The Self in Socio-Economic Stratification

What worth has self-worth? 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 the mental health of the self?

These are the questions I ask in my dissertation. Specifically, in the first chapter, Feeling Unequal, I ask if children’s self-evaluation, their self-esteem and self-efficacy, is a mechanism through which social class positions persist from parents to children. In the second chapter, Because I’m Worth It, I ask whether adults’ self-concept, their self-evaluation and also their self-identity, the kind of person they understand themselves to be, helps account for pay disparities by class origins and gender, and within occupation. In the third 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 issues in their economic lives.

I use state-of-the-art methods to answer these questions. The first two chapters use sequential-g estimation, a two-stage regression technique which by recognizing alternative potential mediators improves on the structural equation models traditionally used to estimate mechanisms in observational, population-level data. This method originates in epidemiology and biostatistics, and has been used to quantify historical effects in political science. I show its potential to help sociologists in their efforts to quantify multi-causal, social processes over the life course. In the third chapter, by using a structural topic model and content (socio-linguistic) analysis of 1,700 counseling and psychotherapy transcripts, I bridge social and computer science methods to make qualitative analysis more transparent, reliable and inductive.

Preliminary analysis indicates that incorporating insights from the social psychology of the self helps refine sociological theories of the economy, its inequality, and its culture.  My first chapter indicates that low subjective self-evaluation is not only a ‘hidden injury’ of low class origins, measurable in childhood, but is also an often-hidden mechanism by which social class positions persist from parents to children. My second chapter hypothesizes that those adults whose self-identity is as a self-directed and competitive person are rewarded in terms of higher wages, and that this helps account for the wage disparities we observe by social origin, gender and, increasingly, within occupations. I also hypothesize that the reporting of economically valuable self-concepts will be more common in younger than in older cohorts of American workers, particularly for women.

That said, my final chapter challenges the idea that a dominant entrepreneurial or economistic self-concept is simply internalized and enacted. A common cause of psychological distress, I find, is the perceived failure to feel as an entrepreneurial, or rational actor would. People struggle to reconcile economic life as they think they should think of it, and economic life as they live it. Internal self-conflict, I argue, reflects a contradiction in contemporary economic culture. This culture, while containing the theory of an impersonal, rational and amoral economy, is also formed of a relational, emotional, and moral economic practice.  

Out of methodological necessity, sociologists have studied the self as a declarative entity, rather than a process. But this, I think, has led us to overstate the degree to which culture is cognitive, and coherent, rather than emotional and ambivalent. Self-reflection in a therapeutic context shows narratives about the economy are used a source of meaning and identity – but also experienced as a threat to it.