Privilege: How Society's Elite Are Made

I’ve spent two decades studying the very poor, and only a few years studying the very rich. One common question that people ask me is, “Do the poor and rich differ that much– except for the fact that one has more money?” I do find similarities, some surprising. For example, neither the very poor nor the ultra-wealthy (whom I’ve only recently observed) define their lives via “work.” One can’t find a job, the other doesn’t need a job. For me, a middle-class person, work is one of the core anchors of my identity. My colleague Shamus Khan has written a fascinating book about the making of our wealthiest citizens. Privilege is his sociological study-cum-reported memoir on going back as a teacher nine years after graduating from St. Paul’s School, perhaps the leading prep school in the country. It is one of the few in-depth looks behind the curtain at the making of the elite. I recommend the book, and here are some thoughts from Shamus as part of my Q&A with him.

Venkatesh: Do we need an “elite” or “privileged” class in America? What are the benefits to a society? And, do we in fact have an aristocracy?

Khan: So, this is a hard question to answer. Because whether or not we need elites, we’ll always have them around. Elites are not good, they just are. But they certainly can be bad [like] when they control a large or increasing share of wealth or power, and they’re worse when they are fairly stagnant. Our American elite are getting more and more powerful (the rich getting rich, not the poor getting poorer, drives inequality) and they seem to be more stagnant. So in my view we increasingly have the worst kind of elite. Since we’re never going to get rid of elites, the trick is to ensure that they aren’t so powerful that they limit social mobility. The easiest way to do this is to limit their overall economic power.  Almost all the national income gains over the last 40 years have gone to the richest 5 percent of Americans. If you think that only the top 5 percent of American earners have become more productive or been the sole producers of value, you don’t understand how an economy works. Elites have used their power to extract a greater and greater share of the national wealth. And that must be addressed.

Venkatesh: Was it hard to penetrate this insular world? You were a student and then you returned to teach. What were the challenges you faced in terms of managing your identity?

Khan: To be honest, it was surprisingly easy to go back to St. Paul’s. I’m not one of those people for whom the best time in their life was high school. Far from it. So it’s not as if going back to St. Paul’s was like returning to my glory days. But there is something about a place like St. Paul’s — or any exclusive space — that gets inside you. And even if you struggle with that, returning to such a place is returning to something familiar. But this was also dangerous. I was there as a researcher. And I needed to maintain a research orientation. But this is a challenge for any kind of ethnographic research. Our aim is to intimately know the lives of our research subjects. To do that we have to become part of their lives. And so with good ethnographic work, the researchers themselves become an object of analysis. Reflexivity is required. This doesn’t mean a kind of self-indulgent soul searching. But it does mean that for social scientists we must recognize that we’re part of the same processes we analyze.

Venkatesh: The dormitories at St Paul’s School don’t have locks on the doors. Why is that? Is there a particular attitude towards crime and social order that is part of the socialization of elite youth at the school?

Khan: When I was a student at St. Paul’s, one of the first things I learned was NEVER to knock on a fellow dorm mate’s door. Why? Because if someone knocks on your door you know it’s a teacher, and if you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, you should stop right away. But beyond that, not having locks conveys just how much trust and community there is at a place like St. Paul’s. The school works hard to be like a family. And families don’t put locks on their doors; they trust one another. This is a really powerful idea. It’s something admirable that the school tries to instill in its students. And it creates a deep bond between the students, along with the suggestion that those in your family (or class) can be trusted. More interestingly still, when things do start disappearing in a dorm (usually small items — like candy bars, pizza, or other food), it’s rare that the faculty will get involved. Students police one another. If they figure out who’s stealing, they socially isolate that person — which in a small high school of around 500 kids is incredibly painful. External authority doesn’t really get invoked. You could certainly think about this as part of the way that elites learn to subject themselves to their own rules, and to avoid external imposition of rules upon them.

Venkatesh: If there were features of the school that could be exported to less privileged environments in order to produce success, what might they be– and do you think it is feasible to adopt such attributes in order to achieve success?

Photo: iStockphoto

Khan: I often describe elite kids as having “well-fed child syndrome.” The idea is simple enough: they’re told not about their limits, but their capacities. They get a sense of the world not as rules and regulations, but instead as an open terrain to be negotiated. Whereas the experience for a lot of disadvantaged kids is that of “you can’t” — of the limits placed upon you, the rules you have to follow, and the punishments likely to be laid down on you, the experience at St. Paul’s is that “you can.” This is a really empowering way to treat children. This ethic — this sense of potential and an open world before you — helps with success. But it’s important to remember just how different a school like St. Paul’s is from less privileged environments. Whereas the average school spends around $9000 per pupil, St. Paul’s spends around ten times that. And no amount of psychic support will help the less privileged even come near competing when investments at St. Paul’s are 10 to 1. So while we could think about the best practices of a great school like St. Paul’s, we shouldn’t be naive about how much money is simply buying advantages for people.

