Sociation Today®
The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Sociological Association: A
Refereed Web-Based Publication
ISSN 1542-6300
Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University
Richard Dixon,
Chien Ju Huang,
 North Carolina
Central University
Ken Land,
 Duke University
Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
Central University
Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University
Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Volume 1, Number 2 
Fall 2003

    In Search of the Null

    By Beth Davison
Appalachian State University
    NCSA Presidential Address
February 20, 2003

    I am here before you because I have the daunting task of talking about stratification and keeping my remarks to 20 minutes!  Yes, as this year’s program coordinator, I only have myself to blame for choosing such a broad topic, but in my book, stratification is the essence of sociology and at the core of our social problems.  It is an important topic to mull.  For me, and probably for many of you, the pursuit of understanding inequality issues attracted me to the discipline of sociology. 

    My first critical exposure to social hierarchies (and perhaps also for many of you) came from Dr. Seuss’s story about the Sneetches.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.

Those stars weren’t so big.  They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking” (Seuss 1961).

    In today’s world, stratification isn’t always as blatant as having “stars upon thars,” but it remains a thriving part of how we organize our society and helps inform our interactions with others.

    Thinking in terms of stratification as synonymous to sociology, makes an endless list of possible topics to discuss this morning.   Therefore I have decided to concentrate on stratification issues in just one area: The institution of higher education in the United States.  I feel this gives us a context in which all of us gathered here this morning can relate to and come to the realization of how we are part of the processes that reproduce stratification while also acknowledging and celebrating our efforts to minimize social inequalities.

    I will use three approaches to discuss stratification within post-secondary education institutions.  These include documenting the many faces of stratification, understanding the underlying causal mechanisms that determine stratification and highlighting our endless efforts to eradicate systems of stratification.
First, there is the issue of documenting the problem.  Even though we expect education institutions to be leaders of equal opportunities, we, the college community, are not immune from a stratified system of rewards.  Sociologists have produced tons of descriptive information about education institutions’ differential treatment of bodies of people based on their shared characteristics. 

    Let’s begin by looking at who is missing from our classrooms.  Still in the new millennium, and despite the fact that sociologists have been “on the job” for 150 years, only a quarter of citizens from the world’s self-proclaimed “Greatest Country” obtain a college education.  Let that sink in for a moment; only a quarter of United States citizens have a college education.   In recent years, there have been slight increases in bachelor's degree attainment among females, Blacks, and non-Hispanic Whites, and presently, more women attend and complete a college education than men.  However, race and ethnic discrepancies in education participation are still very apparent. Blacks are 12% less likely to obtain a bachelor's degree and Hispanics are 18% less likely to complete a college education than are Whites.

    There are also noticeable absences of certain instructors from our classrooms.

  •     Females only make up 36% of all full-time instructional faculty and staff and only 30% of all social science full-time instructional faculty and staff.


  •     Around 85 percent of full-time instructional college professors are white; only 5% are black, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% Hispanic, and less than 1% American Indian.  This lack of racial diversity among instructors is also true for most sociology departments.

    But there are other layers of post-secondary education stratification that we have unmasked because we, as sociologists, are willing TO ASK THE TOUGH QUESTIONS.  Here are a few more examples of our investigation into higher education stratification issues.

  •     We have examined attrition rates to find that 10-25% of students who start college will drop out.  The chances of dropping out are greatest for minority students.

  •     We have examined how men and women are channeled into different fields with women still lagging in science and engineering fields and especially in computer science.  The same channeling process also seems to keep racial and ethnic minorities away from these fields.

  •     We have discovered that wage disparities among faculty are not always based on merit and experiences.  Male faculty and those at four-year institutions continue to earn more than their counterparts.  We know that wage variances occur within departments, between departments and between comparable institutions.  We are also aware that the gaps between faculty, adjunct and staff salaries are not always justified.  As for our students, even outside academia, females continue to make less than their male counterparts with the same degree.

  •     We have looked at college employee benefits and asked why some jobs on campus do not qualify for health insurance and are puzzled as to how a university can claim to be a guardian against sexual orientation discrimination, yet still deny their employees health benefits for domestic partners.

  •     We have explored employment sectors and wondered why clerical workers and other low paying university jobs, such as food services, seem to be dominated by women.  If I asked you to identify who is likely to fill housekeeping jobs on college campuses, you know, as well as I, that these jobs are not work-study jobs for students, but are occupied by the most marginalized members in the community.

  •     We have espoused the critical perspective that views our students as receiving unstigmatized government assistance.  Students at most public universities only pay about 20% of what it actually costs for them to attend, the rest being supplemented by government funding.  Paying tuition allows students access to resources, facilities, and cultural events that are not available to the general public.   Not that these privileges are inherently bad, they are even a good investment into the social and cultural capital of our students, but only a quarter of our citizens ever have any access to these advantages.

  •     We discovered that recent economic downturns have increasingly led to the hiring of qualified applicants as part-time instructors instead of full-time faculty members

    As these examples illustrate, we have spent a lot of effort in documenting the existence of stratification, and its many manifestations in our own environment and should be proud of our discoveries, yet saddened by their realities.  However, our job isn't done.

