The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification
reviewed by Paul W. Kingston - 1980
Randall Collins's provocative and ambitious book The Credential Society presents a generally incisive interpretation of the education-based stratification system in the United States. The work is macrosociological in approach, showing the role of education in the overall structure of the political economy and in individual careers. Although these two concerns are inherently related, they are not often brought together in the prevalent individualistically biased tradition of stratification research.
Although education has long been embraced as an unalloyed social good, there is now a growing sense that it serves poorly its proclaimed role of enhancing productivity, equality, and learning. Credential requirements have often been inflated beyond any conceivable connection to the skill requirements of jobs, but potential workers realize that entry to desirable jobs is ever more restricted to those who have passed through designated academic gates. Thus the great credential chase continues unabated, with seemingly little purpose or control, no end in sight. Yet such questioning of the educational ideology has only recently made any headway in academic thinking about the connection between education and the occupational structure.
In explaining the massive size of our educational complex, academics have tended to stress the "requirements" of a technologically sophisticated economy for highly skilled workers. Correspondingly, it is often claimed, the most highly educated generally get the best-paid jobs because of their great "functional importance" (the sociologists' version) or "marginal productivity" (the economists' version). Indeed, functionalism and human capital theory are the twin academic pillars of a technocratic view of how the economic goods are and should be divvied up.
Against this orthodoxy, Collins's analysis is valuable, first, because it severely undercuts the empirical adequacy of the technocratic view. He then offers a historically rooted theoretical alternative that is largely convincing. Rather than seeing "Science and Technology" as the "active agents in the drama," Collins places the struggles of various status groups for advantage at center stage. In his view, well-situated status groups (to varying degrees defined by their educational similarities) have imposed educational requirements for particular jobs as a way to enhance their position. The evolving structure of the educational system, as well as the connection at the individual level between educational attainment and occupational success, reflects the outcome of these struggles.
In assessing the empirical support for the technocratic view, Collins ranges widely to integrate many studies suggesting that education, at both the aggregate and individual levels, is only weakly related to productivity. Systematically considered together, the cited studies make for a strongly damaging case against the technocratic perspective. However, each point of his argument does not rest on unassailable grounds. For example, the fact that success in the law profession is unaffected by law school performance does not mean that academic skills are irrelevant to job performance. There is the issue of attenuated variance: After all, most students in law school are at least moderately bright, and one may readily doubt that if the academically unskilled were given law degrees, they would do as well as the sort now admitted to the bar. Still, even if Collins's brush is too broad at some places on the canvas, his general argument should be well taken.
In further support of his view, Collins turns to the organization of work itself to show the subordinate role of technology in the stratifying process. Indeed, the sociology of occupations is quite at odds with the technocratic view. Technology, Collins sensibly concludes, is a "resource. . . in the more central organizational process: the struggle of informal groups for favorable power positions." Those who most effectively use this and other resources, especially strategic personal alliances, in the political environment of the organization are those who make it. Collins's own original research on companies' credential requirements also indicates that both "organizational control type" and "organizational prominence" are stronger determinants of educational requirements than "technological change."
To develop his alternative interpretation, Collins first proceeds to outline in general theoretical terms how stratification systems get structured in particular ways. (Readers versed in sociological theory will recognize this as partly a poor condensation of the principles elaborated in Collins's Conflict Sociology.) He starts with the proposition that many status groups, with varying control over political resources and varying degrees of self-conscious cohesion, often arise in the competition for advantage. How status groups line up in the competitive struggle reflects the effects of "culture": "the symbolic reflections upon and communications about the conditions of daily life, and the more abstract transformations and distortions that can be symbolically created." Marx's historically inevitable axial division between capitalists and the proletariat is not for Collins. More typically, individuals perceive themselves as members of much smaller communities of fate. The actual structure of conflict, then, grows out of the intersection of the outcomes in the "economic market" and the "cultural market."
One of the competing groups' prime goals is to shape the content of occupational positions in ways that maximize their rewards. (Collins thus valuably emphasizes that "occupations" are not technologically imposed "givens.") The analytical distinction between "productive labor" and "political labor" is crucial here. The latter represents "the manueverings of organizational politics . . . a matter of forming social alliances within and sometimes across organizations, and of influencing others' views of the realities of work." That certain groups can impose definitions favorable to their intereststhat is, win out in the cultural conflictconstitutes what Collins calls "positional property." It is the basis for the modern-day "sinecure society," particularly marked in the expanding tertiary sector of the economy, in which the well-credentialed status groups enjoy secure lives in organizations rife with administrative featherbedding.
However, in attempting to explain theoretically what conditions produce particular cultural systems and what effects these systems have on stratification, the argument becomes confusing and unfocused. Although some good ideas are salvageable, the reader often confronts turgidly written and vacuous abstract generalizations. In only a very loose sense is the paramount importance of academic credentials in American society "derived" as a theoretically expectable consequence of its societal conditions. Nevertheless, for purposes of his subsequent analysis of American society, the main point to recognize is that education, a type of formally produced culture, is an effective "currency" in the "cultural market." It provides a sense of identity with others of similar "value" and a relative status to others. Education thus becomes a form of "pseudoethnicity," the grounds for many specialized groupings in the occupational structure.
Even if the theoretical argument is somewhat unclearly linked to the historically oriented discussion of the American experience, Collins's claim that our distinctive combination of multiethnic diversity and political decentralization provided fertile grounds for intense cultural conflict seems convincing. He emphasizes the cultural clash in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between the Anglo-Protestant establishment and immigrant Catholics as especially decisive in creating the credential system. (This system was integrated into the already established oligopolistic corporate structure.) Schools provided the weaponry and then the partial resolution of the struggle for cultural hegemony, as the distinctive cultures of the various ethnic groups became "gradually transformed into abstract credentials." While certain details of the argument may be debated, I believe that Collins's well-documented insistence on the ethno-cultural dimension of the "class struggle" is a necessary corrective to recent Marxian scholarship in this area.
Collins sees the eventually unified education sequence as the institutional base for a "contest mobility" system. However, he unduly neglects the interrelated prestige hierarchies at the various levels of the educational system. Princeton admissions officers have not looked at Andover and Hick High graduates in the same light, nor have corporate gatekeepers been equally attracted to the products of Princeton and Podunk. Particularly at the elite level, there have been substantial elements of sponsored recruitment marked by what Judah Matras has termed "credential cronyism."
Collins's argument for rampant credentialism as a product of status group conflict and, correspondingly, as a mechanism to enhance "positional property" is best exemplified in his analysis of professions. His historical account of how doctors, lawyers, and engineers achieved their present status is fascinating in its detail and theoretical implications. It strongly suggests that a calculus of power, not musings about distinctive altruism or technical needs, is as essential to the understanding of these groups as of any others.
Finally, and not incidentally, Collins's interpretation provides the opening wedge for a forceful condemnation of an educational system with limited rational purpose. After outlining possible responses to this "crisis," Collins briefly argues for a policy of "credential abolitionism" by which the present rigid connection between academic credentials and occupational attainment would be severed. Particularly for those who value equality and believe that schools should be committed above all to learning, this discussion is stimulating. Yet its brevity probably reflects Collins's understandable pessimism.