« Oracle v. Google: Digging Deeper | Main | In Case You Missed It: Michelle Alexander on the Colbert Report »

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Doctor": Description vs. Claim for Respect

If I may add my two cents to Jeff's enjoyable post about who ought to be called "doctor": Jeff's comment to that post, noting that this is a culturally specific question, seems right to me. In our culture, it seems to me that there are two standard reasons why one asserts the right to be called "doctor." The first is more or less descriptive: we understand "doctor" generally to refer to medical practitioners. As in Jeff's example, when someone calls out for a doctor, we all know medical treatment is being sought, not a disquisition on Satan's role in Paradise Lost. Of course there is also a claim to respect involved, but there is still a substantially descriptive element.

On the other hand, wanting to be called "doctor" is often a claim for respect--an assertion that here is a learned person in a profession that deserves public recognition. In these instances, it's also often the case that the profession in question is fighting for respect, often against a particular competitor in the same market. Two recent examples: First, there is this recent story about the increasing number of nurses earning doctorates in nurses, and its relationship to both nurses' struggle for respect in the medical field and their competition with MD's for the authority to give primary care and the market share that comes with it. Second, my wife serves as an elected member of the local school board. I have found that the social norm appears to be that those school officials with doctorates in education are routinely referred to as "Doctor So-and-So." I don't think it's a coincidence that the title often carries with it entitlements to higher pay and authority, and competition for respect within the educational hierarchy.

I also don't think it's a coincidence that, if I may paint with a broad brush, schools of education and nursing (at least in their more academic manifestation, as opposed to their professional training function) are in a tight race with law schools for the title of least respected department in the academy. Although I think there's a good deal to be said for obtaining JSDs or Ph.D's in law, we might think about whether that trend represents a similar claim to authority and respect for law as an academic discipline; and if those folks start demanding to be called "Doctor," we'll know something's up.   


Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 9, 2012 at 10:52 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Doctor": Description vs. Claim for Respect:


Two corrections/additions. 1) this is my correct e-mail address, I apologise for the bad typing 2) I believe the original word in English for a general medical practitioner was not a "doctor". but a "physician". In Britain certain medical practitioners, such as surgeons, do not go by "Dr" even today (they go by "Mr" or "Ms") when the "doctor" convention is spreading.

Posted by: yavere | Jul 17, 2012 5:06:04 PM

Please, do excuse my limited English.

"Doctor" originates from the Latin word for "teacher". Medical practitioners began using the title "doctor" in anglophone countries only recently (no longer than 150 years) as the duration of their education increased. In many languages medical professionals are NOT referred to as "doctors" (Arzt in German, etc.).

In some countries (Britain comes to mind) a medical practitioners calls themselves officially doctor only if they hold a PhD - Doctor of Medicine degree.

Posted by: yavere | Jul 17, 2012 4:59:53 PM

Paul, I'm not sure I can even factually agree with you here. You say "for non-medical doctors in these countries [DJ-I assume you are here referring to the US and Canada], using "Doctor" as an honorific is rare because of the general descriptive assumption that it refers to medical doctors" But I think I'm right to say that pretty much all of the PhD's who teach in academic disciplines, in the U.S. at least, refer to themselves, and are referred to by their students, as Doctor. And even generally in American society I dont think anyone questions that someone with a PhD in an academic discipline is entitled to be called Doctor. And I certainly agree with Kevin's Opinio Juris post that in the rest of the world, PhD's in law are accorded the same customary courtesy as are any other academic PhD's, of being referred to as Doctor by students and administration, and in society generally. Like Kevin, I have a PhD in law from the U.K., and I know what I had to do to get it. I had to write a book that was peer reviewed as a PhD thesis in quite a laborious, rigorous and time consuming process. Just like PhD's in any other discipline.
I know youre not trying to slight anyone in your post. And I think I understand that your primary point was really in distinguishing MD's from all PhD's in terms of what they are/should be called in society. I do wonder, though, why even this should be a point of emphasis. Are MD's not identically fighting for respect, and showing the same kind of insecurity and Freudian I-don't-know-what by wanting to be called Doctor, as are holders of academic PhD's? Why focus on academic PhD's as being insecure and validation seeking, and not all Doctors?