Venkatesh: How do the students think about themselves as members of the “elite”? Do they embrace this notion, resist it…? And, what is their version of the social contract?

Khan: While the word “elite” can be a bad word for a lot of people, at St. Paul’s, it’s a good one. The view from St. Paul’s is that if you’re going to have an elite, you’d want an institution dedicated to “doing good” to help mold them in a moral way. So the school often embraces the idea of an “elite.” That means the kids also think of themselves this way. But importantly, they think of themselves as a deserving elite. The view is that of a meritocracy: that the students at the school are among the best of the best. As for the social contract, I’m not sure that students think very much about this. Remember that these are high school kids. They’re still figuring themselves out, and to suggest that they should have high ideas about things like a social contract is a little unfair. But still, I will say that thinking of themselves as a deserving elite can have consequences. In particular, the flip side to the idea that you deserve your advantaged position is often that others similarly deserve their disadvantages. St. Paul’s fights against this quite vehemently. But the tension between the explanation of your own success and the failures of others is one that is difficult to escape.


Will definitely be reading this one. Sounds fascinating!

Gregory Sadler

Very interesting piece. Two questions that occur to me, based on the typical conversations and controversies I often get into about elites.

First: often elites are focused upon by non-elites through a political lens. When it comes to income and property, the elites are often claimed to be conservatives or neo-cons. When it comes to access to or control over governmental resources, the elites are often claimed to be liberals. Looking at contributions to political parties and candidates seems to tell a mixed story. Is there a decided tilt in the political spectrum to the elite, as you are construing it?

Second: might we not have to distinguish several different though overlapping elites? There is the power of wealth, but access to government -- occupying positions, working one's way up through various agencies, getting placed on boards, committees, etc.-- is also a means of acquiring and using power. There are other elites who exercise other sorts of power, for instance as opinion formers and leaders, e.g. journalists. One feature of elites, which you frame as a danger, is more or less blocking or hampering social mobility for non-elites. Each of the three modalities I've just mentioned does seem to present such a problem of mobility.


Joel Upchurch

This article seems to be doing some tricky things with a definition of elite. At first their definition of elite seems to be a small class nonworking coupon clippers. Then they seem to switch to defining elite as 5% of the population. They seem to be defining elite as 15 million people in the United States. That doesn't really include that many coupon clippers. It would actually include almost all the working professionals in United States. Doctors working 80 hours a week in the hospital, many be an elite, but they hardly qualify as members of the idle rich.


"And families don’t put locks on their doors; they trust one another."

Huh? Perhaps among the so-called elite this is so, but if I ever needed evidence of the author's isolation from what I've seen of mainstream society, that would more than suffice :-)

I also have to wonder what exactly constitutes an elite? Inherited wealth? Despite having none, I managed to graduate from a pretty elite school (located on Parris Island :-)), and later become a member of the technological elite. So why are these elites more or less elite than the prep school elite?


“And families don’t put locks on their doors; they trust one another.”

And by default this implies that their campus or dorm building is guarded by paid armed security so they never have a concept of personal fear.

They never experience personal fear since they are always surrounded by a security cordon of some sort- gated and guarded housing communities, driven to work etc by full time security details, limited access guarded office buildings, ultra-private social events, quasi-public political events (which are actually in fact limited access private events) guarded by public police forces, etc


"Since we’re never going to get rid of elites, the trick is to ensure that they aren’t so powerful that they limit social mobility. The easiest way to do this is to limit their overall economic power."

No doubt the answer to this concentration of "power" would be conferring even greater power to an ever-sprawling, increasingly unaccountable, central government. (And such government, once given its required rents, will collude with the elites or at least leave the elites alone.) No, thanks.

Also, following Khan's prescription (as I would not), one wonders if the power that needs curtailing in Khan's eyes would include that of institutions founded and funded by the elites. Should the Ivy League schools and large foundations (like the Ford Foundations) be taxed severely to curb their perpetual influence on our society? Might the Ivy Leagues schools be seen as a bottleneck to social mobility--a tool for the elite to slow the progress of the ambitious who might otherwise more readily advance?

So many of the limitations imposed upon "economic power" seem to have the intention or effect of preventing pretenders from displacing the existing elite. More economic freedom for all--not less for a few--would seem a better solution.

