Skip to main content

Career gatekeeping in cultural fields

Abstract

This paper presents a comparative analysis of career gatekeeping processes in two cultural fields. Drawing on data on appointment procedures in German academia and booking processes in North American stand-up comedy, we compare how gatekeepers in two widely different contexts evaluate and select candidates for established positions in their respective field and validate their decisions. Focusing on three types of gatekeeping practices that have been documented in prior research—typecasting, comparison, and legitimization—our analysis reveals major differences in how gatekeepers perform these practices across our two cases: (1) typecasting based on ascriptive categories versus professional criteria, (2) comparisons that are ad-hoc and holistic versus systematic and guided by performance criteria, and (3) legitimation by means of ritualization versus transparency. We argue that these differences are related to the social and organizational context in which gatekeepers make selection decisions, including differences in the structure of academic and creative careers and the organization of the respective labor markets in which these careers unfold. These findings contribute to scholarship on gatekeeping in cultural fields by providing comparative insights into the work of career gatekeepers and the social organization of career gatekeeping processes.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. In using the distinction between established and unestablished positions, we build on prior sociological research on cultural fields that has described the transition from unestablished, outsider positions to established, insider positions as a crucial step in the careers of cultural producers (see Dowd and Pinheiro 2013; Dubois and François 2013). We acknowledge, however, that there is no universal, clear-cut definition of an “established” position. What constitutes an “established” position varies from field to field, and can be marked more or less formally (e.g., in some fields, there are formal titles for “established positions,” such as “full professor” in academia, while in other fields these positions are identified in a less official manner). In the current analysis, we address the slipperiness of this term by using social actors’ own intersubjective definitions of established and unestablished positions.

  2. Gatekeepers are not restricted to cultural fields; in fact, the concept was first developed to demonstrate the decision-making power of housewives in household food decisions (Lewin 1943). The first systematic applications occurred in research on mass media (cf. Shoemaker and Vos 2009).

  3. It is worth noting that the foci of research on gatekeepers for cultural producers largely mirror the foci of research on gatekeepers for cultural products. Most strikingly, both literatures mostly draw on single case-studies, with few exceptions comparing cases within the same field (Greenfeld 1988; Lane 2013; Velthuis 2003; Verboord 2011).

  4. Professors have traditionally been hired by the minister representing the local state [Land]. This approach was based on a main principle of German higher education policy dating back to the early 19th century: Although universities were free to choose their faculty and could submit a shortlist to the rector (the head of the university), appointments were overseen by the states [Länder] in order to prevent nepotism. For the same reason, the local states were also in charge of budgets and positions. Reforms enacted in 2001 sought to provide universities with more autonomy in their hiring policies, and since then most states have transferred their right to appoint professors to the universities (see the overviews in Musselin 2010; Möhlmann 2014).

  5. The number of reviews in an archival appointment record varies across the 144 appointment procedures in our sample. Most records include three to four reviews, while some outliers include nine or more reviews. A few archival records also do not include any reviews, which probably just means that the reviews have not been archived for this particular procedure.

  6. This ratio does not consider differences between sub-disciplinary fields. In bigger sub-fields like modern history the ratio is actually closer to 1:13.

  7. It is a bit more complicated to hypothesize about the ratio between available professorships and candidates during the period of study. We know there were relatively more positions available. In several cases, the minutes of the meetings of appointment commissions actually note peers complaining about a lack of suitable candidates, or a lack of supply on the market. At the same time, the archival records facilitate a reliable overview of the applications for professorships, and these records suggest that, in the course of the educational expansion, the academic field was more open to newcomers and lateral entries, which would increase the number of candidates.

  8. In this regard, the role of the JFL Festival in the North American field of stand-up comedy is comparable to the Fringe Festival in the field of British comedy (studied by Friedman 2014), as well as to similar field-coordinating events in other cultural fields, such as the fashion week in Paris (studied by Godart and Mears 2009).

  9. A scout working for the JFL Festival estimated that 250–300 comedians participate in the annual auditions for the festival (McCarthy 2016). From this pool of comedians, about 40 receive an invitation to perform Montreal, which corresponds to about 13–16% of the initial pool of comedians participating in the auditions.

