Uncommon Sense

Privilege, with Shamus Khan

March 15, 2024 Shamus Khan Season 3 Episode 1
Uncommon Sense
Privilege, with Shamus Khan
Show Notes Transcript

What does privilege look like today? How do the advantaged perform “ease”? And why do some of us feel at home in elite spaces, while others feel awkward? Princeton sociologist Shamus Khan joins Uncommon Sense to reflect on elites, entitlement and more. Reminding us that “poor people are not why there’s inequality; rich people are why there’s inequality”, he highlights the importance of studying elites for studying inequality, as the gap between the two grows.

Being the author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School (2011), Shamus tells Rosie and Alexis about how the way elites justify and see their position has shifted – and how a disability studies perspective helps us to cast a critical eye on the “ease” with which the few seem to nimbly navigate elite institutions. What seems like some of us “have it” and others “just don’t” is, suggests Shamus, socially produced – and what appears to be a “flat” and open world, ripe for the bold to seize, is really far more complex.

Plus: why might people who share the same knowledge be valued differently when that knowledge is held in different – racialised, minoritised – bodies? Also: why TV shows and movies about elites don’t stop at Saltburn, Succession and The Kardashians?

Guest: Shamus Khan
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker

Find more about Uncommon Sense

Episode Resources

From The Sociological Review

By Shamus Khan

Further reading

  • “Flexible Citizenship” – A. Ong
  • “Space Invaders” – N. Puwar
  • “Learning to Labour” – P. Willis
  • “Understanding audience segmentation” – R. Peterson
  • “Reality Television and Class” – B. Skeggs, H. Wood
  • “‘Oh goodness, I am watching reality TV’: How methods make class in audience research” – B. Skeggs, N. Thumim, H. Wood
  • “Capital in the 21st Century” – T. Piketty

Read more about  Shey O’Brien, Fabien Acconomoti, Pierre Bourdieu and Frantz Fanon.

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Rosie Hancock  0:05 
Hi, I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.

Alexis Hieu Truong  0:08 
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong, in Ottawa/Gatineau Canada. And welcome back to Uncommon Sense from the Sociological Review foundation. It's where we take everyday terms that seem pretty simple, things that we might use in everyday life, like, say – success, anxiety, or the idea of good tastes – and kind of pause to see them more critically, and to give them a sociological twist.

Rosie Hancock  0:31 
Today we're looking at privilege, a word that can kind of be used like this sort of humble badge of honour, like you're winning an Oscar and you're saying "I'm so privileged to collaborate with this person" but it's also sometimes an accusation, if you say someone only got a job because of their extreme privilege, you know, something that's fiercely rejected with recourse to talk of innate talent or hard work or both personal struggle and the like. And I think, you know, films and TV shows that appear to explore it that just keep coming – like saltburn was massive – but it's also something people get very uncomfortable talking about, and increasingly so in a world where signs of privilege can feel harder to read than they once were, you know, thinking here about tech execs in their hoodies or UK politicians speaking estuary English and the rise of the nimble cultural omnivore, which we may come back to later.

Alexis Hieu Truong  1:28 
Well today, we're talking privilege with someone whose work is all about culture, inequality, gender and elites. He is Shamus Khan, Willard Thorp Professor of Sociology and American studies at Princeton University. And his books include 'Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School' a part memoir, part ethnography of the boarding school he himself attended, as well as 'Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus' co authored with Jennifer Hirsch.

Rosie Hancock  1:58  
Shamus, hello. And it feels only right to say that it's our privilege to be with you. And at the time that we're talking to you today, you're in Bogota, Colombia. Yes. Do you have any observations on privilege inequality so far?

Shamus Khan  2:12 
T hank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be part of the conversation. Yes, I'm in Bogota, and my partner has family lives, here in Bogota so it's a trip we kind of make to visit them. I'm not sure I could make observations about here because my Spanish is not great and I'm not super integrated into Bogota society, the you know, the levels of inequality are just incredible. And you sort of see those as a consequence of a lot of American interventions here with the drug war, and all kinds of things and so it's interesting to walk the streets and feel both this kind of alien experience of not being super familiar with the place but also some degree as an American of responsibility for producing some of the things that you see around you.

Rosie Hancock  2:59 
Well, Shamus, you've spent years thinking about elites as a sociologist but before we get to all that can you tell us what your own relation to privilege was growing up?

