Social Closure: An introduction and some broad examples

As the GeoDES group was beginning to write our proposal to NSF, we struggled to conceptualize a framework that links individual change with institutional change. Julie Posselt suggested that we talk with Jerlando Jackson, who introduced us to the simple yet subtle concept of social closure.

Social closure is a “process of subordination whereby one group monopolizes advantages by closing off opportunities to another group of outsiders beneath it which it defines as inferior and ineligible” (Murphy, 1988, p. 88).  Max Weber hypothesized social closure as a way to conceptualize how power is derived from processes of exclusion (Murphy, 1988, p. 101; Weber 1922/1978, p. 638).  Parkin (1979, p. 44) defined social closure as “the process by which social collectives seek to maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles.”

Here are some broad examples of social closure in academic and other credential-giving contexts.

At the GeoDES workshop, Jerlando Jackson featured the example of the “Colonial 9” colleges, founded from 1636-1769. Each of these colleges was religiously affiliated with one of the Protestant faiths and most were closed to those of other faiths. Further, all were closed to women. In addition, there was not yet any public school system (education became mandatory in the US starting in 1852), and so students admitted to the Colonial 9 were almost all from families wealthy enough to afford private schooling. An almost purely academic ranking of this already highly selected group evolved as the definition of “merit” for admission to the Colonial 9. Those admitted to the Colonial 9 were thus the most academically successful of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) males from the private Protestant preparatory schools.

The very definition of ‘merit’ itself privileges those ‘attributes most abundantly possessed by dominant social groups’” (Swarz, 2008; Karabel, 2005, p. 549). To build upon our example of the Colonial 9, the “merit” required for admission to elite US universities changed over time.  The colleges dropped their explicit linkages to particular Protestant faiths and formally stopped discriminating on the basis of religion. In the early 1900s, though, elite college admissions faced a new challenge due to the confluence of a) An improving public school system that provided academic preparation that was as good as most private schools, and b) waves of non-Protestant immigration into the US. In response, elite colleges instituted an informal admission system (Karabel, 2005) that used code-words such as “manliness,” “character,” and “leadership” plus personal interviews to restrict admission of highly qualified Jews and children of other recent European immigrants (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox), thus maintaining WASP dominance. Admissions became much more opaque and subjectively judged in order to exclude “undesirables.”

Social closure is not always performed by groups that are dominant in any overall social sense. Tilly (1998) uses the term “opportunity hoarding” for situations in which actors monopolize valuable positions or resources for people like themselves. Tilly gives the example of relatively poor Italian immigrants in a northern suburb of New York City. From 1890 to 1914, this new social category of Italian-Americans created a niche for themselves in the Westchester-area landscape-gardening business, and they maintain a near-monopoly to this day. Can we imagine how this applies in the geosciences? Each discipline in academia has an unwritten “legitimation narrative” (Maton, Dotson) that specifies how other disciplines are excluded and how certain types of people are included in the tenure-track, while others are not. To use the soil science as an example, the best farmer or environmental engineer in the country could not be hired onto the tenure-track faculty without an advanced degree. These are the very best jobs in terms of security and pay, and we reserve them for people like ourselves – loyalists who have been through a similar graduate program and met our other standards of merit.

A more formal mechanism for hoarding opportunities is to create a new categorical monopoly (a profession) “by enlisting state support for licensing, exclusion, and fee-setting in return for a measure of collective responsibility and self-policing. [Professions] typically set up their own institutions for recruitment, training, initiation, and discipline of new members” (Tilly, 156). Thus, the professions of medicine and dentistry are able to maintain monopoly, scarcity, and abnormally high pay by limiting access and excluding all non-credentialed people from practice.  “Whereas unions have historically organized the under-privileged and thereby promoted equality, corporatist credentialed groups have organized the privileged and are forces promoting inequality and the maintenance of privilege because their credentialism has been a powerful means of monopolization and exclusion” (Murphy, 1988, p. 188). When very large survey data were used to test hypotheses about why some of 488 occupations receive much higher pay than others, hypotheses based on social closure were most successful in explaining the data (Weeden, 2002).

When categorical groups (e.g., medical doctors or geoscience professors) attempt to maintain exclusionary boundaries that limit competition and monopolize opportunities, they are acting the same as the rest of the business world. The only people enamored of “free” markets are entrepreneurs seeking entry to markets. Once established, it seems that all businesses find their advantage in attempting to close the market and thereby making it as unfree as possible (Weber 1978:638). One way to do so is to use a legal tool such as intellectual property law that grants a patent monopoly for an extended period. Another way to do so is to convert some economic capital to cultural capital through a comprehensive advertising campaign that confers desirable status on a product. Another way to do so is to use economic capital to purchase all emerging competitors. Thus, modern market capitalism is not a “free enterprise system,” but is a balance between strongly biased (in favor of those with initial capital) “free” markets and very strongly biased monopolistic markets (in favor of entrenched market leaders).  That is, “rational” capitalists will attempt to monopolize their market power by disguising their motives and otherwise withholding information from the market (Heins, 1993). Market players often willfully perpetuate ignorance in order to gain competitive advantage [how about academics – would we/they willfully perpetuate ignorance?]

