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I was asked to speak at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting last month about inequality within the discipline of sociology. That invitation was spurred by a public debate about how institutional prestige, race and gender shape who speaks for the discipline. It is vitally important that a discipline with inequality and stratification as its central concern examines its own practices. Below is a slightly revised version of my comments, which I hope have applicability for thinking about inequality in higher education, even beyond sociology.
James Baldwin famously said, “I love America more than any other county in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Although I would revise Baldwin's use of the pronoun “her” to be gender inclusive, I feel the same way about sociology -- I love the discipline and feel compelled to continually critique what I see as our collective problems. That doesn't always win me friends, but I think constructive critique when appropriate (and even destructive critique when necessary) is ultimately in the service of making sociology better and more inclusive. Below are a few thoughts on inequality in higher education that are relevant both to contemporary sociological inequality and the field of higher education more broadly.
First, we typically commit an attribution error when we evaluate people’s productivity. When we discuss why some folks are in poverty, we blame the economic structure; when we discuss racism, we blame the racial structure; and when we discuss gender inequality, we blame the gender structure. We are clear that factors that are bigger than individuals produce most inequalities.
Yet when I get a publication, a grant or a fellowship, I take full credit. The process of obtaining these things is necessarily communal, but the privileges that result typically accrue to individuals. In other words, we've socialized academic production and individualized academic benefit.
If sociologists want to remain intellectually consistent, we need to recognize that social structures also facilitate success for certain people, and once that success kicks in, individuals are often moved into situations that allow them to outsource more of their production onto others. This work used to be the job of “faculty wives” who, if they were lucky, were typically thanked in footnotes or acknowledgments: “Thanks to my wife, who accompanied me during my fieldwork, analyzed data, typed up the manuscript and sent it to the publisher.” Now such work often falls upon grad students, administrative assistants, schools’ grant offices, proofreaders and data managers, who are differentially available based on the prestige and budget of one’s university. All that help allows individuals to benefit from the collective labor of others. But when it comes time for evaluation, this communal labor is transformed into individual achievement and seen as an objective measure of one's merit for future promotions and jobs.
Second, people need to be open and reflexive about critiquing the disciple. Although I critique it and higher education all the time, I try to be cognizant of my role in reproducing some the very inequalities I denounce. For instance, when I was invited to speak on the panel, I was feeling pretty good about the opportunity to call out inequality in the discipline. Then a colleague at a community college wrote to me on Facebook, pointing out that everyone initially on the panel worked at research universities. Scholars at community colleges, who probably have a different, and perhaps more important, take on how inequality shapes the discipline, weren't invited.
His criticism stung, but basic intellectual consistency forced me to acknowledge that I hadn't considered our relatively privileged position in an increasingly precarious academic environment. That was a real oversight. But it is important for folks who critique elitism, racism and sexism to be open to the ways they may benefit from those very systems. As a light-skinned mixed-race man, I am aware of the ways colorism has very likely eased my passage. So I attempt to see criticism of the discipline -- and our own individual roles in reproducing inequality -- as pointing out ways we could be better. I don’t see them as a condemnation but rather like a “revise and resubmit,” providing some suggestions for how to improve.
My final point draws on the work of scholars like Aldon Morris and Earl Wright II and is that intellectual firepower and academic prestige aren’t always directly linked. W. E. B. Du Bois, the founder of American scientific sociology and one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, never held a faculty position at a high-prestige university. When I read Morris’s The Scholar Denied, which argues that racism allowed the mainstream of the discipline to ignore and downplay Du Bois’s contribution, I saw a warning for the present. I wondered whose work was being ignored -- or worse, taken -- because the scholar lacked prestige or visibility, or simply because people with more racialized or gendered power could take the work with impunity.
Du Bois's work was also ignored because he challenged the powerful orthodoxy of racism in the discipline. The Scholar Denied highlights that scholarly networks, which are often segregated by race and gender, shape the very contours of disciplinary thought. And ultimately, elitism is not just a problem because of the inequalities it produces: elitism impoverishes the intellectual environment of the discipline.