the privilegometer

Circulating among various sociology blogs is a meme that attempts to measure how much Privilege you had growing up (here, with links to others). I think “privilege” is a problematic concept–more exactly, it’s one of those social science terms that useful precisely because it is imprecise, and such terms only go so far. And even as a measure of “privilege” I would have issues with this one–in my own case, I think, it understates some nontrivial advantages.

Nonetheless, for anyone who is curious enough about my own background to click on the jump, here is my accounting:

Yes (4):

17. Went to summer camp. Bible camp! Twice, even! Junior high Bible camp, incidentally, may be the biggest romantic meat market setting I’ve ever spent time in. More than the bars I went to in college, although granted I avoided the most meat-marketly bars.
23. You and your family lived in a single-family house.
24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home. My parents do own their home, but it is very plausibly unsaleable by this point. A cousin of mine bought a 4BR house in my hometown a couple years ago for $50K.
25. You had your own room as a child. At least, after I was 9 and we moved out to the farm. For those who think I’m prone to TMI on this blog, chew on this: my now-deceased sister was 3 1/2 years older than me. When I was young, we slept in the same bed–more precisely, the fold-out bed from a sofa–until I was 6 or 7.

No, given my interpretation of the spirit of the question, but with caveat (3):

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18. I assume this means paid, private lessons. I do a dim recollection of my dad taking me and my sister for one golf lesson once. I’ve no idea if this was paid; my guess would be not.
20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18. Mostly, though. An advantage of my brother being 18 years older than me.
34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family. What kid knows exactly what the family heating bills are? I was certainly aware growing up that the expense of heating was a continual issue with my family in winters, which is why our house on the farm is heated mostly with a wood furnace.

No (15):

1. Father went to college
2. Father finished college
3. Mother went to college
4. Mother finished college
5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers. Where I come from, children of high school teachers occupied the kind of place in the intellectual hierarchy of high school that children of professors do in the places I live now.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.  BTW, a substantial portion of the books we had by the time I left home were caused by me (or my siblings), not the reverse.  You’ll understand why I might be suspicious when sociologists of education use # of books in home as a measure of family background innocent of any endogeneity problems.
9. Were read children’s books by a parent.
11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.
12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively. Me, now, sure. Even today, the way rural Iowans can get portrayed in caucus coverage really irritates me.
13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18.
16. Went to a private high school.
26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18.
28. Had your own TV in your room in high school.
30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.

Of course not, and even just the idea makes me chuckle (12):

8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.
14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs.
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.
18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.
19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels. And yet, the very fact that we had a couple vacations where we stayed in a poorly ventilated trucktop camper provokes jealousy to this day in my brother and eldest sister.
21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them. As far as I know, my parents have purchased one new car for themselves in my lifetime. My first car was $700 and purchased using money I made mowing the cemetery for our church.
22. There was original art in your house when you were a child.
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course. I did study myself from a book at the library. Anyone who knows my Rendering Truck Story knows how badly I wanted a scholarship so I could get out of rural Iowa and into college.
29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.
31. Went on a cruise with your family.
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.
33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

38 thoughts on “the privilegometer”

  1. I’d just like to point out that this is a pretty US-centric list. Obviously several things translate internationally, but some make little sense in other contexts. For example, you’d find absolutely no variance on something like private vs public high school attendance where and when I grew up since the former didn’t exist anywhere in Hungary at the time. (I could name numerous items on this list that suffer from the same issue.)

    Here’s another example, probably not very generalizable, but the list made me think of it. If my father was going through this list, he’d say yes to the point about an attorney relative since his father had been a lawyer. Ironically, however, it was precisely that fact, which kept my father out of high school at his first attempt at continued education, because at that time there was a bias against families with such backgrounds in Hungary. (I’ll also add here that by then my father’s father wasn’t even alive having been killed in a labor camp during the Holocaust when my Dad was 3.)

    So for those planning to use this in a class, I recommend being sensitive to this issue. I used to hate it in sociology classes in college (in the U.S.) when people would lump all European countries in with the US. It’s not all the same and this list has limitations internationally.

