The Paradox of Inequality: Income Inequality and Belief in Meritocracy go Hand in Hand
Socio-Economic Review forthcoming
Inequality is on the rise: gains have been concentrated with a small elite, while most have seen their fortunes stagnate or fall. Despite what scholars and journalists consider a worrying trend, there is no evidence of growing popular concern about inequality. In fact, research suggests that citizens in unequal societies are less concerned than those in more egalitarian societies. How to make sense of this paradox? I argue that citizens’ consent to inequality is explained by their growing conviction that societal success is reflective of a meritocratic process. Drawing on 25-years of International Social Survey Programme data, I show that rising inequality is legitimated by the popular belief that the income gap is meritocratically deserved: the more unequal a society, the more likely its citizens are to explain success in meritocratic terms, and the less important they deem non-meritocratic factors such as a person’s family wealth and connections.
In this figure I describe the long trend in popular belief in meritocracy across the Western world between 1930 and 2010. Studying trends in attitudes is limited by the paucity of survey data that can be compared across countries and over time. Here, I show how to complement survey waves with cohort-level data. Repeated surveys draw on a representative sample of the population to describe the typical beliefs held by citizens in a given country and period. Leveraging the fact that citizens surveyed in a given year were born in different time-periods allows for a comparison of beliefs across birth cohorts. The latter overlaps with the former, but considerably extends the time period covered by the data. Taken together, the two measures give a "triangulated" longitudinal record of popular belief in meritocracy. I find that in most countries, popular belief in meritocracy is (much) stronger for more recent periods and cohorts.
Earning Rent with Your Talent: Modern-Day Inequality Rests on the Power to Define, Transfer and Institutionalize Talent
In this paper I develop the point that whereas talent is the basis for desert, talent itself is not meritocratically deserved. It is produced by three processes, none of which are meritocratic: (1) talent is unequally distributed by the rigged lottery of birth, (2) talent is defined in ways that favor some traits over others, and (3) the market for talent is manipulated to maximally extract advantages by those who have more of it. To see how, we require a sociological perspective on economic rent. I argue that talent is a major means through which people seek rent in modern-day capitalism. Talent today is what inherited land was to feudal societies; an unchallenged source of symbolic and economic rewards. Whereas God sanctified the aristocracy’s wealth, contemporary privilege is legitimated by meritocracy. Drawing on the work of Gary Becker, Pierre Bourdieu and Jerome Karabel, I show how rent-seeking in modern societies has come to rely principally on rent definition and creation. Inequality is produced by the ways in which talent is defined, institutionalization, and sustained by the moral deservingness we attribute to the accomplishments of talents. Consequently, today’s inequalities are as striking as ever, yet harder to challenge than ever before.
The Great British Sorting Machine: Adolescents’ future in the balance of family, school and the neighborhood
LSE International Inequalities Institute Working Paper 26 (with Jaap Nieuwenhuis)
Research calls attention to the divergent school and labor market trajectories of Europe’s youth while, across the Atlantic, researchers describe the long-lasting consequences of poverty on adolescent development. In this paper we incorporate both processes to shed a new light on a classic concern in the sociology of stratification: how are adolescents’ aspirations, expectations, and school performance shaped by the combined socioeconomic contexts of family, school and neighborhood life? Theoretically, social contexts provide children with cultural resources that may foster their ambitions and bolster their academic performance. Reference group theory instead highlights how seemingly positive settings can depress educational performance as well as aspirations and expectations. We empirically test these competing claims, drawing on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) which describes the school and neighborhood trajectories of 7,934 British children followed from birth to adolescence. We find that, generally, childhood school and neighborhood deprivation is negatively associated with adolescents’ school performance, aspirations and expectations for their future, in line with the cultural resource perspective. However, there are important exceptions to this pattern which point to reference group processes for (1) children of highly-educated parents, whose academic performance especially suffers from growing up in a poor neighborhood, and (2) for children from low-educated parents, whose academic aspirations and expectations are unexpectedly high when they either went to an affluent school or lived in an affluent neighborhood—but not both. We conclude by discussing implications for theory, policy and future research.
