Research Statement

In my work I develop cultural explanations of inequality. When sociologists study inequality they often explore poverty, marginalization, and disadvantage. My work seeks to complement this approach by looking at the other side of these processes: wealth, dominance, and advantages. My first book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, is a perhaps the best representation of my scholarly approach. Through an ethnography of St. Paul’s School, one of the nation’s most elite boarding schools, I ask what students learn in elite educational institutions. My argument is that students develop ease across a range of social contexts. This ease involves a particular negotiation of hierarchical relationships. Students learn to treat hierarchies as ladders, not ceilings. Learning to climb requires interacting with those above (and below) in a very particular way: by creating intimacy without presuming equality. To today’s elite, hierarchies are dangerous and unjustifiable when too fixed or present—when society is seen as closed and work and talent don’t matter. And so rather than mobilizing what we might think of as elite knowledge to mark themselves as distinct, the new elite display more egalitarianism in their tastes and dispositions. Privilege is not an attempt to construct boundaries around knowledge and protect it as a resource. Instead, drawing upon their embodied ease, students from St. Paul’s appear to naturally have what it takes to be successful. I argue that this helps obscure durable inequality by naturalizing socially produced distinctions.

Privilege, was published in January 2011 by Princeton University Press. A wide range of scholars reviewed the book. In addition to this scholarly attention, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloomberg News, The Boston Globe, and other major media outlets either reviewed or wrote about the book. Privilege won the C. Wright Mills Award for the best book written in the social sciences in 2011. It has been adopted in sociological courses across the nation, and has been one of the best selling sociology books for Princeton University Press since its publication. The book is presently being translated into Chinese, with other translation rights under negotiation.

My interest in elites is empirically driven; as economists have demonstrated over the last decade, it is the rising income and wealth share of the rich that largely explains the increase in inequality since the 1970s. As part of my effort to develop our theoretical understanding of elites and make elite scholarship more prominent in my discipline, I recently published a piece for the Annual Review of Sociology on sociological approaches to and findings about elites. My second major project builds further on this work. I am finishing a book-length project on the history of elites in New York City (provisionally entitled, Exceptional). This book is inspired by a simple observation. Over the last thirty years our social institutions have opened–women lead major corporations, colleges have incoming cohorts that are 13% Black, our president is not white–yet inequality has been steadily increasing. Though we often think of social openness and economic opportunity going hand in hand, our recent experience suggests that there are key ways in which social openness might be combined with economic closure. I thereby historically trace the relationship between openness and inequality. Exceptional follows the life of the Astor family in order to make sense of how American elites have maintained their social and economic boundaries, at times seeking social closure, and at times accepting and even promoting more porousness.

Exceptional is under contract with Princeton University Press. The research for this book is mostly complete and I have drafted several chapters. I will deliver the manuscript by summer 2014. The major goal of this book is to expand our understanding of inequality within democratic societies by making sense of the ways in which inequality is not simply about building moats and fences around resources. Methodologically Exceptional explores the C. Wright Mills dictum that sociology is the combination of biography and history. The book is not a biography, but instead uses Astor family as a guide to historically track how elites have experienced, weathered, and helped produce a constantly shifting set of cultural, economic, and social relationships. I completed much of the research for this book while at a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library. Some of the theoretical developments have been published in recent papers. For example, I argue that elites are often “counter-cyclical” in their economic experiences – meaning that when middle class America has experienced wage stagnation and lack of mobility elites have often experienced the opposite: mobility and growth. This argument is presented both in a popular review essay I wrote for Public Books and has a far more scholarly grounding in a forthcoming piece for Research in the Sociology of Organizations. In addition, elements of the book’s argument will appear in popular presses in anticipation of its publication.

