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Sociology of Higher Education: Contributions and Their Contexts


reviewed by David Bills & Tricia A. Seifert - June 10, 2008

coverTitle: Sociology of Higher Education: Contributions and Their Contexts
Author(s): Patricia J. Gumport (Ed.)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801886155, Pages: 400, Year: 2007
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In 1973, Burton Clark published what must have seemed at the time an audacious essay in which he took stock of the emerging field of the sociology of higher education.  Writing in the determinately scientific journal Sociology of Education, itself only a few years removed from its roots in the practitioner-oriented Journal of Educational Sociology,  Clark sought a middle ground for the development of a sociology of higher education that avoided a lapse into either atheoretical and overly descriptive “managerial sociology” on the one side, or what he saw as arid and trivial preoccupations with statistical and ethnographic research removed from the world of practitioners on the other.  Clark’s prognosis was more hopeful than not that the conceptual richness of Weber and Durkheim could enrich and enliven a sociology of higher education capable of meeting the practical problems of America’s ever-expanding system of higher education.


Much has, of course, changed since Clark’s essay, both in the broader field of the sociology of education and the lived world of higher education.  Patricia Gumport’s rich and wide-ranging edited volume, Sociology of Higher Education: Contributions and Their Contexts, is a welcome effort to use Clark’s essay as a point of departure for an updated assessment of the achievements and prospects of the sociology of higher education.  It offers a cohesiveness that is unusual in edited volumes, and deserves a wide readership.


The volume consists of four major parts. It opens with a brief orienting essay by Gumport.  Part I (“Points of Departure”) includes a reprint of Clark’s essay (“Development of the Sociology of Higher Education”) and an insightful survey of the sociology of higher education by Gumport. Gumport describes at some length the ways in which various societal and organizational factors have channeled (without, she insists, utterly determining) the field of the sociology of higher education over the past generation.


Part II updates the four domains Clark so notably identified in his original essay: the study of inequality, the study of college impact, the study of the academic profession, and the study of colleges and universities as organizations. A separate chapter is dedicated to how the sociology of higher education has advanced the knowledge base in each of these domains.


Patricia McDonough and Amy Fann synthesize the literature published in three top-tier journals of sociology and higher concerned with inequality and stratification as they manifest primarily in college matriculation. McDonough and Fann organize past studies relative to their focus on the individual, organizational, and field level. Those at the individual level primarily use traditional status attainment models as well as Weber and Bourdieu’s analyses of educational structures and cultural capital to identify factors that promote or inhibit college access. Rather than situating the choice of attending college solely in terms of student agency, organizational level studies focus on the role of organizations in “structuring opportunity, shaping aspirations, and providing information” (p. 55). Finally, McDonough and Fann identify field-level research as that which integrates and explicates the reciprocal influences of the individual and organization.


In Chapter Four, Sylvia Hurtado identifies college impact research as firmly rooted in sociology in that it seeks to understand how institutional structures and social normative environments (i.e., the social structure) reinforce or undermine the effects college has on student personality, learning, and development. Acknowledging that policy makers have often derived recommendations from studies of institutional structure, Hurtado discusses three types of institutional structure and their effects on educational outcomes: institutional size, selectivity, and racial composition.


Turning to the third of the four domains, Gary Rhoades describes the changing face of the academic profession. He defines the faculty as “managed professionals” and calls on future research to better understand the nature of everyday faculty life at all institutional levels as well as the changing power relations between faculty and the increasing number of “managerial professionals,” those in nonfaculty professions on college campuses.


Marvin Peterson’s chapter on colleges and universities as organizations rounds out the four domains. This chapter provides a thorough overview of how environmental conditions and pressures as well as the conception of industry have influenced the evolution of organizational models, gleaned from sociology and other disciplines, which situate colleges and universities in the broader organizational literature.


Part III bridges the four domains of past research with the emerging lines of inquiry, all of which appear to have strong correlations with the original domains. A short introductory essay that clearly connects these emerging lines to the domain from their origins would have provided additional strength to the overall coherence of the text. For example, connecting the emerging line of the sociology of diversity to both inequality and college effects may serve as a natural way to situate this line of inquiry within a historical context, a practice Gumport suggests in the closing chapter of the volume.