Shamus Khan  3:09 
I grew up in a well off American family, my father was a surgeon, and my mother was a nurse. We weren't a family with intergenerational wealth because both of my parents immigrated to the US – my mother from Ireland, my dad from Pakistan – and both of them grew up in subsistence farming villages so, I remember when my dad's village got running water and electricity. My mom grew up in a house with no electricity and no running water. And so I have kind of have an – you know – a very classical American trajectory in terms of sort of the narrative of what the United States is like, which is to say, a place where people can come from nothing and become quite well off. And, you know, that certainly influenced my own experience growing up, as did going back to both Pakistan and Ireland.

Alexis Hieu Truong  3:57 
And you've since done a lot of work on the elites. Some might ask, if we want to study and reduce inequality, like, shouldn't we study people's experience of poverty instead? Could you explain to us your, your approach to that?

Shamus Khan  4:14 
Yeah, I'll say something provocative, which is that poverty has nothing to do with inequality. And that may seem, you know, like an absurd thing to say, but – you know – we should study poverty because we should be concerned about addressing the lives and experiences of poor people. And in order to do that, we need to know what the experiences of poor people are. But poor people are not why there's inequality, rich people are why there's inequality. And what we should recognise is that inequality is just a gap between two things. So you know, you kind of need a word before inequality, when you describe it, so you could have economic inequality and that would be sort of a gap between the economic positions of people within a society. You could have political inequality, which would be the gap between political influence. There are lots of types of inequality, you could have happiness inequality. And – you know – the questions of inequality are basically how big is the gap and what explains the gap? And not to get too sort of methodological and technical here but if we look to see why there is inequality, one of the things that we need to do to generate an explanation is to look at things that change, right. So if something doesn't change, it can't explain a new outcome. And, you know, particularly in the United States case, the position of the average American and the position of poor Americans hasn't really changed since 1967. You know, there'll be people who would argue like, no, of course, it's changed by 10%, or, you know, there's modest increases or decreases in different groups. But that's nothing in comparison to the position of the elite, which has gone up by 400%. Right, so the elites are the people whose position has changed and they're why the gap is getting bigger. And so as it turns out, elites are the ideal place to study inequality, particularly in today's society, there may be other societies where that's not the case. But today's US society and actually through a lot of the world, because they're the people whose position is changing – they're getting much richer – and other people are stuck in place.

Rosie Hancock  6:27 
So, it seems like the idea of thinking sort of relationally about inequality is really central and maybe also thinking about resources and how and whether they are recognised and valued.

Shamus Khan  6:38 

Rosie Hancock  6:39 
But – I mean – Shamus, talk about poverty and inequality is often focused on things like wealth and income but the notion of elites points to a lot more than just money alone, doesn't it? Could you, could you give us your definition of elites and explain how it draws on or maybe differs from earlier thinking in sociology?

Shamus Khan  7:00 
Sure – I mean – so I define elites as people with vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource where that resource has transferable value. So, let me kind of break that down a little bit.

Rosie Hancock  7:00 

Shamus Khan  7:00 
You know, vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource, that just means like, sometimes people have a lot of resources, like – just think of a bank account – people might have a lot of money in their bank account. But sometimes people occupy positions which give them an enormous amount of control over resources, where if you take them out of that position they don't have it anymore but when they're in the position it's really important. So as a faculty member and a professor when I occupy my position as a professor, I have a vastly disproportionate access to resources, in terms of the power relationship between me and my students. But when we exit the university – you know – that, that disappears a little bit. I mean, of course, I'm not so naive to think that it totally disappears but, you know, if, if we're – you know – years later, and the students no longer my student, my position doesn't really matter for the situation. And so it's important to recognise the times where people have possessions or positions that give them a lot of access to resources. And then – you know – the resources having transferable value is the idea that there are lots of forms of power in a society. And those forms of power have some degree of exchange rates with one another. I sometimes give the example of sports, there's someone out there who's like the world's greatest person at taking a jump shot in basketball. And that's a very valuable resource. There's also someone out there who is the world's greatest person with yo-yo – right? – like he was really, really good, like using a yo-yo. And that's not a transferable resource, you can't convert the disproportionate skill into an outcome that's economic. And so one of the things that we need to look at when studying elites is like, what is the exchange value for particular kinds of skills, qualities, etc, with other things, and you know, I think of myself as someone who has really poor vision – and you know – I've been able to have a certain high degree of exchange value for the academic work I do for outcomes. But you know, that wouldn't have been the case 300 years ago before sociology existed or where access to classes would have been difficult. And what that helps us see is that there's not necessarily something inherent in the quality of a person that produces the outcome. It's about the match between that person and then some kind of social context. And so this helps us understand that elites are not just the most talented people in a society, what they are, are people who you happen to occupy a position or happen to have some kind of quality that's disproportionately rewarded at the period in time and in the physical location where they live.