  10. Access was requested from archives at 30 universities; 14 university archives were either not in possession of appointment records or denied access because they deemed that the retention period of the respective records was not over. Archival rights prevent access to records from appointment procedures after 1985 because participants are usually still alive. The sampled records vary with respect to several dimensions, such as age of the university, size of the department, and career stage of the candidates.

  11. Of course, archival records have their own peculiarities and limitations that must be considered. If this is achieved, alleged deficits become sociological phenomena in their own right, referring to the organizational and bureaucratic contexts in and for which appointment records are produced and received. Following Garfinkel (1967), there are ‘good’ organizational reasons for ‘bad’ records, and these reasons are highly relevant for sociological research.

  12. Research on more recent job advertisements for German professors shows that the advertisements are becoming longer, include more criteria, and are thus more detailed (Klawitter 2015). We do not observe such a development in our period of study.

  13. All quotes have been translated from German. In order to guarantee anonymity for those involved in the procedures, we omit information that would allow the identification of individuals.

  14. It is worth emphasizing, however, that the range of meanings of diversity that bookers consider tends to be relatively narrow. It is mostly limited to either gender and ethno-racial diversity, while other dimensions of diversity remain unconsidered. For example, few bookers consider age as an important source of diversity. This lack of attention to candidates’ age is reflected in the line-ups of the Festival’s annual New Faces shows, which are typically dominated by candidates in their early 20s to 40s.

  15. Because the production of transparency is a complex issue, it is worthwhile to briefly return to the peculiar character of archived appointment records as data, which we discuss in the previous section on data and methods. Drawing on archived records, we must assume that documents, even when their purpose is to provide transparency, do not have a revelatory character that exposes how decisions were really made (whatever this is supposed to mean precisely). It is more realistic to assume that the archived documents are part of a bureaucratic front stage on which legitimate decision-making procedures are performed (Prior 2008). However, even if transparency is only performed, it has legitimizing and stabilizing effects (Flyverbom et al. 2015; see also Power 1997).

References

  • Alexander, J.C. 2004. Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy. Sociological Theory 22 (4): 527–573.

    Google Scholar 

  • Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith. 2003. The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics. In The Meanings of Social Life. A Cultural Sociology, ed. J.C. Alexander, 11–26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Angermuller, J. 2017. Academic Careers and the Valuation of Academics. A Discursive Perspective on Status Categories and Academic Salaries in France as Compared to the U.S., Germany and Great Britain. Higher Education 73 (6): 963–980.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bechky, B.A., and S. O’Mahony. 2015. Leveraging Comparative Field Data for Theory Generation. In Handbook of Qualitative Organizational Research. Innovative Pathways and Methods, ed. K.D. Elsbach and R.M. Kramer, 168–176. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bessy, C., and P.-M. Chauvin. 2013. The Power of Market Intermediaries: From Information to Valuation Processes. Valuation Studies 1 (1): 83–117.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bielby, W.T., and D.D. Bielby. 1994. All Hits are Flukes. Institutionalized Decision-Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-Time Program Development. American Journal of Sociology 99 (5): 1287–1313.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bielby, W.T., and D.D. Bielby. 1999. Organizational Mediation of Project-Based Labor Markets: Talent Agencies and the Careers of Screenwriters. American Sociological Review 64 (1): 64–85.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, P. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bystryn, M. 1978. Art Galleries as Gatekeepers. Social Research 1978 (45): 390–408.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cattani, G., S. Ferriani, and P.D. Allison. 2014. Insiders, Outsiders, and the Struggle for Consecration in Cultural Fields. A Core-Periphery Perspective. American Sociological Review 79 (2): 258–281.

    Google Scholar 

  • Childress, C., and J.-F. Nault. 2018. Encultured Biases: The Role of Products in Pathways to Inequality. American Sociological Review 84 (1): 115–141.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chong, P.K. 2013. Legitimate Judgment in Art, the Scientific World Reversed? Maintaining Critical Distance in Evaluation. Social Studies of Science 43 (2): 265–281.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chong, P., Lamont, M., and Bourgoin A. (2019) The Blackboxing of Expert Judgment: Fiction Reviewing, Scholarly Evaluation and Management Consulting, Unpublished manuscript.

