The Sociology of Status Hierarchy, and Why I think Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley

Introduction

Status is the posturing we do in order to be a member of a desirable group. Status in turn has implications for how valued resources such as money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed. In an ideal world, 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 belies what many of us intuitively know. Status is not only dependent on productivity, but is obtained through who you associate with. These associations may be through family connections, club memberships, school networks, fraternity membership, or what college you attend. None of these connections are blindly entered into, irrespective of their utility in the marketplace.

Universities are at the intersection of this status paradox, between a market which 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 as a status marker determining how money, prestige, power, and honor are distributed irrespective of what skills an individual acquires. 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 by US News and World Report. And for this reason, it is interesting to think of what implications this annual ritual has on how we inside America’s colleges and universities view each other. For example, people teaching and learning at dominant universities like UC Berkeley view their privileges and advantages as being the just reward in a blind competition in which their true honor is recognized. Those of us who teach at lower-ranked universities (in my case Chico State) disagree. We think our own honor is unjustly hidden.

Why Chico State Is Better 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. 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 who may be famous, but often are poor undergraduate teachers. Berkeley also asks less class attendance of students. For example, Berkeley’s Introductory Sociology course in Spring 2007 had 286 students who were lectured to for two hours per week, and a smaller graduate student-led discussion section which was one hour per week. Students received four hours credit for these three hours of instruction In contrast, Chico’s Introductory Sociology classes were three hours per week of lecture with 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 (continued on Page 2)

15 Responses to “The Sociology of Status Hierarchy, and Why I think Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley”

  1. Donna says:

    Tony, I can’t get to your page 2 yet, but one thing that occurs to me immediately is the problem I have with the paradigm of “better.” Chico is “better” than UC Berkeley for what? UC is “better” for what else?

    I agree that undergraduates at UC Berkeley can be underserved (read: ground up and spit out) by the way they structure their classes, and that those who need more attention to their individual needs on an institutional level should go elsewhere (like, to a Cal State, or to a smaller UC), but that’s not the same as saying something is “better” overall. I’d never want my kids to go to UC Berkeley as undergrads (full disclosure: I’m a Berkeley PhD), but I did manage to meet (and teach) undergrads who were thriving there. Would they have also thrived at Chico? Maybe so. But they were happy at Berkeley.

    I look forward to reading page 2.

  2. Donna says:

    OK, now I see where you are going with this.

    I think that, rather than play the “Chico is better” game in response to the “Berkeley rules” game, it’s actually better to reject any notion of absolute “better.” From an undergrad perspective, there are any number of reasons why one might pick Chico over Berkeley, or vice-versa. Good counseling and a realistic notion of what is involved in going to each institution, and what one wants to get out of an undergraduate education (see above: good counseling). From a graduate perspective, it’s not just about what institution will get you a good job, but which scholars you want to work with, and if they can truly help you to navigate the multiplicity of career paths (not just “get a research U job) we confront in these rather more complicated academic times. The job market sucks! And grad schools who are not upfront with their prospective students about this are not doing them or the discipline any favors. And from a faculty perspective, being at UC or Cal State (or a big research vs state teaching u, or small liberal arts college vs either of those) will mean very different things about how much research, teaching, etc. you get to engage in.

    Which is “better?” Which prepares you for what you want to do? Which will accomodate best the professional goals you have, and might have in the future? And, importantly, which might prepare you for the things you don’t know yet that you might have to do? I think the answer is a Big Fat “It Depends.”

  3. Tony says:

    I agree that its best to reject the game, a least on a philosophical level. But the game is there, and my point (or rather my rant) is about pointing out the implications of the game. The game is not always that pretty–but very human.

  4. I agree with you both, the game of which school is better ought to be rejected but as the saying goes, do not confuse what ought to be with what actually is. And what actually in this case is stated in Tony’s original rant, “Status is not only dependent on productivity, but is obtained through who you associate with.” I teach sociology at Butte Community College where most of our students are classified as “nontraditional” meaning that they might be first generation (1st person in their family to attend a higher ed. Institution), working class, minority, and/or reentry students.

