciably different (looking only at the 2012 results because I'm lazy):

    Mathematics:
    4.2% Asian
    1.4% Black
    2.7% Hispanic

    Physical Sciences:
    3.7% Asian
    1.4% Black
    3.0% Hispanic

    Chemistry:
    6.0% Asian
    2.6% Black
    2.9% Hispanic

    If these don't count as "topically-driven inquiry into fundamental questions", I don't know what does.

    (Also, incidentally, you say that "respondents describing themselves as Hispanic were not counted toward any other category", but this doesn't seem consistent with at least the table I'm looking at -- http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2012/pdf/tab22.pdf -- which says in a footnote to the Hispanic numbers that the category "includes persons reporting Hispanic ethnicity, whether singly or in combination with one or more races". This would be consistent with the US Census data, which treats Hispanic as an ethnicity that cross-cuts race.)

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Anon Sep 3: I think you have the wrong number in the denominator, if you're looking at Table 22 from 2012. The denominator should be Column E, since the ethnicity analysis is limited to US citizens and permanent residents. So I get:
    Math: 78% white, 3.5% black
    Physical sciences: 77% white, 3.4% black
    Although 3.5% might seem not so different from 2.0% in one way, I think it's actually quite material, approaching double the rate -- though still far from proportionate to the general population.

    Still, in terms of demography, the case could be made that philosophy is closer to math and the physical sciences in that philosophy, unlike most of the humanities and social sciences but like math and the physical sciences, is still overwhelmingly male. I had starting working on this blog post thinking that the social mechanisms might be similar -- and maybe that's right. But looking at the ethnic situation in other humanities, plus my own reflections about the neglect of non-Western philosophy in the curriculum, led me to venture this different hypothesis today. I'm not sure where the truth really lies here. I'd like to see the discipline put more energy into figuring it out!

    Oh, and on your side note: The questionnaire had two ethnicity questions: A Hispanic or not question and then a white-black-Asian-etc. question. However the data in their tables seem to be presented as I present them in the post, as I infer from the fact that the ethnicity columns total to 100%.

    Karen Margrethe Nielsen said...

    Eric,

    These are interesting numbers. Regarding Greek literature and cultural identification: though the point about identification you make in your final paragraph may be correct, it builds on an anachronistic reading of Greek literature and philosophy (You write: 'Now in a way it's not too surprising that the study of German and Greek literature, European history, etc., should tend to disproportionately attract white folks. After all, the average white person probably identifies with such literatures and histories as part of her own ethnic or cultural heritage more than does the average non-white person. Perhaps, then, the best explanation of the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy is similar: Despite aspiring to be a broad, topically-driven inquiry into fundamental questions about truth, knowledge, beauty, and morality, perhaps philosophy as currently practiced in the U.S. is experienced by students as something closer to the study of a piece of ethnically European cultural history.')

    If you had told Aristotle that he was doing 'European' philosophy, I think he would have been perplexed. I used to tell the (diverse) students in my Ancient Philosophy class in Canada that we would not be studying 'dead white males' but rather 'dead beige males', roughly from the area stretching around the Mediterranean, including Africa, and into the Middle East. If we look at the names of some of the most influential philosophers in the Hellenistic period, it's quite clear that they wouldn't have considered themselves 'European', but rather part of a Greek enterprise that at this point had no traction in Northern Europe whatsoever. The founder of the Stoic school, Zeno of Citium, was of Phoenician descent. Diogenes of Babylon wasn't exactly an Englishman, nor was Diogenes of Oenoanda or the Epicurean Zeno of Sidon. Cyrene is in ancient Libya, so the founder of the Cyrenaic school, Aristippus of Cyrene, was not an Englishman either. It's only in the middle ages that Greek philosophy is taken up in Northern Europe. So students from North-Africa and the Middle East should certainly feel a greater sense of ownership over ancient and hellenistic philosophy than white people like myself. My (Scandinavian) ancestors were presumably busy clubbing each other over the head at the time when these philosophers were active. It took us another thousand years to evolve into vikings…

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Karen, that is very nicely articulated and I totally agree! It's a point I emphasize when I teach Augustine (along with Mengzi, Xunzi, Arendt, Hume, Singer, Bayle, Ida Wells...) in my big lecture course on Evil. The speculation at the end really concerns how students *perceive* their cultural heritage -- and they might perceive it differently if more professors taught it like you do.

    Amod Lele said...

    Thanks for that, Karen. It's worth noting in this context how much of the Islamic intellectual tradition has its roots in Greece as well.

    Anonymous said...

    Might you have stats on minorities/women in philosophy at the undergrad/grad levels?

    Christy Mag Uidhir said...

    Eric, do you recall what standard is used to count as American Indian? While self-identification is sufficient for most other ethnic/racial categories, more often than not (BIA imposed) criteria such as official blood quanta is used to determine American Indian identity. Problem with this of course is that different nations have different level requirements (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc.). Also, these typically do not recognize pan Indian ancestry. For example, someone with three Swedish grandparents but one full-blooded Kickapoo grandparent counts as Kickapoo (and so, as American Indian), but someone for whom all four grandparents are half Kickapoo/half Seminole counts as neither Kickapoo nor Seminole (and so not as American Indian). Moreover, unlike other ethnic or racial categories, requirements of tribal affiliation openly place additional cultural conditions on racial membership for American Indians and in doing so deny minority status to thousands of American Indians who maintain no cultural affiliation with any particular Indian nation. The 0.0% result I suspect says less about the absence of American Indians in philosophy and more about the presence of a bankrupt, racist, legislated-criterion for being American Indian.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Sorry for the slow reply, folks! Anon: Yes, there are stats on women, at least, at undergrad levels -- esp. Paxton et al.:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2012.01306.x/abstract

    Not as sure about minorities at the undergrad level. I bet they're out there for at least some schools, but I'm away from the office right now. One starting point here might be Rutgers.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Christy: Yes, there are difficult issues in that vicinity.

    The SED asks "What is your racial background?" and one option is "American Indian / Alaskan native", with a blank to specify tribal affiliation(s). This leaves it somewhat unclear whether one should answer on the basis of self-identification or on the basis of official recognition by the tribe. One can also check more than one box, identifying, e.g., both as American Indian and as white.

    I agree that if our conception of that ethnic category were different, the number probably wouldn't be 0.0% -- one possibility here is more Latinos identifying with a mixed heritage -- though I'd guess it would still be small.