Inequality is a problem of inference: How people solve the social puzzle of unequal outcomes
Societies 8(3): 64
A new wave of scholarship recognizes the importance of people’s understanding of inequality that underlies their political convictions, civic values, and policy views. Much less is known however about the sources of people’s different beliefs. I argue that scholarship is hampered by a lack of consensus regarding the conceptualization and measurement of inequality beliefs, in the absence of an organizing theory. To fill this gap, in this paper I develop a framework for studying the social basis of people's explanations for inequality. I propose that people observe unequal outcomes and must infer the invisible forces that brought these about, be they meritocratic or structural in nature. In making inferences about the causes of inequality, people draw on lessons from past experience and information about the world, both of which are biased and limited by their background, social networks, and the environments they have been exposed to. Looking at inequality beliefs through this lens allows for an investigation into the kinds of experiences and environments that are particularly salient in shaping people’s inferential accounts of inequality. Specifically, I make a case for investigating how socializing institutions such as schools and neighborhoods are inferential spaces that shape how children and young adults come to learn about their unequal society and their own place in it. I conclude by proposing testable hypotheses and implications for research.
Stratified Failure: Educational Stratification and Students’ Attributions of their Mathematics Performance in 24 Countries
Sociology of Education 89(2): 137-153
Country rankings based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) invite politicians and specialists to speculate on the reasons their country did well or failed to do well. Rarely however do we hear from the students on whose performance these rankings are based. This omission is unfortunate for two reasons. First, research suggests that how students explain their academic performance has important consequences for their future achievements. Second, prior studies show that students’ attributions of success and failure in education can develop into explanations for social inequalities in adulthood. This paper draws on PISA 2012 data on 128,110 secondary school students in twenty four countries to explore how educational stratification shapes students’ explanations of their academic performance. I find that students in mixed-ability groups tend to attribute their mathematics performance to their teachers and to (bad) luck, while vocational and academic track students are more likely to blame themselves for not doing well. These differences between mixed-ability group students and tracked students are more pronounced in school systems where tracking is more extensive. I conclude by discussing how these findings speak to the broader impact of educational stratification on students’ psychology and cognition, and the legitimation of inequalities.
Featured in Education Week.
The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and their Implications for Justice in Education
Social Justice Research 29(1): 14-34
This paper draws on a literature in sociology, psychology and economics that has extensively documented the unfulfilled promise of meritocracy in education. I argue that the lesson learned from this literature is threefold: (1) educational institutions in practice significantly distort the ideal meritocratic process; (2) opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors; (3) any definition of merit must favor some groups in society while putting others at a disadvantage. Taken together, these conclusions give reason to understand meritocracy not just as an unfulfilled promise, but as an unfulfillable promise. Having problematized meritocracy as an ideal worth striving for, I argue that the pervasiveness of meritocratic policies in education threatens to crowd out as principles of justice, need and equality. As such, it may pose a barrier rather than a route to equality of opportunity. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse legitimates societal inequalities as justly deserved such as when misfortune is understood as personal failure. The paper concludes by setting a research agenda that asks how citizens come to hold meritocratic beliefs; addresses the persistence of (unintended) meritocratic imperfections in schools; analyzes the construction of a legitimizing discourse in educational policy; and investigates how education selects and labels winners and losers.
Sam and his classmates despise ‘nerds’: they say working hard in school makes a student unpopular, and that they purposefully do only the minimum to pass. Research suggests that such ‘oppositional’ attitudes are prevalent among working class students and/or ethnoracial minorities. Like most of his classmates, however, Sam is white, hails from a privileged background, and attends a selective school in the Netherlands. Deeply ambivalent about working hard and ‘acting wise’, Sam and the others constituting his adolescent society are thoroughly caught up in peer dynamics which sanction success and promote mediocrity. We link these anti-school peer dynamics to the institutional configuration of education in the Netherlands, characterized by rigid tracking at the end of primary school and non-selective universities: state structures and policies contribute to these privileged students’ rationale for ‘taking it easy’ and doing poorly in school.
Featured in de Volkskrant.
Studies suggest that the rise of Neoliberalism accompanies a foregrounding of individual responsibility and weakening of community. We provide a theoretical agenda for studying the interactions between the global diffusion of neoliberal policies and ideologies, on the one side, and cultural repertoires and boundary configurations, on the other, in the context of local, national, and regional variation. Exploiting variation in the rate of adoption of neoliberal policies across European societies, we show how levels of neoliberal penetration co-vary with the way citizens draw symbolic boundaries along the lines of ethno-religious otherness and moral deservingness.
