Sociologist at Harvard University


Institutions as Inferential Spaces: How People Learn About Inequality

Income inequality is on the rise across the Western world. The reality of increasing inequalities has however not been accompanied by growing popular concern. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people increasingly believe their society functions meritocratically. Paradoxically, citizens of some of the world’s most unequal societies think of their country as the paragon of meritocracy. This dissertation is an attempt to resolve this puzzle by describing a link between people’s changing social environments and the ways in which they learn about inequality. I argue that what explains citizens’ meritocratic beliefs is the fact that the lives of the rich and poor are increasingly organized in relatively homogeneous institutions: people live in neighborhoods, go to schools, and pick romantic partners and friends that fit their education and income level. As a result, people on either side of the income divide are unable to see the breadth of the gap that separates their lives from those of others: as the gap grows larger, other people’s lives fade out of view. Hence, rising inequality paradoxically leads to insulate people from seeing the full extent of it.

In Chapter 1, I present a sociological framework for investigating the formation of people’s beliefs about inequality, which I suggest originate in their experiences growing up in relatively homogeneous or heterogeneous institutions. I argue that (young) people make sense of their world by constructing a causal model of success and failure, by including in it those variables they have understood to be important in determining life outcomes. Institutions that are socioeconomically and ethnoracially heterogeneous expose people to the role of structural factors that remain hidden from sight in homogeneous settings. The implication is that people’s causal explanations of success and failure—and, consequently, their beliefs about inequality—are informed to a great extent by the type of institutional environments (e.g. neighborhoods and schools) they have been durably exposed to.

In Chapters 2 and 3, I test expectations derived from this inferential model of belief formation; I describe the relationship between people’s childhood exposure to heterogeneity and their inequality beliefs in adulthood by means of a series of survey-experiments. Whether explaining college admission outcomes or evaluating a range of life outcomes in the realm of education, work and crime, I find that people’s beliefs varied with the ethnoracial heterogeneity of their childhood environment: the more ethnically homogeneous their childhood neighborhood and peer group, the more likely they were to explain outcomes in meritocratic terms. Conversely, the more ethnoracially heterogeneous the setting in which a person grew up, the more likely that person is to attribute outcomes to structural factors beyond a person’s control—i.e. the result of a non-meritocratic process.

In Chapter 4, I study how US college students understand inequality. I show that over their college years, about half of all students change their mind about meritocracy and racial inequality in America. The more ethnoracially homogeneous and exclusive the college setting, the more likely a student is to develop a more meritocratic view of inequality in America. Conversely, the more heterogeneous the college, the more likely a student is to develop a critical stance toward meritocracy. On the interactional level, I find that students who are in frequent contact with students from another racial group come to be more concerned with racial and income inequality in America, and more critical of meritocracy. Similarly, students paired with a different-race roommate, net of student background factors, outgroup interactions and college characteristics, developed a better understanding of the structural sources of inequality.

In Chapter 5, I study middle school students to see if their classroom and school environment impacts their beliefs about inequality. Turning the focus on these students, I ask how they understand their own school performances, when confronted with poor test results. Students’ explanations of poor test results took a variety of forms: from internalizing their failure and blaming themselves, to blaming their teachers or attributing their results to bad luck. I find that the way students explain their school performance is only loosely connected to the particular country a student lives in, the resources of the school he or she attends, the quality of its teacher corps, or students’ social background. Instead, students’ explanations of their test results are informed more than anything else by the way their school is organized. I identified two features of the school’s organization, namely the extent to which students are stratified, hierarchically, into different ability tracks within the school (e.g., AP classes, honor’s courses for high-performers and vocational tracks for low-performers) and the extent to which the student body is segregated, socioeconomically. Regardless of their factual school performance, students in schools characterized by a low degree of stratification and segregation are more likely to attribute their academic performance to their teachers and to (bad) luck, whereas students in highly stratified and/or segregated schools tend to blame only themselves for their poor test results.

Together, the chapters of this dissertation outline a research agenda on the forms, causes and consequences of (young) citizens’ inequality beliefs.