    Our students are very aware of Chico being the “better” school; this comes up every semester when I lecture about status and we discuss how they perceive themselves as students at Butte. The working class reentry and 1st generation students get it, they know that going to Berkeley for their undergrad is too expensive and they say that they probably would not get in anyway. The general plan for these students is to receive a practical Voc. Ed. Certificate or transfer to Chico State to finish a B.A. But the students with a little bit of privilege and perhaps some shame about their past academic performance, well, they all want to transfer to Berkeley (rarely are other UC schools mentioned). When I ask students to write on the question, “are you proud to be at Butte, please answer honestly,” I receive responses such as, “Butte sucks but this is all I can afford;” “No, I’m embarrassed when people ask me where I got o school;” “I’m dual-enrolled [a student at both Butte & Chico] but I never tell people I go to Butte, I just say Chico,” and so on. Folks on the lower end of the status hierarchy always know it is there because they can see where they want to be, they know they are not privileged. To students at Chico or a UC school, the privilege is a taken-for-granted status…but when I talk to a student who dropped out of Chico or UC Davis, I hear it in their tone and their words, “I had to come to back Butte, I really screwed up.” What they did wrong, is not succeed at a “better” school and the loss of status haunts them.

    From my perspective, the status hierarchy is alive and well; I would like to think that each school provides a different path, etc but the truth is, where you go to school (and teach) can and does determine how much money, prestige, power, and honor one receives from society. I teach part-time and in general, we are very low on the status hierarchy. The lack of permanence (we are “at-will” employees) takes a tremendous toll on the sanity and self-perception of me and my other part-time colleagues. For example, we are not included in department meetings, this does depend on the particular department, but I only know of one discipline—communication studies—that includes their part-time faculty in their larger dept. meetings. In my own department, Social and Behavioral Sciences, we are excluded by our chair and dean but in a covert way…the meetings are literally “top secret,” no e-mails or notices in our boxes. I have a found a way to circumvent this by asking my full-time colleagues, “I forgot to write down where we’re having the dept. meeting, do you remember?” This way I get to go, but I have to act like a private detective, which frankly, does not feel so good. In the Life Science dept however, they are more overt; they have a policy that part-timers cannot come to dept. meetings, period. A full-time colleague and friend who teaches biology told me, “I hear it’s because we can talk about them and gripe if we need to.” And no, there’s nothing our union can do about this, we’ve barely got benefits and I think that many of us consider this a boat not worth rocking for fear of retaliation e.g., not getting classes the following semester (yes, this happens).

    So, the idea of some schools being better is salient to me, I watch my students manage their ambivalence and I manage my own. Because of this, I’m returning to school for a PhD. I am privileged enough to afford to—my husband has a great job and I can continue working part-time and earning $1500 a month for a three class load. I do plan however, to stay at my community college and continue teaching that status hierarchy is very real, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

  5. mike says:

    Sour grapes.

  6. [...] week, Mike responded to one of my postings about the difference between the quality of education at Chico and Berkeley with a two word [...]

  7. Tommikani95 says:

    I graduated from Berkeley in 2008 with a B.A. in Sociology. There is no question that the smaller discussion sections run by G.S.I.’ s(graduate student instructors) could be better. But the idea that Berkeley doesn’t prepare you for the real world may not be an accurate statement. Several of my fellow learners and I collaborated on many projects,midterms and finals. Furthermore, the fact that Berkeley doesn’t hold your hand is not a bad thing. You need to be a self starter in order to be successful. No one is required to tell you where the resources are. In the spirit of self determination, you have to find them on your own if no one is willing to serve them to you on a platter. That is the real world.

