Monday, January 28, 2013

Cultural mismatch and the norms of academic philosophy

There's no point in reciting the distressing statistics about the comparatively low numbers of women and minorities who pursue academic study in philosophy. Even though nearly everyone in the field recognizes that this is a problem, there still seems to be plenty of disagreement about its causes and potential solutions.

But one idea often floated in that discussion is that there's something about the culture of academic philosophy that women (and perhaps minorities) find off putting. That this 'cultural mismatch' might play a large role in explaining the small numbers from these groups was rolling around my head as I read Stevens et al's article on first-generation students and the culture of higher education.

Stevens et al. conducted studies to test the hypothesis that the poor academic performance of first-generation university students can be explained by a mismatch between the cultures from which they come and the university cultures in which they arrive. Their answer? Basically, yes. The culture of universities emphasizes and rewards independence: It endorses a model of the self that "assumes that the normatively appropriate person should influence the context, be separate or distinct from other people, and act freely based on personal motives, goals, and preferences." On this model, self-expression, individual choice, and individual goal setting are predominant. In contrast, first-generations students often come from working-class backgrounds whose cultures emphasize and reward interdependence. These cultures embrace a model of the self that "assumes that the normatively appropriate person should adjust to the conditions of the context, be connected to others, and respond to the needs, preferences, and interests of others." Socialization in these cultures encourages such students to acknowledge roles and hierarchies and to place individual goals aside when they conflict with group goals.

I won't go into the details of Stevens' et al, except to say it's a fascinating hypothesis and a compelling study. The authors don't discuss gender or ethnicity much, nor do they make reference to different disciplines. Indeed, the conclusions they reach are a challenge for all of higher education.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder whether their conclusions might extend to philosophy and its pedagogy. As a discipline, philosophy's intellectual values seem to ally themselves with the independent model of the self described above: Don't Socrates, Descartes, and Nietzsche present themselves as figures who "should influence the context," are "separate or distinct from other people," and "act freely based on personal motives, goals, and preferences"? It wouldn't be surprising if first-generation students and students from working-class backgrounds (who are also more often women or minorities as well) who encounter philosophy see its intellectual values as antagonistic to their values (intellectual and non-). And perhaps — and of course, I'm mostly speculating here — that plays some role in their finding philosophy alien, hostile, or just not to their liking.

Now it's worth pointing out that the stereotype of the philosophy as hyper-independent — the solitary genius struck by philosophical insight — is just that: a stereotype. Nowadays, philosophy is largely 'academicized', and academics must be trained and acculturated. And even if their work is presented as their own, there's typically a lot of other minds that contribute to it — colleagues, journal reviewers, conference commentators, students, and the like. David Lewis may have been a genius (and idiosyncratic at that), but his genius was not solitary.

So perhaps part of what might be done by philosophy instructors is to present a more realistic view of the epistemological culture of philosophy, one that underscores its collaborative and discursive nature and tries to dispel the 'solitary genius' trope. I'd be interested to hear thoughts about how we might do this concretely — what sorts of topics we might teach, what teaching techniques we might use, what message we might broadcast to our students. For if Stevens et al are correct, then perhaps we need to be more cognizant of the cultural mismatch between the norms of academic philosophy and the norms of the cultures from whence many women and minorities come if we ever hope that they will feel fully welcome in our discipline.


  1. Great post Mike. I've been thinking a lot about these issues and have a couple of papers on a related topic concerning non-cognitive dispositions and the primary and secondary education of minorities. I'm now working on expanding what I say there to the issue of higher education so I will definitely take a look at that study.

  2. "how are universities experienced by students with working-class backgrounds, who are likely to have been socialized with different rules of the game—rules that do not emphasize independence but instead emphasize interdependence, including adjusting and responding to others’ needs, connecting to others, and being part of a community?"

    Are these really "working class" norms and, if so, are they unique to this class?

    "Students from
    American middle-class contexts, for example, are typically exposed
    to and required to enact norms of independence, such as a
    focus on individual development, personal choice, and selfexpression
    prior to college. The material and social conditions
    common in middle-class contexts tend to foster and promote this
    independent model"

    It seems to me that this is often part of the "working class" as well.

    There are a lot of plausible factors here to explain performance gaps but the main one strikes me as dubious.

  3. "But one idea often floated in that discussion is that there's something about the culture of academic philosophy that women (and perhaps minorities) find off putting."

    I cringe every time these ideas are floated. It doesn't take much reading of the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog to see that rampant sexism, including harassment and assault, is the the thing women find off putting about the culture of academic philosophy. However well-meaning, suggestions that the underrepresentation of women is the result of some significant difference between women and men---different intuitions about Gettier cases, different preferences for writing styles or modes of argument---only serve to reinforce sexism within the profession (For another example, see this regrettable post at the Philosopher's Cocoon). After all, if someone thinks that the style of argumentation or approach to history of philosophy that is identified as masculine is correct, what blocks them from concluding that most women just aren't cut out for philosophy?

    What is more, these sorts of explanations fare very poorly when you try to take other disciplines into consideration. Why would women's supposed preference for interdependence and community drive them away from philosophy of language but not linguistics, biology, or statistics, all of which have better gender distributions than philosophy?

    The only plausible explanation is that some disciplines have done better than others at addressing the historical and continuing opposition to regarding women as peers, and that philosophy has done an exceptionally poor job.

  4. Anon 9:13: A few points:
    I don't see why we need a single explanation for the paucity of women in philosophy. No doubt sexual harassment plays a significant role, and I certainly support ongoing efforts to ensure that women are regarded as peers within the discipline. But I don't think it's inconceivable that what I've called cultural mismatch plays a role too.

    Second, I think you're overlooking that the explanation I'm describing is not about biological differences or differences in styles of argument, competing intuitions, etc. It appeals to the changing demographics of higher education and the cultural values that increasing numbers of students bring to higher education. Since it's about social class rather than gender per se, one advantage this explanation has is that it might illuminate why philosophy is so demographically male but also so demographically *non-minority.* I don't think sexual harassment can explain why there are so few African-Americans in academic philosophy.


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