    As a discipline, we must continue to document the existence of stratification on our landscapes because it is metamorphosing into new faces (including Hispanics the largest minority group in the U.S.) and into new dimension, such as the unequal diffusion of internet technology across our state which will be discussed in the session on the NC Digital Divide.

    Also, we know that stratification doesn’t just exist in our academic communities; there is stratification within our households, our neighborhoods, our communities, churches and our legislative bodies.  We need to continue keeping our eyes open.  Panelists in the Crossing Borders: Studying Stratification session will discuss with us the methodological challenges of studying marginalized populations.

Understanding the Problem

    The second main approach is understanding the problem.  Our academic inquisitiveness leads us in search of causal factors to explain education segregation.  In this great body of literature, we have identified many complex processes involved in producing and reproducing stratification.

Here are just a few of the processes:

  •     The legitimating processes that make it seem acceptable or natural that in a country of great resources, only one-quarter of the population pursues a college degree.  This process is perhaps the most dangerous one because legitimization blinds us to inequalities in general.

  •     The processes that we are most familiar with are the overlapping establishments of patriarchy, racism, and elitism, which I will not elaborate on assuming we are all well versed in these areas. 

  •     As students of sociology we learn the importance of acquiring (OR NOT) the necessary human capital to be admitted into college and to succeed, such as our writing skills, social connections, vocabulary, worldly experiences and the ability to obtain a good fake id.  We know that our accrued capital often depends on the luck of our birth or what our parents are able to invest in us.

  •     The process of entitlement that makes some potential students feel it is their right to have access to the university of their choice and that it is acceptable to receive admission credit for having family connections to a university, but it is not acceptable to compensate for centuries of racial discrimination.

  •     The social psychological processes of class that allow some of our students a strong sense of self-efficacy in which they can walk around our campuses feeling they belong while other students, without a family history of higher education, walk around feeling they don’t belong and are afraid that soon they will be “discovered” for the fraud they believe themselves to be.

Eradicate Stratification

    The third approach is eradicating stratification. We often talk about the problems more than the solutions.  But our collective responses to stratification are probably our most germane work.   That is assuming we want equality.  We are so ingrained with the need to one-up our neighbors and accustomed to being awarded for grabbing a bigger “piece of the pie,” that thinking outside the stratification box is hard and often uncomfortable.

    A favorite quote among my cohort from graduate school is a statement by Karl Marx “Philosophers have only interpreted the world...the point, however, is to change it."

    We should always ask ourselves what are the implications of our research findings?  How can we reverse a culture of stratification?  How can we empower the powerless?
Again, a few examples

  •     We should start by looking close to home for solutions.  We need to address the microstratification processes on our campus.  A good example is the UNC-Greensboro faculty that conducted a fund-raiser this year to supplement staff salaries.  They took this action in response to the fact that state employees did not receive pay increases this year.  Although they were only able to raise $31,000 (which meant only about a third of the staff received a hundred dollars) it was a notable gesture that got our attention.  We need more efforts like witnessed at UNCG.


  •     Another effective response is enhancing students’ education through service learning projects.  As will be discussed in the session about Student Activism & Service Learning, these programs allow students to experience and evaluate firsthand the effectiveness of local organizations and agencies in responding to their community needs.

  •     Research shows that students and new faculty members are likely to be more successful if they are mentored by existing group members.   The Preparing Future Faculty program, that will be presented later on today, helps to orient graduate students to their future roles as academic sociologists.  Graduate students are paired with faculty mentors to help them learn to become a scholar, teacher and an active contributor to human progress. We need more programs like this and especially programs that reach out to our female and minority faculty and students.

    One of my all time favorite sayings is the simple phrase,  “Only as far as we dream can we go.”

    So I am going to end with my utopian vision for the world in hopes that one day it will be a reality.  I envision the end of finding evidence of macrohierarchies.  In this world, researchers will not find race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities and age to be significantly related to social realities, outcomes, occupations, power and opportunities.  In other words, administrative assistants are not always going to be women and computer geeks are not always going to be 18-year-old white men.

    When trying to find statistical evidence of inequalities, we will instead find support for the statistical null and accept that demographic variables are not related to systems of hierarchical statuses.  To the extent there are patterns, trends, or clusters of behavior and attitudes among segments of the population, we will have to assume that it is due to error or chance or it is just merely a matter of differentiation.

    The reality of this is that students will be disappointed to find that their cross-tabs and correlation coefficients are largely insignificant. They will feel disappointment at failing to support their research hypotheses and be disgruntled with extremely low r-squares.   In my dream world, I will reminisce with my students of the future, about how class status USED to significantly determine the distribution of societal resources.   How one’s gender used to have a bearing on job classifications and wages.  How race was significantly related to geographical location of residency, education as well as differential treatment by bureaucratic systems.

    Although we may suffer the dire consequences of losing students’ interest in research methods, or finding ourselves eliminating stratification classes and graduate inequality concentrations, wouldn’t it be great to live in a null world where our gender, race, ethnicity, or marital status did not determine our educational experiences, our job opportunities, our access to technology, where we live, how much money we earn, how we are treated by our justice system or if we end up in a far away desert as part of an imperialist military machinery.

    This should be our goal as sociologists.   Our goal is the null!


Collins, Randall (2000). “Situational Stratification: A Micro-Macro Theory of Inequality” Sociological Theory 18:17-43.


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