Why academics love each other

I came across an interesting figure this morning. In her recent study of academic time use and gender inequalit, Rosalind Pritchard found that almost half of her study sample were partnered with other academics. Now, this was a relatively small group of 87 women in four subject areas in Britain and Germany. Nonetheless, it struck me as something worth thinking about.

Sociologists are very familiar with the principle of homophily – or, in common parlance, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. This is very obvious in our friendship circles, where our closest friends will usually share our cultural tastes. But not only do we have common interests in – say – French movies, Australian soaps and Chicago blues.  Our closest friends are usually of the same ethnic group, generational cohort, social class, political outlook and so on. And this in-group membership often leads on to homogamy – that is, marrying people of similar background and values to ourselves.

All the same, if anything approaching half of academics live with another academic, that really would be exceptionally high. And I suppose another group of academics will find partners elsewhere in the university, probably mainly among their administrative colleagues. This makes for a pretty dense network of interlocking partnerships (especially as, if my own acquaintances are anything to go by, the average university department includes an ex-partner or two, plus the occasional affair).

Does this matter? You could argue that these tight bonds help to generate high levels of social and cultural understanding and support, and reinforce a strong occupational identity that in turn is good for everyone’s morale and security. But the social capital literature suggests that over-reliance on ‘bonding social capital’ can make a community inward-looking, conservative and risk-averse.

In order to innovate and develop, you need to encounter people who will challenge your assumptions and encourage you to explore new approaches and ideas. So if Professor Pritchard’s sample is anything to go by, academics need to get out more. Perhaps the research councils’ programmes for placing doctoral students with government departments, voluntary organisations and the private sector will, over time, have some interesting unintended intimate consequences.

Rosalind Pritchard, Neoliberal developments in higher education, Peter Lang, 2011

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