not a squirt in the eye

The NY Times covers a conference on elites and features Scatterplot’s own Shamus Khan, including a photo with Sudhir Venkatesh and Dorian Warren set in front of the requisite bookcase (are those books arranged by cover colour, or is it just me?). It’s a good, if shallow, article on the idea of studying elites instead of poor, and even pays some attention to how to define elites and how to approach the problem of the role of elites in inequality.

Just as I was feeling impressed that the Times would care about these issues, I began to get uneasy that this article was about to deliver these fine scholars into the clutches of Glenn Beck, who is about to develop a new theory of how the socialists are taking over the country by attacking the elites, featuring in particular that photo of men of color in dashing suits who are going to be in charge after they have taken all your money away with their wealth redistribution schemes.

Shamus, are you worried?

6 thoughts on “not a squirt in the eye”

  1. Thanks for the plug, Tina! So, a little back story:

    (1) this wasn’t really a conference. Instead, it was an attempt to convene a research network. So people didn’t really give papers, though they did talk about ideas. It wasn’t open to the public, and it was set up to (hopefully) create some inertia for future conferences once a network of scholars was constructed.

    (2) The Times found out about this because the journalist who writes the “Wealth Matters” column kept coming across people who went to St. Paul’s (the boarding school my book is about) and wanted to learn more about it. He found out about my book, then me, and then through our conversations I invited him to the meeting.

    (3) Through this relationship I talked with the journalist A LOT about the aims of the conference. I sent him the invitation where I framed the justification for convening the network. I sent him a grant application I was writing. I even sent him a very short “executive summary” that I felt he could use for the article. I worked really hard on managing the information. In particular, I emphasized the puzzle more than the problem. So the puzzle, to my mind (and of my own work), is to explain how it is that over the last 40 years social institutions have opened — women are out-performing men in college, Columbia is now a majority minority institution, etc. — while economically, they are more closed than ever. In short, why the increase in inequality under these conditions? I talked to him about the fact that it was wealth, not poverty, that largely explains these phenomena. But I spent A LOT of time, I mean A LOT talking about inequality as relational. He picked up on some of this. But seemed to be more interested in talking about how novel it all was.

    4.) Was I worried? Yes. Especially when I saw the title. I hadn’t thought about the issue you raise until that moment. I was the main organizer of this conference. Dorian Warren joined me. And Sudhir is the head of ISERP — the major social science institute here that helped fund this initial meeting. But when I first saw the picture and title together, I thought, “oh boy, where is this going?” There are some odd quotes in there. My own pepper spray one is strangely out of context. I was explaining how people can make decisions that are not purposefully exclusionary or are not attempts to keep others down but where the consequences can be just that. But overall, I feel pretty good about how Paul Sullivan covered us.

    Some time soon perhaps I’ll write a longer post on what I learned about managing information with journalists.


    1. The books by color thing – why? I should say that it looks nice and is better than my arrangement of newest books go into the nearest open space approach.


      1. We do this at home, too (I first learned about it from Mary Nell Trautner), and find that it makes it really easy to find a book.

        It might just be the way that my brain works, but it’s easy to remember the color of a book and then to find it among other of that color – certainly much easier than finding it in a wall of books or trying to sort all our books by author. It also adds interest to the built-ins, like a piece of artwork (although ours aren’t nearly as well organized as Sudhir’s seem to be).


  2. Shakha, I think you did a great job prepping (pardon the pun) so the reporter understood your frame. Relational! Yes!

    Ironic that the next day, the NYT announces: Scholars Return to ‘Culture of Poverty’ Ideas – I know the NYT is too big to … cohere … but it’s too bad that writer didn’t take a cue from Sullivan’s piece.


  3. Between the article about elites and the one the next day about culture of poverty, it was a banner week for sociology! (Plus, there was an editorial on income inequality in the business section.)

    Although we can always hope for more nuance and depth in news articles, it must be challenging for reporters to write relatively short articles on highly specialized topics for audiences without much specialized knowledge. I’m just happy to see that they’re trying to cover these topics.


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