In addition to this historical monograph, I have also begun a major study of the subscribers to the New York Philharmonic from 1842-present. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this project explores who has attended what concerts over the last 150 years. These data contain information about the names of subscribers, where these subscribers sat within the concert hall, what they paid for their tickets, who performed and what they played for each concert the subscriber has tickets to, what subscribers sit next to or near to one another, and where all these individuals live in the city of New York (or elsewhere). We are augmenting the Philharmonic data with data from other sources – housing values as well as a sample of the Social Register – so that we can understand how the subscribers to the Philharmonic fit within the broader ecology of New Yorkers. Finally, we will put these data in the context of the history of the institution through an archival analysis of the orchestra’s written archive. Taken together these data provide a moving portrait of the participants of one of the most significant cultural institutions in the world. I anticipate producing initial work from this project by Winter 2013. I will be giving the first of a series of lectures from this project at the University of Michigan center for organizational studies in November 2013. A graduate student at Columbia University, Fabien Accominotti, is taking an equal role in this project, and the funding for it has supported him, a staff position as well as 16 undergraduate work-study students.

My final project on elites explores “The Political Influence of Economic Elites.” Along with political scientist Dorian Warren, I am the director of a working group at the Russell Sage Foundation on this topic. The group includes mostly political scientists (Jacob Hacker, Martin Gilens, David Lazer, Margaret Weir, Ben Page, Larry Jacobs, Nick Carnes, and Jeff Winters), along with some economists and business school faculty (Marianne Bertrand, Bruce Kogut), and sociologists (Elisabeth Clemens, Mark Mizruchi, Jeff Manza, and Leslie McCall). As director of this group I secured initial funding for our projects, and will guide the group to explore the myriad ways in which elites influence political processes. Within this group I will be working on two empirical projects: one is an experiment on the impact of political giving and a second ethnographic study on the interplay between lobbyists and congressional staff with Dorian Warren. Both of these projects are in their infancy; I anticipate beginning actively research them after the book on elite New York has been delivered to Princeton this summer.

While elite sociology is my primary focus, it is not the sole aim of my work; I have also written in the areas of political sociology, ethnicity, gender, and methodology. My second book, The Practice of Research, was published by Oxford University Press in July 2013 (co-written/edited with Dana Fisher). This book provides an introduction to social science research methodology alongside excerpts of papers by leading sociologists. These papers employ a range of methods, from experiments to ethnographies. In addition, the authors of these papers have written reflection pieces that outline the choices and constraints of their chosen research method. This book fits within a broader interest I have in research methodology. A more original contribution to this area comes through a paper I co-authored with Colin Jerolmack. This paper, “Talk is Cheap,” addresses the different theoretical understandings of culture and the methodological approaches used to evaluate and advance them. The paper is critical of what we call “the attitudinal fallacy” – the tendency of sociologists to take verbal accounts as proxies for action. The paper, which is forthcoming in Sociological Methods and Research, will serve as the basis of a special issue of the journal. Four leading sociologists – Paul DiMaggio, Douglas Maynard, Karen Cerula, and Steve Vaisey – have responded to the paper; Colin and I have just completed a response to these critiques. I anticipate this special issue of the journal will be released within the next several months.

The final major project I am working on expands upon my earlier experimental work on deliberative processes (the first paper, my masters thesis, appeared in Sociological Theory). With my collaborator, Erik Schneiderhan, I received a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (Canada) to run a series of experiments on deliberative processes. The purpose of this work is to understand how the ethnic composition of groups influences decision-making processes. These experiments were run in March 2011. In addition, the Runnymede Trust in England commissioned me to run a series of real-world deliberative assemblies in London and Birmingham. I completed the London assembly in January 2011, and ran a Birmingham deliberative assembly in January 2012. These “real world” studies served as checks to the external validity of our experimental work. The aim of this project is to better understand political decision-making in multi-ethnic contexts. With my research team I have written three papers from these studies. One uses the work of Karl Mannheim to understand the role of generation and documentary meaning of ethnicity; a revision of this paper was recently returned to the British journal Sociology. Another paper explores how ethnic diversity influences political decisions; the basic finding is that when political participants draw upon their ethnic identities and experiences, the quality of their deliberation increases. This finding challenges the Habermasian view that diversity is an impediment to public discourse. However the finding also suggests that while discourse quality improves as groups draw upon ethnic differences, the decisions they arrive at are less receptive to economic redistribution. This paper received a revise and resubmit from Sociological Forum and was recently returned to the journal. A final paper is more theoretical, arguing that for understanding ethnicity as an enactment. This work builds upon recent theorizations in the sociology of gender and the “relational turn” by arguing that ethnicity might be conceptualized as something done within an interaction (an enactment) rather than something actors are. This paper is under review.