Alexis Hieu Truong  10:12 
Those references to questions that exchange value of power of inequality that really seems we're firmly in the realm of the very late and very influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote about the idea of capital – including social or symbolic capital – and how it gets exchanged and consecrated as worth something or not as people interact with each other in what he called fields. But looking at beyond the West, there's a whole load of work looking at elites and inequality –correct? Is there anyone in particular who's inspired you? Or rather, any region beyond the global north you think we should learn from today?

Shamus Khan  10:55 
So when I wrote my first book - not really, and I think in my subsequent thinking, the answer would be most certain. I mean, one of the challenges with Bourdieu that he often doesn't think about things like race and gender. And – you know – he wrote one book called 'Masculine Domination' he was, in some ways, quite hostile to – you know – race, which is curious, given the experience of Algerians. And that actually makes me think about Fanon, as one of the thinkers, and I was sort of, I had finished my first book on privilege and was moving on to something else and met a group of people who were writing on Fanon at the time. And, you know, it's that kind of colonial intellectual tradition is very interesting, in part because it's, it's still grounded very much in like a Marxian understanding, which is to say, it would argue that like, I'm kind of wrong in talking about elites and that what I should talk about is an upper class. There's a group of people who talk about upper classes instead of elites and they really sort of emphasise this set of economic conditions. Fanon expands that hugely to think about – you know –colonial subjects – their drive towards political power and an analysis – least the beginnings of an analysis – of race within these. And that is super important because, you know, if you just think about resources, and you do it in a disembodied way, you get a lot wrong. So just an example of that, let's say we have an idea of cultural capital. So, cultural capital, this idea that knowing about cultural things as a resource, like money in your wallet. Well, you know, cultural capital, people can have the same amount of it but it can actually be worth different amounts, which is – you know – a weird idea. But it's not, you know, like, if I have $20 and you have $20, we both have $20. But if you and I share the same culture – but we're different embodied people – things could be really different for us. So think for a moment about like a white gay professor in the United States at the Ivy League, which is something that, you know, roughly describes me, versus a recent immigrant from Zimbabwe, who's black. And both of them making claims about knowing stuff about opera, whose knowledge is going to be more respected by others? In other words, like, you could have the same amount of cultural capital in terms of your knowledge about opera. But the actual value of the expression of that capital would be very different depending on whether or not other people receive it as something knowledgeable. That points to some of the limits of a Bourdieusian analysis and the importance of considering saying things like, you know, race, social position within a kind of global world and how that influences the impact or value of whether or not someone's likely to receive the thing that you know, in in a way that acknowledges its value. Overall, I would say, those insights that take a sort of racialized, gendered and global approach when layered onto Bourdieu, give us a kind of richer understanding than a straight Bourdieusian analysis would.

Rosie Hancock  14:24 
Thanks Shamus. I mean, some of the ideas you mentioned there on Michau and whether capital gets recognised depending on who carries it, remind me of the work of people like the anthropologist Aihwa Ong in the US or Nirmal Puwar in the UK, whose work has explored how certain say white male bodies are entitled to certain spaces while others are not and we're gonna put some references to that in our show notes. But let's now turn to the research you did at your former school, which is the prestigious Coed Boarding School St. Paul's in New Hampshire in the US which led to your book 'Privilege'. I know it was crucial to you to not just interview people, but to actually see how they went about their day, how they carried and presented themselves to each other and to you. Could you tell us simply what you aimed to do, what the time period was when you're doing this research?

