- Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton
In April 2013, local and national media outlets posted reports concerning a party thrown by the Kappa Delta sorority at Indiana University (Bloomington)—a party that proved memorable for all of the wrong reasons. While it was unclear exactly when this event took place, pictures and reports had surfaced from their recent homeless-themed party. According to Shari Rudavsky (2013) in a story that ran in USA Today, members dressed in torn clothes and smeared dirt on themselves. Some members even posed with signs reading “Why Lie, It’s For Booze: Homeless, Need $ and Prayers,” and “Give Me a Nickel and I’ll Tickle your Pickle” (Baker, 2013). After being condemned by the sorority’s national office, local president Aubrey McMahon posted a less than convincing apology on her chapter’s website.
While this event understandably fostered outrage, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, the authors of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, would likely contend that we should not be surprised. These faculty members, respectively at the University of Michigan and the University of California (Merced), argue that the “party pathway” is firmly in place at flagship, public universities such as Indiana. As they define it, “the party pathway is provisioned to support the affluent and socially oriented” (p. 15) This pathway also chokes off access to other critical pathways on campus—for example, “the mobility pathway is designed for the pragmatic and professionally oriented” (p. 15)—for the majority of students. Worst of all, Armstrong and Hamilton convincingly argue that “the party pathway is built around an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of one another” (p. 15).
Persuasive and much needed, Armstrong and Hamilton’s exploration of the roots of these insidious challenges, however, falls short. Their underdeveloped anthropological assumptions fail to muster a critique capable of truly challenging the behavior of Indiana University’s Kappa Delta sorority and the comparable, or even worse, behavior of other Greek organizations. The underlying challenge is that Armstrong and Hamilton predominantly view students as economic selves or agents and colleges as means to advance financial prosperity. Remarks offered in their last chapter may reflect a need to talk about students in larger terms but also an inability to do so.
Armstrong and Hamilton’s core argument is that “student experiences during college, and class trajectories at exit, are fundamentally shaped by the structure of academic and social life on campus” (p. 3). For better or worse, colleges are not neutral spaces. They leave their mark in both intended and unintended ways upon the students they claim to serve. Drawing on the research offered by economists and sociologists of stratification, Armstrong and Hamilton employ an ethnographic and qualitative approach to identify what they label as pathways upon which students travel during their time in college. These pathways may not prove to be the same on all campuses. The reason why Armstrong and Hamilton focus their efforts on the public, flagship university on one level is the sheer number of students they serve. Another reason is that these institutions claim to focus on creating opportunity for their respective states—an intention, Armstrong and Hamilton discover, that largely goes unfulfilled.
In order to collect the needed data, Armstrong and Hamilton boldly conducted “a five-year ethnographic and interview study” (p. 5) by taking up residence in a room located on the women’s floor in a residence hall historically known at this public, flagship university (identified simply as MU). This location gave them access to social opportunities— a methodological achievement that enables them to provide a robust level of detail and embedding us in a world we may not otherwise fully appreciate. One could also argue, however, that they were too invested in their own research to be able to see the challenges clearly. For example, at one point Armstrong notes that...