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  2. Jeremy: Hmm. I worked up my answers, but then decided nobody really cares about them, anyway. I’m not the media star you are, and the name of the game seems to be to post only if you score low. By my count, I got 18 yeses, 19 if you count home made clothes as “new” for the privilege purposes.

    Eszter: Yes and no. Of course it is a US list. It is also time-centric, as some of the items were nearly impossible 50 years ago. So yes, it does not fit well if you are from another society. And of course there are even in the US specific issues of political repression and also of personal factors like parental alcoholism or sexual abuse scar the lives of children in highly-educated families. But that does not invalidate an attempt to give students a sense of how much economic and educational privilege they carry.

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  3. Eszter’s point about the relative usefulness of the list is precisely why i do want to use this in my sociology class. I think it would be interesting to have them individually go through the list to see where they “fall” regarding “privilege,” then see if they can point out the fallacies in the list and the assumptions about privilege it makes.

    Judging from the last class I taught, I will have a significant number of international students, largely from Middle Eastern and Asian countries. It will be interesting to see how people from different backgrounds will interpret the list.

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  4. It just occurred to me that there’s a second potential teachable moment with this list. Olderwoman is right, I think, in that this could easily become a competition to see who has the least bolded items. But why? And who is more prone to such competitions? Could such a competition be used to illustrate theories regarding a United States meritocracy myth, paired with our general desire to not seem too privileged? The lower you started, the higher you have to climb, the better you can claim rugged individualism and determination as reasons for your success….the less guilty you need to feel for what privilege you currently hold?

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  5. Reminds me a bit of the “status” index at the end of the Paul Fussell book CLASS. Don’t have it handy, but I think the index was adapted from a 1950s sociology article.

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  6. OW, I’m not sure what “yes and no” refers to. I certainly wasn’t saying (was I?) that people shouldn’t use this list. I was just pointing out a limitation that based on my experiences may be relevant for sociology classes and discussions.

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  7. Oh- I have that book handy. It’s a living-room scale, adopted from a 1935 book Contemporary American Institutions, by F. Stuart Chapin. You start with a score of 100 and add or subtract points as indicated if certain items are in your living room. It’s fun, and a sneaky way to get your husband to finally throw out all his reproduction artworks he’s had since college ;) .

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  8. Anomie: I use an exercise in which I compare Alpha and Beta — I had to declare them to be of the same race and from the same big city high school to cut off some lines of argument. Alpha is from a privileged background with professional parents and lots of enrichment opportunities, Beta has less-educated parents and can’t afford enrichment. They present the same credentials for college admission: same test scores, same grades. I ask them: Who’s probably smarter? Who should be preferred in college admission? Well the point is Beta, of course. The logic is that if you got to the same point from different origins, the one who has traveled farther probably has more ability. But I am amazed at the stories students can construct about the disadvantage of being privileged. Everything from not learning good work habits to parents ignoring you to the seductions of drug abuse. And my favorite: “It’s not my fault I’m privileged. Why should I be discriminated against for being privileged?” Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds point out that parents can be very helpful and supportive without being highly educated. It is always true, of course, that individual factors vary, but the resistance to seeing the aggregate social forces comes up more for some topics than others. But I should say that, even though some students resist, many students from both privileged and less privileged backgrounds say it is thought-provoking.

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  9. A thought: perhaps olderwoman’s comparison of alpha and beta give another reason why people would like to announce low scores on indexes such as these: if people generally believe that if “you got to the same point from different origins, the one who has traveled farther probably has more ability,” it behooves us to make it seem like we have traveled the furthest to get where we are, doesn’t it?

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  10. OW: I agree with the part in your first comment about there being an element of “who has the least” yeses. I was going to write about this in my original post, but it was already getting long and my day is already getting away from me. A more general feature when academics from low-SES backgrounds start talking is that they will try to one-down each other in terms of their circumstances growing up. This is probably a species of “Who’s got it worse?” that characterizes so-called victim sociology, and one to which I am not immune.

