• Sociology, the Running Conversation, and the Murder of Marc Thompson

    The Synthesis is a local weekly newspaper in small-town Chico, California, generally specialized in Entertainment news—stories of local bands, the bar scene, and arts.


    Recently, the small paper is branching into more critical hard-hitting news analysis. Emilano Garcia-Sarnoff published “Heart on Fire: The Murder of Marc Thompson” on September 29, which is about the recent death of a Chico State Sociology major found in a burning car in a remote area. Emiliano wrote about a young African-American man he knew casually from a card game, but who was dead September 3, some six weeks after the card game.


    On December 13, Ethnography.com’s Julie Garza-Withers who knew Marc quite well, is following up with a hard-hitting analytic article in the Synthesis about Marc’s death “A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson.” The article is about the inability of the police to conclude the murder investigation yet. Three months after his death we do not yet know how Marc died, how he arrived at the remote area, or why the killers burned his car a little over three hours after he was last seen alive. Who killed him? Why was the car set on fire? How did the person who set the car on fire leave the remote scene? And most importantly, Julie asks, why has there been so little reaction by the local press, authorities, and other opinion leaders in Butte County? There are after all only 6-10 murders per year in a County of 220, 000 people. Murder is thankfully rare—and the circumstance of being found murdered in a burning car even rarer. Can’t the police investigate this murder, which is so strange? Except for the Synthesis—which is first about entertainment, not crime—the story has disappeared from the news.


    As sociologists, Julie and I are particularly pleased that the Synthesis described the role that “the running conversation” in framing—or not framing—Marc’s death. “The running conversation” is a sociological term first developed by Herbert Blumer in the 1950s describing how societies frame and reframe particular events so that a palatable “narrative” develops. This talk, the running conversation, is shaped by people in power, not the little folk who do not have access to the bullhorns of society which in Butte County include the local newspapers, press officers from the police and university, politicians, radio stations, and a television station. In developing the “running conversation” opinion leaders frame “the story” in a way that helps society challenge its own problems. Or not—after all many stories are ignored and never framed and never become a source for social change, or anything else.


    Julie fears that this is happening in Marc’s case after only three months. The strength of Julie’s article I think is that it offers up a number of plausible frames, without forcing the reader into any single one. Why was Marc killed? She doesn’t know and is challenging the police to find out so that the greater Chico community can give meaning to what still otherwise a meaningless murder.


    The first question seems to be was race involved? Marc was a 25-year-old activist for racial justice, and played a major role in a locally produced film about the nature of race on college campuses. Only 1.8% of Butte County is African-American, and four African-Americans were murdered in Butte County and then burned up in cars in 2013-2014, which is 20% of all murders (and that doesn’t count blacks who were murdered and not found in burning cars!). Last year’s “murders in a burning car” resulted in the quick arrest and conviction of the perpetrator—or perhaps not. The same person did not kill Marc, obviously, but maybe this is a group? Or a copy-cat? We just don’t know.


    Or maybe it was a robbery gone badly, and Marc was unlucky? But then why would a car have been left in such an odd place and burned in a way that the body was sure to be quickly found? Again, we don’t know.


    And then why was Marc’s father’s name on the second report in which the fire was reported, even though he did not make the call? Such questions unnerve Marc’s family and his friends. The running conversation has of course begun on the streets, but still has not made itself into the press, a situation Julie’s article is attempting to remedy. The problem is that without the help of the sheriff and the investigative process, no one really knows, and the catharsis that is needed in the aftermath of such a horrible event slips back to only those who knew and loved Marc.


    Anyway you can read Julie’s Synthesis article yourself. Many thanks to the Synthesis for letting a concept like “the running conversation” slip into the article. Such a willingness to experiment journalistically is what keeps good newspapers alive, and communities thriving.


  • Putting things into perspective

    Today, I hosted an “end of semester” celebration for ten students and their peer mentor at my house. I cooked and baked and put on Christmas music but honestly, wasn’t looking forward to it this morning. Yesterday was a rough day, I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m generally just not feeling well, but I went ahead with the party at my house anyway.
    The first hour was a bit awkward; only a few students had arrived, I was still catching up, trying to get everything prepared, cleaning the house at the last minute…anyway…but then the students arrived, all ten of them, and their mentor, and they started snacking on appetizers, baking their own creations in my kitchen, and chatting, like all 18 year old fantastic kids do. I stayed in the kitchen while several of the students chatted and played cards at the dining room table nearby, and conversation got around to how they all grew up, where they are from, what their lives were like back home.

