How do academic superelites in economics and sociology walk through departments?

Dr. Philipp Korom, University of Graz, Austria, is the principal investigator in the project “National and Regional Elites in Austrian Politics” (2019-present) and former co-principal investigator in the project “Academic Superelites in Economics and Sociology” (2016-2019), both supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). He previously worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (MPIfG) and the European University Institute (EUI). For more information, see

(summary in German in continuation)

Once in the academy, every scholar is thrown into an economy grounded in the collection of prestige: awards, grants, publications, invitations to talk, and other items that add lines to a curriculum vitae. While different criteria in the judgement of academic excellence exist, it is evident that a scholar’s overall academic reputation will determine his or her professional status.

In economics there exists a ne plus ultra award: the ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel’, which is based on a donation received by the Nobel Foundation in 1968 from Sweden´s Central Bank. With hindsight, it becomes apparent that the prize has been awarded for one or several specific contributions (such as the Prize for R. C. Merton or M. Friedman) as well as for lifetime contributions (such as the Prize for P. Samuelson or S. Kuznets). Between 1969 and 2017, the prize has been awarded 50 times to 79 Laureates. Clearly, these economists are perceived to belong to the ultra-elite of the discipline, thus to the “thin layer of people […] who generally have the highest prestige within what is prestigious collectivity to begin with” (Zuckerman 1972: 159).

In sociology some leading scholars are recognized as clearly elite by many (never all) people from other disciplines, as for example Pierre Bourdieu, James S. Coleman or Zygmunt Bauman – a former professor of sociology at Leeds University. However, such international awards as the ‘European Amalfi Prize’ or the ‘Holberg Prize’ have not reached the high reputation or public awareness of the Noble Prize (in economics). Thus, researchers developed different bibliometric methods to identify the ‘ultra-elite’ in sociology on the basis of citations counts (Korom 2020a).

While elite research has a long tradition in sociology that goes back to Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), systematic and self-reflective investigations into the discipline’s elite remain scarce. A research question that has not been addressed properly is whether there exist typical career pathways to the ‘top‘ of the discipline?

In my recent comparative research (Korom 2020b), I tackle this specific question by comparing the academic careers of 79 Laureates in economics with 51 widely cited sociologists. Both disciplines differ hugely in their cognitive structure, which makes the comparison especially interesting. In economics, the ‘neoclassical paradigm’ has become the dominant paradigm in economics from the 1960s onwards. In addition, the mathematization of economics since the end of the Second World War has created a bond that ties economists together. Sociology, in contrast, is a social science discipline without a theoretical and methodical core. The quasi-hegemony of few paradigms such as Talcott Parsons’s functionalism is long gone and in today’s sociology it is commonly argued that every exisiting theory has a morsel of truth. Thus, a key difference is that common standards are more firmly established in economics than in sociology

Careers are conceptualized as “successions of related jobs arranged in a hierarchy of prestige through which persons move in an orderly sequence” (Wilensky 1961: 523). Following a framework originally proposed by Light, Marsden and Corl (1973), I distinguish between an ‘institutional‘ and a ‘external‘ career strand: The ‘institutional’ strand encompasses full professorships in universities or research institutions (e.g. Max Planck Institutes in Germany) where elites work full-time, while the ‘external’ strand refers to short-term fellowships and visiting professorships outside of the professor’s chief institution.

The main insights gained from the prospographical study are:

Eminent economists’ careers are, first and foremost, characterized by upward mobility while horizonal career growth is quite common in sociology. Put more concreteley, the most frequent career patterns lead to the top five departments in economics (Chicago, M.I.T., Harvard, Stanford, Yale). In sociology, in contrast, eminent sociologists tend to stay throughout their career in departments that belong to a similiar prestige group

Eminent economists transition earlier after their Ph.D. to their first professorship and spend fewer years in subsequent professorships.

The structure of the overall network of visiting professorships and scholarships clearly reveals the ‘big five‘ (Chicago, Harvard, M.I.T., Princeton, Stanford) as the major ‘magnets‘ that attract most eminent economists. In sociology, top deparments are not the epicenter of the network. Network visualization show that research stays at very different European departments and/or at the Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University are the most popular.

All results hint to clearly institutionalized pathways in economics. Nearly all Nobel Laureates pursued their careers through the same “institutional elite channels“: They were either hired by one of the top five departments, and/or they worked towards a visiting professorship at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, or University of Chicago. Career pathways in sociology, however, sociology are largely unpredictable. Put in somewhat exaggerated terms, one could claim that randomness governs the careers of eminent sociologists.

