To Those Who Have, Shall Be Given

April 12, 2006

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. By James F. English, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, 432 pages, $19.95.

About sixty years ago, Lizette Bentwich, a remote relative, wanted to leave her estate to a few good causes. She consulted a cousin who was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and he suggested that she donate a fair amount of money to set up some prizes for Trinity undergraduates. She was agreeable, and the deed was done. The prizes go by her name and are awarded yearly. A list of the winners appears periodically on the Internet.

Let us now suppose that you are a well off individual and want to set up a new prize for whatever reason: to memorialize someone, to satisfy personal vanity, to show your interest in a field, to do good, to obtain a tax advantage. You may be surprised to learn of the many considerations, roadblocks, pitfalls that go with setting up a prize or are consequent to its being awarded.

You must decide what you hope to achieve in giving the prize.

What accomplishment is the prize to recognize? How precisely have you described it?

Who is eligible to compete for the prize? How narrow are the criteria for eligibility? Is your prize to be international, national, local, institutional? Are there to be regional, ethnic, gender, religious, age, physical, or other limitations?

Is the prize to be offered for a limited time or in perpetuity?

Whom do you want to judge the competition? How is a conflict of interest of a judge to be defined and dealt with? Are judges to be paid out of the bequest?

What is the monetary value of the prize? Is the prize to be given in the form of cash, medals, stock options, or other valuables or tokens, such as laurel wreaths or knighthoods?

How will the prize be administered---by an institution, publisher, or some other body? Have you designated any of the money for administrative expenses?

What ceremonies should you specify to accompany the awarding of the prize? What publicity should be arranged?

Will your prize compete against other prizes in any way, including in cash value?

Then there are the other issues that may develop in the course of time:

If the judges come up with no winner, with joint winners, or with a winner who has already received many prizes, what then?

What if an announced winner refuses to accept the prize?

What if, as time goes by, the judges appear to be setting criteria for the award other than those you intended?

What if someone sets up an anti-prize?

These issues (and many more) are described and discussed in the book under review. James English, chair of the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, has limited his coverage to prizes in literature, the media, movies, and the arts. He has done a marvelous job of digging up the history of specific prizes and related anecdotal material, and his book can be read with pleasure for its gossip. But English's intent is serious. He speculates on the nature of the "prestige capital" that accrues to a prize winner. He notes that an individual's career is often summarized by the prizes he/she has won. He talks about what might be called the "pecking order" among prizes. He points out that "Gale's standard reference work Awards, Honors, and Prizes, has swelled to two phonebook-sized volumes and more than two thousand pages. . . . This index has been adding new prizes at the rate of about one every six hours."

English wants to understand the logic behind the proliferation of prizes in all fields, with the numbers often growing at a greater rate than the numbers of practitioners in the fields. "Prizes have proved useful, perhaps indispensable, to the institutional apparatus of cultural credentialing," he writes; "the expansion of this apparatus as we have become more and more a ‘credential society' in the twentieth century is a phenomenon inseparable from the proliferation of cultural prizes."

He has, in other words, put forward a psycho-socio-economic description and evaluation of prize-giving.

Prizes have been around at least since Homeric times. The Trojan War was caused by three goddesses circumventing "objective" judgment with bribes. In the late sixth century B.C., "annual festivals combining music, poetry, and drama spread throughout the cities of east central Greece."

Prizes have always been a source of contention. In the 1820s, Britain's Royal Society of Literature proposed that a gold medal be awarded, after which the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote what English describes as "one of the great documents of prize bashing---[in which ] we find laid out almost the entire litany of objections that the rising cultural officialdoms and their tokens of consecration inspired among cultural independents and individualists." Scott mentioned the lack of distinction between what is significant and what is popular, the fact that winners have already earned a reputation and often have no further need of either prestige or money. He brought up the point that the brilliant are often called on to judge who else is brilliant and that, English writes,

"‘sitting as judges on each other's performances' is particularly vile and ‘indelicate.' . . . Their natural fractiousness and independence would assure that the annual deliberations devolved into ‘a sequence of ridiculous and contemptible feuds.' . . . In short, Scott foresaw that what we now call ‘culture wars' was an inevitable byproduct of cultural awards."

For a bit of flesh on the considerations listed here, did you know that initially the Swedish Academy's decision to administer the Nobels was iffy? According to English,

"Several members of the Swedish Academy, hearing of Nobel's proposed literary prize . . . agitated vehemently against the idea, pointing out, correctly, that the administration and adjudication of such an ambitious prize . . . would be an arduous undertaking even for a group perfectly suited to the task."