    “My mama,” one of the young men said, “if my teacher had to call her, she would tell me, ‘we’ll talk about THIS when I get home.’ And I knew, it would be bad. I’d clean the house the best I could, and I’d make dinner for her so when she came home from work, she could eat, and then, I’d pretend that I was asleep when she came home, so maybe she wouldn’t beat me bad if I was sleeping. Maybe she’d let me sleep and she’d forget about it the next morning. But she never did. She always woke me up and would bend me over, and that would be it.”

    I listened quietly to the conversation, which meandered to growing up in poverty, growing up feeling targeted because of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, growing up as the first generation to go to college. I rarely get to hear this in the classroom, in such a natural conversation.

    As dinner time neared, one of the students asked me, “Marianne, do you want to hear the poem I just finished?” he was so excited, so I stopped slicing the ham, cleaned my hands, and turned toward him so I could give him my full attention. The others mingled for a minute, then, as the young man began to speak his poem, they all stopped, turned toward him, and became very quiet. “Wake up! Wake up!” his voice echoed through my kitchen, became louder and more fevered as his words sped up with intensity. He spoke for 5 minutes, and ended his poem, “wake up, and do something and be better women and men.” He was brilliant, and I wished I would have videotaped his performance. He’s not a kid I probably would have ever gotten to know if he had just been in my class, and as I served dinner to the students today, I wondered how many other brilliant minds I’ve missed over the years, lost in the seats of my classroom, who I never considered inviting into my home for a meal. And I know, I can’t know them all, but this, for me, is what teaching is all about. I should be looking for the brilliance, and not be surprised when it appears, especially when it’s in my own kitchen.


  • Ourselves, Cute Cats, and Genes as Rhetorical Devices  

    Society is everywhere—humans have not existed outside of society for many millennia. The societies humans created live in privilege some and not others based on status categories rooted in morality. Social status can of course involve beliefs about genetics and relationships and often do. But as the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, the “brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection” is indeed tempered. Meaning humans exceed other critters in the world because we do indeed worry about morality. As Durkheim noted, we find people routinely sacrificing on behalf of others, irrespective of genetic relationships. This emphasis on the “socially constructed” nature of not only society, but also the concepts which help us understand society, is taken for granted by sociologists and anthropologists. But, others do not share our appreciation for this approach.

    Last year, Razib Khan who writes about population genetics, cat genetics, and other subjects held our own Michael Scroggins up as an example of why Cultural Anthropology should be “extirpated” from the academy. He complained about the failure of cultural anthropology to understand science. And in particular, he complained about Michael’s assertion that “the gene” is simply a rhetorical device that emerged out of philosophical discussions about 100 years ago. Michael was making a conventional point in anthropology, which is that scientific constructs like the gene are, well, “socially constructed” rather than a positive fact. Razib, was making a “positivistic” point from the field of genetics that a gene is an actual “thing.”

    Michael’s approach flew in the face of what many in the natural sciences, including Razib, believe, i.e. that “the gene” is a fixed entity which can positively be touched, felt, measured, and exists in the world outside the imaginations of scientists. In other words, it is the old positivist vs. constructivist argument. As a social scientist, I tend to come down on Michael’s side—I think that the gene like everything else, is a concept created by the minds of humans to facilitate understanding, communication, and other human goals.

    Anyway, a few of Razib’s fans joining the fray at in the comment section of Michael’s blog were less careful than Razib himself. A few resorted to Bell-Curve type reasoning which correlates intelligence quotient with race, particularly in US populations. I popped in at some point, basically supporting Michael’s position—I believe strongly that culture trumps genetics (and also the neural sciences), particularly in the short run (i.e. centuries). I also agree with Michael that “the gene” is a social construct—albeit a useful one—invented a little over 100 years ago.

    In my view, the problem for the genes equals intelligence crowd is that they start with assumptions which reinforce pre-existing views of the world. For example, the I.Q. concept was invented about 100 years ago by the psychometricians from Princeton and elsewhere. What these psychometricians did was come up with intelligence testing in which they assumed that they themselves (and their own children) as normative, i.e. really smart, in coming up with their scales. Or in their words have a high level of “cognitive function” as measured by a test which measures English vocabulary and mathematically-based abstract thinking. Not surprisingly, people like them (and their children) do pretty well on such exams, which is one reason why residence and social proximity to the test-writers in terms of income, class, residence, etc., correlates so highly with good SAT and i.q. scores. And why shouldn’t they? The people who write the tests get to select the answers, too!