Randall Collins (1975, 1979) points out that “the educated class itself is a kind of surrogate ethnic group, setting up job requirements in its own favor and discriminating against those who do not share its vocabulary and … ideals” (1975, p. 87). Our Ph.D. degrees give us a status (like whiteness) that is seen very positively but does not necessarily translate into any particularly strong on-the-job performance. Basically, the Ph.D. means that we can creatively research a range of issues, form hypotheses and test them, and construct arguments both verbally and in writing.  In other words, we are good at discursively defending ourselves and so we use those skills to insulate our jobs from competition. We socially close our professions. Education is a form of social/cultural capital that “is thought to be related to work competence, [so] it can be used by powerful groups to legitimate exclusion and to disguise other bases of rejection, such as ethnicity, race, or social class” (Murphy, 1988, p. 163).  Since it is socially acceptable to exclude an incompetent person from a job, educational background thus becomes a socially acceptable means of enacting one’s unconscious biases toward racism, sexism, or exclusion for other factors not actually related to competence. That is, social closure on the basis of formal educational preparation is socially allowed, which in turn enables a largely white-male faculty to enact their biases and close the profession to women and minorities by using educational “rigor” and “intellectual fit” and “lack of theory” as the “reasons.” In this case, the exclusion is largely visceral and unconsciously biased, but is rationalized by the first available, socially-acceptable “reason” – educational credentials and other definitions of merit.

The metaphor of a “gated community” (Lentin and McVeigh, 2006) refers to these hoarded opportunities, and therefore the gatekeeping function is critical to openness and inclusion. Social closure "pushes us to closely examine organizational responsibilities associated with glass ceiling effects [and other forms of organization discrimination] and the role of key organizational actors (i.e., gatekeepers) in the process”(Jackson and Leon, 2010), thus linking our training of bystanders and gatekeepers directly to institutional change. In this model, effective leadership for diversity and inclusion should focus on identifying and removing the institutional barriers that enact social closure. Institutions (e.g., universities) contain mechanisms that make exclusion possible, and in this way they enable the implicit biases of individual decision-makers. Institutions can thus function as amplifiers of individual bias. A goal of this project is to change institutional processes to counteract the biases of individuals who are making decisions. I have been conditioned in such a way that I (mostly unconsciously) desire to exclude those who are markedly different from me. I cannot say that directly, so my ability to exclude depends on institutional processes that allow me to do so indirectly. From Max Weber through Jerlando Jackson, one way to describe these ways in which institutions enable exclusion is to call them processes of social closure. My next post tries to make this more concrete, by looking at the criteria we use to make a tenure decision.

Literature cited

Collins, Randall. 1975. Conflict sociology: Toward an explanatory science. Academic Press, NY.

Collins, Randall. 1979. The credential society: An historical sociology of education and stratification. Academic Press, NY. 222 p.

González, Lisa Sánchez. 2016. In search of our fathers’ workshops. p. 80-91 in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. P.A. Matthew (ed). University of North Carolina Press.

Haag, Pamela. 2005. Is Collegiality Code for Hating Ethnic, Racial, and Female Faculty at Tenure Time? The Education Digest 71:57-62.

Heins, Volker. 1993. Weber’s ethic and the spirit of anti-capitalism. Political Studies 41:269-283.

Jackson, J.F.L., and R.A. Leon 2010. Enlarging Our Understanding of Glass Ceiling Effects with Social Closure Theory in Higher Education. In J.E. Smart (ed.). Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 25, 351-379.

Karabel, Jerome. 2005. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Houghton Mifflin.

Leap, Terry L. 1995. Tenure discrimination and African-American faculty. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 7:103-105.

Lentin, R., and R. McVeigh. 2006. After optimism: Ireland, racism, and globalisation. Metro Eirann, Dublin.

Matthew, Patricia A. 2016a. Preface – It’s not just us. This is happening everywhere: On CVs and the Michigan Women. p. xi-xvii, in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. P.A. Matthew (ed). University of North Carolina Press.

Matthew, Patricia A. 2016b. Written/Unwritten: The gap between theory and practice. p. 1-25 in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. P.A. Matthew (ed). University of North Carolina Press.

Murphy, Raymond. 1988. Social closure: The theory of monopolization and exclusion. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 276 p.

Parkin, Frank. 1979. Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique. Columbia University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 1998. Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Swartz, David L. 2008. Social closure in American elite higher education. Theory and Society 37:409–419.

Weber, Max. (1922) 1978. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Weber, Max. 1946, 1958. “Class, status, party” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited and translated by H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills. P. 180-195. Oxford Univ. Press.

Weeden, Kim A. 2002. Why Do Some Occupations Pay More than Others? Social Closure and Earnings Inequality in the United States. American J. Sociology 108(1):55-101.


This page last updated 21 Apr 2018 - 2:02pm