Ethical Issues in Professional Life: Tribalism

Apologies for Some Rip Van Winkle-ism

Your professional life correspondent took a literary nap that let April pass without a post.  My apologies to the Ethicist, to my fellow correspondents, and to our (growing) readership.  I’ve wandered back to town, trimmed the beard, and found quill, ink and parchment.  In other words, the semester’s teaching is done.  Now to this (last) month’s topic.

A Great Paper from “Outsiders”

I’ll get to the topic momentarily, but first a vignette about an article.  My research interests include issues related to international business (“IB”), that is, issues about multinational firms and cross-border transactions.  So I am a faithful reader and occasional contributor to the Journal of International Business Studies (“JIBS”).  A relatively recent JIBS article is also one of my favorites.  It’s a 2010 article by Nathan Jensen, Quan Li and Aminur Rahman about apparently unaddressed challenges associated with using data from certain cross-national firm-level surveys popular with IB and related management scholars (Jensen, N., Li, Q., & Rahman, A. 2010.  Understanding corruption and firm responses in cross-national firm-level surveys.  Journal of International Business Studies, 41:  1481-1504).  Jensen, Li and Rahman develop and test a theory of under-response and false response biasing measures derived from those cross-national surveys, which ask questions about bribery and corruption faced by local businesses.

Here’s their theory in brief.  Individuals from firms in politically-repressive countries are less likely to respond at all or respond truthfully to questions about bribery and corruption.  Respondents in those countries fear that their response will get back to the local mayor, chief of police or party official shaking them down for a “contribution” important to continued business survival and success. Better either to not respond or respond that there’s little or no bribery or corruption.  Here’s their evidence in brief.  Non-response rates in a prominent cross-country survey by the World Bank increase with lower levels of press freedom in a given country.  False report rates also increase with less press freedom.  Respondents tell the World Bank surveyor that corruption isn’t as severe as alternative non-survey measures indicate.  The end result is that some of the most frequently used survey data on bribery, corruption and related cross-country business issues (e.g., quality of the business environment) are biased.  At a minimum, there are important adjustments for researchers to make if using these survey data.  Most haven’t, so publications based on such “evidence” merit renewed scrutiny and revision.

Jensen, Li and Rahman might not be familiar names in IB and management journals.  Jensen and Li are political scientists, and quite productive researchers in journals within the political science field.  Rahman is an economist at the World Bank.  They’re not rank-and-file management faculty in a business school regularly attending the Academy of Management meetings.  They’re “outsiders” who crossed disciplinary and professional boundaries to submit, revise and publish provocative research with a stinging critique of an empirical research stream in our field.  Way to go.

Why doesn’t this happen more often?  The answer is tribalism.  Finally, my topic for the blog.

Disciplinary Tribalism                                                                                                                       

There is more than a little tribalism in the Academy.  By tribalism, I mean that researchers in one discipline have a tendency to ignore much of the work on a common topic of interest another group of scholars are addressing in another discipline.  Maybe it’s research and researchers in psychology and management asking common questions about why individuals and firms escalate commitments in an apparently irrational way.  Maybe it’s research and researchers in law and political science asking common questions about constitutions and the quality of government.  In any case, we tend to look inward at our disciplinary “tribe” for reference regarding which scholars, ideas and publications are relevant for a given topic of discussion and debate.  We look less often, if at all, outside our field for insight on the same topic. Discipline-based professional associations, conferences and journals reinforce this inward-looking tendency.  I’ll admit that we need some tribal lines in order to define intellectually-distinct fields, set professional standards and qualifications, and more generally bring order to what is and isn’t immediately relevant to our work.  That aside, though, the inward-looking trope is probably not a good thing.  Tribalism raises barriers.  It limits outside voices in discussion and debate.  It leads to intra-disciplinary navel-gazing.

