Professors are people with academic appointments at institutions of higher education. Compared to just a half century ago, higher education is differentiated on many counts, including the professorial role. While definitions delimit boundaries, they are sometimes ambiguously drawn. Professors in the American context typically hold advanced terminal degrees in the specialty in which they hold rank as assistant, associate, or full professor, those ranks composing an ascent in an institutional career. Yet vast numbers of people with academic appointments occupy roles, often without advanced terminal degrees, as lecturer, instructor, or, increasingly, as a temporary or part time adjunct or affiliate of a unit within colleges and universities. Thus one can be more liberal or restrictive in the application of the term, but this complexity raises core theoretic questions about the very topic of professors in contemporary society: Who are they? What roles do they perform? What is the academic profession to which these individuals purportedly belong? How has the profession changed over time in its form and function? Answers to these questions become even more complex when extending them across national boundaries, perhaps explaining why little systematic comparative work on higher education faculties has been attempted. A total of 138 national systems of higher education, involving most countries of the world and employing nearly all professors across the globe, are described over the four volumes of The Encyclopedia of Higher Education (Clark & Neave 1992).
There are over 560,000 professors (i.e., full time instructional faculty and staff) employed in over 4,000 accredited institutions in the US. The size alone of such a population speaks of variety, but when dimensions of institutional type, field, individual age, and career stage are added it is little wonder that scholars of higher education have alternatively referred to the landscape of small worlds or different worlds, each of which exhibits its own characteristic form of variety and constraint.
Professors – normatively performing roles of disciplined free inquiry through teaching, research, and other professional activities -have been studied as an object of inquiry unto their own. At root, the reasons for treating professors as an object of study are twofold. First, professors extend culture and civilization. As teacher, researcher, and scholar, professors transmit to their audiences knowledge that has, in principle, been socially certified by their professional disciplinary community. In this sense, they extend culture by both transmitting and building upon knowledge. In another sense, they extend culture by passing along a set of generalized values, attitudes, and beliefs to new generations who learn institutional patterns of life through the process of education.
Second, professors guard culture and civilization. Their profession writ large is uniquely situated in society as the profession that trains people for all other professions and numerous other lines of work requiring certified education. In this sense, they guard culture by upholding cognitive and behavioral standards that have been created by their professional disciplinary communities to ensure competent role performance. In another sense, they guard culture by upholding a set of generalized ideals: as masters in their various roles, they seek precision and excellence, cogent and articulable thought – and seek to inculcate these characteristics in their student clientele – so as to produce a higher learning and more advanced civilization.
For these reasons, professors assume a privileged place in the social organization of modern societies. But while professors may be viewed as central to society, the development of the study of them has been erratic, and less central to the core disciplines that can arguably yield major insights into the social organization of professors, sociology chief among them. One can find a sociology of higher education within which professors are a subject of study, but it is a nascent and thus small specialty area within sociology proper, and an area of inquiry that emerged and developed apart from what some take to be a kind of specialty cousin, the sociology of education, which customarily takes schools and schooling in grades K-12 as its province. While it would seemingly make sense for sociologists of education and sociologists of higher education to be nearly one of a kind, in regular contact and exchange with one another, attending the same professional meetings, and reading and publishing in the same journals, they are not, and instead inhabit different universes that rarely coincide. This has occurred much to the loss of higher education specialists. It is conceivable that a sociology of higher education would have developed sooner and with greater theoretic grounding had a boundary between it and the sociology of education – where concept and theory development has proceeded more swiftly -not been drawn so heavily. But the divide developed and has become institutionalized, more so for intellectual than political reasons. Sociological theorists turned their attention in the early twentieth century – to the extent they turned to education – to early schooling, since this was where, in Durkheim’s terms, ”real life began.” Higher education involving and affecting the masses, and thereby inspiring interest in its systematic study, would not reach that stage until roughly a half century later.
The bulk of work on professors has been completed by higher education specialists working outside the discipline of sociology. This body of work tends to be more descriptive than theoretic, and thus less focused on such core sociological concerns as the organization of the academic profession and professionalization, or selection, recruitment, and socialization. Nevertheless, this body of work has yielded significant findings pertaining to professors. Topics of inquiry run a gamut, from the educational background of professors, their demographic profile, their attitudes and values about faculty roles and rewards, to their teaching strategies and goals and their allocation of time among work roles.
If, though, one is interested in a bona fide sociology of professors, rooted thereby in key sociological concepts and theory, one has to turn to the sociology of science. Save for a small handful of sociological classics on the professoriate – all of which now bear a heavy patina -beginning with Logan Wilson’s Academic Man (1942) and including such works as Lazarsfeld and Thielens’s Academic Mind (1958), Caplow and McGee’s Academic Marketplace (1960), and Jencks and Riesman’s Academic Revolution (1968), a sociology of professors proceeded under the rubric of the sociology of science, concerned as it is with the production and organization of socially certified knowledge. Because many of the studies on the sociology of scientists are based on the functioning of the academic reward system and its consequences, they often have general applicability – in theme, substance, and significance – to professors outside of the natural and social sciences. Evocative discussion by Braxton and Hargens (1996) suggests frame works for the study of academics within and across various fields.