    In this context our commenters reminded us, intelligence is in the terms of psychometricians a “thing” just like the gene. They even have a name for it, the “g-factor”, which is a thing in the brain produced by genes, where “cognitive function” is found. This positivism combined with positivistic genetics, leads to the assumption that race (i.e. genetics) correlates with intelligence. In other words, only a brief leap of faith in “correlation implies causation,” and it can become assumed that the g-factor is passed on via DNA.

    But there is an alternative to the heritable “g-factor” solution of this problem. For example if you change the culture, even a high i.q. Princetonian becomes an absolute dolt. I know, because that is what happened to me when I joined the Peace Corps in 1980. I had great GRE scores, but was a dolt in a Thai village, and have a big scar on my thumb to prove it—the big scar resulted when I flunked a basic rural Thai i.q. test that the six year old in front of me was scoring really high on. It involved taking a sharp machete, identifying the direction of the grain in a bamboo stalk, and then peeling off a strip about 1 mm. wide. Easy for a Thai six year-old to do in 1981, but not so easy for the 23 year old Peace Corp Volunteer with high GRE scores! The good news is that I didn’t have to take the rest of the rural Thai i.q. test, which, since it is designed by a rural Thai psychometrician, involves a lot of things having to do with rice cultivation. If I had been given the whole rural Thai i.q. test, I would have starved—as would the Princetonian with perfect GREs—and won a “Darwin Award” on my rural Thai i.q. test.

    Which brings up the subject of why human culture is so much more important than biology in determining our destiny.   The answer is that humans are made for social life, not biological life. We are first products of our societies, not our genes. I know that this flies not only in the face of both Darwinian logic, and also the modern economics which asserts that individual fitness determines material success. Meaning that the male who competes the best, makes the most babies, and earns the most money!


    Basically, the response to this attempt at correlation equals causation is to point out that humans, unlike animals, are moral creatures, not economic or genetic beings. We worry about what is right and wrong, and will sacrifice ourselves for what we believe is right. Thus Mother Theresa had no children, and took a vow of poverty. But after her death we still derive moral meaning from her sacrifices. These sacrifices trumped decisions based solely in economic or genetic reasoning. Likewise, Razib Khan spends hours blogging and being underpaid for it, because he believes it is the right and moral thing to do, and like Mother Theresa he is able to influence the broader culture.

    Or to quote the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in 1890 to the economists of his day:

         No doubt our economists tell us, man is naturally made for social life. But they understand thereby a social life which would be absolutely different from the one we have before our eyes, one where there would be no traditions, no past, where everyone would live on his own without worrying about others, where there would be no public action except to protect each individual from the encroachments of his neighbor, and so on.” p. 40.

    Writing again in 1893, Durkheim screwed up his courage, and took on the ideas of Charles Darwin himself, the one in whose footsteps modern biologist follow.

         If the hypotheses of Darwin have a moral use…They overlook the essential element of moral life, that is, the moderating influence that society exercises over its members, which tempers and neutralizes the brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection. Wherever there are societies, there is altruism, because there is solidarity.” P. 83.

    Durkheim’s point is that the struggle for existence is indeed tempered by moral life, and not just by “selection of the fittest,” genes, or anything else. Many many people besides Mother Theresa sacrifice their fortunes, honor, and reproductive fitness on behalf of an abstract future, and without reference to genetic relationships.

    Having said that, I still find a place for genetic arguments, particularly when they describe long-term migrations which cannot be otherwise traced—such studies are a rough estimation where no other meansure is available. Such studies add to our understanding of the past, which is a noble moral task for its own sake!

    But the problem with such studies is that they tend to reify human beings as simply the product of in-bred social units, which, assume a tendency to make babies with their cousins, in the same way that Charles Darwin did when he married his cousin (in case you were wondering—they had ten children together!). But people are also infernally capable of finding social partners across genetic distances which defy classification by DNA molecule, except in the crudest of ways. Indeed, as Razib Khan points out in his NY Times article, “Our Cats, Ourselves” even cross-species social interactions between humans and cats cause genetic variation in feline genomes. But what really causes this “selection” for domestic feline characteristics? Is it only survival of the fittest, or is there also maybe a moral component as well? Judging from the number of YouTube cute cat videos, people do place moral value on cats, even if the cats don’t reciprocate. Cats in other words, are also a “rhetorical device,” just like the gene. How rhetorical? People love their cats—a very human and moral emotion!


    Durkheim, Emile (1973) Durkheim on Morality and Society, edited by Robert Bellah. 1973.


  • Did Coca Cola rebrand “America the Beautiful?”

