I'm trying to understand a justifiable rationale for requiring recommendation letters for faculty applying for small grants in the humanities. (as an aside: when scientists apply for grants do they need rec letters?)
I'm not talking about the writing of rec letters for students getting into school, for grad students on the job market, or even for faculty hiring in general, although there are problems in all of those areas too. We all have read (and possibly written) letters that were clearly dashed off in a hurry, written out of a sense of obligation rather than enthusiasm, or simply to get a person out of your office. I mean, really. The most absurd/pathetic applicants for our recent faculty positions (and I'm talking here about people without PhDs, or with degrees in fields not remotely connected to the job, or people whose personal pathologies were visible all over their cover letters) -- all of these people still somehow managed to shake the bushes and get a positive recommendation letter from somebody. Which in and of itself casts some question on the usefulness of the letters. But when you are hiring someone to a faculty line, or accepting someone into your grad program -- you are entering into a longterm relationship with the person. So the idea of getting a letter from someone who actually has met and known the person has some validity, and yes, sometimes the letters can tell you things (like about someone's teaching) that you can't see elsewhere in the file.
But why require letters for small grant programs? (Small in this context means $250- $5,000 -- amounts that most of the scientists I know would sneeze at but which could go a long way in xeroxing money, microfilm money, travel to libraries.) The granting institution/agency isn't going to ever meet the awardee in person. Yes, their name will be attached to published work deriving from the grant period -- but to find out whether someone is a successful published scholar in their field, you have only to look at the cv. The cv lets you know how efficient someone is in getting their work out. The project description gives you plenty of information about the content and significance of the work. It seems to me that letters let the grant committees off the hook of actually having to know anything about the grant field.
More insidiously, the practice of requiring such grant letters reinforces the conservatism and elitism of academe. People with connections to big-name letter writers (who generally came out of top rank programs) get more awards than people without such connections. People in defined conventional areas of study get more awards than people in newer interdisciplinary areas. There's also tremendous unstated workload for those people in positions of power who are asked to write such letters. Their agreement or decline (or delay) serves as a hidden gatekeeping function for The System. The result is that those who have, get more. And those who don't, struggle.