Colleges as environmental systems: toward the codification of social theory
Pate, Bart Carter
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This dissertation seeks to consolidate several approaches in social theory relevant to the understanding of what are described as college environments, cultures, atmospheres or climates. It responds to needs in social research for an integrated frame of reference in this field and to desires among educators and churchmen for a scientific perspective for daily practice and policy decisions. In method this endeavor follows Robert K. Merton's efforts to "codify" diverse observations, concepts and generalizations into concise arrangements for given fields of inquiry. Logical relationships among concepts and theories are explored and systematized; meanings of concepts are also clarified by eliminating ambiguities and inconsistencies and by linking ideas with observable data or indexes. These methods are strongly oriented toward research and practice, but operate in a "middle range" between abstract general theory and the varied details of actual data and experience. The idea of an environmental system is an emerging theoretical model. It focuses theoretical knowledge about social systems and patterns of behavior (structure-process) within them upon an internal environment where these social characteristics interact with individual and culturalfactors. This approach could apply to many social units; it is adapted here to modern American colleges and universities, in the light of how these differ from other social units and of important ways one campus varies from another. Two major innovations bind the relevant theoretical considerations into a more unified whole: (1) social patterns usually described separately (locomotion, communication, etc.) are reconceived as channels through which personnel, information and resources are allocated within the system and exchanged with the world outside the college; and (2) contradictory models for "rational" or "natural" systems in current organizational theory are adapted into a conception of domains which alternately intrude upon or resist one another within an organization. Other contributions to theory occur in the definition, extension and clarification of these and other concepts from system theory, social functionalism, role and reference group research. This is found to be a fruitful approach to the study of college life. The environmental system model consolidates diverse elements in social theory and reorients them toward the further integration with psychological and cultural theory which is needed for a full understanding of how an internal environment helps or hinders educational efforts. Deceptive generalizations and reductionism can be avoided or corrected by the emphasis upon the complexity and special characteristics of colleges as a particular field of study. A critique of the College Characteristics Index illustrates a further use of this theoretical model in the evaluation of research approaches in higher education. The CCI's basic concept of press is potentially very useful, but there are many points where both theory and measurement are imprecise. The present instrument can assist in many self-studies within colleges, but is less adequate for comparisons between colleges and more rigorous kinds ofresearch. These ideas have many implications for churchmen and educators. A checklist of characteristics of a college or its population offers some control over baffling complexities with which they must deal; this list can make both practical planning and research more comprehensive and balanced. Evaluations of fraternity-sorority life, the use of autos by students, or special curricula can similarly benefit from functionalist emphases upon studying all the consequences of particular behavior. The conception of rational and natural domains clarifies many administrative difficulties which arise in the implementation of practical decisions. Role theory provides an objective perspective upon chronic inconveniences which religious workers experience on many campuses. Such illustrations indicate many contributions the environmental system approach offers to both research and practice.
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