  • Clayman, S.E., and A. Reisner. 1998. Gatekeeping in Action: Editorial Conferences and Assessments of Newsworthiness. American Sociological Review 63 (2): 178–199.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collins, R. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Corra, M., and D. Willer. 2002. The Gatekeeper. Sociological Theory 20 (2): 180–207.

    Google Scholar 

  • Darr, A., and A. Mears. 2017. Locating Local Knowledge in Global Networks: Scouting in Fashion and Football. Poetics 62 (2): 1–14.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dowd, T.J., and D.L. Pinheiro. 2013. The Ties Among the Notes: The Social Capital of Jazz Musicians in Three Metro Areas. Work and Occupations 40 (4): 431–464.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dubois, S., and P. François. 2013. Career Paths and Hierarchies in the Pure Pole of the Literary Field: The Case of Contemporary Poetry. Poetics 41 (5): 501–523.

    Google Scholar 

  • Faulkner, R.R. 1983. Music on Demand: Composers and Careers in the Hollywood Film Industry. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Flyverbom, M., L.T. Christensen, and Hansen H. Krause. 2015. The Transparency-Power Nexus: Observational and Regularizing Control. Management Communication Quarterly 29 (3): 385–410.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foster, P., S.P. Borgatti, and C. Jones. 2011. Gatekeeper Search and Selection Strategies: Relational and Network Governance in a Cultural Market. Poetics 39 (4): 247–265.

    Google Scholar 

  • Franssen, T.P., and G. Kuipers. 2013. Coping with Uncertainty, Abundance and Strife: Decision-Making Processes of Dutch Acquisition Editors in the Global Market for Translations. Poetics 41 (1): 48–74.

    Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, S. 2014. The Hidden Tastemakers: Comedy Scouts as Cultural Brokers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Poetics 44 (2014): 22–41.

    Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, S., and D. O’Brien. 2017. Resistance and Resignation: Responses to Typecasting in British Acting. Cultural Sociology 11 (3): 359–376.

    Google Scholar 

  • Garfinkel, H. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Godart, F.C., and A. Mears. 2009. How Do Cultural Producers Make Creative Decisions? Lessons from the Catwalk. Social Forces 88 (2): 671–692.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greenfeld, L. 1988. Professional Ideologies and Patterns of ‘Gatekeeping’: Evaluation and Judgment Within Two Art Worlds. Social Forces 66 (4): 903–925.

    Google Scholar 

  • Guetzkow, J., M. Lamont, and G. Mallard. 2004. What is Originality in the Humanities and the Social Sciences? American Sociological Review 69 (2): 190–212.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hirschauer, S. 2010. Editorial Judgements: A Praxeology of ‘Voting’ in Peer Review. Social Studies of Science 40 (1): 71–103.

    Google Scholar 

  • Janssen, S., and M. Verboord. 2015. Cultural Mediators and Gatekeepers. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. J.D. Wright, 440–446. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  • Khaire, M. 2017. Culture and Commerce: The Value of Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Klawitter, M. 2015. Effects of Institutional Changes on Requirements for Vacant Professorships in Germany. Working Papers in Higher Education Studies 1 (2): 1–19.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M. 2009. How Professors Think. Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgement, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M. 2012. Toward a Comparative Sociology of Valuation and Evaluation. Annual Review of Sociology 38 (21): 201–221.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M., and A. Swidler. 2014. Methodological Pluralism and the Possibilities and Limits of Interviewing. Qualitative Sociology 37 (2): 153–171.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lane, C. 2013. Taste Makers in the “Fine-Dining” Restaurant Industry: The Attribution of Aesthetic and Economic Value by Gastronomic Guides. Poetics 41 (4): 342–365.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leschziner, V., and A.I. Green. 2013. Thinking About Food and Sex: Deliberate Cognition in the Routine Practices of a Field. Sociological Theory 31 (2): 116–144.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lewin, K. 1943. Forces Behind Food Habits and Methods of Change. Bulletin of the National Research Council 108: 35–65.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lincke, H.-J., and S. Paletschek. 2002. Situation des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses im Fach Geschichte: Berufungsaussichten und Karrierestadien von Historikern und Historikerinnen an deutschen Universitäten Ergebnisse einer Erhebung im Jahr 2002. Manuskript: Universität Freiburg.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCarthy, S.L. (2016) Nick Brazao, Just for Laughs New Faces and Off-JFL Producer. The Comic’s Comic. http://thecomicscomic.com/2016/05/30/episode-93-nick-brazao-just-for-laughs-new-faces-and-off-jfl-producer. Accessed 18 June 2019.

