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What Does it Mean to “Get Ahead” in Life?

In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to think about what we really mean when we ask, “what are my chances of getting ahead in life?”

What are my chances of getting ahead? That’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point. But before you get that answer, you have to tell me what you mean by “get ahead”; ahead of whom? Or maybe a better question is, get ahead in what?

If you stop and think about it, the social world is a divided one. Families are broken up into children, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on. Your school is comprised of administrators, teachers, and students (who we further break down into freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors). Businesses have boards of directors, CEOs, vice presidents of this and that, managers, and entry level employees.

But the social world isn’t just divided, it’s hierarchical. Meaning that we rank order these social positions with those at the top commanding the most power, opportunities, and resources compared to those below them. Teachers have the power to grade students. Graduating seniors, who typically get to register first, have a greater opportunity to get into the classes they want. And CEOs have the greatest access to a company’s resources.

Social Hierarchies All Around Us

Social stratification is a field of sociological research that identifies social hierarchies and studies how power, opportunities, and resources are distributed within that hierarchy. Social hierarchies are rank ordered networks of relationships. Families, schools, and corporations are all social hierarchies. Your rank within a social hierarchy is based on the social assets you possess.

A social asset can be anything that allows an individual to lay claim to a particular spot within a social hierarchy. I am a parent and that status is a social asset that places me above my daughter within my family’s social hierarchy. The number of completed credit hours is the social asset that allows students to claim their status as a freshmen, sophomore, junior, or senior. Within a company, the job title of middle manager is a social asset that affords its owner the ability to give orders to those below him or her, but not to those above. Some social assets must be earned (e.g. a bachelor’s degree), while others are obtained at birth (e.g. your age, gender, race, citizenship, etc.).

Social Hierarchies From Simple to Complex

This second type of social asset, the ones you’re born with, force us to think of social hierarchies as being multidimensional (which sounds fancy, but stay with me). You see, we do not live in a world of isolated hierarchies, but rather we live in a world with hierarchies of hierarchies (I know, I know, please stay with me). This is easy to see if we compare two people who each hold the same social asset.

For instance, take two sociology professors; Dr. Pugh and Dr. Carrion. Both hold the same social asset, a PhD in sociology. However, this is just one of many social assets each possesses. Dr. Pugh is a young African American male who had his college education paid for by his wealthy parents. Dr. Carrion is a middle aged white woman from a lower income family who is still paying off the student loans that made it possible for her to get through school.

As an African American, Dr. Pugh will have to endure racial prejudice and discrimination. Dr. Carrion, on the other hand, won’t likely have to worry about that. However, as a male, Dr. Pugh won’t face nearly as much sexism as Dr. Carrion will. And I’m not being hypothetical here. Research has shown that students in the same online class, gave their teacher lower ratings when they were tricked into thinking he was a female professor (MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt 2014). Further research suggests that students are more likely to question the credibility, authority, and competency of teachers of color and specifically female teachers of color than when their professors are white males (Pittman 2010; Reid 2010).

Families, schools, and corporations are all examples of social hierarchies, but within each of these, larger social hierarchies are also in play (e.g. the hierarchies of racism, sexism, and other hierarchies based on social assets obtained at birth). Life isn’t lived in one social hierarchy at at time, but rather each of us lives at the intersection of multiple social hierarchies. To understand a single social hierarchy is simple, but to understand social stratification is to see how many social hierarchies operate simultaneously to create social inequality.

What It Really Means to “Get Ahead”

When we ask, “what are my chances of getting ahead in life,” what we are really asking is, what are my chances of moving up the social hierarchy? For the most part, “getting ahead” in life means acquiring more social assets. And as college students you wouldn’t know anyone who’s trying to move up the social hierarchy by acquiring social assets, now would you?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Come up with a list of three forms of social hierarchy that were not discussed in this reading. Explain each one.
  2. What are some other examples of social assets that people use to distinguish themselves in a particular spot in a social hierarchy? Come up with at least three examples and explain them.
  3. The author of this article makes the point that, “Life isn’t lived in one social hierarchy at at time, but rather each of us lives at the intersection of multiple social hierarchies.” Describe in your own words how this fact could play out in someone’s daily life.
  4. If student ratings of professors have been shown to have racial and gender biases, do you think colleges and universities should continue to use them? What changes could be made to limit the effects of these biases?

Image by Scott Maxwell via Flickr