Crossing Tribal Lines:  Individually and Collectively

There are things we can do as individuals and as a groups to deal with some of tribalism’s negatives.  Individually, it’s possible to look outside many ways. Offer a class with a cross-listing in another department (good) or in another college (even better).  Serve on a masters or doctoral thesis committee in another field dealing with a research topic that overlaps with your own interests.  Attend, serve on a panel, submit and present research in progress at a professional meeting in another disciplinary field –economics, political science, engineering, sociology, law.

Of course, published scholarly research is foundational to career development in research universities. So submitting to, revising and, ultimately, publishing in high-quality journals outside your primary field constitutes a strong blow against tribalism.  But it’s difficult.  Tribalism has some strong defenders, and as I noted earlier, their defense is sometimes justified, and often well-meaning.  For researchers looking to cross lines, the barriers put up by their own tribe can be substantial.  The range of acceptably “high-quality” journals is almost always longer within your disciplinary field (tribe) than it is in almost any other field.  That’s usually because we know less than we think about those other fields.  In my Department of Strategic Management & Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School of Management, there is no list of high-quality journals in management.  (I guess we’re supposed to just know what they are.)  I recently asked an SME colleague what s/he thought was a high-quality journal in political science.  S/he spent a few seconds thinking, and then told me, “I know, I know. Journal of Political Economy.”  Nice try.  Tribal defenders may have a very short written or mental list of outside journals that “count” for tenure and promotion purposes.  That can be a pretty strong deterrent to crossing lines for research and journal publication outside your primary field.  That helps me understand why articles by the Jensen, Li and Rahman’s of this world are infrequent.

Collectively, there are other initiatives worth thinking about to combat tribalism.  I’ve mentioned some teaching and service initiatives for individuals to consider.  Commendation of (or at least indifference to) such efforts from departmental faculty colleagues, departmental chairs, and college deans would be helpful.  Research-wise, I can think of few more important individuals to fight tribalism for the rest of us than journal editors.  It was not an accident that Jensen, Li and Rahman submitted their manuscript to JIBS.  Their submission followed presentation of the paper at an inter-disciplinary conference with editorial team members from JIBS in attendance.  No doubt, they received encouragement to go further and submit the paper to the journal for review.   The JIBS editor-in-chief at the time made it part of her mission to attend and speak at conferences outside IB and management.  I attended a political science conference where she gave one of those speeches.  She emphasized the inter-disciplinary nature of the journal and its openness to research submissions from other disciplines.  Such efforts to fight tribalism paid off with more submissions from scholars outside the IB and management rank and file, and more notice of (and citation to) JIBS articles.   I am pretty sure the outside submissions got just as tough a review as rank-and-file submitters.  I noted  three revisions over more than a year for the Jensen, Li and Rahman article. It was no quick hit.  Tough, constructive reviews from JIBS editorial board members likely made the article better for an intended audience that begins with IB and management scholars but goes beyond that to others outside our tribe.

How often does that happen at other journals?

Your Tribe, But Also Your Career

As I said earlier, some tribalism is inevitable and not unwelcome.  For doctoral students and junior faculty striving to develop a research agenda and reputation, tribal lines help.  Early in a career, the lines help us understand which people, institutions, conferences and publication outlets will support that agenda and recognize that growing reputation sooner.  But an academic career isn’t always so instrumentally driven.  We are lucky.  We get paid to find interesting intellectual debates, learn the issues guiding it, and then weigh in with sound thinking grounded in rigorous theory and broad-based evidence.  As careers develop, maybe the location of those debates should matter a little less.  If they are outside your department or college, go forth and weigh in.  Push that further.  Find those outside debates, weigh in, and then translate their implications for others in our home department and college –our tribe.  Prompt colleagues down the hall to look outward rather than inward.

Why not?  Strike a blow against tribalism.  And enrich your career.

Please address your comments to:

Paul M. Vaaler

Department of Strategic Management & Entrepreneurship

Carlson School of Management

University of Minnesota

3-424 CarlSMgmt

321 19th Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Tel (612) 625-4951

Fax (612) 626-1316


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Author: Paul Vaaler

Professional Life