    With respect to my own score, I want to emphasize again that I believe I’ve enjoyed important elements of privilege (even just in the US context) not captured on the list. At the same time, I would be lying if I did not admit that I feel pride in having done better in socioeconomic terms than what one would predict given various objective indicators from my family background. I also think, especially in graduate school, I drew motivation from the prospect of competing successfully with people who came from more advantaged backgrounds than me.

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  11. OW, I got the yes and no count, I wasn’t sure what this referred to: “Eszter: Yes and no. Of course it is a US list.”. It’s probably not very important. (I just wanted to clarify that I did get the adding up of yeses and nos.:)

    Jeremy, I think you should feel very proud of where you are. When you have some time, I’d be curious to hear the elements of privilege you feel you enjoyed that are not captured on the list.

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  12. “and the name of the game seems to be to post only if you score low” – i’m not sure about this. i found it interesting that new soc prof (newsocprof.wordpress.com) posted with 23 yeses. it’s not really the number that is interesting, but the analysis of that number in regards to whether you feel/felt privileged. i had 7 yeses, but i didn’t, like jeremy, feel particularly disadvantaged growing up and was advantaged in many important ways.

    and since i am currently broke, i can’t say that i feel any pride at having transcended my humble beginnings… mostly because i haven’t.

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  13. Since I’m not a “sociology” blogger (I never thought I would type those words), I won’t post this on my blog, but by my count I score 26. I’m almost surprised that my score isn’t higher. My parents divorce did not have much of a negative effect, the main change was that Mom and I didn’t live in a single family house for a while: it was a condo. Also, my mother’s earning power was equal to my father’s and he contributed over and above his legally required child support: that alone makes me particularly privileged.

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  14. This is an interesting exercise, but it suffers from serious flaws. First, maybe the original exercise offers more direction, but it seems to assume that all of the 34 items are equal. Surely “owned a mutual fund” is not equivalent to “had a phone in your room” (the only phone on the second floor just happened to be in my room — it wasn’t my phone).

    Second, it doesn’t consider the quality and quantity of these items. I think about how my friend Dave (the son of a former pro baseball player and US Senator, now a Federal judge himself) and I (working-class kid with a father who worked two jobs to put me through private schools) might have somewhat similar scores, yet the *quality* of our scored items (our houses, educations, types of books in our houses, etc.) were dramatically different. In terms of quantity, I went to a crappy weeklong summer camp once — Dave went to the rich kids’ camp nearly every summer. And so on.

    Third, it doesn’t consider aspects of disadvantage that would potentially cancel out advantages.

    This reminds me of some of the early cultural capital research that simply enumerated items indicating cultural capital without considering the quality or the activation (per Lareau) of this form of capital.

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  15. I score a six, given a broad “yes” interpretation of 12 (is this asking if you’re a white guy, or what?) and 25 (I had my own room after I was 13; before that I shared with one and later two brothers). My “yes” answers are 7, 10, 12, 22, 23 and 25.

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  16. The list is interesting but it misses a whole lot of things that I think of when looking at my own life and privilege. First is the fact that there is a lot more involved in education than whether a school is public or private. Someone who otherwise gets the same score as me but went to a high school that actually had advanced classes at least had the privilege of being able to take such classes if they wanted to (and may indeed have had the privilege of knowing what an AP score was before they got to college registration). The same can be said for a school close enough to a college or community college to take advanced classes there.

    Even aside from the classes available, there’s the attitude of teachers. On our first day of physics class my senior year, the teacher said “I’m not going to teach this class with any math because most of you won’t be taking college physics anyway so you don’t need it). Despite having been read to as a child, having a house full of books, and two parents who started college (and one who finished) I still arrived at college utterly convinced that I wasn’t prepared for the hard sciences and should avoid them altogether.

    There also seems to be sort of an assumed base-line of privilege that’s being assumed by this list. Forget family vacations staying in hotels, what about whether your family even took vacations. Asking whether you had a credit card assumes that your parents probably did. Same with the car and TV questions. And so on.

