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(Fwd) class, power, race, social change and the sociology of "liberal" academia

From: Eric D. Pierce <>
Date: Fri, 16 Feb 2001 14:09:26 -0800
Message-ID: <>

The appended analysis is more socialist than I personally like, but the basic structural description of the way that the education elites interact with the political culture is relevant to any understanding of the sham of partisan politics in the USA.

(re: class, power, race, social change and the sociology of
"liberal" academia)

( , )

excerpt: focusing on the current period, consider the forces at work that now shape race relations as a field. The central issue I want to address is: What is the class position, including those in race relations, and how does this shape the ideas scholars develop?

I would characterize academic sociologists (along with other academics) as members of the petite bourgeoisie.10 We are part of a stratum of society that is neither strictly a part of the working class nor of the capitalist class but something in between. Along with other professionals we are employed by the capitalist class to perform certain invaluable functions for that class, and we are paid fairly well to do so.

What functions do we perform? These are well described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in an analysis of what they call the professional-managerial class.11 Academics are ideological workers. We concentrate in the reproduction of the social order. Our function is essentially one of control of the working class, both at the level of production and at the ideological level. Engineers, for example, plan production in such a way as to strip workers of their intellectual participation in it and make their labor easier to control for purposes of profit making. Social scientists help to provide ideological justifications for capitalist institutions or help to reform them so they will work more smoothly.

As teachers, academics are also engaged in reproducing the petite bourgeoisie. We prepare students to become the next generation of managers and professionals, and inculcate in them the ideology of their client social class.

Now right away I expect people will become angry and defensive. Am I not horribly distorting the social functions and activities of academics? Are we not more liberal and progressive than almost any other element in American society today? I will not deny that there is a liberal aspect to academia that leads it sometimes to be critical of the dominant order. Yet I still contend that the basic reality of servitude to capital remains, and that this servitude sets distinct limits on the freedom of academics to criticize. Liberals we may sometimes be, but when we are, we tend to be liberal reformers. We work to get the system to work more smoothly and efficiently. We help get rid of the social problems that threaten the current order. We seldom work to challenge it.

The Ehrenreichs characterize our own class struggles as follows: On the one hand, we experience some antagonisms with the capitalist class because that class attempts to control our expertise. Professionals are very concerned with the issue of autonomy. This issue can be an important basis for the development of professional unionism. We want to set our own "standards" based on our exclusive and special knowledge.

On the other hand, we experience antagonisms with the working class, which sees us as the middleman for capital and the state. This may be clearer in the case of such professionals as social workers, probation officers, and the like, but, as attendance patterns, cheating, drop-out rates and, occasionally, violence in the classroom demonstrates, teachers also face antagonisms with working class and minority communities.

Academics in elite universities rarely mix directly with the working class. Our students are mainly middle class youngsters, and in rare cases when they have working class origins, their current class aspirations clearly point them towards the petite bourgeoisie. Thus we are once removed from the middleman role. Our students will be the real middlemen as they become teachers, probation officers, social workers, and the like. We ourselves, however, can keep our hands clean by not engaging directly in the controlling function.

Figure 1 presents a very rough sketch of the class position of sociologists. As employees of the university (arrow 1) they have certain designated responsibilities to fulfill with respect to the teaching (arrow 2) and research and service (arrow 3) functions. Much as we may claim autonomy in both these areas, our freedom of thought and action is really quite limited. I will return to this point in a moment but first let me review the sources of the confinement.

                                       (Figure 1 about here) 

Universities are either run by the state or as private enterprises
(arrows 4 and 5), but even as private operations they are heavily
subsidized by the state and even when state-run, they depend on private funds. The difference between public and private thus becomes quite blurred in reality. Furthermore, the state itself is obviously not free from the tremendous penetration of, and influence by private capital (arrow 6). This is not the place for a lengthy discussion of theories of the state. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence that private corporations are able to exercise inordinate influence over the state. And this influence trickles down to state-run institutions of higher learning. The state-appointed Regents of the University of California, for instance, are heavily skewed towards wealthy businessmen.12 Finally, private capital comes directly to the university and to individual researchers through various private granting agencies and donors (arrows 5 and 7). These funding sources are, naturally, heavily slanted towards the wealthy because that is where funds can be raised.

