why I (mostly) don’t worry about inequality in the academy

This evening, there was a discussion on Twitter about the concentration of elite BA holders in sociology graduate programs. Jeremy Freese, for example, put up this post about which programs had multiple alumni in the Harvard grad soc program:

This confirms a joke I like to tell, “sociologists tell you labor markets are unfair and then they show you!”

I don’t worry about this. Why? If one really cares about racial or gender inequality, then the focus should be on professions. Why? Because profession-level differences in income account for much more income inequality than most other factors. In other words, your income is related to your job and many jobs have built in boosts in income, like medicine.

I actually do care about equity in higher ed. I’ve published on minority issues in the academy and I share whatever wisdom I have with minority scholars who care to listen. But I have no illusion. Increasing the number of Cal State BA’s at Harvard’s program isn’t really about overall social improvement. It may be about justice and merit, but it will affect a tiny sliver of the population. Even then, academics are under paid compared to other high skill laborers, so you’re probably *increasing* inequality by encouraging people to go into academia, even at elite places.

If you really care about inequality, here is what you can do as a professor of sociology:

  • For your first generation students, or under-represented students, encourage them to pursue careers in high paying professions and private business. Given them GRE/MCAT/GMAT/LSAT tips, write them strong (and accurate!) letters of recommendation, and make sure they are aware of these opportunities.
  • In your teachings, don’t demonize professions or occupations that have created wealth. For example, sociologists will indulge in “soak the rich” rhetoric. Instead, talk about what people can do to encourage ethical business practice and encourage wealth creation.
  • Have panels of alumni who work in high paying professions talk to your students? Yes, sociology alumni make great social workers and teachers, but they should also enter the ranks of business, medicine, and high tech. We should encourage this!

This will have more impact on people’s well being than focusing on shuffling around a few students from lower tier programs to higher tier graduate programs.


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Written by fabiorojas

February 4, 2019 at 5:22 am

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. I followed the twitter conversation and I never thought this was about alleviating inequality, or at least not directly. If most people getting phd’s at top 10 programs are coming from other top-10 program, there isn’t that much diversity in the kinds of questions being asked and ideas being discussed…and that’s bad for sociology

    Liked by 1 person


    February 4, 2019 at 10:18 pm

  2. Doesn’t Jeremy’s post say Princeton?



    February 5, 2019 at 1:40 am

  3. I just simply think that it’s not really about ‘inequality.’ Just that undergraduate students in those schools are more likely to be interested in pursuing an academic career compared to other schools. However, I do think that students who have strong intellectual curiosity at other than those schools should also have equal opportunities to get informed about the academic career path, which may not be always the case for lower tier schools.



    February 5, 2019 at 5:55 am

  4. gradd, I sat in an admissions committee at a top 10 program, and trust me, it is not about lack of interest. we received a lot of applications from very good students who came from non-elite schools… not all of them were good, but if # of apps is a measure of interest, there is plenty of interest. this is definitely about inequality and class reproduction. professors like letters from people they know. when they have a question, they can email their colleagues at other school and ask for more details. they also like to see the students of their students (and the students of their friends) get into programs.



    February 5, 2019 at 2:57 pm

  5. The study of ‘inequality’ cannot be reduced to whether the word ‘inequality’ in the title of a dissertation or paper. Inequality is pertinent to several themes: sexism, racism, ageism, classism, bullying, and of course to income differences. Status is perhaps a major subject area examining inequality and the “field” of conflict sociology” is nothing but an inequality study. So, claiming that inequality is limited for some odd reason to particular backgrounds is hogwash. A more perspicuous examination of sociologists may reveal the exact reverse of the notion that only elite BA’s study inequality.


    Fredrick Welfare

    February 5, 2019 at 8:30 pm

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