    The end of the semester means the “sociology of music” in my classes. As part of this, I do an experiment to see what songs students will remember when I play the first few bars (i.e. about six seconds). This semester I did this with the version of “America the Beautiful” played at the 2014 Super Bowl in which the first bars were sung in English, and the next few in Spanish. The clip is part of a commercial for linguistic diversity on the one hand, and perhaps more importantly, for Coca Cola.


    Anyway, the results! 18/21 of my students said that they recognized the clip. Here is how they identified it though.


    1          World Cup Song

    3.5       Star Spangled Banner

    4.5       Coca Cola Commercial

    4          America, or America the Beautiful

    1          National Anthem

    2          Commercial, or Beer Commercial

    1          Christmas Song

    1          Child Memory


    In other words “America the Beautiful” was rebranded as a Coca-Cola commercial for a number of the students, which I guess is why the Coca-Cola Corporation broadcast it in the first place.


    Ironically, only ten months later, the fact the song is not remembered for promoting linguistic diversity, at least by this audience.


  • Anthropological Subjects in the New York Times Last Week

    Razib Khan published an interesting article “Our Cats, Ourselves” about the evolution of the domestic cat. The article describes how domestication of felines over the last 10,000 years has resulted in a critter that is both biologically and socially adapted to live with humans. The genetic element has resulted in smaller cranial sizes, and so forth. The social part at the same time includes adaptation to human-created environments that came with the invention of agriculture, and the emergence of “domestic” rodents. Razib is pursuing a PhD in Genetics, but has a long history of blogging about a wide range of subjects, including history, anthropology, and general science.  Occasionally, he has commented here at ethnography.com.

    The New York Times has had a good week with writing interesting and engaging op-ed about social scientific subjects. Here is a good meditation on the American Myth of the Individual, which traces its roots in the classical philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Emphasized is that very basis of sociology and anthropology which is that first and foremost humans are social beings, not biological beings. It is written by John Terrell, an anthropologist.



  • The Truth About Police

    Another unarmed Black man died at the hands of law enforcement on Thursday night. The NYC Police Commissioner was quick in calling the incident an “unfortunate tragedy” at the same time that the mainstream press has included that the officer was a “rookie” in most of their headlines. Akai Gurley, the 28-year old Brooklyn victim and his girlfriend were leaving her apartment via the stairwell when they ran into two officer’s who were in the midst of conducting a vertical patrol and had just entered the stairwell on the floor above. Officer Peter Liang shot Akai Gurley in the chest after drawing his gun as a safety precaution while entering the stairwell.

    Photo By Peter J. Smith

    The NYC police are saying things like “probationary officer,” “accidental discharge,” and “dark stairwell.” The kinds of things that the police will say when there is absolute certainty that the victim wasn’t doing anything wrong and they have a P.R. nightmare on their hands. They were also quick to take responsibility and talk the talk of changing police culture and conducting a full investigation.

    We’re hearing things like that from police muckity-mucks a lot these days. I hope it makes a difference but it doesn’t change the fact that another Black man is dead as a result of a brief encounter with a police officer. The circumstances don’t matter when you’re dead. All that’s left is his grieving loved ones and a righteously angry community.

    For the rest of us, it’s another opportunity to think about police authority and bureaucratic discretion. In NYC, an officer has the discretion to draw their weapon while patrolling. But patrolling in a dark stairwell while also carrying a flashlight and experiencing heightened stress seems like a recipe for disaster. I grew up with the myth (and I do believe it is a myth) that police officers rarely if ever draw their weapon. To read the mainstream press, it seems like police are drawing their weapons more often than not because they feel “afraid.” That’s a real bag of power right there, the privilege to feel afraid and brandish/fire a weapon with all the authority of someone the people hired to protect and to serve.

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? A whole lot of people already know the truth about police, this isn’t anything new under the sun. It gets a lot of press because it’s a tragedy but also because there are two grand jury verdicts we are waiting to hear. The Michael Brown verdict in Ferguson, MO and for choke-hold victim, Eric Garner. There is much fear in Missouri and calls for calm as the community there and communities across the country await the outcome. I want to be hopeful, really I do, but I know the truth about police authority and discretion.