  8. Tony Waters says:

    Hi Tommikani95:
    Thanks for the note. Sorry to hear about the GSI-run sections that could have been better. You are right that such disrespect is often part of the “real world.” But I suspect that you could have learned a similar lesson by working night shift at a AM-PM, or something.
    If you want to see a good sociology class, I would encourage you to come to Chico next semester; I can arrange for you to sit in on my Classical Social Theory class (the Marx, Weber, Durkheim course), or one of the other excellent courses taught by my colleagues. Even in these budget-strapped times, you will usually (not always) find a class of 35-45 students with an experienced teacher who reads student assignments themselves, and returns grade papers promptly. If coddling students means challenging to write better and more analytically, then I guess our sociology department is guilty of that, too.
    But my original essay is about the nature of status, not how hard exams are. To get into Berkeley, I assume that you were one of California’s best high school students. I suspect that you will continue to do well, irrespective of what Berkeley taught you, or did not teach you . Now, you have the status-derived advantage of a Berkeley degree, too. As for the Chico students, most did not have the benefits and skills you had as a college freshman. But maybe they do now! If they do, shouldn’t there be a way for them to demonstrate this to future employers?

    Good luck,
    Tony Waters

  9. Max Smith says:

    Tony,

    You’re the man.

    Max

  10. [...] Blog. This blog raises similar issues to what I wrote about in my essay here “The Sociology of Status Hierarchy and Why I Think Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley?” Or more to the point, Linkon’s blog asks why such a premium is put on where you learned [...]

  11. [...] lose if it came to any measure of undergraduate education.  After all as I have long asserted, Chico State beats UC Berkeley when it comes to quality of undergraduate teaching; what possible advantage could some university [...]

  12. Jamela T. says:

    After reading Dr. Waters’ commentary on the top public universities, I find a few things unsettling. As it is hard to disagree that small classes and more time in the classroom are good things, especially as a Chico State student, but I also find it hard to agree with many of the over-arching generalizations and conclusions drawn by Dr. Waters. To begin, Dr. Waters (like many others) is critical of the US News and World Report college rankings. While I will not go as far as saying that these ranking are all powerful and without flaw, they do take into consideration many additional factors not mentioned in Dr. Waters’ commentary. For example, graduation rate, publication rate and grant acquisition are important factors for a universities prestige and success. The comparison of these factors biases the results in favor of a research university such as UC Berkeley from the beginning. Chico State, in this case, is being compared to one of the top research institutions in the country when it is not even considered a research-focused institution itself. As an important purpose of universities is to educated individuals (Chico State’s main goal), it cannot be forgotten that universities are also the place where knowledge is created and shared, as W.E.B. Du Bois points out, a university must be the place for “that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life”. We cannot evaluate Berkeley solely on it’s teaching of undergraduate students, ignoring the knowledge produced from its research (both graduate and faculty research).

    In addition, it is not completely accurate to say that it is better for Chico State to take average B high school student and turn them into a college graduate, compared to Berkeley, which doesn’t add much value to already hard working, skilled, top notch high school students. Berkeley’s mission is to prepare most, if not all of its students for the top careers and positions in society. This is not an easy task and the learning curve is much more steep than that at Chico State. Therefore, comparing the universities on the total learning capacity is not accurate unless you believe that the educational objectives and careers Chico State graduates are encouraged to pursue offer more prestige and honor than those of Berkeley grads.

    Finally, I find it utterly disturbing to read that it is “virtually impossible” for Chico State graduates to get into graduate programs at top tier public universities such as Berkeley. Speaking from my own experience, I have been recruited by top graduate programs at not only public, but also private universities. I also know Chico State graduates who have gone on to be successful graduate students in top ranked (top 25) graduate programs across many different disciplines. The sweeping generalizations made in this commentary are un-validated and do not take into consideration the success of Chico State students across all disciplines beyond sociology. It cannot be argued that a Berkeley grad has a better chance of getting into a Berkeley grad program than an equivalently equipped Chico State student, but a hard working and determined student from any accredited university can find their way into and succeed in any graduate program. I am a proud Chico State student and soon to be graduate, but cannot allow myself to discredit the missions and educational production of the top universities our nation has to offer.

  13. [...] competitors, even if no one else agrees.  Thus, when teaching with Chico State students, I typically point out that they are clearly cooler than UC Berkeley students, an assertion with whom few Chico State students have ever disagreed. (I have not been offered the [...]

  14. [...] go read this essay which will put into big words what you have known all along about the relationship between Chico [...]

  15. [...] of UC Berkeley, this is the essay that tells you why you think Berkeley games the ranking game:  Why I think that Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley.  It also tells you why you why Davis and Berkeley students repulse each other in the mating [...]

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