Weber & Social Closure
Traditionally, stratification has been studied in accordance with two major theoretical camps, Marxism and structural functionalism. Marxist theory focuses primarily on class conflict as a determinate of social stratification while the structural functionalist views social inequality as a central component of social life, which works to keep order and maintain an equilibrium among social groups. In contrast, the notion of social closure, described by Max Weber, provides a theoretical basis for understanding subordination, domination, inclusion, and exclusion, which form the foundation for group membership and social inequality. Group membership is often a function of credentialism and other socioeconomic indicators. The distinctions made between groups based on such criteria are further supported by state policy, which has implications for educational and employment opportunities.
Keywords Credentialism; Inequality; Exclusion; Inclusion; Social Capital; Social Closure; Social Status; Stratification; Usurpation
There are a multitude of approaches to the study of stratification and inequality in the United States. In contrast to economic models for the study of inequality, those who investigate social closure as a theoretical construct incorporate models that are specifically focused on the actions of social groups and how group membership can explain differentials in opportunities and rewards based on the ability of a social group to include or exclude others as a means of reinforcing norms, values, expectations, and access to desirable social benefits. More simply put, social closure is the process by which social groups restrict entry and exclude others in order to control the distribution of benefits to outsiders and maximize their own social status and advantage.
Traditionally, stratification has been studied in accordance with two major theoretical camps, conflict theory, the best known of which is Marxism, and structural functionalism. Marxist ideologies of inequality are based on the notion of class conflict and oppression by those who have ownership status in society upon those who do not. Structural functionalists argue that social inequality is a central component of social life, which works to keep order and maintain equilibrium among social groups. Both groups, to a certain extent, assert that inequality and stratification should be studied in terms of power, prestige, wealth, and class.
In contrast, the notion of social closure, described by Max Weber, provides a theoretical basis for understanding the common and essential features of subordination, inclusion, and exclusion, which distinguishes groups from one another. Weber's notion of social closure attempts to uncover processes of domination by considering the relationships between private property ownership, credentialism, status, race, and gender. These issues are of central importance to understanding the very nature of how society functions and how individuals' opportunities are restricted or expanded based on social status and group membership. They also shed light on the consequences of how group membership and solidarity can affect individuals, educational opportunities, job opportunities, and advancement in employment.
Despite the notion that social closure at first glance appears to provide a reasonable departure from the conflict and functionalist debates regarding stratification, and more seriously considers the role of sociological scholarship that investigates the relationships between individuals and groups, little work has been done in this area to examine, theoretically, the methodological and empirical findings on the mechanisms, causes, and consequences of social closure.
The following sections will provide a definition of social closure as described in the work of Max Weber and elaborated on by Raymond Murphy. These scholars are two of the most widely cited theorists regarding the mechanisms and processes of social closure. The article will then turn to the relationship between social closure and inequality. Empirical and real world examples of how social closure functions in educational and employment settings will be discussed.
What is Social Closure?
The theory of social closure was first described in the writings of Max Weber as an alternative to Marxist and functionalist theories of stratification and inequality. Weber describes social closure as a central mechanism by which commercial and property classes (the wealthy and elites) legitimize their social status while at the same time reproduce their life-chances and secure social and political domination.
Social closure functions through the process of exclusion (not letting outsiders in) and inclusion, the notion that those with shared norms, values, and status often stick together in order to maintain their advantage in society. Furthermore, the process of social closure functions as a way for some groups to maintain power and deny access to rewards and other desirable resources to outsiders. The determination of exclusion or inclusion may be based on a variety of socioeconomic indicators including educational credentials, political affiliation, race, religion, or other social factors. By determining group membership, social closure reinforces inequality and, in terms of domination, outsiders' inability to have access to the rewards of membership. This further serves to legitimize inequality by drawing socially constructed distinctions between groups, which are then used to justify the unequal distribution of rewards and status. Thus social closure facilitates outsider marginalization and group incorporation.
Social Closure in Higher Education
In 1988, Raymond Murphy attempted to expand the traditional Weberian theory of social closure and refine the mechanisms that facilitate group marginalization and incorporation. In his book, Social Closure: The Theory of Monopolization and Exclusion, Murphy highlights the primary mechanisms for determining group membership, and while empirical studies have focused on racial and gender cleavages, a substantial amount of attention has also been given to the idea that educational credentials are a key component in determining group membership. This can be illustrated in common perceptions of elite membership and social networks that are often formed among associates to Ivy League colleges. For example, one might imagine that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have closed social networks, which are based on a relationship to the institution, either as a student, faculty member, or alumnus. Those who are not associated with the college are denied access to the benefits of group membership, and legacy policies often provide entrance to these institutions for students who otherwise would be denied entrance due to their academic record but are granted entrance based solely on their parents' previous associations.
In addition to highlighting the central role that education credentials play in the incorporation and...
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