Social reproduction of the academy: Smart people like us

When I tell other academics that I am working on a project of decolonizing educational research, they are either very enthusiastic or understandably ambiguous, wondering if I’ve just implicated them as a colonizer. Echoing this age of Racism without Racists (see Bonilla-Silva’s book for a cogent treatise that defines this time before anyone had even heard of Senator Obama), individuals are sure they are not colonizers but then how do we have a colonizing field like educational research. Part of the answer to that question is the ways that colonization is built into the very fabric of the academy, and more so, how it continually reproduces itself and its preferential position in society.

Higher education: Smart people like us

In the PBS documentary, “People Like Us,” social class in America is explored with wit, incisiveness analysis, and examples across geographic regions of the United States. One of the central tenets of the documentary, and of studies of social class in general, is that although America’s residents and citizens claim brazenly that this is a classless society, where mobility is possible and occurs regularly, this is a collective myth. People are far more organized by and organize themselves according to social class. Simply put, we tend to like best people who are like us. Through how we talk, dress, what we eat, read, and drive, we all communicate what kinds of people we are. And we use those same cues to gravitate to others like us. From a more macro perspective, these same social and cultural cues are used to differentially position people within society. Across generations, there is remarkable synchrony in the ways that people are conferred with different status and how society reproduced is structures of class.

The academic shorthand for this process is social reproduction:  the phenomenon by which a social system uses practices of reward and censure to ensure its structures and traditions. In the literature of sociology and anthropology, schooling has been determined to be one of the primary ways in which post-industrial capitalist societies perpetuate and reproduce the social order (e.g., Bowles & Gintis, 1968; Collins, 2009; MacLeod, 2009). While the role of schooling in reproducing a capitalist, market-based social order of competition is relevant to this discussion of functionality and dysfunctionality and one that we’ll take up again later, the first focus here is upon the role of higher education in society, particularly that of educational research.

Higher education, like any other field in capitalist, post-industrial Western[ized] societies, is rather like an arena or playing field. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu provided a theory of society as similar to playing field, in which some people are position better than others, having more or less status. Although Bourdieu’s work encompasses complex and connected theories of how individuals, institutions and societies function, his specific work on the various forms of capital is of particular use to this discussion of how higher education confers status and how that in turns is part of the map to educational research as a colonizing force. Simply put, Bourdieu delineated that favorable positioning in society does in fact require capital, but it takes more than one kind of capital. Status in society is connected with the cultural capital (knowledge) and social capital (networks and associations) that will translate to stability and economic capital (money and goods). Bourdieu delineated, the different forms of capital are interdependent and interact in dynamic ways that, while material and impactful, are not always readily evident. More opaque than transparent, more implicit than explicit, the rules of society function through institutions, like schooling, to configure status differentially.

Within the academy, preferential status is first defined as holding a tenured position at a top research institution. Working at a college primarily as an instructor who teaches many courses, for example at a community college, carries considerably less status (and money) than a research professor who teaches very little. The research professor who teaches very little must gain and solidify, or tenure, this status by conducting empirical research and publishing that research. The publishing of the research must be in top academic journals. A journal is most simply deemed to be of top status when it 1) is peer-reviewed through a double-blind process, and 2) has a high rejection rate of submissions. The double-blind peer review process means that other professors working in the same area provide a review of a submitted article, without knowing who wrote the article. The rejection rate means that the journal’s standards are higher than most who are seeking to publish within that journal. The editors running these journals and the professors who review for the journals are, therefore, largely the same population seeking to publish in the journals. Through a collectively agreed upon set of explicit rules, some articles make it into the journal and others don’t. From these publications, some academics have more status than others. So far, these rules of the playing field are all fairly explicit. However, as with any social field, the academy has a more powerful set of implicit rules that govern how status is conferred. Within that collection of rules are the ways that aspiring untenured professors must build social capital by befriending the established professors who hold status, mimic the ways in which research is conducted and written about (cultural capital), and demonstrate the taken-for-granted rules of what counts as legitimate research and accepted genres of writing up such research. And within any single research and writing project, there are multiple forms of capital interacting explicitly and implicitly.