  • Mears, A. 2014. Seeing Culture Through the Eye of the Beholder: Four Methods in Pursuit of Taste. Poetics 43 (3): 291–309.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menger, P.-M. 2014. The Economics of Creativity. Art and Achievement Under Uncertainty. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Merton, R.K. 1968. The Matthew Effect in Science. Science 159 (3810): 56–63.

    Google Scholar 

  • Möhlmann, S. 2014. Autonomie konkret: die Ruferteilung. Wer beruft nach welchem. Forschung & Lehre 10 (2014): 808–809.

    Google Scholar 

  • Muniesa, F., and C.-F. Helgesson. 2013. Valuation Studies and the Spectacle of Valuation. Valuation Studies 1 (2): 119–123.

    Google Scholar 

  • Musselin, C. 2010. The Market for Academics. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nylander, E. 2014. Mastering the Jazz Standard. Sayings and Doings of Artistic Valuation. American Journal of Cultural Sociology 2 (1): 66–96.

    Google Scholar 

  • Posselt, J.R. 2016. Inside Graduate Admissions. Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Power, M. 1997. The Audit Society. Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Prior, L. 2008. Repositioning Documents in Social Research. Sociology 42 (5): 821–836.

    Google Scholar 

  • Prior, L. 2012. Using Documents in Research. Los Angeles: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reilly, P.M. 2017. The Layers of a Clown. Career Development in Cultural Production Industries. Academy of Management Discoveries 3 (2): 145–164.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roussel, V., and D.D. Bielby. 2015. Brokerage and Production in the American and French Entertainment Industries: Invisible Hands in Cultural Markets. Lanham: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shoemaker, P.J., and T. Vos. 2009. Gatekeeping Theory. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • van den Brink, M., and Y. Benschop. 2012. Gender Practices in the Construction of Academic Excellence: Sheep with Five Legs. Organization 19 (4): 507–524.

    Google Scholar 

  • van den Brink, M., and Y. Benschop. 2014. Gender in Academic Networking: The Role of Gatekeepers in Professorial Recruitment. Journal of Management Studies 51 (3): 460–492.

    Google Scholar 

  • Velthuis, O. 2003. Symbolic Meanings of Prices: Constructing the Value of Contemporary Art in Amsterdam and New York Galleries. Theory and Society 32 (2): 181–215.

    Google Scholar 

  • Verboord, M. 2011. Market Logic and Cultural Consecration in French, German and American Bestseller Lists, 1970-2007. Poetics 39 (4): 290–315.

    Google Scholar 

  • Verdaasdonk, H. 2001. Reviews, Critics, and Cultural Gatekeepers. In International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes, 13295–13299. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vermurlen, B. 2016. Structural Overlap and the Management of Cultural Marginality: The Case of Calvinist Hip-Hop. American Journal of Cultural Sociology 4 (1): 68–106.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zuckerman, E.W. 2012. Construction, Concentration, and (Dis)Continuities in Social Valuations. Annual Review of Sociology 38 (2012): 223–245.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zuckerman, E.W., T.-Y. Kim, K. Ukanwa, et al. 2003. Robust Identities or Nonentities? Typecasting in the Feature-Film Labor Market. American Journal of Sociology 108 (5): 1018–1074.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank Michèle Lamont, Matthew Clair, Désirée Waibel and the members of the ISF group in the Department of Sociology at Harvard for their comments on previous versions of this paper. We also would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of AJCS for their comments and suggestions. Research support from German Research Foundation (Project Number 254562991), and the Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University is gratefully acknowledged. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2017 meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julian Hamann.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hamann, J., Beljean, S. Career gatekeeping in cultural fields. Am J Cult Sociol 9, 43–69 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-019-00078-7

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-019-00078-7

Keywords

  • Gatekeeping
  • Academia
  • Comedy
  • Typecasting
  • Comparison
  • Legitimation