Rehabilitating the Importance of the Non-cognitive: An Interview with Michèle Lamont
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In spring of 2006, Michèle Lamont, Professor of Sociology and African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, was invited to give a lecture for the New Sociological Imagination Lecture Series, organized by the New School for Social Research. This lecture concerned her book Cream Rising: How Peer Review Finds and Defines Excellence in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, which is to be published by Harvard University Press in 2008. Drawing on 81 interviews with panelists serving on five multidisciplinary fellowship competitions in the social sciences and the humanities, the book analyzes (1) the meaning panelists give to academic excellence—including whether they believe in it or not; (2) how excellence is recognized (both through formal criteria of evaluation, such as originality and significance, but also through more evanescent signals such as the display of cultural capital and the proper use of theory); (3) how excellence is combined with other criteria pertaining to interdisciplinarity and diversity (geographic, institutional, disciplinary, racial, and gender diversity) to push proposals over the proverbial line or to promote or criticize proposals. In her talk, she analyzed the customary rules that panelists say they follow, and which allow them to believe that the evaluation process is fair, and that Cream Rises. In the interview below, we asked her to discuss how procedural fairness actually operates in panels and reflect on many other aspects of the phenomenon that she analyzes.