In Chapter Seven, John Meyer and colleagues convincingly assert that higher education might best be considered in terms of an institution rather than as a set of discrete organizations. With the interconnectedness of academic meanings, definitions, rules and models described from a cross-cultural vantage point, Meyer and his colleagues argue that social organization of higher education is dependent on a substantially broader environment governed by the rubrics of progress and justice.


In his chapter on sociological studies of academic departments, James Hearn provides a typology with which to organize past research on the more proximal home of the faculty, the academic department. He argues for future research to continue to probe the knowledge-processing of departments but also for resurgence in understanding the role in which academic departments contribute to the socialization of students (i.e., people-processing).


Anthony Antonio and Marcela Muniz detail five lines of inquiry within the sociology of diversity: access and diversity, impact of diversity on students, intergroup relations, diversity in the curriculum, and diversity in the professoriate. Each of these lines has a clear connection to the broader sociological constructs of stratification and inequality, socialization, intergroup relations, sociology of the professions, and the sociology of knowledge.


In the final chapter of this section, Michael Bastedo calls on several concepts related to political science and organizational theory to highlight the role that policy plays in higher education research. He details the role of organizational strategy, interests and agency in the organizational process, the use of symbols and symbolic behavior by organizational leaders, and how institutional logics can be applied in the service of policy and research.


Part IV of the volume is entitled “Looking Ahead.” In Chapter Eleven, Clark offers a brief and sharp polemic about the “disconnect between researchers and practitioners in understanding universities” (p. 319).  Editor Gumport closes the volume with an essay entitled “Reflections on a Hybrid Field: Growth and Prospects for the Sociology of Higher Education,” which capably delivers on its title.


There are no weak chapters.  Inevitably some stand out more than others, which may be more of a reflection of the specific reader’s interests than differences in the quality of the contributions.  The essay by Meyer and his colleagues is an especially strong statement of the institutionalist perspective in higher education.  Bastedo’s chapter is noteworthy in its effort to bring in the work of both political scientists and organizational theorists to the study of higher education. Hearn’s chapter on academic departments struck us as especially well-crafted.


Ultimately, of course, no volume can be fully comprehensive.  There is little or no discussion, for instance, of the stratifying and restratifying effects of educational expansion (mostly notably the justly famous “Maximally Maintained Inequality” thesis of Hout, Lucas, and others).  Nor is there much about the increasing participation of adults and other nontraditional students in higher education, and Antonio and Muniz’s otherwise exemplary chapter on diversity has relatively little to say about the growing representation of international students on American campuses.


Nonetheless, this book would be an excellent addition to any course introducing students to the field of higher education, a field with clear interdisciplinary underpinnings. Gumport and colleagues’ contribution lies in its ability to explicate the sociological constructs that undergird much of higher education research.  Sociology of Higher Education would serve as a fine survey text for many introductory graduate courses in programs of higher education administration, policy, and leadership.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 10, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15271, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 11:13:32 PM

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About the Author
  • David Bills
    University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    David Bills is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Programs in the University of Iowa College of Education and Professor of the Sociology of Education. His research interests are in education and the workplace, labor markets, technological and organizational change, educational demography, and social inequality. He recently published The Sociology of Education and Work, as well as two edited volumes (one on job training and the other on comparative social stratification). He is conducting research on trends in the hiring and training practices of German and U.S. employers over the past twenty years and is collaborating with colleagues at the Federal University of Minas Gerais on a study of social stratification in Brazil.
  • Tricia Seifert
    University of Iowa
    Tricia A. Seifert is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Center for Research in Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa. Her research focuses on the impact of college experiences and institutional contexts on student learning. She is currently working with colleagues on the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, a longitudinal mixed methods study examining the role of institutional practices and conditions in promoting outcomes theoretically associated with liberal arts education. She and her colleagues recently published a piece in Research in Higher Education from this research project.
 
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