The Basic Problem of Stratification: Parents?

Sorry for the long gap between posts! I was away for a week, and things have been a little hectic preparing for our upcoming Social Theory conference (this Friday and Saturday at the Michigan Union, for anyone local to Ann Arbor. Stop by!).

In the past couple weeks, I’ve had a lot of conversations about private and public schools in the U.S. Most of those conversations have been of the personal rather than professional sort – that is, whether or not someone plans to send their (potential future or actually existing) children to private schools and less about the societal consequences of the existence of private schools*. The main issue discussed was what kind of people private schools produce – arrogant, overconfident, entitled, self-interested and/or broad-minded, self-confident, reflexive, critical. Of course, there are all sorts of private schools (religious, prep, humanistic, etc.) and I don’t really know what generalizations we can make about “private schools” as a class. But the whole set of discussions got me thinking about the connections between the personal drive to make sure one’s kids do well and are good people and the problem of social stratification that was going mostly undiscussed.

Specifically, it seems like one of the basic causes of the reproduction of stratification is a model for society where private resources are used to produce new members of society. I know this isn’t a particularly new point – I think Plato talked about it in the Republic, or at least proposed a system whereby children were raised in common in order to get a completely meritocratic system – but it seems like one that is still pervasive and nearly untreatable. As long as parents are expected to put resources towards raising children, and are judged in part on how well their children do, and as long as parents have the capacity to influence their children’s outcomes, isn’t the reproduction of social stratification (to some extent) inevitable? Not that there aren’t huge problems orthogonal to this one – for example, racial stratification isn’t simply the produce of differential parental resources, and (hopefully) has all kinds of possible solutions that don’t have anything to do with parenting – but I wonder how far we’ll ever get as long as parents are expected to do so much for their own kids, and are so differentially capable**.

I am about as far from an expert on stratification as one can be in Sociology. So maybe the above is a serious topic of inquiry and debate already. I hope so. But I wonder if it’s something we shy away from. Who wants to tell their educated, wealthy peers (and themselves) that their own parenting virtues are reproductive of social inequality? What do even want to do about this problem?

* In the interests of disclosure, I went to public school through grade 6, then private school from 7-12, then “elite” public universities to present (e.g. Michigan).
** Although I recall some research showing that children’s outcomes are more determined by what their parents are (wealthy, educated, owning books and computers and such) than what they do (reading to their kids, helping them with homework, etc.). But it’s been awhile, and I don’t know exactly what that research means for this argument.



  1. Michael Bishop

     /  March 7, 2010

    I think schools need to improve in ways that compensate for the fact that not everyone has a great home environment. There will always be inequality, and some of that inequality will due to variation in parenting, but I know I’d feel a lot better if poor families have the option to send their kids to very high quality, extended-day, extended-year schools.

  2. This is an important point. The only solution I see is for government to become a stronger element in the cultivation of children. They can do this through radically enhancing public education and through investing more in developmentally oriented community resources.

  3. “recall some research showing that children’s outcomes are more determined by what their parents are (wealthy, educated, owning books and computers and such) than what they do (reading to their kids, helping them with homework, etc.).”

    I think Malcolm Gladwell had something about this, maybe in a recent book, Outliers maybe, or is that recent? He keeps turning them out so quickly I lose track.

  4. Jeff

     /  April 2, 2010

    As someone with a connection to stratification, I’ll offer a few words:

    1) There’s interesting research that shows that reproduction of parental status is strong, but not as strong as you might think. Dalton Conley has a book exploring why reproduction of parental status isn’t straightforward. He argues that micro-family dynamics generally push children into stereotyped roles that create a great deal of variability among multiple-child families.

    2) I highly agree that this is one of those questions most sociologists are afraid of asking because they (perhaps especially so) don’t like acknowledging that sociology is composed of privileged individuals (myself included).

    3) I think this post brings up the ugly fact that most people (even smart, educated academics) spend very little time considering the meaning behind having children. It amazes me how powerful the cultural scripts are regarding parenting. There’s lots of debate about the technical details of raising a child appropriately, but there’s generally very little consideration about what it means to have children in the first place.

    I think that the world would be a much better place if people asked themselves: Why do I want to have a child? How will society be impacted by my raising a child?

    And perhaps most difficult: Does the world really need me to have a child?