Shamus Khan  15:19 
This was a book that I wrote as a graduate student – or the research I did as a graduate student – so it was my dissertation. 2005 was the was the year and I moved to St. Paul's, which is in Concord, New Hampshire. I got a position there, I was totally honest about what I was doing, I was talking about the making of elites. And you know, it's interesting that, you know, today people might say, like, oh, wow, I'm surprised they let you in but for places like St. Paul's, elite is not a bad word. So when I proposed to them studying elites, they thought, of course, yeah, we produce elites, that's kind of what our job is. I have this quote in the book from William F. Buckley, a conservative American thinker, who says 'it's not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule, that's what he's there for'. And that, in some ways, is the attitude of the school, like there's, it's kind of their job to produce elites and, you know, there's always going to be elites in society and they might as well produce them because they're going to do it in a in a moral way. So I told them that's what I was going to do, I offered to work for free, which was helpful to getting a job there. And, you know, I moved to this campus, which is beautiful, it has 500 students, over 100 buildings on 1000s of acres, a school that has a massive endowment. And it was a place that for a long time was known for training and raising and educating elite Americans. And so I was there really interested in studying, you know, power in America. So I actually initially had entitled the book, 'Learning to Rule' as a play off a book that really inspired me - Paul Willis'  'Learning to Labour'. Willis had written this book about how working class kids get working class jobs. And I was interested in writing a book about how rich kids got rich jobs in a perhaps less elegant way. But when I got there, I kind of saw a different world a little bit and so the book changed a good bit, once I started, actually, as you as you described, living with these students and seeing what their lives were like.

Rosie Hancock  17:27 
So you were there for that academic year and observed, among many other things, that it felt more socially integrated along racial lines than it had been, in your experience as a student there in the 90s. But you nonetheless observed a new kind of social split, yes?

Shamus Khan  17:43 
So you know, the demographics had changed a little bit this, the institution was a little more diverse, you know, it's 50-50, men and women. And I'm not sure I'm not going to say what the percentage of students of colour were because I don't really remember but it was, you know, relatively diverse for for an elite institution, certainly more so than, you know, the kind of Oxbridge context. And, you know, probably a third of the students receiving financial aid, so not everybody was really rich. But it was an extremely dramatic thing to see for me that the new form of segregation that had emerged and that new form of segregation was around rich people who thought that their families being affiliated with St. Paul's and having long histories of parents who attended the school was sufficient to explain their belonging in the institution and that those people basically all lived in one dorm together, they had been socially ostracised and they were seen as kind of illegitimate. And this ends up being a distinction I make between entitlement and privilege, so a entitlement – the kids who think, you know, the fact that they their family has had always gone to St. Paul's was enough to explain why they were there is a logic of entitlement, whereas everyone else had a logic of what I end up calling privilege.

Alexis Hieu Truong  19:07 
Also, there's this concept of 'ease' that is important here. Can you explain it a bit to us because I think it's a crucial point that ease is kind of anything but easy and I should say that from here has already kind of like we've mentioned, we're really talking broadly about the theme of privilege, not specifically about like your old school, which will have changed not only in the years, as you've mentioned, between going there and then studying it, but also in the more kind of like 10 years between your book and today.