For example, imagine that a tenured professor invites a graduate student to co-author an article stemming from a research project with which the student has been assisting the professor.  On the surface, the tenured professor is rewarded with cultural capital for mentoring a graduate student in how to write for academic audiences about the research project. In turn, the graduate student is meant to and most likely will, through the collaborative writing, learn about the conventions within the genre of academic writing. The student may learn how to write more emphatically in the third person to convey authority, to embed references appropriately to display preferred content knowledge and how to signpost the linear progression of logic in the argument. In a different field, investigative journalism for example, writing in this fashion would not be rewarded with status, but in academic writing, these are some of the features that are equated with mastery and intelligence. More implicitly, though the professor and graduate student are building forms of social capital. By publishing with this professor, this student is not just earning a valued publication, but also gaining legitimacy in the social network of this professor’s peers and colleagues. Peers and colleagues whom the graduate student may wish to call their own some day. In fact, at professional conferences that thousands of academics attend each year, senior professors help to ‘network’ their graduate students, introducing them to peers and colleagues, helping them to start to be known so that when these junior scholars submit their work to top refereed journals, the submissions stand a better chance of making it through the process of peer review.


Even before those stages, the ways that a graduate student gains entry into a doctoral program is largely through three displays of cultural and social capital that are displayed upon application. First is the score of the student on the Graduate Record Examination. While this test, like many other standardized tests, has been shown to be a far from accurate as a predictor of successful completion of graduate school (cite needed here), it remains, like many other standardized assessments, a firm anchor of establishing reputation not just for the graduate student but for the institution. Universities are ranked nationally, in part, through the average GRE scores of their graduate students (cite US News and World Report here).  The application to graduate school is also heavily weighed upon the letters of reference provided by people who the applicant and the applicant’s statement of interest. With the letters, reviewers (again likely to be peers of the authors of the letters) pay attention not just to what is written in the letter but who has written it, and more specifically, if the person has established status within the discipline. It is a check of social capital. In the statement of interest, professors review the applicant’s writing to assess its display of the academic genre of writing and to check the use of well-regarded citations and sources, both forms of cultural capital. Should the preferred social and cultural capital be displayed in the application process, a student is ranked high in the application process and perhaps even courted by the graduate school, particularly if the student has applied to competitors of that graduate school. This process is sometimes easiest to see when an applicant doesn’t appropriately display the necessary social and cultural capital. Imagine a teacher is applying to a graduate school. This was a highly successful teacher who has created successful afterschool programs with her low-income African American and Latino students, has excelled as a teacher leader and is now seeking to deepen her understanding of educational research relevant to these populations. She applies to three graduate schools of education, all of which have established reputations as research intensive programs and are ranked within the top 15 schools in the nation. In her application, she articulates a profoundly innovative and compelling proposal for graduate study. She even has GRE scores that position her in the top 20% of that school’s applicants, sufficient to clear the operating cutoff for the school to maintain its current national ranking. Her three letters of references are from the director of a community based organization where she has initiated three successful programs, her current school administrator, and one of her professors from her undergraduate program from a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. While all three letters laud this woman as a powerful innovator and practitioner with dispossessed populations, this is the area in which this applicant is likely to take a substantial hit in the application process. Because her reference letters are not from established research professors, like those reviewing her application, she will very likely be turned down in the process, being deemed, in short, to be of similar stratum as those examining her application. Those words, though, would not be uttered. Instead, her application would be ranked lower because she would not have ‘demonstrated research experience’ or doesn’t show research potential. However, very few doctoral applicants to educational research programs have conducted empirical research; those phrases are used to locate her lack of, or simply wrong, cultural and social capital. In short, she is not Smart People Like Us.  Furthermore, when a student succeeds within the academy, writing with professors, perhaps even submitting their own work for publication, he or she is lauded as highly intelligent. While this person might indeed be intelligent, that is not borne in certainty because of their success. What is certain is that s/he knows how to display the correct and recognizable forms of capital for this field.

I detail these steps in the application process to articulate the tightly controlled machinations of social reproduction that govern the gate-keeping into educational research as well other disciplines in the academy.  One only gains access to the discipline of educational research by displaying the cultural capital and social capital that is already carried by those within the discipline. That is called social reproduction, and it is key to understanding how and why the field of educational research not only remains removed from actually transforming the lives of people in schools but why it, in fact, flourishes despite the floundering state of transformative education. It maintains its position not through a measure of efficacy on education by reproducing the knowledge and networks of those within it.


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