    Video Animation by artist activist Molly Crabapple

    UPDATE: A Cleveland, Ohio police officer shot a twelve year old boy in the stomach yesterday, he died in a hospital early Sunday morning as a result of his injuries. The name of the child has not been released but he was Black and deemed a “threat” because he was holding a BB gun while playing at a local rec center. The police were following up on a 911 call that there was “A guy with a gun pointing it at people.” During the recorded call to the police, you can hear the caller say that the gun is “probably fake” twice. Per usual, the muckity-mucks are pointing out that the cop was a “rookie” with less than a year on the force. They also pointed out that the BB gun’s orange safety marker had been “scratched off,” as if that was just cause for shooting a minor at a rec center. If you read this article here (link) you can view the “Official Statement” from Cleveland Police where they insinuate the boy was trying to “commit suicide by cop.”


  • The College Status Game: Why I Think Chico State is a Better University than UC Berkeley  

    College is not just about learning, it is about status and hierarchy, too. So what do the fine nineteen year-olds at UC Berkeley think about us at low ranked Chico State? And how do we think about the snobs at UC Berkeley? Dismissiveness, preening, and sour grapes are part of the ranking game.

    Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. We posture because status has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, the labor economists tell us that the more productive labor is, the more money, prestige, power, and honor will be acquired via the blind mechanisms of a marketplace that knows only productivity. But this ideology while important, belies what many of us intuitively know about the real world. Status is not only dependent on the mechanisms of a blind market, no matter how efficient it may be, but also is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what university you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace. And as study after study have shown advantage in the labor market also depends on legally pernicious status categories like race, gender, religion, and social class.

    Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market that sees only productivity, and a social world tuned into status distinctions based on relationships. As labor economists (and university administrators) assure us, what is learned at the university makes labor more productive in the marketplace. But, this is not the whole story. Because, universities are not only about the acquisition of skills valued in the marketplace. Attendance at a particular university is also used as a status marker to determine how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual has. Were this not the case, no university administrator, parent, high school student, college counselor, or anyone else would pay any attention to the college status rankings published each fall by US News and World Report and other rankers of college and university prestige. And for this reason, it is interesting to think about what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. And of course these views are not the same because, after all, status matters. Thus, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley have one way of viewing their privileges and advantages in what they presume to be a competitive life in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) do too. But our views about the justice of Berkeley graduates’ privileges are different.


     Why Chico State Does Better at Undergraduate Education than UC Berkeley: A Brief Rant

    I will be blunt. When it comes to undergraduate education I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley. The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates. Berkeley’s classroom teachers or what they call “discussion leaders” are often inexperienced graduate students, and not the big name (and well-paid) research professors on the letterhead who may be widely published but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also freely gives students credit for time the faculty do not teach. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in spring 2011 had 279 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section that was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours. In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with about 40 students, and Chico students received only three hours credit for this. As for Berkeley’s undergraduate students, they themselves are among the smartest and hardest working high school students in California. And, at the end of four years at Berkeley, they may well still be smart and hard-working, although I have yet to see any evidence that this quality is acquired at Berkeley rather than one the students brought with them fro high school.

    Chico State in contrast has smaller classes, few inexperienced graduate student teachers, and hire faculty because they want to teach undergraduates for their career. Big name or not, undergraduates routinely interact with experienced faculty hired for demonstrated teaching skills, even though they may also write books and academic articles just like the big names at UC Berkeley. It may well be true that Berkeley educates the very best high school students that California has. But Chico State takes California’s second best students, and makes them into really talented people. One day, I would like to see Chico challenge Berkeley on “value-added” in terms of student learning. I am confident that Chico grads would best Berkeley grads in terms of how much they learned from their classes between the day they walked in the door and the day they graduated. After all, it does not take much to take the straight A student from high school, and then turn them into a college graduate like Berkeley does. Chico though takes the B student, and turns them into a college graduate. And Chico State does it for less tax money than do the overpaid professors (and underpaid teaching assistants) at UC Berkeley. Chico State’s true honor is hidden, and US News and World Report got it wrong when they published their college rankings last September, and informed us that again, UC Berkeley was the number one national public university while Chico State didn’t even make the list.

    A Little Sociology: The Relationship between Status and Achievement

    But this paper is not only a rant about Chico and Berkeley. Rather it is about the nature of status and how alongside market forces status distinctions shape what colleges do and think. I think Chico would best Berkeley in a fair comparison of undergraduate quality of education, but then I teach at Chico, and naturally take some pride in what we do. And so more than self-righteous navel gazing, this paper is also an exploration of status systems work to allocate unequally both prestige and access to opportunity outside the blind mechanisms of the labor market. As such, this paper draws very heavily on sociologist Max Weber’s[1] description of status inequality in ethnicity, occupational categories, and caste. By extension, this also applies to how college rankings reported by US News stratify America’s system of higher education.