Shamus Khan  19:43 
Yeah, so the concept of 'ease' I use in the book and it really is an adaptation of Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus' and Bourdieu's concept of habitus is that people's experiences imprint upon their bodies. So Bourdieu says the body is a memory pad and what he means by that is that, you know, if you spend time in particular locations that influences how you carry yourself and so I was interested in how it is that certain people feel really at home within institutions and certain people do not. And, you know, taking really directly from Bourdieu, the, you know, the idea was that some people spend a lot of time in elite institutions and that makes those institutions comfortable for them, like their living room. And other people don't spend any time in elite institutions and then end up in, and those institutions are not comfortable for them – it's not like their living room, it's like visiting the home of someone that like none of the furniture feels like you could even sit on it because it might break. And the sort of trick of ease drawing from Bourdieu and then, as I argue in 'Privilege', is that there are big differences in how people navigate these institutions but that since it's embodied, it just seems natural, it doesn't seem like some people are getting special access. So you know, the etymological origins of privilege are from the Latin privilegium – I took Latin in Greek for a very long time, which means private law. And so privilege, its origin is the idea that there are private laws for specific people who don't have to be subject to the public law. But to me, in my book, I was interested in like how some of the private law – the special rules that some people get to experience – like, they're not as obvious anymore, they're not as transparent. So you know, as an aristocrat, in France before the revolution, like you wanted to be an aristocrat because you didn't have to pay taxes. And this was a privilege, it was a private law – a law for you as a private individual that exempted you from all kinds of monetary obligations to the state, it was very obvious when people got this privilege. But ease as a concept helps us understand how privileges are kind of more and more hidden these days that those sorts of private exceptions actually just seem like individual talents. So to sort of unpack this a little like, it was more difficult I found for the girls and the boys to be at ease within the institution. And the reasons were kind of curious because the girls outperformed the boys as they did everywhere, in the United States in high school. But the reason it was harder for the girls than the boys was that it was harder to get into school, in the in the college and university for the girls and the boys, they were in a much more competitive environment. And so like, part of the logic of ease was acting like you didn't have to work that hard that you just like magically got high grades. And that was easier for the boys, because actually, like for them getting high grades came with higher rewards. Again, the explanation here is that like, if you look at high school students, girls far outperform boys and then when you look to colleges and universities, they have a very sort of deep commitment, many of the private ones that people want to go to, to a 50-50 gender balance. So like girls are just swimming in a more competitive pool. And because they are, it's not easy for them to be at ease, like they actually have to work harder. And that just made like girls never seem as brilliant or like, as naturally talented as boys were, you know, there were other instances with working class kids who really weren't at ease within the institution because, you know, when I've taken people to visit there, they say, like, 'Oh, my God, this must be where Harry Potter was based' and I was like 'no, no, that's England'. But like, it's true – it's sort of all these wood panelled, Gothic, beautiful buildings and like for some students walking into them, like it looks like their uncle's living room and for other students, it looks like a kind of place where if you touch anything, it would break and you would never be able to afford replacing it. And that influences whether or not people feel at ease within an institution. Now, if we think about this, just as individuals, like if someone is uneasy around us, we are also uncomfortable and are less likely to connect with them and so that lack of ease for working class students, like it influences their relationships with faculty and influences their sense of belonging. And so you know, what seems like some people have it and some people just don't is, you know, the argument of the book, like deeply socially produced.

Rosie Hancock  24:55 
Yeah, so to clarify, you talk about how whereas the logic of entitlement was linked to class position, the logic of privilege sees people thinking of their advantages of a product of what they individually do, rather than their family connections or money and it's therefore more slippery, as you say, to kind of get a hold of. And hearing you speak about ease, it really reminds me of some of our past episodes, so you know Joe Littler on success and meritocracy, Kareem Khubchandani on performance but also Irmak Karademir Hazir on taste and building on that, am I right that you essentially see today's elites also as being more omnivorous, seeing themselves as sort of fluidly moving across social boundaries, appreciating a wide range of cultural forms, and so on. It kind of seems like being a cultural maybe even a social omnivore isn't just extracurricular, it's not just sort of one of the aspects of being an elite, it's central to success in a more diverse and ostensibly more open society.

Shamus Khan  26:03 
Yeah, absolutely. What I'm drawing on here is this initially a concept from Peterson, who analysed the General Social Survey of the United States. So the General Social Survey is like a survey that we do in the US, that's like an attitude survey and in the 90s, they did a culture module for that survey. So it was like a module where they asked people about the music that they listened to. And Peterson analysed this data and found that wealthier people were more likely to like a wide range of genres of music than other groups of people. You know, this has come under a certain degree of attack, like it's an attitudinal survey, so it asks people like, do you listen to the following types of music? And people say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and, you know, you could imagine a rich person being like 'Yes, I'm, I'm open and interested in this' and they may not ever actually listen to any of that music. But I, you know, found this super interesting, because I thought, you know, the way that we think about elites is they build moats and fences around resources. So in sociology and economics, you think of this as opportunity hoarding and rents. So opportunity hoarding – there's an opportunity you hoard access to it. Rents - RENTS - is the idea that like you extract value or rent from your privileged access to a thing. So you know, this would mean like, I happen to know Milton and Shakespeare and you don't and that's why I'm more talented and qualified than you at things. And in the book 'Privilege', I sort of note how that logic has become far less sustainable. And this shift towards a sort of much more omnivorous versus exclusionary elite is incredibly important for understanding what's happening among elites today. That, you know, instead of knowing things that people don't know, and then, you know, regulating access to that knowledge, they pretend like the world is basically accessible – that things are available to all people, and they just happen to be the most talented ones who take advantage of our new open and flat world.

Alexis Hieu Truong  28:20 
Speaking of things like mobility and openness, can you tell us how your thinking on privilege has kind of developed since your book came out in 2011? And I understand you've been inspired by perspectives on disability studies.

Shamus Khan  28:34  
Yes, absolutely.

