In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray describes how the American upper and lower classes are increasingly living in separate cultures.
The new upper class talks left, but acts right, espousing progressive values and politics, but practising more conservative lifestyles—getting and staying married, having children in wedlock or stable partnerships, remaining employed and eschewing damaging drug use. The new lower class, Murray argues, is increasingly abandoning the norms and practices that are necessary for a flourishing society: they have collapsing rates of intact marriage, reduced church attendance, high rates of violent crime and higher rates of unemployment—especially male unemployment—than in previous generations.
Murray claims that this class separation has developed over the past fifty years, as the two Americas have grown further and further apart. The process of homogamy—or assortative mating—is central to Murray’s thesis. In recent decades, there has been an increased tendency for people to marry those at the same education and income levels. Upper class families send their children to elite schools and universities, where they meet and marry other upper class people. The offspring of these couples tend to be more likely to retain their socioeconomic status, as they are raised in households with lower rates of divorce, attend better schools, have better social support networks and often have higher cognitive capacity (which is highly heritable).
But, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued, people in the upper class don’t just share standards of education or wealth: they share a common culture. They have particular tastes—in food, clothing, media and so on—that distinguish them from the rest of society. Murray claims that this clear class differentiation means that America’s elites live in a bubble, where they do not experience the same culture that most other Americans do. Those inside the bubble have little interaction with those outside, and consequently develop social norms and shared understandings that are highly divergent from those of the rest of the society. The gaps between the upper and lower classes in measures like rates of marriage are reflective of the extent to which the two Americas have diverged.
The same underlying mechanisms as Murray describes in Coming Apart, have taken place within academia. This is not the product of academics actually marrying each other: although that is not uncommon. Instead, academics engage in professional partnerships with other like-minded individuals and these partnerships reproduce themselves at the level of ideas and practices, creating distinct subcultures within the academy, with characteristics that diverge from those of the broader system.
In some parts of the academy, the norms and practices that govern the rest of academic scholarship do not apply. It is a place where scientific rationality is dismissed as a construct created by the cis-white-hetero-patriarchy to consolidate its own form of knowledge authority; where power struggles between competing identity groups are the only acceptable way to interpret the social world; where the blank slate worldview is a working assumption, if not an explicit belief; where one’s ability to know and understand reality is entirely predicated on one’s gender, race or sexual identity; and where ideological claims are asserted, rather than empirically tested.
The Grievance Studies Affair was the most recent primary catalyst to draw our attention to the academic work being done inside this bubble, although others have also been drawing attention to it for some time.
I characterise this part of academia as a bubble because it is largely isolated from the rest of academic scholarship. Many academics outside the so called grievance studies areas do not support the ideologically motivated and methodologically dubious nature of the work being done there. Many of them probably don’t even know it exists. Just as the upper classes have diverged from the rest of middle and working class America, the grievance studies complex has emerged as a functionally distinct subset of the academy.
It has been able to do this by formalising and credentialing itself in ways that operate in parallel to those of the established academic institutions. By creating separate institutions—studies departments, specialist journals and niche conferences—it has been able to insulate itself from the core principles that underpin the rest of the academic community.
Ordinarily, quality assurance mechanisms like peer review should have kept the whole of academia tethered to these principles. But, in practice, the peer reviewers themselves are committed to the same applied postmodernism, standpoint epistemology and scientific hyper-scepticism as the authors they are reviewing. Citation circles—where groups of researchers uncritically review and cite each other’s work without reference to outsiders—mean that knowledge claims are rarely questioned by people who don’t share those assumptions about the world. Just as religious cults cut themselves off from society to ensure that their beliefs aren’t subject to criticism, academics inside the bubble rarely engage with work by those outside the grievance studies networks. That’s why evolutionary biologists are so often dismayed at what is claimed by gender studies.
There are four characteristics that academia shares with broader American society that appear to be conducive to the development of assortative mating bubbles of this kind: complexity, internal mobility, incentives for assortative partnerships and intergenerational transmission.
First, the system must be sufficiently complex for there to be a highly diverse set of individual characteristics across the population. In a large complex society like America, there is significant stratification across a range of related characteristics, including education, earning capacity, cognitive capacity, cultural tastes and marital status.