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  17. I grew up in France, so, some items in this list do not apply (“no”) but that doesn’t mean they should count as negatives. For instance, college was free (thank goodness). Also, living in a rented apartment was/is a common occurrence.
    All in all, my mother-headed family was low on economic capital (yeah, we were poor), but scored high on cultural capital (to make a very loose use of Bourdieu’s concepts): my mother was the first woman in vet school in the 1950s and her parents were both school teachers. We had books at home and public library cards. Reading was encouraged. In a country life France, maybe, just maybe, cultural capital mattered more than economic capital since free college allowed access to higher education for me and my 8 impoverished siblings.
    Just my 2 cents.

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  18. I’m obsessing about the “original art” item. If my television is to be believed, the Starving Artists will be at the local Holiday Inn soon. With a bulk purchase, I could increase the level of privilege for everyone on my block in one fell swoop.

    I’m joking, of course, but my comment is related to Radio Free Newport’s comment about the types of books your family owns.

    I think the deficits a person faces depend most on whether the secret handshake in his/her desired career requires a certain level/type of taste and cultural literacy. Of course, there are some deficits that can destroy credibility across many fields (ungrammatical speech, for example).

    The cultivation of taste allows for more subtle distinctions, which gets the conversation back around to Fussell and Bourdieu. And possibly those wacky ads in the personals in the NY Review of Books. My favorite current one “loves film, theater, NGOs, papadums, fresh lichees.”

    In a lot of corporate settings, however, knowing a papadum from an NGO is pretty irrelevant and lots of execs don’t read anything except work stuff and business books. You might need to know your woods from your irons, though. (I have a friend who would cheekily mimic bowling anytime a coworker practiced his golf swing in her office.)

    There may be no single list to measure all this stuff, but Barratt’s site is a good start to get students thinking about it. The things that are “missing” could maybe be used to round out the discussion.

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  19. I am perplexed by the “alpha-beta” comparison. You can not say that beta is ‘probably’ smarter than alpha. Isn’t that some form of reverse snobbery? Maybe beta naturally takes tests better. Maybe alpha’s parents were divorcing. Is it not the job of a social scientist to find as many ways as possible to explain away a finding? This list is problematic in a bunch of ways like someone mentioned, by assigning equal value to different aspects of privilege.

    I am black PhD student who scored 30. I’m still a black woman, and because most people *assume* I would score differently, I’ve had a host of other problems in graduate school. Racism doesn’t care whether I went to sleep away camp every year, LOL.

    Moreover, what do we get from playing “I only scored 1 and *I* made it to graduate school so I must be so smart game”? Seems silly.

    I like the concept though, we just need a better measure.

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  20. cdot1: I look above and I don’t see where anyone has said anything like, “I scored a [low score] and made it to [social location] so I must be so smart.” Nonetheless, I can imagine where the idea of pride of accomplishment among those from low socioeconomic backgrounds might “seem silly” to someone who scored a 30 on the list, though.

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  21. cdot1 Of course, scoring 30 and being (presumably) economically & educationally privileged does not make you any less Black nor protect you from racial discrimination. But the effect of economic & educational privilege is real. The “maybe s/he does not take tests well” should apply equally to Beta as to Alpha. If all you have to go on is the given information, you have to bet on Beta. In the example I create in class, Alpha has had enrichment classes and a special test-preparation course for the SAT, so I really rig the case. It is harder for students to understand the more subtle effects of class. Standardized tests are heavily slanted towards vocabulary. Children of the educated elite can pick up vocabulary and sentence structures in home conversations that other children have to study to learn. Less advantaged children CAN learn it, of course, but they have to make more effort to do so. (Children of immigrants or others who do not fluently speak educated English are similarly handicapped.) There is no question that, net of background and given only the kind of incomplete information you have when assessing college applicants, if you had to predict, Beta is a better bet for overall smartness.