Alexis Hieu Truong  28:35 
I wonder whether you could elaborate on that, and perhaps also reflect on how that informs how you think about your own position as a senior academic?

Shamus Khan  28:45 
Yeah, well, the first question you asked is like, what are some of the things you observe about walking around Bogota? You know, one of the things that I have observed is curb cuts at intersections and ramps. And I'm also highly observant of this because my mom has a series of mobility challenges and, you know, so a couple years ago, when I was at Los Angeles for the American Sociological Association, I noticed these like scooters that you could rent just got dumped everywhere on the sidewalk and you had to sort of traverse the sidewalk to walk around them constantly. And I thought about this from like, you know, just the perspective of someone who couldn't walk around them with ease, or here in Bogota, the the challenges of just like navigating day to day life with some of these curb cuts, which are like incredibly high. Well, you know, privilege could be thought of as an experience where institutions are built with you in mind. So, from a disability studies perspective, like institutions, the physical infrastructure, but not just its physical infrastructure, are built with a particular kind of body in mind. And for people who have that body It's not even visible to them – that the institutions are built with them in mind. It just seems like the logical way that institutions should be built. But for people who have any difference between that, it's this moment where you're like – none of this works for me. And when thinking about, you know privilege then it's not just an analysis of the individuals and their ease. It's an analysis of the institution and who is the normalised person for that institution? Who is the person who's seen as the typical person who is going to encounter that institution? And how do you build rules and logics around that person? Well, that is an exclusionary project. And so you asked about academia? Well, you know, it's interesting to think about, like, who is academia built for, or who even is like our, like schools built for? Schools are not built for children in single parent households, right? They're just not in the United States and I'm not talking about St. Paul's here, I'm talking about in general, because, like, what exactly is a single parent supposed to do for the months that students spend out of school – like they're supposed to quit their job or they're supposed to suddenly have a tonne of resources that they don't otherwise have? It's really interesting to think about how so many of our institutions have a kind of standard vision of what a family or a person and their experience looks like, and are structured around that thing. You know, academia has some of the same basic sets of institutional rules where it's like a lot of other professions where people who are in academia have parents who are also in academia – I don't – but the rules seem normalised, and it's kind of easy for people to navigate it. And it's a kind of privilege that people don't fully understand or even see until they encounter someone who doesn't – the rules don't make sense to them – or they don't work for them. And I would say that academia, you know, often reacts in the same way that other institutions do, which is like the person for whom the rules don't work is a problem or they just don't get it. Right, like they on an individual level are a problem rather than the institutional rules being a problem. And once you start to think from a disability studies perspective, to see about how the logics of things normalise particular understandings of ability and background, you kind of see this in all kinds of places within our society.

Alice Bloch  32:56 
Hi, I'm Alice, and I produce 'Uncommon Sense'. Thanks for joining us today, where we're with Shamus Khan talking about privilege. We've been bringing you  'Uncommon Sense' for a few years now and hope it's a valuable resource whether you listen for pleasure, work or study. If you've had chance to head to thesociologicalreview.org perhaps to check out our show notes other podcasts, you might have noticed that the Sociological Review Foundation is a charity. We're all about advancing public understanding of sociology and you could say that in 2024, we need that more than ever. And so we want to ask a favour – if you can, please consider making a contribution to help the foundation to keep bringing this podcast to you – just head to donorbox.org/uncommon-sense, you can find and click on that link by scrolling our show notes. There you can make one off or repeat donations to directly support the making of Uncommon Sense, all gratefully received. And of course, we're also grateful simply for you listening in. Any feedback or suggestions, find us at Uncommon Sense at thesociologicalreview.org. Back to Alexis.

Alexis Hieu Truong  34:14 
Okay, so here's where we want to turn to hear about the thinker who gives you some uncommon sense, who makes you think differently and stretches your own assumptions around our theme today that of privilege. And I understand we're doing something a bit different today turning to talk about being inspired by students, I think actually past students who you've worked with.

Rosie Hancock  34:36 
So, I know that today you wanted to mention a couple of people starting with Shay O'Brien, who I understand finished her PhD and has worked to build a database of Dallas high society from the Gilded Age to World War Two and to use that to take on questions around studying persistence and change in elites over time. Could you tell us a bit about what inspires you with her work?

