How do they do it?

How do families transmit inequality, that is. This is an area where some of sociology’s big ideas are actually being pursued, challenged and tested through empirical studies. I’m always interested when  the answers don’t fit neatly with the authors’ expectations.

I was inspired to do some more reading after the comprehensive new review titled, “Locating Where the Action Is,” in the British journal Sociology. Sarah Irwin walks through the current state of research on what it is, really, that poor versus middle class families do that helps place their kids in the same class position as their parents. In the theoretical language of today’s stratification research, a lot of this is about “cultural capital,” and ideas from Bourdieu. Chief among these is “habitus,” which is something like: the internalization of social structures encountered through the life course, processed into a practical sense of acceptable action for the individual (I’m paraphrasing a nice short video by Kari Alexander). It’s that sense of entitlement, plus the skills to pull it off – that partly responds to, and partly drives, the reciprocal behavior of gatekeepers along the way.

This research is harder than it looks, for a few reasons. First, it’s not easy to measure something like cultural capital. People have tried everything from a simple measure of the education level of parents, to the number of books or level of high-brow cultural consumption in the childhood home.

Second, as Irwin explains, some behavior – like parents reading to children – doesn’t matter much to rich kids (the odds are with them whether their parents read to them or not), while it does to the poor (those who are read to have a better chance of upward mobility). So, can that explain how the rich stay rich, or is it just something that affects mobility from lower to higher status?

Finally, some researchers have really gotten under the hood of family processes – the most influential of these might be Annette Lareau, whose research led to the popular book Unequal Childhoods. But even the richest of these studies can’t yet prove that the behavior they see causes the outcome we expect. As convincing as Lareau’s evidence is that the nature of parenting differs across the class divide, the data can’t tell us that’s why the rich kids end up richer (or healthier or happier) in the long run.

Naturally, part of what rich people do that poor people can’t is spend money on their kids. They can make other investments, too, such as taking care of their own health or devoting more time to their kids. If the difference is the ability to pay tuition at a decent school or the “whom you know” method of getting a job, we don’t need rocket social science to figure it out. But understanding variation – when the “system” fails to reproduce itself perfectly – is part of how we figure out the system itself.

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