    So first a little sociology. High status means that one group (in this case Berkeley people) monopolizes goods or opportunities through the maintenance of social distance from lower status people like me at Chico State. They do this through their power to award status markers for and assign prestigious goods. Thus, despite the fact Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, teach the same things about sociology and economics, Berkeleyites are routinely paid more, more likely to sit at the head of a table, be elected to honor societies, be selected to divide up federal grants, and become the arbiters of the institutions which award academic status. More to the point, US News asks Department Chairs working at places like Berkeley to determine their own rankings as well of that of everyone else. And not surprisingly the smarty-pants from places like Berkeley tautologically conclude that since they are paid more, they must do a better job at teaching, and therefore deserve another raise because their ranking in US News is so high [2]. (When I was a chair at Chico State, I never had a phone call or email from US News soliciting my opinion about the quality of undergraduate programs at Berkeley—so goes it in the game of status). Note that this has nothing to do with an objective measure of “quality” in undergraduate programs which I wrote about in my rant. Indeed, as I said before if this were the case, Chico would beat Berkeley hands down in US News rankings. But in fact ranking has nothing to do with the anonymous mechanisms of labor markets, which Weber as writes, status systems run by US News in fact abhor.

    Weber writes that the inequality between groups like Berkeley and Chico are maintained through rituals which ensures that we will coexist in a system of mutual repulsion and disdain. My rant about Berkeley’s underserved status is typical of how a subordinated group emphasizes its own honor by disdainfully pointing out the pretensions of the dominant (In this respect, I guess I am a typically ungrateful and unappreciative subordinate). But the dominant group also has its own ways of justifying its status is deserved, typically by emphasizing the acclaim it received in the past and present. The result is a rhetorical dance engaged in by both parties. Thus both universities believe that there is something unique about their own institution, and each believes its own honor to be the highest one, a fiction cultivated in avoidance strategies which mean among other things that Chico’s students chances of getting into graduate school at UC Berkeley are virtually non-existent.

    But at Chico we too protect our honor from the pretensions of Berkelyites. At Chico we routinely explain how our secret honor is hidden from the rest of the world, including US News, and particularly the stigmatizing rank Playboy once gave as the number one party school in the nation. We also need to explain why so few National Merit Scholars come to Chico, and why so many of our students routinely take so few classes while working at tedious minimum wage jobs while attending Chico State.

    Still Berkeley too has an image problem. They need to explain why their honor is deserved, and how pretensions of people like me are the result of envy, jealousy, and sour grapes. In short there need to be rituals and stories to explain caste dominance (Berkeley), and caste subordination (Chico). According to Weber, because Berkeley is on top of an established pecking order, Berkeley’s story is about a glorious past, which explains why logically Berkeley is the highest ranked public university in the United States. The past leaders who made the glory of Berkeley possible are heroes. There are regular remembrances of these heroes on special days, in the names of buildings, scholarships, and other tokens acknowledging their role in creating the deserved glories of the present. The message is clear to Berkeley grads: they are special and deserving of their exalted place in the world. And by implication the rest of us are losers.

    At Chico, the stories and rituals are of course different. They are not be about a glorious past (we don’t have a plausible one), but about why our clandestine honor is routinely hidden and ignored. What is more, buried in the story we tell about ourselves will be an assertion that one day we will overcome the odds, and our secret glory will be revealed.

    Chico’s Story of Hidden Honor

    At Chico State, I routinely explain our position in higher education’s hierarchy to prospective students and new faculty. The story follows much along the lines I ranted about above. I describe the easy access to faculty Chico students have, the smaller classes, and point out that UC Berkeley has none of these. Because I am an alumnus of the University of California (Davis in my case), I typically tell visitors that I learned to teach undergraduates at the UC, but I became good at it only at Chico. The ideology I describe is one that explains away Chico’s stigma as a second rate public university in a manner which highlights our special, albeit unnoticed skills. Our mythology about our hidden honor goes something like this: If you would look closely at Chico State student, you will find that they work harder in the “real” world. After all Berkeley students tend to be richer and more spoiled. And because they have better high school grades they are more likely to have scholarships. This means that they rarely are exposed to the reality of a job in the dining commons, local restaurant, or camp counseling during the summer. Chico students also write better because real professors (not graduate students) grade their papers. And because all the hyper-competitive self-absorbed nerds from high school went to Berkeley, our students develop collaborative relationships in classes. This means that Chico State students are better prepared to be part of the teamwork found in the modern workforce. Chico’s applied hands-on approach encourages students to be involved in businesses, schools, and government as “real people” not theoretical drones ungrounded in the real world. Our students will never labor as a heartless drone holed up with a calculator screen and spreadsheets for fifty years as would a Berkeley student. Rather they will work in offices inhabited by real people.