Academia is similarly diverse: academics work across a range of specialised domains, using a range of theoretical and methodological approaches.
Second, individuals within that complex system must be sufficiently mobile to allow them to pair with other individuals who have the characteristics that they are seeking. Those inside Murray’s new upper class bubble are often products of elite educational institutions located away from their home towns. Most students who attend Ivy League universities were not born in Cambridge, New Haven or Palo Alto: they moved there from elsewhere, having excelled in their high schools nearer home. The ability to move throughout the United States in this way is largely taken for granted, but American society is considerably more mobile now than in past generations.
Likewise, academics are highly mobile: aspiring academics will often move vast distances to take up positions in departments that align with their work. An academic committed to activism based on a blank slate worldview can connect with other similarly motivated academics by moving to a department that specialises in that approach. Academics are also intellectually mobile, being generally free to pursue their own research interests and form relationships with like-minded collaborators. Pairing with other academics inside the bubble can also be done remotely, through collaborative projects that advance a particular niche of scholarship.
Third, individuals in both society and academia tend to pair with others who have similar characteristics.
Murray notes that people are increasingly marrying those who have similar levels of education, cognitive ability and socioeconomic status as themselves. Elite universities concentrate the upper tiers of these characteristics, giving rise to distinct educational, professional and social networks, from whence most romantic relationships emerge. They share common cultural tastes, providing the basis for long term partnerships.
In academia, pairing with like-minded individuals generates new knowledge outputs, such as co-authored research projects, papers, books, conferences and course curricula. These are the primary mechanisms for academic career progression. However, professional relationships can also consist of simply favourably reviewing someone else’s work, thereby helping certain claims transform into established knowledge in a particular discipline. Academics in the grievance studies bubble don’t end up there simply of their own accord: they lead each other there, giving each other license to reject the norms of academic scholarship by, for example, rejecting the scientific method or politicising scholarship in the service of left-wing activism.
Finally, there must be a mechanism by which the common characteristics of a pairing are able to persist over time and be reproduced in successive generations.
Upper class couples confer many benefits on their children, which are then passed on to subsequent generations. As Murray notes, they often move to better neighbourhoods with high quality schooling. They participate in extra-curricular activities that promote non-academic skills, making admission to elite universities more likely. They engage in networking, forming social and professional connections with other upper class individuals, which can be leveraged for social and economic gain. Furthermore, couples with high intelligence are likely to produce offspring with high intelligence, giving them a greater chance of succeeding in the job market.
In academia, the process of intergenerational transmission takes place through the training of students and junior academics. Professors tend to instil their own intellectual values and practices in their undergraduate and postgraduate students, who subsequently grow up to become the next generation of professors. Likewise, students committed to identitarian activist scholarship seek out professors who are similarly committed, enabling them to reproduce and extend the ideas that are characteristic of that academic bubble.
These longitudinal dynamics may be playing a role in the purity spiral toward left wing Critical Social Justice oriented scholarship in the social sciences. Having gained a substantial foothold within the university, this will likely remain in place for some time, given the degree to which it has been institutionalised.
To describe this phenomenon as a bubble is not to downplay the influence that this scholarship is having and could have on the academy more broadly. There is debate about how widespread grievance studies scholarship is within the academy. While much of this work takes place in its own intellectual ecosystem, its influence appears to be spreading to university governance policies, traditional scientific disciplines and, more recently, off university campuses.
What, if anything, can be done about this?
Unlike Murray, who is largely pessimistic about the prospects of class reintegration in America as a whole, I don’t believe academia is a lost cause. Institutional cultures can and do change over time, provided there is a recognition of where scholarship has become radicalised, isolationist and uncommitted to a scientific understanding of the world.
A modest starting point should be to promote consilience as a core academic value.
Requiring academics to have a demonstrated commitment to interdisciplinary understanding of a given research area should become a primary consideration in the hiring of academic faculty. Undoing the insularity of those in the academic bubble should be a priority for the sustainability of our academic institutions. Universities simply cannot afford to employ academics whose scholarly work requires the express denial of well-established knowledge in adjacent fields. They will increasingly be seen as an epistemological liability outside their own disciplinary cliques, undermining the credibility of universities as society’s primary institutions of research and higher learning.