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Ivar Berg is a sociologist who has made important contributions to the study of education (especially higher education), labor markets and social stratification, human resources, managers and corporations, and industrial sociology generally. In more than a dozen well-known books and more than seventy articles and chapters, Berg has addressed a variety of scholarly issues related to these topics. He is best known for his pathbreaking study Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery (1970), which posed a significant challenge to conventional economic theory’s treatment of human capital and income distribution.
Berg was born on January 3, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York, where he attended kindergarten through high school. His undergraduate education was interrupted twice by service in the U.S. Marine Corps: He was on active duty from 1946 to 1948 and 1950 to 1952, serving in infantry communications in the First and Second Marine Divisions (he resigned in 1965 at the rank of major). He obtained his AB with high honors in political science from Colgate University in 1954. Returning to his Norwegian roots, he was a National Woodrow Wilson fellow and a Fulbright scholar at the University of Oslo from 1954 to 1955. He did his doctoral work at Harvard University from 1955 to 1959, receiving his PhD in 1959 under the tutelage of Alex Inkeles.
He has been a member of the faculties of Columbia University and Vanderbilt University, where he was a professor of economics and sociology, and in the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. Toward the end of his sixteen-year-long stay at Columbia University he served as the associate dean of Columbia’s fourteen faculties in an interim administration following the upheavals in 1968 related to the Vietnam War. Berg later chaired the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Sociology (1979–1983), and served as dean of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences from 1984 to 1989 and as dean of Social Sciences from 1989 to 1991. In 2001 he was awarded the University of Pennsylvania’s Ira Abrams Award for Excellence in Undergraduate and Graduate Teaching. Berg is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the International Academy of Management. Berg’s research focuses primarily on the relationship of education to work, as well as on the work structures (e.g., organizations, industries, unions, occupations) that characterize industrial societies. He has argued forcefully for the importance of studying the social bases of market phenomena, maintaining that analyses of social institutions and employers’ motivations are needed to supplement economists’ emphases on supply-side dynamics to understand labor market outcomes (Berg 1981). Moreover, Berg has consistently urged that it is essential to study work and its correlates at multiple levels of analysis (see Berg 1979; Kalleberg and Berg 1987). Explanations should include work structures and institutions operating at macroscopic (such as government policies and relations among nations in a world economy), mezzoscopic (such as industry sectors and labor force developments), and microscopic (such as the job definitions and human resource practices that take place within organizations) levels of analysis.
Berg’s classic book Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery still exerts a profound impact upon the ways employers, academic leaders, and public policy makers have come to think about the linkages between education, personal development, income distribution, and employment. He argued that despite the claims of human capital theory in economics, peoples’ educational attainment does not always correspond to their skill levels. On the contrary, Berg’s analyses found evidence that employers frequently hire people with certain required levels of education to work in jobs that do not make use of their education (hence, the “great training robbery”), and that employees with more education are not necessarily more productive, and in some cases are actually less productive than workers with less education. Moreover, Berg’s results showed that the rise in educational requirements for jobs in the United States reflected primarily the increase in educational attainments of workers (and an emphasis on “credentials”), not the actual technical requirements of jobs.
Berg’s study cast doubt on economists’ assertions that people with more education earn more because they are more skilled and productive. It also cautioned against using educational credentials as indicators of skills, an insight that played a major role in a landmark civil rights decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971). Moreover, Berg’s notion of credentialism was credited with providing the bases of the formal theory of market signaling, for which George A. Akerlof, A. Michael Spence, and Joseph E. Stiglitz shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.
- Berg, Ivar. 1970. Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery. New York: Praeger. Reissue with new introduction by the author 2003. New York: Percheron Press.
- Berg, Ivar. 1979. Industrial Sociology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Berg, Ivar, ed. 1981. Sociological Perspectives on Labor Markets. New York: Academic Press.
- Kalleberg, Arne L., and Ivar Berg. 1987. Work and Industry: Structures, Markets, and Processes. New York: Plenum.
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