    Image of Wildcats

    All this of course avoids the fact that Chico students are perceived as being a bunch of drunks. But wait, there is secret honor even in this distinction. Chico’s Business School routinely brags about the “social skills” of their students. They point out that the party-school atmosphere is actually a strength; it means that employees have already learned how much alcohol they can hold and shall not—how shall I put this delicately?—throw upon the lap of a client during their first year on the job as would a socially unsophisticated nerd from Berkeley.[3] In short, we at Chico have a providential mission to save the culturally inept Berkeleyites from their own social cluelessness. Whole organizations would undoubtedly collapse if it were not for the strategically placed Chico State student who quietly and competently smooth’s large egos, and connects the human elements necessary in every organization. Or to borrow a Biblical saying, we believe that in the end days, the last will be first, and the first will be last; in the end, say in fifty years, the honor of Chico State will be recognized by even US News while presumably Berkeley will be noticed only by Playboy. Undoubtedly, this will happen when one of my colleagues is plucked from obscurity and awarded a Nobel Prize in something, or an alum is elected president of the United States. After all if Eureka College’s Ronald Reagan, and Texas State Teachers College’s Lyndon Johnson can become president, why not someone from Chico State?

    Steeped in History

    Kingdoms of This World…

    While typically Berkeley and Chico faculty do not run in the same circles, I can still walk on the Berkeley campus, and also browse their web-site. What you find is a presentation of self that is different from Chico’s. Berkeley doesn’t dream of Nobel Prizes, they already have them. Indeed, the list of current Nobel Prize winners (7) is only three clicks from Berkeley’s home page (along with the 13 deceased prize winners, and then one more click to the 24 alumni winners—who says that nerds aren’t the best?). Department rankings are only a click or two in another direction, where a page indicates, “In the most recent National Research Council study, 35 of Berkeley’s 36 graduate programs ranked in the top 10 in their fields in terms of faculty competence and achievement.” In case you don’t have a web-browser, go on the UC Berkeley campus, and you will see ostentatious privileged parking places reserved for Nobel Laureates. Buildings are named for outstanding scientists including those who developed the atom bomb in World War II, rich alumni like William Randolph Hearst, and other heroes who have graced Berkeley’s campus. In short, while Chico’s promise is still in the future, Berkeley’s Kingdom is in the here and now and they are going to let everyone know about it. The University’s web page preens with history, leading UC Berkeley to conclude with the self-satisfied observation that “[Already] In 1966 Berkeley was recognized by the American Council on Education as ‘the best balanced distinguished university in the country.’” Nothing is shy, or hidden, or clandestine here. It is out in front for all to admire.

    The implication of all this self-promotion for Berkeley’s undergraduates is that only the very best will be admitted; only the intellectual elite will be given admission to the hallowed grounds. Sometime in their first week on campus, it will be made clear to them that because Berkeley is the best, they too must be the best, a form of tautological reasoning that insecure 18 and 19 year olds embrace enthusiastically. And indeed they are the best, at least in terms of high school grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities and the other things that UC Berkeley and others at the top of the current status heap value highly. And this in turn justifies the self-satisfied assertion that only the best recognizes the best, and in this way the inequality of the American higher education system is perpetuated, seemingly ad infinitum. And as a result throughout their careers, they will give each other pay raises, jobs, honors, appoint each other to boards of directors, in the belief that being of high status is an end in and of itself.

    But There are also Kingdoms of the Coming World…

    None of the things that Berkeley brags about on its website addresses the undergraduate excellence like small classes, contact with faculty, etc., that we have at Chico. But even I will admit that Chico is weaker on one thing: presentation of our history. There is no “history of Chico State” link to our home page, nor as far as I can tell, any other place. There are no obvious lists of the accomplishments of our faculty (no Nobel Prizes) and our buildings are mostly named after obscure northern California counties. Despite over a hundred years of history, there are few illustrious faculty, donors, or alumni bragged about. On the President’s page, there is a brief mention that CSU Chico is one of the highest ranking public colleges in the West, but unlike Berkeley, the source is not cited.[4] More significantly though for an essay about the nature of status stratification, is the focus of two prominently displayed slogans on Chico State’s web page. “Today Decides Tomorrow” is mentioned in both the President’s welcome page, and is emblazoned above the door of the Kendall Hall, one of the few buildings to bear an illustrious name, former president Glenn Kendall. The second prominently displayed slogan is the campus’ latest goal, which envisions Chico as becoming a center for sustainability education. So on the home page for months was a large green hot link reading “Our Sustainable Future” and led to a list of planned programs designed to position Chico in the future.

