Dissertation

 

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.

In the introductory chapter, The Human in Human Capital, I extend the intellectual history of human capital theory to cover its recent expansion into “non-cognitive skills” or “character”. I discuss the theory’s relationship to policy and to the public philosophy of inequality in the United States.

In the second chapter, Feeling Unequal, I ask whether childhood self-concept is a mechanism through which class inequalities are transmitted. I formalize and examine Illouz’s suggestion that particular conceptions of selfhood provide a means to access an ‘emotional capital’ of value in the current economy. Using recent, nationally representative, prospective data and sequential mediation models, I find that ten-year-olds’ evaluation of their self-mastery and self-worth does help account for the intergenerational transmission of class. Much of the mediating effect, however, comes from the covariance of children’s self-concept with teachers’ evaluations of their self-control and formal tests of cognitive intelligence taken at the same age. I argue that low self-evaluation is not only what Sennett and Cobb call a ‘hidden injury’ of class inequality, but also a hidden mechanism by which it is reproduced.

In the third chapter, Self-Entrepreneurialism and Earnings Inequality, I provide a quantitative analysis of the claim that a “neoliberal” culture demands a more entrepreneurial self-concept. Using two recent, nationally representative surveys of working-age Americans, I identify a latent reflective orientation toward self-mastery, self-directedness, and self-growth. This self-entrepreneurialism is high among Americans, regardless of class, race, gender, age, period or cohort. At the micro level, I find self-entrepreneurialism to be associated with an earnings premium of up to 10% of average earnings within occupations. However, at the macro level, because it is so pervasive among Americans, self-entrepreneurialism does almost nothing to account for inequalities between or within occupations or by class, race, or gender. This analysis suggests that self-entrepreneurialism is best thought of as a cultural ethic rather than as cultural capital akin to human capital: a rule of the game, rather than a determinant of who wins or loses it.

In the fourth chapter, Economics on the Couch, I use 1,700 transcripts of recent psychotherapy sessions conducted in Massachusetts, USA, to study the self as a process—at scale. Private therapy sessions do not give us unfiltered access to people’s minds. But they help us hear the internal conversation, as Mead saw it, between an individual’s social self and his or her instinctive response to it. Studying the self as a process, rather than an entity or identity, gives us insight into culture as procedure: how, rather than what, we think and feel. And it was a procedure, a practice of managing the self as one might manage a company, that Foucault thought characterized neoliberal culture. I find, through a structural topic model, that economic issues are a common topic in individual therapy, and, through multidimensional scaling, centrally related to other topics. Computational sentiment analysis finds that men and women use words indicating affection as much as those indicating instrumentality when discussing personal economic issues. Finally, a close qualitative reading of therapy sessions in which economic topics dominate finds that a common cause of distress among clients is their ambivalence about thinking like a rational economic actor would. I argue that the conflicted selves heard in therapy reflect contradictions within contemporary culture; contradictions in which the integrity, and the mental health, of the self is at stake.