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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Job Offers

When Is a Job Offer Really a Job Offer in Academia?


It may sound like a silly question.  Or maybe it sounds like a question on the final exam of some first-year law student’s Contracts course –often another forum for silliness.  But it’s not so silly when you receive a phone call, email or letter from some departmental, college or university official asking you to move across the country or across the world to take a new job.  And it’s not so silly when you are on the other end of that transaction doing the asking –some might say wooing— to get a would-be colleague to move across the country or world.


Offers and acceptances are part of everyday life, so we tend to think that we know them when hear, read one and or write them.  But it might be a little more complicated when it comes to a job-offer, especially when the job is for a senior faculty position with tenure.  And some of the complications have, I think, substantial ethical dimensions.  Even if the job-offer doesn’t include tenure, there are some less-than-obvious process issues worth thinking about so that academics on both sides of the prospective transaction do the right thing.  So let me start the new calendar year with my own take on some ethical issues associated with job-offers in academia:  what they should include; how they should be conveyed; what contingencies might render a “job offer” moot; and how to respond to contingent and non-contingent offers so that you are fair to both your current and prospective future institution.

Continue reading “Job Offers”

Professional Life: Attending Professional Meetings

Showing Up

The US comedian and movie director, Woody Allen, once said that 80% of success is showing up.  When it comes to professional meetings, there’s more than a little truth in his claim.  Think about an Academy of Management (AoM) annual meeting.  It would be a rather short and uninteresting event if only a few showed up.  Charles Jamison presided over the second meeting of the AoM in Philadelphia back in 1934.  There were 24 attendees.  Jump ahead to 2000 when Dave Whetten presided over an AoM meeting in Toronto with more than 5500 attendees drawn from a membership exceeding 11,000.  There were thousands of opportunities to hear paper presentations at competitively-selected panel sessions, symposia, caucus meetings, keynote addresses, receptions, and informal gatherings.  I wouldn’t guarantee that every paper or presentation was ready for verbatim publication in one of the AoM journals.  But there were in 2000 and continues to be in 2012 great opportunities to see, hear and learn from a diverse group of scholars and scholarship at AoM meetings.  And it happens in one place over a few days.  Quantity has a quality all its own.  And when you show up, you promote both.

Continue reading “Professional Life: Attending Professional Meetings”

Ethical Issues in Professional Life: Outside Appointments

The Producers Problem

One of my favorite movies is The Producers, and here I mean the original version from 1968 directed by Mel Brooks and starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (not the 2005 re-make starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick).  For those of you unfamiliar with this comedy, here is the basic plot.  A ne’er-do-well Broadway director (Mostel) and his accountant (Wilder) hatch a scheme to make money by producing a play that flops.  The duo will go to backers and raise thousands more than is needed to produce a play.  Of course, they’ll have to sell more than 100% of the profits to raise all of that money, but as long as the show flops –preferably closes on opening night– the backers will expect neither the return of their invested principal nor any profits.  The duo can take the remaining money and head to Rio de Janeiro.  Ah, but if the play is a hit then they’re in big trouble, because they’ve promised much more than 100% of the profits to the backers.[1]  Of course, they end up inadvertently producing a hit musical comedy (improbably titled “Springtime for Hitler”), which lands them in jail for fraud, where they start producing and over-selling yet another musical (more appropriately titled “Prisoners of Love”).  That’s Mel Brooks.

Continue reading “Ethical Issues in Professional Life: Outside Appointments”

Peer Reviewing

Incredible Generosity

December is supposedly the “holiday” month of gift-giving, but recent experience as a track chair for the 2012 Academy of International Business (“AIB”) annual meeting tells me that the real gift-giving time, at least professionally, is from mid-January to mid-February.  It was during those weeks that so many of my AIB peers gave their time and attention to read and review more than 150 papers submitted to my track for competitive or interactive presentation at this summer’s annual meeting in Washington, DC.  My goal was to get multiple reviews for every submission and get them in about four weeks. Virtually every AIB member submitting a paper got a paper.  Several got more than one paper to review.  More than a few got several papers from me, from other AIB track chairs, and from our counterparts over at the Academy of Management.  Four weeks later, practically everyone had submitted their reviews, whether it was just one or several from those “overfished” reviewers.  It was amazing to observe.  And it’s critically important to preserve and nurture.  So that’s my topic for the month:  peer review and its importance in our professional lives; peer review and the motivations of peer reviewers; and how we might do a little less  “overfishing” of some especially good and generous peer reviewers.  Continue reading “Peer Reviewing”

Managing University Service Work

Blog No. 2012-01 (January 1, 2012)  

Another Year and Another Hemisphere of Professional Life

Welcome to a new year, new semester and a new posting from The Ethicist.  When writing last October, I promised to explore ethical issues in the very broad sphere of professional life, the part of our work neither falling neatly into research nor teaching.  It’s the sphere of “everything else” that can be divided into hemispheres related to issues arising from membership in professional organizations like the Academy of Management and issues arising from membership in academic or research institutions.  Last October, I wrote about an ethical issue arising from our work in professional organizations.  This time, I thought I would travel to the other hemisphere and discuss an ethical issue more commonly (for me) encountered in academic departments, colleges and universities.  The topic is service and the issue is knowing when to say no.

Continue reading “Managing University Service Work”

Ethical Issues in Professional Life: Codes and Conflicts of Interest

Blog No. 2011-01 (October 1, 2011)

What’s My Domain?  Everything Else

Welcome again to the ethics blog, this time from your journalist on “professional life” issues.  Compared to research or teaching, it may be more difficult to define this sphere of ethical issues.

For me, research evokes a process of reading, analyses, writing, presenting, submitting to editors (and in my case, often re-submitting after editorial rejection) and publishing pieces for a variety of outlets: journals, books, book chapters, working papers, policy reports, case studies and other scholarly purposes.  The ethical issues this process raises are myriad, but the process has an intuition that many can grasp pretty easily.

Continue reading “Ethical Issues in Professional Life: Codes and Conflicts of Interest”