July 11, 2022

Class and Geographic Mobility in Academia: Global Perspectives on Class Cultural Mismatch and Linguistic Imperialism in Higher Education

Colby King author photo Kamil Luczaj photo (1)Calvin-odhiambo

By Colby King, Kamil Luczaj, Assistant Professor of Sociology,  University of Information Technology and Management (Rzeszow, Poland), and Calvin Odhiambo, Associate Professor of Sociology, USC Upstate

In January 2022, we held a panel discussion about our research as well as our individual experiences, describing what we know about how social class inequality and geography play a role in social mobility. We discussed how social class mobility intersects with race, language and dialect, geographic background, and gender in career opportunities, particularly how these issues heighten class cultural mismatch, creating challenging circumstances even for successful academics experiencing upward class mobility.  

Dr. Luczaj is a sociologist from Poland. He is interested in international academic careers and working-class cultures. His research addresses the complex relationship between class position and migration experience. For example, he has published a study on foreign-born scholars in Central Europe, and a meta-analysis on foreign-born scholars “on the peripheries.”

Originally from Kenya, Dr. Odhiambo’s experiences as an international academic illustrate many of Dr. Luczaj’s research findings. Dr. King is not an international academic, but has experienced social class mobility through his academic career, and has also written about efforts to support students, faculty, and staff in higher education from first-generation and working-class backgrounds.

Building on numerous interviews with academics working in Poland, Slovakia, the UK, and the U.S., Dr. Luczaj’s research reveals how securing an academic position in the U.S. or UK is still a dream for many researchers and instructors worldwide. Some of them have a good economic motivation to migrate.

While this may surprise some readers, working as a faculty member in higher education does not necessarily guarantee a middle-class job, in European countries, in Africa, or even in the U.S. This is especially the case for those who have not found a full time position and so work in temporary or adjunct positions. A survey of 3,000 adjuncts in the U.S. done by the American Federation of Teachers found that nearly one third earned less than $25,000 each year, putting their earnings below the poverty line for a family of four. Kamil calvin colby flyer

Many academics in Europe also struggle financially. In post-Soviet countries (e.g., Belarus, pre-war Ukraine), the official monthly academic salary equaled just a few hundred U.S. dollars, which discourages academics from investing their time into research.

In Bulgaria, an EU member state since 2007, academics used to earn less than people working in the hospitality industry. In Dr. Luczaj’s native Poland, the economic situation is better, but academic salaries still do not compare well with those in other industries requiring similar levels of education. There, it is not uncommon for academics to be moonlighting (having more than one academic post), long-distance commuting, or even for PhDs to be unable to find employment and pushed out of academia.

Similarly, Dr. Odhiambo noted that while academics in Kenya receive deferential and respectful treatment from others, due to holding the highest degrees, the annual median income of a college professor in Kenya in 2022 is only around $23,400. All of this, of course, challenges the western image of a well-to-do, middle-class academic.

Moving to the west can be a huge career advancement; if they secure a full-time position, some international faculty are able to more than double their income. Such a move can impose new burdens, though. For example, because academic migrants often confront cultural differences, linguistic challenges, and other issues, they are occasionally stereotyped as less bright within their new social circles than their education and academic position would indicate.

As Dr. King has reflected in this piece, and in this essay, even without moving across national borders, academics experiencing social mobility often have difficult experiences. International migration can compound social class cultural mismatches with other mismatches, all of which together leads academic migrants to often experience flux in their class position.

Their social class standing is often perceived very differently by their relatives, colleagues, and neighbors. For example, as Dr. Odhiambo reflected, migrant academic families back home—especially their parents—are commonly convinced that international mobility is an indicator of huge life and career success, even while they may be burdened by the mismatches described above.

Furthermore, as Dr. Luczaj noted, cultural power imbalances between centers and peripheries make people more eager to move, even if that geographic mobility will impose personal costs. For instance, even though English is supposed to be a lingua franca in the international academic community, a “linguistic imperialism” can be observed also here. The US- or UK-based editors of the “international” journals usually expect international academics to write their papers in impeccable English and refer to Anglo-American scholarship, all of which can then exclude the possibility to engage with the theories and concepts developed elsewhere.

For international faculty, linguistic imperialism can also take the form of negative bias, especially for international faculty that speak English as a second language. Thus, accentism becomes a new “ism” and a basis for hierarchical arrangement of faculty.

When international faculty return to their country of origin, being able to speak English with an American or British accent actually becomes a form of embodied cultural capital which accords them high prestige in their country of origin (even if the perception of a foreign accent undercuts their standing with peers in their new country).

While this form of “linguistic imperialism” may seem benign, it underlies a deeper issue. In countries such as Kenya, which was part of the British empire, being able to speak English with a British accent automatically accorded high status, in the eyes of both the colonists and natives. To the colonists, speaking English “without an accent” became part of an important qualification for employment. The fact that speaking English with an American or British accent is still considered as a status symbol indicates that linguistic imperialism is deeply entrenched, not just in the international faculty’s host country, but also in their native country.

Although migration to the West often ends up well, the adjustment to a new environment is a burdensome process of getting rid of an accent, acquiring tacit knowledge, and building a reputation from scratch, which has little to do with straightforward upward mobility.

Meanwhile, academic employment has become increasingly precarious, with growing reliance on part-time, non-permanent labor for classroom instruction. Many academics, motivated in part by the precariousness of their early academic careers, make an atypical career choice to migrate from the global center to the global peripheries of knowledge production in search of a stable life (e.g., from the U.S. to Poland, and not vice versa).

These strains are similar to strains experienced by college students from first-generation and working-class backgrounds. As Dr. King mentioned in this Everyday Sociology Blog piece, college and class mobility imposes costs, while also offering opportunities. For those experiencing class or geographic mobility, cultural capital becomes a particularly precious commodity. Even for those who move into positions which lend higher status or financial stability, their shifting class and geographic circumstances makes navigating both social worlds, those at work and back at home, fraught experiences.

Of course, race, gender, and other identities shape experiences of class and geographic mobility as well. Career paths in which academics move “up” in class status while moving “out” to a peripheral institution also illustrate how class mobility is multidimensional.

Are you doing your academic work in a language that is not your first? Is studying or working in higher education a social class mobility experience for you? In what ways does your experience of social class in academia intersect with other social dimensions?

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