Robert K. Merton, often taken to be the ”father of the sociology of science,” is typically credited with having inspired this tradition of research through his own vastly productive work in the field. Among his more central contributions to the sociology of science – and to a social organization of the roles of scientists in particular – is his articulation of four norms said to undergird an ”ethos of science (and academe more generally). The norm of universalism stipulates that when scientists contribute to knowledge, the science community s assessment of the merits of the contribution should not be influenced by personal or social attributes of the contributor; and scientists should be rewarded in ways that are commensurate with their contributions. The norm of communism (later called communalism) stipulates that knowledge must be shared, not kept secret, for it is only by placing knowledge in the public domain that others can build upon it. The norm of disinterestedness stipulates that scientists should engage in scientific work with the motive of extending knowledge, free of any biases or other motives that compromise the integrity of the scientific role. The norm of organized skepticism stipulates that scientists must suspend judgment about conclusions to be drawn from research until all available evidence is on hand to render qualified assertions about the contributions of a piece of scientific work.
While these four norms are understood to carry equal weight in the performance of scientific/academic roles, one of them – the norm of universalism – has been the object of disproportionate inquiry, perhaps because it is the norm that most centrally governs scientific output, an avenue by which to assess productivity and, ultimately, a stratification system of scientists. Thus, researchers have investigated how the reward system in science operates and what con sequences its functioning has on matters such as the job placement of PhD graduates, promotion, tenure, productivity, recognition, and other foci of participation and attainment in a systematically stratified system of science.
The norm of universalism, however, emphasizes research productivity. Other research finds that clear majorities of professors across many institutional types are inactive in research. Consequently, assessing role performance – and the organization of scientific roles more broadly – on the basis of this norm becomes problematic.
Hermanowicz (1998) proposed an alternative to conceptualizing the academic profession. Instead of focusing on compliance with the norm of universalism in the operation of the scientific reward and stratification system, the focus shifted to accounts scientists (and, in principle, other academics) provide of their careers. Here the ”subjective career” becomes the object of study. Professors – and the profession that socially organizes them and their work – are understood through narrative: how people account for what they do, how and why they do it, and the ways in which they envision their roles and the evolution of such under standings over the time spent in an academic career.
Hermanowicz advanced a view of the academic profession as consisting of three social worlds, each organized by specific patterns in the way academics account for their careers. The elite world consists of professors who place the highest premium on research. ”Elite” uniformly describes the members who work in this world and the external definition of them and their academic departments. It also expresses the aspiration of its members – ”to be among the best” – and the key collective goal that brings them together and establishes their membership in universities that are also elite.
The pluralist world answers to considerably more varied demands, those of mass teaching as well as research and service to the wider community and state. A pluralist department includes some members as eminent as those found in elite departments, but the pursuit of still more eminence is not what holds members together, nor does it provide a standard that all members unhesitatingly adopt. This type of department answers to considerably more varied demands, those of mass teaching as well as research and service to the wider community and state. Often, this results in a blend of people who exhibit radically different affinities, talents, and motivations: plurality thus conveys the essence of this type of world. As a division of labor, departments of this type mirror something of a ”multiuniversity” of which they are a part.
The communitarian world, like that of pluralists, answers to many demands, but the fundamental basis of comparative worth is within the institution itself. ”Good citizenship” is demanded of all and is a primary basis on which individuals are accorded honor and esteem. Commitment to and identification with science is varied and uneven. Scientists in these departments are heterogeneous in their beliefs and practices about what defines a legitimate career. Those who lead essentially teaching careers, or careers in which research has been sporadic over the course of time, are most likely found here. In accounting for the way in which individuals establish legitimacy here, this is a world in which scientists believe that the person comes before the work: individuals are respected on the basis of their human virtues.
While each of the three prototypical academic worlds possesses central tendencies, they each also contain variety and partially overlap with each other. Consequently, one may speak of and find empirically professors who individually represent hybrids: elite professors employed in pluralist or communitarian departments; communitarian professors employed in elite or pluralist departments. This work makes an explicit attempt to reveal and conceptualize the profession’s internal differentiation, attending to the ways in which its diverse membership construes the professorial role and its unfolding in an academic career. If research on professors is to advance, it must more firmly locate itself within disciplinary traditions, so that it may break new ground by building upon foundational concepts and theory.
- Ben-David, J. (1991) Scientific Growth: Essays on the Social Organization and Ethos of Science. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Braxton, J. M. & Hargens, L. L. (1996) Variation Among Academic Disciplines: Analytical Frameworks and Research. In: Smart, J. C. (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, 11. Agathon, New York, pp. 1-46.
- Clark, B. R. (1987) The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton.
- Clark, B. R. & Neave, G. (Eds.) (1992) The Encyclopedia of Higher Education, 1-4. Pergamon, New York.
- Hermanowicz, J. C. (1998) The Stars Are Not Enough: Scientists Their Passions and Professions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Zuckerman, H. (1988) The Sociology of Science. In: Smelser, N. J. (Ed.), Handbook of Sociology. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 511-74.