I did not see any discussion in the interview of the changes in the composition of the elite (or the poor) over time. Its much easier to speak of the perpetuation of a monolithic "elite" than a collection of individuals who share one key statistic. Does the analysis change based upon the frequency and severity of turnover among the elite?



There is one point I'm totally unclear on here which will determine whether I spend time on this book. Is there any science here or is this basically some sort of biography? From the interview it doesn't look good, no hint of any rigorous evidence for his views just a bunch of anecdotes and assertions.

Shamus Khan

I'm impressed with the responses from the freakanomics readers -- pointing to some of the areas of my ideas that require some further elaboration.

So, first, what do I mean by the elite? There isn’t “an elite” -- a kind of ruling cabal that is the stuff of conspiracy theory. Instead, there are lots of different kinds of elites. I define elites as those who have vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource. And that resource must have transferable value. So if my resource is, say, a kind of human capital where I'm the greatest person on earth at the YoYo, that resource doesn't have the exchange value that if I were, say, the greatest basketball player. And under my definition, it would be a stretch to call the yoyo person an elite (or at best, they'd be a very low-level one). The conversion rates of different kinds of capital vary, and they matter.

So I think that part of the problem with our elites is that they are quite strictly organized, with wealth being incredibly dominant. But we could have far more competition within elites (political, cultural, social elites competing for power with economic elites). Such competition would both decrease the power of the American elite, and, likely increase its circulation (this is the pluralist idea). Not all constraints upon elites have to be state driven. But nor would I concede that state-driven constraints on elites are always bad. One of the greatest periods of job growth in the US (1960s) happened when the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest bracket (those making over about $1.2 million/year) was 91%.

The main argument of the book is that elites have changed considerably over the last 40 years. The title, "Privilege" suggests a move away from the entitlements of past elites toward a new logic. The "new elite" exist in environments that are much more diverse -- my own institution is majority minority, for example. But as access to institutions like the Ivy League has increased, so has inequality. I find that an interesting puzzle, and one I think through in the book and in my work more broadly.



If wealth, pure and simple, creates this elite, then a quick look through the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans ought to suggest that elitism is very much not a generational thing. The mega-rich today - the founders of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Oracle, Facebook, or the first-generation heirs of WalMart - mostly did not come from significantly wealthy backgrounds. You've got to go down to #153 before you hit a name like Rockefeller - and even Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey come in ahead of that.

It seems that there's almost a three-tier system of wealth. At the top are the mega-rich, who mostly made their own money. In the middle are the merely rich, split between the trust-fund babies who make up your "elite", and the Microsoft Millionaire types. And finally we have what we might call the working rich, doctors & other professionals with a high net worth accumulated over a well-paid working career.

The upshot is that this elite seems to be very open to new membership at top, bottom, and middle. Which poses an interesting question: how much of the wealth of the rich is old money, and how much is new?



From my (non-American) point of view, the unifying theme of the Bush Jr presidency was "rules apply to other people, not to us." (The president is not constrained by the Geneva convention. If we declare someone an 'enemy combatant', they have no constitutional rights. We can have international courts to try crimes against humanity, but only if Americans are exempt. Other countries have to obey UN resolutions that they don't like, but we can pick and choose. Etc.)

This resonates with statements like "elites learn to subject themselves to their own rules, and to avoid external imposition of rules upon them. "

Does this seem like a reasonable analysis to others?


Bush? And, Obama represents the working man?....ah! Give me a break...


Oh, I'm sure he is not an Obama fan either, being non-American and all.


I wonder if the emphasis on "you can" instead of "you can't" is one of the reasons the elite leaders of our largest financial institutions felt so little compunction about playing hard and fast with the well-being of Americans?

The acceptance, however subtle, of the Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch--the man who is not bound by the laws, moral or otherwise, of "lesser" beings--can be dangerous to the well-being of society (see my my opening sentence).

While I am utterly assured that this is not the intent of St. Paul's (certainly not with that apostolic name!), all parents and teachers walk a fine line between making their children feel like they can take flight if they so choose...and causing them to understand the limitations that morality, law, and society rightfully draw in order to protect civilization. It sounds as if St. Paul's, for all their good intentions, may be only telling their charges the "good news," and not the somewhat less happy news that there are things you should not, must not, do.



"...the elite leaders of our largest financial institutions..."

Which begs the question: what fraction of those elite leaders were actually educated in those elite schools? To pick a particularly egregious example, note that Bernie Madoff was the son of a plumber who attended public high school, and started his investment business with a relatively small amount of money saved from working blue-collar jobs...