Monday, October 17, 2011

Class and Ethics

I had a buddy at a conference this weekend discussing an interesting phenomenon he has observed. He moved from one campus of his state university to another. The first was a working class campus full of first generation college students, the move was to a more upscale student population from families with a history of higher ed. What he noticed was that at the first campus, in several years of experience, he had virtually no cases of plagiarism. But in his limited time at the second campus, plagiarism was rampant.

There seem to be three possibilities here. One is that it is an accidental correlation due to small sample size. Two is that it is a real correlation that requires explanation, but that it is a local phenomenon about relative campus cultures limited to those two campuses. Three is that it is indicative of a larger set of social phenomena that are worth thinking about.

My guess is number three. Regular readers are familiar with my hypothesis that class insecurity is the single most important explanatory factor for understanding contemporary American social phenomena. I do not want to play into the romanticized Joe Sixpack mythology, that there is something more wholesome and moral about working class Americans. But it is interesting that this particular immoral act may have class implications. There is an important difference between working class and middle/upper-middle class students. All come to college with the expectation that their college degree will have a positive effect in terms of social capital, that higher education is a necessary component of maintaining or advancing social status. But where working class students are hoping for advancement, for middle/upper-middle class students there is an almost paralyzing fear of social backsliding, that if they do not remain in the social strata in which they were raised, that their life will be horribly unfulfilling and unbearable.

This pressure from class insecurity is combined with the meritocracy kabuki. We are better off because we work harder and are better than those who are blue collar. For that, we need to show better results, even if we do not do it legitimately, but it's o.k. because we are better than them. We have high school students engaged in all sorts of activities they are not really interested in because "it will help me get into a better college" where "a better college" means one that will make sure I stay in my current social stratum. If it was o.k. to half-heartedly volunteer at a soup kitchen to get into college, why would it be any different to half-heartedly cheat on a paper to get through? The whole thing is just a big hazing ritual for the fraternity of socio-economic class anyway, right?

Is plagiarism a class-related crime or is my buddy's observation a statistical blip?