The Power Elite

Thursday, July 2, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

It’s hard to get to know the rich. Gaining insight into how they think, act, behave is much harder to do, since in general they maintain the highest levels of privacy.

This is a well-known fact in social science research, and it leads to a preponderance of studies examining poor folks rather than rich ones. Why do we (think we) know so much more about the “truly disadvantaged,” the "unmarried mothers with children," the "children of the slum"? Quite simply, because they let the public (and researchers) in. Open to questions, sometimes flattered by or at least welcoming the attention, in need of the monetary incentives offered, and often lacking the presumption that inquiry will lead to destruction—for how could things get any worse?

In contrast, it’s rare to find a rich ethnography of the elite. Sure, there are a handful—but they are notable for the researcher’s ability to “study up”—to get those higher in the power structure to consent to questions.

So, why be surprised that Elyse Ashburn reports in today’s Chronicle, the private universities won’t let the sunshine in? Of course they won’t. That’s part of maintaining their elite aura, the mysterious glow that attracts students and families and leads them to believe that for the right sum, magical postsecondary dust will imbue them with super-human earning power.

This is precisely how inequality is maintained, and the elite of any kind will work to make it happen. The only way to change the situation is to begin to dismantle the entire apparatus, one that allows different rules for different schools and different kids, based on their funding mechanisms. Will that ever happen? I doubt it. For the rich, too much is at stake.