    What both of these slogans of course represent is the belief that Chico’s unseen glory is the future—tomorrow as the slogan says. The future may be ours, and by extension not Berkeley’s. Someday, Chico’s mythology goes, an illustrious figure will emerge—in Weber’s terminology a messiah figure—who will demonstrate how quietly but excellently we have been delivering for California all along. In this respect I suppose it is fortunate to have so many buildings named after obscure counties. They are sitting there, waiting to be named for people who will give Chico great sums of money, our first Nobel Prize winner, or better yet invent an even bigger bomb! Best of all, those of us who have been around awhile will get to divide up the resources differently, meaning we will get a big pay raise, putting us ahead of even UC Berkeley: in this promised future, we will be of this world, and no longer have to worry so much about tomorrow!

    The Persistence of Status Stratification

    Of course, the status inequality between Berkeley and Chico is hardly unique. Such inequality inherently permeates the relationships which order our hierarchically ordered modern society. I could have as easily written this essay about the relationship between Chico and the local Community College, Butte College. I am sure that the faculty there are acutely aware of the differences in pay and teaching load (i.e. they get less money and grade more papers). They will undoubtedly have the same uneasiness and chip on their shoulder relative to Chico State, and with equal faith await their first Nobel Prize winner and the arrival of a messiah figure in the form of a hundred million dollar endowment.[5] What this illustrates are not the implicit differences between Butte, Chico and Berkeley, but the nature of status and honor within society. Ultimately, status, unlike market economics, is a zero sum game. For one institution or person to have more status, another institution must have less.

    As Max Weber wrote, status systems are about sorting out who has advantages and who does not. Dominant ideology aside, it is not simply the provision of rewards on the basis of the blind labor market; indeed, status systems are about the privileged avoiding the mechanisms of the blind marketplace. The labor market may in theory be blind, but employment resumes still prominently indicate what college you attend. Highlighting such a status achievement is as important in the seeking of privilege as the skills learned, and tells to others where you belong in the pre-established pecking order.

    So, from Weber’s perspective, the mystery of why neither UC Berkeley or Chico State use much of their web-site plugging the quality of undergraduate education is not so baffling. Berkeley spends its time asserting the importance of past Nobel Prize winners, and Chico dreams of tomorrow because they are, respectively, a dominant university seeking to preserve its status, and a subordinate institution dissatisfied with the status quo. The good news is that while such status distinctions persist and are evident in how each institution presents itself, they are also malleable. No currently dominant institution started out that way, which is why messiah figures (in Berkeley’s case the Nobel Prize winners) become so prominent in the mythologized histories they publish. Symbolically such heroes mean a lot, even though in delivering the core product of the institution—quality undergraduate classes to 19 year olds—they are irrelevant. This means that while Chico State may not be tomorrow’s dominant Berkeley, an institution like Chico, meaning anyone of the hundreds of undergraduate colleges, will find its rightful place in the sun, which in its own vicarious way gives us all hope.

    [1] This essay draws very heavily on Max Weber’s classic essay “Class, Status, Party” which has been published in both From Max Weber, and Economy and Society. The essay was also recently retranslated by Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters, and others, as “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Staende, Parties,” and published in the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010).

    [2] Institutional reputation, which US News calls “peer assessment” comprises 25% of US News’ measure of university quality. Reputation is calculated by asking Department chairs at research universities like Berkeley what they think of themselves, and everyone else. The chairs indicate what their gut level feelings are which not surprisingly are that people like them are better than people at places like Chico State. The other 75% of the rankings are mostly made up of qualities students bring with them from high school like grades and SAT scores (15%), how much money alumni give (5%) and faculty pay (20%). Retention rates (20%) of all the numbers US News uses is the only one that has much to do with undergraduate education, although it too is not a direct measure of the quality of classes.

    [3] This is what President George H. W. Bush (Yale and Skull and Crossbones Fraternity 1948) notoriously did in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1992.

    [4] Number three in the MA granting public institution category for the west—source US News)

    [5] Indeed, there was a brief flurry of hype at Butte College in 2011 when rich alum Aaron Rogers quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory. But Aaron has yet to return the love, or cut a check, and has instead has highlighted what he apparently believes is a stronger college connection—at UC Berkeley.

    Berkeley Playboy

     Images by: Brad Nail