The Cost of Inclusion: Race, Class, Gender, and the Social Dynamics of College Life

Silver, Blake, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Roksa, Josipa, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Sociological theory highlights the role of culture in reproducing social inequality, especially in educational settings. Existing research has focused on illuminating the role of exclusive cultural resources in facilitating success in schools. While offering valuable insights into the capacity of culture to exclude, prior literature has offered comparatively limited insights into the role of culture in finding inclusion.

Drawing on the insights of interaction ritual theorists like Erving Goffman and Randall Collins, I examine students’ pursuit of inclusion in college. More specifically, I conducted an ethnographic study at a large, public university, observing three groups of college students over the course of an academic year and interviewing 60 first-year students during the spring semester. Through this approach, I sought to understand (1) how students pursue social inclusion within peer groups, and (2) how students make meaning of their experiences in these groups.

The results indicate that race, class, and gender intersect in shaping students’ experiences with the social landscape of college in unique ways. Social class impacts students’ approaches to locating social groups with the potential to offer social connections. While more socioeconomically advantaged students take an intentional, strategic approach, their less advantaged peers often engage in a more haphazard process of finding groups. However, beyond the point of locating groups, the impact of social class on student experiences is less evident as the influence of race and gender become pronounced when students seek to manage their social involvement and interact with their peers.

Within groups, students take on simplistic, culturally recognizable styles of self-presentation that correspond with distinct social roles. Each of these roles in turn require behaviors that link to feelings of value and belonging for their occupants. Notably, the styles of self-presentation characteristic of each role also carry raced and gendered associations that make some of the most central and highly valued roles inaccessible to female and racial/ethnic minority students. Conversely, White male students are allowed – and even encouraged – to take on styles of self-presentation that position them as central members of the group and amplify their sense of belonging. The roles students adopt allow them to become part of groups where they can feel connection, while simultaneously stratifying group membership. By bringing together two elements of culture – namely interactional styles as well as raced and gendered meanings – these findings offer new ways of understanding the complex role of culture in facilitating inclusion while maintaining inequality.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Inequality, Culture, Higher Education, Inclusion, Race, Social Class, Gender, Interaction
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