Almost any juxtaposition of cases characteristic for each discipline illustrates the identified stark differences in career pathways. Let’s take Kenneth Arrow and Zygmunt Bauman as examples: After receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1951, Arrow taught at the University of Chicago (1948-1949), at Stanford University (1949-1968), and at Harvard University (1968-1979). In 1979 he returned to Stanford University as Joan Kenney Professor of Economics and became professor emeritus in 1991. Bauman started an academic career in the early 1950s, and was a professor at the University of Warsaw until he was exiled during an anti-Semitic campaign by the Communist authorities in 1968. He became Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971, where he remained until his formal retirement in 1990. Clearly, Bauman’s career was far less predictable than that of Arrow.

Up until the 1960s, reputational leaders such as Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton were affiliated with few departments (Harvard, Columbia) that dominated the production of PhDs in American sociology and partly, as in the case of Chicago University, managed major publication outlets. However, this concentrated elite power quickly vanished. Elite sociologists such as Jürgen Habermas (Frankfurt University, Immanuel Wallerstein (Binghamton University), Niklas Luhmann (University of Bielefeld) or Manuel Castells (University of Southern California) work(ed) at departments that may offer ideal working conditions, but certainly do not have the largest rosters of highly qualified students or administrative control over critical resources.

In another contribution (Korom forthcoming), I aim at explaining why we find these regularities only in economics. My main argument is that publications in the most prestigious journals, socialization in the top departments of the discipline, and receiving the Nobel Prize produce a circle of interdependencies: Publications in top journals such as the American Economic Review are a precondition for tenure at top departments such as Harvard University (Heckman and Moktan, forthcoming). Tenure at prestigious departments then set economists on a trajectory to reach the apex of eminence represented by the Nobel Prize. Finally, Laureates may succeed in further publishing in leading journals, partly because of their reputation. No such nexus exists in sociology.

The general conclusion is straightforward: Where there are no unified and universally accepted problem definitions, methodologies, and theoretical approaches, there is also no homogenous academic elite. High-consensus disciplines like economics are marked by a few limited career paths to the top. In contrast, in low-consensus disciplines like sociology the careers of the most eminent scholars have very little in common.


Akademische Eliten sind jene wenigen Forscher, die innerhalb der eigenen Disiplin aufgrund ihrer Forschungsleistungen am meisten Aufmerksamkeit erhalten. In der Ökonomie gehören dazu alle Nobelpreisträger und in der Soziologie alle meist zitierten Autoren. Philipp Korom beschäftigt sich mit der Frage, ob sich Karrierewege dieser herausragenden Wissenschaftler ähneln. In einer prosopographische Studie zeigt er, dass die Karrierewege von Top-Ökonomen stark ‘institutionalisiert’ sind indes die Karrieren von Top-Soziologen kaum vorhersagbar sind. Professuren und Gastprofessoren führen Top-Ökonomen nahezu immer an die besten Institute der Disziplin (Chicago, Harvard, M.I.T., Princeton, Stanford); ihre Karrieren gehen steil nach oben. Top-Soziologen hingegen wie etwa Norbert Elias oder Zygunt Bauman arbeiten oftmals an Instituten, die eher der Peripherie und nicht dem (Reputations-)Zentrum des Wissenschaftssystems angehören.

Works Cited:

Heckmamn, James J., and Sidharth Moktan. forthcoming. Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Tyranny of the Top Five. Journal of Economic Literature.

Korom, Philipp. 2020a. The Prestige Elite in Sociology: Toward a Collective Biography of the Most Cited Scholars (1970-2010). The Sociological Quarterly 61(1),128-163.

Korom, Philipp. 2020b. How Do Academic Elites March Through Departments? A Comparison of the Most Eminent Economists and Sociologists’ Career Trajectories. Minerva.

Korom, Philipp. forthcoming. Are there institutionalized pathways to the Nobel Prize in economics?, in: Maeße, Jens, Thierry Rossier, Stephan Pühringer and Pierre Benz (Ed.): The Power and Influence of Economists: Contributions to the Social Studies of Economics. London: Routledge.

Light, D.W., L.R. Marsden, and T.C. Corl. 1973. The Impact of the Academic Revolution on Faculty Careers. Washington: American Association for Higher Education.

Wilensky, Harold L. 1961. Orderly Careers and Social Participation: The Impact of Work History on Social Integration in the Middle Mass. American Sociological Review 26(4): 521–539.

Zuckerman, Harriet. 1972. Interviewing an Ultra-Elite. Public Opinion Quarterly 36(2): 159-175.