Sociologists have long recognized that factors other than cognitive ability play a central role in processes of status attainment. From as early as the 1960s, sociological models of status attainment included social-psychological factors alongside educational credentials and cognitive skills. More recently, economists have highlighted the importance of non-cognitive traits for economic mobility, and as a consequence, research on non-cognitive traits and status attainment has rapidly accrued. In reviewing where this interdisciplinary literature now stands, we focus on three key theoretical issues: the expansive definition of non-cognitive traits, the extent to which such traits are properly described as “skills”, and the institutional context governing the role of non-cognitive traits in the stratification process.
First, we ask which traits should be classified as “non-cognitive”. Often defined in opposition to cognitive ability or intelligence, non-cognitive traits have never themselves been well-defined, or consistently measured. Studies reference widely variable social-psychological constructs, making it challenging to develop a cumulative social science of the role of non-cognitive traits in stratification processes. Definitional issues are thus central to the interpretation of existing empirical results.
Second, we ask whether or not non-cognitive traits should be classified as skills. Skills are commonly understood to be learned, they are associated with increased productivity, and they provide a non-arbitrary basis for stratification. But just how malleable are non-cognitive traits? Do they influence attainment netof class origin, race, and gender? Can they, conversely, help account for socioeconomic inequalities in access to desirable social positions? We argue that non-cognitive and personality traits can reasonably be understood to increase productivity. At the same time, if such traits are rewarded in the stratification process, this is likely to increase inequality because of their association with social group membership.
Third, we ask how institutionscondition the development of non-cognitive traits and the returns to these traits through the stratification process. We consider how the role of non-cognitive traits varies across different stages of the stratification process; the effects of non-cognitive traits on test scores, for example, differ from the effects on teacher grades, occupations, and earnings. We also consider the role of policy in the development of non-cognitive traits, and in the regulation of the mobility process.
Culture is about how, not just what, people think. Recent social theorists suggest that personal culture is best observed not in 'the self' as an entity, comprised of a set of attitudes, but in the self as a practice, a style of developing and holding attitudes. Very rarely, though, do we observe the practice of self unobtrusively, and at a scale we can formally analyze. We don't know what kinds of thought processes, emotions, and moral logics actually arise in self practice. I access transcripts of 1,705 psychotherapy sessions, covering 42 clients, that occurred between 2010 and 2014 in Massachusetts. Therapy aims to provide a 'backstage' where the self can be practiced. Computational text analysis finds that the practice of self involves secondary, rational thought processes concerned with time and instrumental behavior more than it does primary, intuitive processes. It involves individualizing moral logics more than binding ones. This pattern of self practice is similar regardless of the substantive topic and client gender, with the exception of the topic of sex. There is a structure to the practice of self. I discuss the implications of this for theories of culture.
Several theorists claim that a culture that considers employees as entrepreneurs has been internalized as well as institutionalized. But is there a culture, a shared subjectivity, among workers that is self-entrepreneurial? How does this culture ‘work’ – does an entrepreneurial subjectivity correspond with objective outcomes in employment? I contribute a quantitative response to these questions using survey data, from the mid-1990s through mid-2010s, representative of working-age Americans. I identify a latent self-concept that reflects individuals’ sense of their own self-mastery, self-directedness, capacity for self-growth, and foresight of their future. Across social groups, Americans report high levels of this self-entrepreneurialism. It is associated with an average earnings premium of between five and ten per cent of average earnings within occupations. Self-entrepreneurialism, however, does very little to account for earnings inequality between occupations, or between women, and has no association with earnings changes within individuals. Prevailing economic theory mistakes as micro the level at which the self operates, and economic inequality is determined. Yet the idea of the self-entrepreneurial employee does have a practical, if partial, truth to it. This could be a source of its cultural power.