Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Susan Blum

Plagiarism and the College Subculture

If people based their understanding of the state of American higher education on stories they see in popular media, it would appear as if we’re experiencing an epidemic of cheating in college classrooms nationwide (Pérez-Peña, 2012b). Even at Harvard, our most venerated university, 125 students were recently accused of collaborating on a take-home exam in an introductory government class. According to some studies, 75% of college students admit to having cheated. Honor codes have been implemented nationwide (Blum, 2009). At my university, incoming first-year students receive a “gift” upon their arrival on campus: a book called Doing Honest Work in College (Lipson, 2004). It’s easy to conclude from all this that a “cheating subculture” populated by unethical and dishonest ne’er do wells more interested in having a degree than in earning one is thriving on college campuses from Maine to California.

Anthropologist Susan Blum—a college professor herself for over 20 years—spent 3 years studying college plagiarism and talking to students at an elite private university to determine if such a “cheating subculture” actually exists. What she found, much to her surprise, was something far more complicated than the notion that colleges have become a cesspool of student immorality:

The topic of plagiarism in college sits like a big spider in a web of other factors having to do with the nature of higher education…the nature of texts and authorship, and the nature and motives of the person doing the work turned in for credit. The Internet is part of the story, but not in the way people usually think about it. Morality is also part of the problem, but not because most students are immoral…. If more than half of all students plagiarize, then there is clearly some cultural influence urging them to do so (Blum, 2009, p. 3, 6).

For one thing, life for college students today is high stakes and high pressure. Although she herself warns against drawing broad conclusions and acknowledges that there are different types of plagiarism that range from innocuous to severe, Blum argues that most students today live in an environment of busy-ness. They spend an inordinate amount of their time trying to juggle numerous academic, social, financial, and familial demands. The pressures can be overwhelming. They are expected to be sociable, to work together, and to be “outgoing” while staying digitally connected 24/7. And with the high cost of tuition, many students—particularly those who attend elite colleges—often feel that parents monitor their every action and achievement to see if they’re “getting their money’s worth.”

So it seems obvious that some students would resort to “cutting corners.” But ultimately what’s most important, according to Blum, is the disconnect between students’ academic expectations and those of their (older) professors. It’s not that there’s a rampant “cheating subculture.” The problem is that two distinct and age-specific subcultures exist uncomfortably side-by-side in the same classroom.

Professors come from a generation with a clear sense of intellectual ownership. They simply take for granted that authors’ published ideas belong to them. Hence using those ideas in a research paper requires an attributed citation:

If plagiarism involves improperly taking another person’s words and claiming them as one’s own, it follows that (1) there are proper ways to take others’ words, (2) people can “own” words, and (3) others’ words (ideas as well as texts) can be distinguished from one’s own. (Blum, 2009, p. 29)

Today’s students, however, have come of age in a Facebook/Twitter/Wikipedia digital environment where ideas are often created communally; their ties to a particular individual are either unknown or irrelevant. To today’s students, words no longer belong to people. For example, TV shows borrow plot lines from other shows; rappers sample from the songs of their predecessors. Where older generations would be inclined to see these activities as a form of theft, today’s students may see them as an indicator of reverence.

To Blum it’s not at all surprising, then, that students feel quite comfortable using the Internet collaboratively and patching together papers the way they create playlists for their iPods. In short, written ideas—like everything else college students routinely download—aren’t considered private property. Therefore, using someone else’s words is not considered stealing.

Consequently, since the idea of individually created “text” is changing, the concept of plagiarism itself—inappropriately taking and using someone else’s ideas—may also be changing. The effect this shift will have on the writing enterprise—indeed on higher education writ large—remains to be seen.


Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

The Economic Lives of Poor People

Ethnocentrism often reveals itself in harsh judgments of lifestyles that seem to challenge one’s own cultural values. People often look incredulously at others who make decisions that contradict what they would do under similar circumstances. When such decisions lead to additional—or, from the observer’s perspective, avoidable—suffering, sympathy wanes.

Take, for instance, the way poor families with very little money prioritize their purchases. Two MIT economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2006), studied spending patterns among poor households in 13 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They examined both “poor” households—where people live on less than $2 a day per capita—and “extremely poor” households—where they live on less than $1 a day.

The researchers started with a basic—and perhaps ethnocentric—assumption: that when people have very little money, they should spend what they do have on basic necessities such as food, clothing, and education for their children. Instead, much to their chagrin, they found that families in some of the poorest areas in the world spend a relatively high proportion of their meager money on “frivolous” things like alcohol and cigarettes. In rural Mexico, for example, families spend less than half their budget on food, even though hunger and malnutrition are common. Especially surprising to the researchers was the tendency for spending on celebratory festivals to be an important part of the budget of many extremely poor households. In South Africa, 90% of households living on less than $1 a day spent some of their money on festivals. In one Indian state, Udaipur, more than 99% of extremely poor households had spent money the previous year on weddings, funerals, or religious celebrations. As the authors put it:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the poor do see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food—the typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. (A. V. Banerjee & Duflo, 2006, p. 6)

An American newspaper columnist responding to this study was even less forgiving:

If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes, and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.... I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor. If we want... children to get an education and sleep under a bed net... the simplest option is for their dad to spend fewer evenings in the bar. (Kristof, 2010, p. 9)

Not everyone agrees that poor people can’t be trusted to spend their money appropriately. One international charity organization, called GiveDirectly, gives money to poor people around the world without any conditions on how they spend it. Assessments of this program have found that children from families that receive these payments are more likely to stay in school and less likely to get sick. Contrary to popular stereotypes, recipients don’t blow the money on alcohol or tobacco. Furthermore, the payments have no effect on the number of hours recipients work and some studies even show an increase in working hours as household members use the cash to obtain better jobs (GiveDirectly, 2014; Goldstein, 2013).

Furthermore, Banerjee and Duflo based their assessment on existing surveys of people’s consumption patterns. They had no information on the reasons people bought what they did or the cultural belief systems under which they live their lives. In some cultures, for instance, festivals celebrating gods or goddesses are the expressions of devotion that can lead to a better eternal life. In other cultures, buying something beyond one’s means or something that appears frivolous, like a bottle of wine, might be the only way a family can establish its social status in the community; and these social needs may outweigh the more immediate needs of individual family members. Some indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest practice a ritual called potlatch, where people with very few economic resources give away or destroy much of what they have. In these cultures, the status of any given family is determined not by who has the most but by who gives away the most. In short, all cultures may not abide by the same definition of “basic needs.” Hence, to an outsider focused on survival issues who doesn’t understand the broader cultural context in which people make their choices, the kinds of consumption patterns these researchers identified do indeed look ill considered and irrational.