Dissertation

The Self in Socio-Economic Stratification 

What is the self worth? Does how we think and feel about ourselves affect our economic outcomes? Whether it does, or does not, what does the answer tell us about inequality – and its culture? My focus is class inequality, but throughout I consider its intersections with race and gender.

My dissertation takes seriously the idea of the individual as an ‘entrepreneur of himself’, that one’s self, psyche or mentality, is under one’s own control, and the source of one’s economic standing. It is the idea that Foucault, in 1979, described as being at the heart of an emerging, distinctive American Neoliberalism. Beginning in my introduction, The Human in Human Capital, I discuss the extension of theories of individual skills and economic inequality into the social-psychological, or “non-cognitive”, realm since the turn of the twenty-first century, and its political-economic context.

 

The first substantive chapter, Class’s Character: Self-Concept, Self-Control and the Reproduction of Social Class, is a sociological response to the recent emphasis in economics, psychology, and education policy, on “self-control” (or what’s often referred to, moralistically, as “character”) as a skill and explanation for unequal socio-economic outcomes. For a nationally representative cohort born in Britain in 1970, I find that teachers’ classification of the self-control of ten-year-old children helps account for the persistence of social class positions between parents and their adult children. However, only for working-class boys and men is the penalty for perceived low self-control substantial net of scores on cognitive intelligence tests. I also find that children’s subjective evaluation at the same age of their self-mastery and self-worth, their own control over their environment and their value as an individual, also accounts, to a similar degree, for social immobility. To explain these findings, I apply Hochschild’s theory of emotion management to the self and integrate it into Bourdieu’s concept of a classed habitus. A limited sense of self-mastery and self-worth, as well as presentation of poor self-control, can be understood as a hidden injury of class inequality, measurable in middle childhood – and a hidden mechanism by which it is intergenerationally reproduced.

 

The second chapter, Culture at Work: Self-Entrepreneurialism and Earnings Inequality in the United States analyzes the structure of subjective self-entrepreneurialism, and its relationship to objective economic inequalities, specifically earnings. Workplace ethnography, and other qualitative research, certainly suggests that a culture that expects employees to be entrepreneurial has been 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 is not associated with earnings changes within individuals over their working lives. 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, as Bourdieu would have expected, have a practical, if partial, material reality to it. This, by aiding the misrecognition of the larger drivers of economic inequality, could be a source of its cultural power.

 

The third dissertation chapter, Economics on the Couch, shifts the focus from the self as an entity or identity, to the self as an ongoing process. I start with the theoretical claim that culture occurs not only in what we think and feel, but in how we do so. I identify an additional claim: that how we work on our selves, including in a therapeutic context, serves economic structures. These profound claims, I argue, remain vague and intractable without hearing self-reflection at a scale we can formally analyze, computationally or qualitatively. I access 1,700 transcripts of counseling and psychotherapy sessions, for 45 individuals, that occurred in Massachusetts, United States, between 2012 and 2014. Computationally, structural topic models show that economic matters are central in relation to other topics in therapy, including intimate relationships and identity. Linguistic analysis finds that clients, regardless of their demographic characteristics, use words indicating emotions and affection when discussing economic matters, and words indicating instrumental thought when discussing relationship issues. Qualitatively, a close reading of those clients’ sessions most associated with the economic topics, finds a consistent ambivalence about economistic or self-interested thoughts, and a common disconnect between thoughts, the bodily or instinctive response to them, and action. As one woman in her twenties laments, “my head, if only it would only cooperate with the rest of me. Therapy clients struggle with a perceived failure to think – and to feel – as they believe an entrepreneurial self would. I argue that limited empirical access to the process of self has led sociologists to overstate the integration of thought and action, mind and body, the cognitive and emotional, the conscious and unconscious – and the coherence between dominant cultural narratives and economic practices. Self-conflict, I suggest however, is wholly consistent with an economy in which the self itself is at stake.