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  22. As a statistical aside, the alpha-beta example is often confused with a separate issue, which is that if two people come from groups that have different mean test scores but score the same on a single test, it’s actually the person from the group with the *higher* average score that you would bet on to score higher if they took the same test again the next day. This is because the existence of a tie among groups with different means is more likely to occur in the case where you have random measurement error helping the person in the lower group and hurting the person in the higher group. It might seem like an arcane point but has certain implications for expectations about improvement for programs in which scores on single tests are used as a cutoff, etc.. For the hypothetical example of the effect of investing in two people from different groups with the same score, the idea that the person from the lower group will show more improvement upon investment is only true if the effect of equalizing privilege is enough to offset any measurement error effect that led the pair to be equal to begin with.

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  23. I am not saying not to have pride in your accomplishments. I am just saying should I *not* have pride because my parents valued education for me, and did things such as read to me, etc.? You don’t know how hard my family worked to get me to a 30. People should not have to apologize for what their parents did or *did not* do. I realize that society often punishes people for the latter. If you didn’t grow up with books in the home, and you made it, wonderful. If I did, and we’re in the same place, what does that mean?–other than that we both decided to do what we needed to do the be in the academy? I don’t think it means you’re a better “bet”. I very much understand the effects of class and privilege & I didn’t say they didn’t matter. The point is, you are assuming a ton– you don’t know if my family hit the lottery, you don’t know if I spent the first portion of my life in a housing project. Your tone reeks of reverse snobbery.

    I would argue the problem with those who have privilege is when they don’t acknowledge it, which is what I think olderwoman was getting at by conducting such an exercise with her class, I just don’t necessarily agree with the example.

    I understand your point about random measurement error, and the two groups– the example was drawn from two people in one group. I generally don’t believe in “betting” on people based on tests. I study the achievement gap– I don’t think an SAT score and grades get at anybody’s overall “smartness”–I tutored kids for the SAT–and could improve their scores by 100 point by teaching test taking skills. Perhaps that should have been the main point I emphasized. Beta is not a bet for overall smartness in your example, Beta is a better “bet” for being fluent in mainstream culture or the vocabulary of the privileged. If this is predictive of something we care about, ok.

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  24. cdot1 Now I see your concern. Of course you should have pride in your accomplishments, and pride in parents who work hard to nurture you and give you educational advantages in the face of their own obstacles. Many people from privileged backgrounds goof off and never accomplish anything. Perhaps it will clarify if I explain that the exercise is part of a lecture explaining the “factor in individual disadvantage” logic in college admissions, where overcoming disadvantage is, itself, considered a merit factor.

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  25. cdot1: I agree absolutely that no one should have to apologize for what their parents did or did not do. I guess what I don’t see is where anyone above is asking for such an apology. Myself, I admitted to feeling pride, and I don’t think why I would feel pride is at all silly. Where that pride would be silly would be if it was blind to advantages I did/do have, or if it was a kind of pride that implied that other people’s pride in whatever they’ve done for whatever reasons they feel pride was somehow less deserving than my or anyone else’s own feelings. If anything I have said seems to imply that, it was emphatically not my intent.

    I agree also that it is important for people to be cognizant and reflective about the privileges they have enjoyed and how experiences might be different for others who did not enjoy those privileges. I don’t like when the idea of cognizant and reflective morphs into the idea that people should experience their reflections on privilege via the emotion of guilt, and I think that’s consistent with your own view about these things not being something people should be expected to apologize for.

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  26. I see. Also there can be a downside to privilege. Margaret Beale Spencer’s Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory gives a way of looking at it from the Human Development side.

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  27. My brother once tried to convince me that I should feel more proud of getting into a fancy-pants grad school because he used the 18 months we were living off government payments and charity as a starting point. I think this meme demonstrates why I disagreed, though; I scored 20-22, depending on interpretation.

    If the meme just asked about economic factors, I probably wouldn’t have scored so highly, but my parents went beyond their means (and put a lot of time into finding free/cheap alternatives) to provide us with as many of these things as they could, specifically because they wanted us to have the advantages of privilege. Having a parent who knows how privilege works is obviously a pretty big privilege to begin with.

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