Dissertation

The Self in Socio-Economic Stratification

What worth has self-worth? Is work on the self valued at work? Does the way we think and feel about ourselves affect our economic outcomes? And if it does, what are the consequences of this for socio-economic inequality – and for the health of the self? These are the questions I ask in my dissertation.

In the introductory chapter, The Human in Human Capital, I update the intellectual history of human capital theory focusing on its recent expansion into the realm of “non-cognitive skills”, and its relationship to public ideas of character, merit and deservingness. 

In the second chapter, Feeling Unequal, I ask whether childhood self-concept is a mechanism through which social class status is transmitted across generations. I elaborate and empirically examine Illouz’s proposition that particular, popular conceptions of selfhood provide a means to access an ‘emotional capital’ valued in the contemporary economy, and that the self is ‘the most deeply embodied aspect of the habitus’. I consider ten year olds’ subjective assessment of their self-mastery and self-worth, and how this relates to both traditional assessments of cognitive ability (intelligence) and teacher assessments of bodily self-control, in accounting for the intergenerational transmission of class. I argue that low self-evaluation is not only what Sennett and Cobb called a ‘hidden injury’ of class inequality, but an often-hidden mechanism by which it is reproduced.

In the third chapter, Because I’m Worth It, I empirically assess the claim that the contemporary labor market demands an entreprenuerial way of thinking one's self. Drawing on the latest in psychometric measurement theory, I semi-inductively identify a self-entreprenuerialism - a self-concept orientated toward self mastery, growth and the future - among adults in the contemporary United States. I then consider whether this self-entrepreneurialism helps account for earnings inequalities observed within and between occupations, and by class, race, gender, and cohort.  Modeling a (relational) sociological theory of wage inequality, I consider how the association between earnings and self-entreprenuerialism varies by social characteristics of occupations, and of individuals. All economic valuation, Jens Beckert has gone as far to say, is fictional: there is a story as well as a science to it. Beckert is thinking at macro level, in how we price companies and currencies. I suggest this also operates at a more micro level, in how people price people. Part of the cultural power of contemporary theories of human capital, and the self, lies (as Bourdieu would suggest) in their partial truth. 

 

In a fourth chapter, Economics on the Couch, I ask how people’s sense of self, revealed in the process of self-reflection in private therapy sessions, relates to their economic lives. Using 1,700 transcripts of recent psychotherapy sessions in Massachusetts, USA, I access the self as a process – the dialogue, as George Mead saw it, between a social self, and the response to it. A structural topic model of client speech in these therapy sessions shows that economic issues are a common topic, central to other topics including intimate relationships. Computational socio-linguistic analysis shows men and women use primal, emotional, as well as conceptual and instrumental, language when discussing personal economic issues. A close qualitative reading of counselling sessions in which economic topics dominate suggests clients have a common self-expectation of being a rational, autonomous, competitive person. Yet, a common cause of psychic distress is clients’ failure to feel like they are such a person. Conflicted selves heard in therapy, I argue, reflect contradictions within dominant contemporary economic culture; contradictions in which the integrity, and the health, of the self is at stake.