Posted by: Dan Joyner | May 10, 2012 10:33:23 AM

Kevin, thanks for your comments. I apologize for not having read your post yet. A couple of short responses: I agree that I may be practicing North American exceptionalism: after all, Canada and the US are indeed the cultures I'm used to. (Even within those cultures there are exceptions; people are more likely to use "Doctor" to refer to a professor in the South, as far as I can tell.) Note my statement in the post agreeing with Jeff's argument that this is a culturally specific thing.

I would also say, just to be clear, that I'm not suggesting that Ph.D's in law are in any worse position, in these cultures, than holders of Ph.D's in other disciplines; just that for non-medical doctors in these countries, using "Doctor" as an honorific is rare because of the general descriptive assumption that it refers to medical doctors. I have no greater objection to law Ph.D's calling themselves "Doctor" than to other Ph.D's; in both cases, though, in this culture, I would find it unusual and, when it occurs, I think it has as much to do with claims to authority or respect, or internecine power struggles within the academy or within a discipline, as it does to do with matters of pure description.

Douglas: Although I did indeed suggest that doctorates in education are often held in poor odor within the broader academy, I must say that if I had a Nobel, even in economics, I would probably start insisting that students call me by my first name, or maybe by an affectionate nickname, like "Nobel Boy," rather than have them call me "Professor." If one still needs an honorific at that point, one is battling some serious insecurity issues!

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 10, 2012 8:12:01 AM

Okay, now I'm just trolling, but I've added my two cents at Opinio Juris here:


Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 10, 2012 1:13:05 AM

Oh, and my first comment should have said "Central America," not "Latin America"!

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 9, 2012 8:36:54 PM

PS. Paul, I think this is just Canadian exceptionalism -- Canada might be the only other country in the world where legal scholars with PhDs call themselves "Professor" rather than "Dr."... :)

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 9, 2012 8:35:39 PM

"Although I think there's a good deal to be said for obtaining JSDs or Ph.D's in law, we might think about whether that trend represents a similar claim to authority and respect for law as an academic discipline; and if those folks start demanding to be called "Doctor," we'll know something's up."

I really hope you're referring solely to PhDs and JSDs obtained in the United States. Because it isn't exactly a radical idea for someone to obtain a PhD in law and call themselves "Dr." I can think of more than a few places -- such as everywhere in Europe, Africa, Latin America, South America, and Australasia.

Then again, as an American who holds both a JD and a PhD in law -- and who did not have to beg his Australian law school to put "Dr." on his office name-plate -- I'm obviously biased.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 9, 2012 8:16:41 PM

Why is it that Ph.D. economists, even famous ones with Nobel prizes, are invariably addressed as "Mr." or "Prof." while education bureaucrats with Ed.D.s or Ph.D.s insist on being called "Dr."? I think the question answers itself.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | May 9, 2012 8:12:48 PM

I must take some exception. I think Mumford is a decidedly underrated movie.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 9, 2012 1:47:10 PM

My favorite pop culture reference to this topic comes from the otherwise forgettable movie, Mumford, about a guy who moves to a small town and hangs out a shingle as a shrink, inevitably leading to this exchange:

Mrs. Crisp: What kind of doctor are you?
Dr. Mumford: Ph.D. in psychology.
Mrs. Crisp: Oh. Not a real doctor.
Dr. Mumford: That's right, the fake kind.


Of course, the irony is that [SPOILER ALERT!] it turns out he doesn't actually have even a Ph.D, and is thus doubly fake. (As opposed to those of us who are doubly fake for having both a JD and a PhD.)

Posted by: anon | May 9, 2012 1:42:27 PM

On "Mad Men" a few weeks ago, Don introduced his father-in-law (a Canadian academic) to his children as "Dr. Calvet." Bobby # 3 asked him a medical question, which lead Don to explain how, when someone has the highest degree in a field, we refer to them as Doctor, then added "it goes back to the Middle Ages."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 9, 2012 12:55:21 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.