- Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools
Carrie Yang Costello's Professional Identity Crisis addresses one of the most intractable contradictions of the American pursuit of equal opportunity: the apparent inability to "level the playing field" of professional success. By providing a new angle of vision on this conundrum, Costello provides a provocative example of how interpretive (or qualititative) social inquiry can pose new questions with which to approach large-scale issues of public policy.
Professional Identity Crisis presents the results of an ethnographic study of students attending the graduate schools of law and social work at the University of California at Berkeley. While achievement in professional school does not entirely determine future success in a profession, it is a significant factor in either opening or closing later professional career paths. Understanding factors that predictably contribute to student success is therefore important knowledge for policymakers, opinion-leaders, and educators in professional schools. Costello's book speaks to all these audiences.
As Costello points out, even after decades of affirmative action, White male students from relatively affluent backgrounds consistently outperform all other groups in professional schools. Costello dismisses the "conspiracy theories" of right and left that explain this outcome by postulating either that affirmative action hides the poor abilities of "nontraditional" students, on the one hand, or that widespread bias among faculty and administrators discriminates against such students. She found little evidence for either claim.
Instead, Costello argues that success in professional schools is primarily a function of the degree of consonance between students' personal identities and the professional roles they must master. She conceives of identity as a set of largely unconscious dispositions, using Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus to explicate how identity affects cognitive style as well as bodily deportment and "taste."
The lens of identity highlights the fact that all professions require more than knowledge and skill. They also require "a suitable, subjectively internalized professional identity," in order to carry out the role and be recognized as a competent attorney, social worker, nurse, physician, professor, etc. (p. 23) And there, Costello argues, is the source of both success and failure in professional socialization.
For students whose identities, including their "emotional orientation . . . [whether] rational or sensitive," makes a good fit with the professional role dominant in the school, especially among the faculty, learning to be a lawyer or social worker is perceived simply as "going to school," a process of learning new ideas and skills. For other students, however, whose personal identities do not fit smoothly with the role required by the professional school, professional school becomes a moral drama whose plot line may be "finding oneself" or, among the least successful students, a battle against "losing oneself" under the pressure to adopt a professional role they perceive as alien and threatening.
For example, Costello describes students who found themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the law school milieu due to a mismatch of identity and professional role. These were students who displayed predominantly "empathic" rather than "rational" styles of engaging with the world, who preferred to "solve problems" by communication and conciliation rather than argument and rule-making. Such "identity dissonant" students found that they had to continually "monitor" their comportment and reactions in class and before their peers. This requirement proved necessarily distracting and exhausting, leaving such students less energy and time than their identity-consonant peers to confront the heavy cognitive demands of legal education.
Costello distinguishes between two groups of identity-dissonant students in her sample. Those whom she calls "positively identity dissonant" saw the misfit between their personal identities and strove to change themselves to be more "professional." For them, law school was a great struggle to "find themselves" in the new identity of the attorney. In Costello's sample, these were most often women, with a preponderance of White women from the middle class.
For "negatively identity dissonant" students, however, the problem was different. How could they manage the requirement to give...