The Nobels both confer great prestige and inspire emulation, and awards in every area have been contentious. Recall, if you can, that in 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre refused a Nobel Prize in Literature. Are you aware of the charge that the Nobels have become politicized?

Most readers will be aware of the hoopla that accompanies the awarding of the Oscars. Much---particularly commercial opportunities---can ride piggy-back on top of the original intent. Would you like to read the list of the no fewer than 240 awards that Michael Jackson has received? They are listed in an appendix in the book under review.

English quotes Eddie Vedder, on receiving a Grammy Award: "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything." The devoted scholar and individualist Saul Lieberman was once asked to deliver a prestigious lecture. A friend, sensing Lieberman's reluctance, suggested that he need only write a letter saying no. Lieberman responded, "Saying no is not the question. The trouble is I don't want to waste time writing the letter."

English also points to the emergence of anti-prizes: "a whole shadow universe of mock prizes, parodic clones of ‘real' awards, whose relationship to respectable consecration is far from simple." Instances of anti-prizes include The Worst Literary Efforts of the Year, the Golden Turkey Awards (in many fields), the Golden Raspberry Trophy, The Worst Dressed Women of the Year.


How does the situation described by James English carry over to mathematics?
There does not appear to be a comprehensive and international database of prizes in mathematics from which one might draw conclusions. The American Mathematical Society and SIAM naturally maintain lists of their own prizes and prize winners, and the AMS has thought about compiling a larger list. Meanwhile, a fair amount of anecdotal material is available.

The situation in mathematics has many features in common with the ones described by English, but there are also several divergences. Math prizes are awarded at many levels, from high school all the way up to the most prestigious international prizes. At commencement time, my own department gives one award to an undergraduate and two to graduate students. Not a large number, but an increase since I joined the department, and I have the feeling that in the years since I became aware of mathematics as a profession, math prizes in the world have proliferated. The big-ticket prizes---the Abel, the Japan, the Wolf, the MacArthur fellowships----are all of recent origin. (Only the first specifically targets mathematics.)

Mathematics prizes carry great prestige within the community of professional mathematicians. The conscious professional goal of some individuals is to win a specified prize. There is, to be sure, a spectrum of prestige values. The names of previous winners enter into the determination of a prize's prestige. But such factors as the cash amount of the prize also count. And as English points out, a plethora of prizes tends to result in a devaluation of the accomplishments recognized by the awards.

The complaints and the controversies surrounding awards are mainly of two types. First, if A has won, why not B, C, and D? Jealousy, alas, is all too human. In the second category are specialty-wise complaints: If work in specialty A is recognized, why not that in specialty B, C, or D? Does recognition in one imply a lack of importance of others?

I don't recall hearing of generic complaints, i.e., across-the-board bashing of the Sir Walter Scott variety. The paucity of generalized complaints about mathematical prizes contrasts strongly with the humanistic areas covered by English. Perhaps there is much more agreement in mathematics as to quality and significance than in literature and the arts in general.

Mathematical prize refuseniks? Rare. But in 1988, Alexandre Groethendieck turned down the Crafoord Prize.

While mock articles appear occasionally, I am not aware of any anti-prizes in mathematics.

An individual career, together with professional mobility and perks, is often defined and engendered in terms of prizes won. There is a fair amount of the piling up of prizes to one individual.

Unlike the case in literature, I've never seen a public statement that so-and-so has been short-listed for such and such a prize. As to "mid-orbit" corrections in the award criteria, the Pólya prize awarded by SIAM widened its original net some years ago.

"Name professorships," election to membership in national academies, invitations to give prestigious talks lie on the border between prizes and simple employment or professional opportunities. I've heard that some professional organizations work assiduously to get their stars into national academies.

The manner of operation of prize committees is not clear. Their criteria are vague, perhaps understandably. What determines an award for "lifetime contributions to the field"? I sometimes think that awards depend on which committee member has maximum prestige capital and what his/her narrow specialty happens to be. Nepotism cannot be ruled out.

People love prizes; they want them, and some suffer because of them. In her novel The Wife, Brown alumna Meg Wolitzer describes the agonies of a man waiting to receive a prize:

"If the sun rose in the morning, . . . , the telephone having stayed silent, he would know that another year had passed and he hadn't won the Helsinki Prize, and that most likely he never would."

Despite their downside, prizes in mathematics are not going to disappear. On the contrary, they probably will continue and proliferate. One may speculate, as does English, on how much intellectual or prestige "capital" accrues from an award and on the prevalence of the "star system" in hiring. It is still true, as John Milton wrote four centuries ago in Lycidas:

"Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days."

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

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