I don't think anyone can deny this basic picture of the structure of power and resources, but one could still claim that this has little influence on what we actually do. We are, after all, protected by the principles of academic freedom and professional ethics. A granting agency cannot just buy the research results it might like to see.

This is certainly true on the surface. And yet there are subtle ways in which we are nevertheless limited and controlled. Often this control is exercised by our peers rather than by the "authorities," much as women have often historically been the direct oppressors of other women in patriarchal systems. When we do our own policing for the power structure we develop the illusion of autonomy even if we do not possess its substance.

Let me give one example of this structural control from the areas of teaching and research. In teaching we are compelled to follow elitist, meritocratic principles in the allocation of social rewards. If I, as a teacher, disagree with these principles, I will run into serious trouble. to be more explicit: I do not believe in the social principle that all rewards should go to the most able and advanced. On the contrary, I believe that more energy and resources should be put into those who, for a variety of reasons, suffer disadvantages. I believe we should foster equality, not just equality of opportunity. But everything in my teaching situation forces me to play the meritocratic game. I must grade on a meritocratic principle which, in turn, feeds my students into other rewards marked with a meritocratic tag. Neither am I allowed to democratize my classroom. I try to do it anyway but know if I am caught that I will be rebuked. The school administration does not care what I teach, but they do care whether I evaluate students and make distinctions among them so that they can fit into different levels of the system. And, of course, I teach in an institution that participates in this system on a grander scale by having pre-selected students. At the University of California I already teach only the most privileged, and there they get far more in the way of resources than do the poor, less advantaged students who go to the community colleges. Whether I like it or not, I am participating in reproducing the class system and, significantly, the racial system. As may be seen in the tables below, underrepresented at the upper echelons of California's system of higher education (see Tables 1 and 2).

 Table 1. Type of Institution of Higher Education by Family Income of Students, California, 1982-83.

[tables deleted]


 Source: California Post-secondary Education Commission, Population and Enrollment Trends, 1985-2000.  Sacramento, 1985, p. 70.

 Table 2. Ethnic Group by Type of Institution of Higher Education California, Fall 1982.

[table deleted]

 Source: California Postsecondary Education Commission, 1985, op. cit., pp. 14,63.

In the area of research, too, there are limitations on what we are permitted to do. Setting aside the fact that funding agencies obviously channel research in certain directions and not others, even the non-funded researcher is contained by such institutions as Human Subjects committees. Under the guise of protecting people from harmful interference by researchers in their lives, such committees can easily become conservative watchdogs against research projects that have any component of praxis or social change.

The dominant research model of the American university is positivist, i.e., the researcher is the disengaged observer and collector of facts. If one has another model of research, as I do, namely, that it should be pursued in the course of efforts to produce social change, one will be ruled out of order. Engaging with members of a community to research their own condition in the process of trying to change it does not fit into the university's model of legitimate research.

As in the teaching area, elitist assumptions pervade the definitions of what is acceptable. University researchers are "experts." We know what is good for people, or so we claim. We possess the esoteric knowledge that ordinary mortals have not acquired because they have not passed through the baptism of higher education. We thus join the state and private management in fashioning policy to "help" ethnic groups on our terms--not theirs.

In sum, the petite bourgeoisie has two dynamics. On the one hand it is subservient to the capitalist class; on the other, it attempts to be autonomous from capital by claiming independent expertise. The claim to autonomy, to "academic freedom" in the case of academics is, I am contending, circumscribed. The range of freedom may feel limitless to those who dutifully stay within its boundaries. But when these boundaries are challenged, the power that lies behind them will be unambiguously felt.


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Author: Eric D. Pierce

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Received on Fri Feb 16 2001 - 16:09:26 CST

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