Higher education has come under the spotlight for its political one-sidedness. Why is this imbalance a problem? Above all, it means we overlook the diversity of people’s lives, leading scholars to neglect needed policies to address inequalities.
Take the issue of poverty. Here one finds a long line of texts with titles such as Blaming the Poor, Regulating the Poor, Subordinating the Poor, Disciplining the Poor and The War on the Poor. OK, we get the point, but this kind of one-note barrage does not lend itself to any complexity or comprehensiveness when the poor are simply portrayed as passive victims of structural oppression, without any agency of their own.
I recall going to an American Anthropological Association session in the late 1990s on welfare reform, hoping to hear pros and cons on the effects of the recent change. Instead, it had the tenor of a gripe session or a political rally, with everyone against it, even though the general public consensus was that it was succeeding. I wasn’t going to find many diverse voices and a good debate there.
Where were the many people who found at least mixed outcomes in the reform? Such experiences are replicated in many panel sessions on political issues at academic conferences and in course syllabi -- to the ultimate detriment of both society and higher education.
The underlying reason for the tilt I’ve been describing is that many social scientists writing on policy focus almost exclusively on structural causes of poverty, inequality or school achievement gaps. Yet comprehensive approaches to social problems should acknowledge three broad overlapping influences: 1) structural, 2) interactional and 3) individual.
Structural factors come from outside the person -- they include political and economic structures like the job market and structural racism -- so most people who are suffering from social problems have little control over them. Interactional factors include social influences like peers, neighbors or one’s broader culture. You learn such practices and beliefs, so you have some ability to adapt to, opt out of or change them, though that is often hard. Individual factors are more personal, such as resilience, (dis)ability, executive function or other personality traits. Those factors are among the most controversial among academics since they can imply that individuals have some responsibility for their own status. It’s important to note, however, that structural and interactional processes influence many individual traits.
School achievement gaps are another area where the tilt is pronounced. Critics of school reform rightly argue that factors outside school cause low achievement. But those same critics, as education writer Paul Tough points out, finger only structural factors (“toxins in the environment, food insecurity, inadequate health care and housing, and racial discrimination”) and totally avoid how family patterns and (in)stability are arguably larger contributors to success or failure.
When studying how nonprofits help the poor, I’ve seen how some financial institutions deceptively lure consumers into cycles of debt; how group consumption practices (expensive consumer goods or fatty or sugary foods) add to debt, ill health and diabetes; and how some dependent young adults inexplicably refuse to work and thus help pay family bills. We need to maintain the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to lessen exploitation and the consumption-inducing stress that goes with high debt, but people also need personal assistance to get out of bad situations and adopt practices that lead to more stability and good health. Nonprofits spend much effort helping people with low incomes through financial education, making budgets, increasing savings and becoming wiser consumers.
Academic work in sociology and related fields, however, can tend to be critical of this personal approach. Some scholars even lament how nonprofits help people become “responsible,” which has become a dirty word among some academics (search “responsibilization”). Nonprofits, they argue, should instead be doing political activism rather than helping people change their lives. Popular author Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, in books like Bait and Switch, often seems to deny or significantly downplay the role that behaviors or mind-sets play in creating and sustaining poverty, displaying skepticism to programs like Getting Ahead that help the struggling poor. Such critics can seem to forget that social service agencies, as studies attest, have assisted many people through life changes.
Afraid of “blaming the poor” for their situation, many academics rarely talk about habits or behavior such as saving versus spending or reading versus viral viewing. They hesitate to encourage people to form stable family relationships so the next generation of kids has a better chance, though they tend to practice it themselves. All this does real damage to efforts that help the disadvantaged. The buying or dietary habits of the poor, for instance, shouldn’t be ignored or denied but properly contextualized by understanding the underlying factors -- and that it’s not entirely the fault of individuals.
For instance, some people have close, stable and structured family lives. Others have much more instability and may suffer neglect and trauma. This diversity has always been there, but the differences in those patterns have become more extreme, along with inequality. Self-perpetuating cycles have formed, as poor, unstable families beget more. Breaking the cycle is key, and that can’t be done only by policies that are top-down, because they ignore the widening differences among people themselves.
Many people feel the effects of disadvantaged upbringings. Our environments impact our brains, especially when we are young. Yet lives can be altered through what we call relational work, including support groups, rehabilitation, counseling or other approaches that work through durable relationships that allow self-transformation. This influence accepts that people often have some power over their situations and shouldn’t just await structurally oriented policy changes that are unlikely to occur. Even if policy changes occur that create better-paying jobs, we often found in our research that many are simply unable to take advantage unless they get more intensive relational work that allows them to get and hold jobs in the long term.
Looking at All Sides
This political one-sidedness may explain why the public often ignores academics. People sense they aren’t getting the full picture from scholars too biased to be balanced, and that view can contribute to the lack of financial support for public universities. The fact is that any analysis of poverty should include behavioral factors. Denying that is the left wing’s equivalent of right-wing climate change denial and takes credibility away from poverty scholars. They leave the field open to those who rather simplistically think it’s all about the choices of the poor.
Indeed, this one-sidedness has probably contributed to the rise of right-wing populism, Trumpism and conspiracy theories. It’s clear that people on the right and left are reacting against each other and can’t acknowledge any legitimate concerns in the other’s approach. The middle gets cleared out, and we have metaphorical bomb throwing across the divide.
Often, the need for people to confirm their moral and political leanings is stronger than their ideals about doing good scholarship and their desire to get to the bottom of the truth. Research in psychological science suggests that we tend to disregard evidence that goes against our basic beliefs, whether political or religious -- something true for many on both the left and the right.
I once presented a paper at a gathering of labor studies scholars on why workforce participation was declining, arguing that you shouldn’t just look at the decline of good blue-collar jobs but also at the needs and desires of (potential) workers themselves. I noted that, as an anthropologist, I try to be sensitive to human diversity and understand that not everyone wants to be part of highly institutionalized and increasingly stressful work environments, despite the wealth they produce. People are motivated not only by wealth, but also by sociality, family and other drives such as “fun.” I used good ethnographic work and other data to back up the argument.
While initially skeptical, the group at least allowed that worker diversity plays a role. After the session, one professor admitted that my argument didn't “fit his narrative" of workers being oppressed by forces out of their control. Indeed, when social scientists do research, they are often telling narratives about bad guys and good guys, oppressors and victims. But life is usually more complicated than that.
Today, social psychologists Nicole Stephens, Hazel Rose Markus and Stephanie Fryberg are doing important academic scholarship that attempts to look at all sides of the story. Sociologist Orlando Patterson has a complex model of how structure, culture and individual factors all interact in African American youth contexts, but his work does not get the attention it deserves. Economists such as James Heckman, Isabel Sawhill and Melissa Kearney look at many of the factors related to culture that shape outcomes. In essence, such good work requires interdisciplinary familiarity, and one can always quibble about the relative weight put on these three factors.
We can improve higher education scholarship, and the support it receives from the general public, with more such balance in our work. Even if we focus on structural forces, we should at least acknowledge the role of other factors. We cannot get away with scholarship that focuses on culture or behaviors without acknowledging structural influences, but the reverse should not be the case, either.