Incompetence as a Signalling Device

Scott has a great short piece at IHE on Gambetta’s book on communication among criminals, which inter alia summarizes Gambetta’s theory of the signalling benefits of incompetence in Italian academia.

Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, he says, the struggle for advancement involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. …The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. … “… and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.” … Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message * I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. * In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

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