This week I’ve been writing about questions that emerged from “Lower Ed”, starting with some critiques of the book. I discussed how I chose my case study, how I triangulated data, how I think about “public sociology“, and how contemporary social problems require some innovative methodological approaches. Next, I’d like to discuss the “so what” of “Lower Ed” as I imagine it.
The “so what” question is foundational to social science research. There are tons of things we could study but the litmus test is if what we’re studying is relevant. For a long time I struggled with my “so what” question. It mattered because it mattered! It wasn’t until fairly late in the process that I realized my intuitive understanding of for-profit higher education was really about inequality.
Having a clear “so what” shifts everything in the research process. For me, the “so what” is the whole point of sociology and I’m always really bored with sociology that doesn’t have a clear so what.
As an example of the shift that happens, I’ll return again to my struggle with finding my own “so what”.
There is a way to study for-profit colleges that says, “I’m studying them because they exist.” There is a lot of that just like there’s a lot of that kind of research about all kinds of things. Some of that work is very useful. From this we often get key statistics like trends in college-going. Or we might get some cool data point about where for-profits are physically located in cities. These are just examples but by and large this kind of research is very descriptive. We need descriptive statistics and analysis.
But descriptive statistics isn’t analysis.
Analysis is in the “so what”.
Returning again to the example, one could say, “I’m studying for-profit colleges because lots of poor people attend them and we think college should make you not poor. If this college doesn’t do that, then it is a challenge to prevailing theory.” The shift here to thinking about poverty and social mobility means I can’t just describe for-profit colleges. I have to also understand their relationship to what we know about how poverty is reproduced and ameliorated.
With that shift, my selection of everything from a field site to research design and analysis are pretty much ordered. If I want to describe then I have to collect descriptive data. If I want to isolate social processes then I have to be very selective about what case I choose, how I talk to people, and what I talk to them about. If I want to understand the relationship to inequality then I have to isolate how inequality works and then triangulate all my data to observe if those workings are present in my data. I use this summary of how and why the “so what” functions from a USC research guide a lot when I teach:
In the social sciences, the research problem establishes the means by which you must answer the “So What” question. The “So What” question refers to a research problem surviving the relevancy test [the quality of a measurement procedure that provides repeatability and accuracy]. Note that answering the “So What” question requires a commitment on your part to not only show that you have researched the material, but that you have thoroughly considered its significance.
I ended up loving the search for the “so what”, probably because it took me so long to get it.
I believe that if you adopted the affect of a likely for-profit college student and visited the schools that I visited with an interest in the areas of inquiry that informed my research guide, you would find similar findings as I did about financialized credentialing, status groups and inequality. That’s my “so-what”.
You can see how my “so what” is in conflict with what some people want me to argue, e.g. The Department of Education is important.
That’s the “so-what” that guided my research. But, ideally a decent sociological study will also produce findings that create more “so-whats”. Some of that is determined by how I frame the findings and my argument. But much of that is up to the community of people who will read “Lower Ed”. That’s the scary/thrilling part of this job.
For me, Lower Ed’s ultimate “so what” is about how credentialing functions in a society. It has a value statement embedded in the concept: I emphasize group goods as something distinct from aggregate individual goods. That means, a public good isn’t just something that gives individual’s “choice” but a system of choice that improves the conditions of groups. I did that deliberately after a lot of tangling with the philosophies of knowledge production. Reading Bonnie Garret Fox and Gaye Tuchman, respectively, in my newest book with Sandy Darity really informed that thinking. (Cheap plug: you can now get a preview of the ebook on Amazon).
That move from individual to group opens up new theoretical possibilities for the sociology of higher education. Rather than measure individual returns, it supposes that there is a group measure of returns that should better satisfy the social function of higher education and credentials in a society. Here’s that part where I don’t have all the answers, Sway. What is that measure? I have no idea! But I know that individual earnings isn’t a robust enough measure to justify continued public investment as judged by people’s lack of political will around the issue and continued wage stagnation. A group measure might consider things like impact valuations with group measures, group debt loads (as in the photo-negative of Seamster and Charron-Chénier’s “predatory inclusion“), or something else entirely.
The potential for this is great. It contributes to the languishing of sociology of higher education in the discipline as economics of education has flourished. What exactly can sociologists offer the study of higher education if economists can always out-do us on individual earnings models? And what can critical sociologists, in particular, offer the study of higher education that isn’t just more reinforcement of “earnings over everything”? Social reproduction has long been the model to respond to that but sociologists have not kept pace with how social reproduction now occurs at different institutional levels and for status groups as opposed to only class-based groups. And it would revisit connections between groups, institutions, and occupations in a holistic way that hasn’t been undertaken since the shift to new economic conditions of financialization, privatization, technological diffusion and flat work organizations. I know this got kinda technical but I went on a tear. The take-away is this: let’s study groups in the new wild west of credentials in the private sector, both unregulated and regulated, and “Lower Ed” might be a way to do that theoretically.
It’s early still but lots of people are taking up the “so what” question of Lower Ed in their own way. This week, I noticed that I, er, I mean Lower Ed, is a homework assignment!
— Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) April 9, 2017
The assignment looks like it weighs Lower Ed’s argument construction. That’s a great “so what”.
Several groups have picked up “Lower Ed” as a reading book read:
Our next reading: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy https://t.co/IzG7jicIFt
— VCVaile (@VCVaile) April 10, 2017
— Bryan Alexander (@BryanAlexander) April 10, 2017
Both VC and Bryan’s networks are full of sharp, creative, and critical readers. There’s no telling what “so what” they’ll come up with.
I never positioned “Lower Ed” as a definitive book. It is a book in conversation with many others, past and present. For starters I’d recommend:
Lower Ed is a book about a part of the conversation where the “so what” had not been fleshed out or investigated.
It isn’t a perfect book. But it needn’t be to contribute to a conversation (a fact that I am hella grateful for, trust me LOL). I don’t know what the conversation will be but that it is in one at all says there is a “so what” to be examined.