The Missing Organizational Dimension of Prisoner Reentry: An Ethnography of the Road to Reentry at a Nonprofit Service Provider
Sociological Forum 31(2): 291-309
Prisoner reentry has received great interest in political sociology, criminology, and beyond. Research documents the struggles of individuals trying to find their way back into society. Less attention has been given to the organizational aspects of reentry. This is unfortunate given the rapid growth of nonprofit reentry organizations in the U.S., which introduces a new set of questions about the context and challenges to prisoner reentry. Drawing on an ethnography of Safe, a nonprofit reentry organization in the Northeast, I describe the organization's pivotal role in institutionalizing the pathway to prisoner reentry: a road to reentry, which takes former prisoners through a process that reconfigures their morality, identity, and social relationships. The road to reentry concept helps bring together scholars of the welfare state and criminology by highlighting how the challenges of prisoner reentry rely on how this process is organized. The way in which prison reentry is organized, in turn, affects former prisoners' agency and shapes the relationship between these men and women and their respective families and communities.
Blurred Lines: Structure/Agency, Presence/Vacancy in Detroit's Urban Museum
City & Community 14(2): 183-5
Detroit has come to symbolize the end of American hegemony in manufacturing. Faced with globalization, market competition, and political change, Detroit's citizens seem the victims of structural forces beyond their control. Yet, this photographic essay explores Detroit precisely through the lens of agency, highlighting citizens’ creativity, entrepreneurship, and play. The photographs highlight the ways Detroit's citizens have blurred the boundaries between ruins and art, presence and vacancy, and structure and agency.
Detroit’s fall has been long in the making. The biggest city ever to declare bankruptcy, Detroit has suffered out-migration since the 1950s, as people followed the jobs that started to leave the city. Auto manufacturing declined and eventually collapsed, and with it did Motor City. Detroit is a victim, symbol, sign of the times, but it is something else, too. Detroit’s citizens have made the city an urban museum. Part of the attraction for tourists is what also entices millions to flock to Rome and Athens every year: a chance to see the glory of times past. Like classical cities, Detroit symbolizes the end of an era—in this case, of American manufacturing. The dramatic ruins of wealth sit alongside a wealth of ruins.
We review the comparative literature on the impact of national-level educational institutions on inequality in student achievement. We focus on two types of institutions that characterize the educational system of a country: the system of school-type differentiation (between-school tracking) and the level of standardization (e.g., with regard to central examinations and school autonomy). Two types of inequality are examined: inequality in terms of dispersion of student test scores and inequality of opportunity by social background and race/ethnicity. We conclude from this literature, which mostly uses PISA, TIMSS, and/or PIRLS data, that inequalities are magnified by national-level tracking institutions and that standardization decreases inequality. Methodological issues are discussed, and possible avenues for further research are suggested.
Meritocracy or Plutocracy? Finding Explanations for the Educational Disadvantages of Moroccan Immigrants Living in the Netherlands
Amsterdam Social Science 1(1): 44-70
Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands have, throughout the last decades, been relatively unsuccessful in both schooling and job attainment. Although later generations of immigrants are doing better than those of their parents (and grandparents), young Moroccan men tend to do worse than both native Dutch and other immigrant groups (especially those from Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles). Educational failure and high (youth) unemployment rates are seen as explanatory variables for their disproportionate dominance in the Netherlands’s crime statistics. This fact especially underlines the importance of an empirical investigation in the causes of, and policy resolutions for, Moroccan immigrants’ position within the Dutch educational system. In this paper a theoretical approach is formulated which integrates elements of the competing traditions of Human Capital Theory and Cultural Reproduction Theory into one theoretical framework. It is shown how social locations account for initial differences in educational opportunity, which tend to be reinforced through peer pressure in schools and neighborhoods, and through specific institutional characteristics of the Dutch educational system, namely, tracking and school segregation. It is only by taking into account these three factors that we can come to a comprehensive understanding of immigrants’ educational disadvantages. Furthermore, it is argued that such an understanding has profound consequences for questions of meritocracy and plutocracy relating to the educational system and to how we perceive the Moroccan immigrant position in Dutch society.
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