Intraelite Competition

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

One of the most important variables in Peter Turchin’s take on structural-demographic theory is intraelite competition:

How do we operationalize this quantity? In his 1991 book Jack Goldstone made a brilliant suggestion — we can proxy it by the increase in the number of enrollments in institutions of higher learning. Why should it work? Well, four decades ago another brilliant historical sociologist, Randall Collins, published an important, but largely ignored book, The Credential Society, in which he argued that most youngsters go to college not to expand their minds, but to simply obtain a piece of paper (the diploma) that improves their chances of getting a lucrative job (shame about it). Thus, when competition for elite positions intensifies, more people seek to obtain advanced degrees.

In his study of the seventeenth century crisis in England, Goldstone looked at enrollments at such universities as Oxford and Cambridge. He found that indeed, the enrollments at Oxford, for example, ballooned during the first half of the seventeenth century, in the period preceding the English Civil War. And it wasn’t just a long-term modernization trend in which people came to value education more. When intraelite competition subsided in the early eighteenth century, so did Oxford enrollments. I am not saying that everybody who went to Oxford just wanted to get the credentials, rather than education. But those who were really interested in knowledge were a decided minority.

Of course we have to be careful. Many factors can affect the number of youth seeking higher education, not only increased competition for high-quality jobs. So we should seek other proxies for the quantity of interest, and check whether they tell the same story. For seventeenth century’s England, we can also look to such proxies of competition as the amount of litigation. Another one that I used for both England and France was the frequency of dueling. It turns out that dueling epidemics tend to develop during periods of high intraelite competition. Makes sense.

At least we don’t have much of a dueling problem…

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