Shamus Khan  35:00 
She did this incredible sort of laborious project of creating a map of all the Dallas elite. But she did so in a way that was a little different than a lot of other mappings because there's an enormous amount of like, business history that does something like this, where they kind of are like, what men sit on what boards, etc. Then what she did was she was like, well, where are the women here? And so she began to then map people through marriages and children and you know, this has been something I've been thinking a lot about, but never really codified and Shay just like kind of did it, which is that like, what if the unit of analysis, the thing that we look at when we look at elites, isn't the individual man, but like the family? And what if we then begin to think about how families all do work for the status of the family. And what Shay was able to show through this work is like, you know, in the Dallas case, there's this idea that there's like the old money of Dallas and then there's the oil boom and then there's the new money of Dallas and that the old money and new money are these two groups of people who are in somewhat tension with one another, as economies change. And Shay shows like that they're the same people – they're not actually different at all, that the oil people are all intermarried with and connected to the old elite and actually, like when the oil people come in, it becomes in some ways even more concentrated. And you don't see this if you only look at men but if you begin to look at children and who children marry into and you look at women, you get an entirely different picture. And this is like, helps me see like what happens when we shift our focus from studying individuals to studying something else, like to studying the family.

Alexis Hieu Truong  36:56 
And I think that there was one other person you also wanted to mention.

Shamus Khan  37:02 
Yeah, I mean, you know, the the other is Fabien Accominotti, who is used to teach at the London School of Economics and is now at the University of Wisconsin and Fabien and I worked together on a similar mapping project to that of Shay's where we looked to see who sat where in the New York Philharmonic over time. So, it's like this, this concert hall, we used the seating records back in the 19th century, late part of the 19th century, to look to see like where were people sitting in the hall and who sat near one another. And the core finding of that work was that as new middle class people entered the orchestra to start attending, that people who are elites moved closer and closer together in the hall, they began to cluster both where they sat and then they also clustered where they live. And with Fabien, I've developed this idea of segregated inclusion. And the idea of segregated inclusion is that most social institutions in the United States have become more inclusive since the 1960s. Inequality has not decreased, it's actually increased considerably. And so how do we move beyond thinking about exclusion equals inequality? Inclusion equals equality? Like how do we break from that and with Fabien, it's been sort of helpful to realise that like, as institutions become more inclusive, they also begin to segregate and sort. Right, so when women enter colleges and universities, yes, women have much more access to opportunities but they also end up getting segregated and sorted into different places within those institutions. And so moving beyond a really simplistic logic of 'exclusion bad, inclusion good' in terms of equality and thinking about how inclusion can actually produce – inclusion is not integration, inclusion isn't the blurring of boundaries between two groups, it can just mean that like two groups occupy the same space but in segregated ways. You know, thinking with Fabien really helped me see and understand that.

Rosie Hancock  39:14 
Thanks Shamus. We're gonna have some information in the show notes about both of those projects. And look, I want to make a really, what I think is going to be a great segue here, right? So wait for this – you mentioned, Shamus, Shay's work on Dallas earlier, which is also the name of a very popular TV show that ran through the 80s, which was also about elites, which takes us very nicely to the part of the show where before we wrap up, we usually get a pop culture tip from our guest that helps us to see our subject a little bit sideways. But today, I'm keen to ask a broader question, which is, do you actually like to watch stuff about elites or is it a bit too close to home given your work?

Shamus Khan  39:59 
Yes we do close to home, I mean I, I write a good bit for the popular press, like I don't just write academic stuff. And I consistently get asked to review, like TV shows like 'Billions' or 'Succession' or you know, writing a book on, where a decent portion deals with the Gilded Age and there's a very popular show 'The Gilded Age'. I've never seen an episode of any of them, like I can't bring myself to do it. But I'd also say like, you can't watch, in the United States, you can't watch TV without watching elites all the time. And, you know, there was a time where you would see working class and middle class families on television, and you just don't anymore. I mean, it's extremely rare in the US, like, you know – 'Friends', they're living in a, you know, they're supposed to be working class people, but they're living in a multimillion dollar apartment in New York City. And they live these extremely leisurely lives. You know, a lot of these shows are pretty much like shows of people who are extremely well off. And, you know, we love shows about power and the struggles over power, so 'Game of Thrones', like, what is it but a show about  political elites, right, you know, and so, I think it's interesting to think and see, like how much our television shows are about the lives of the powerful, and the things that we're really interested in, like, 'Lord of the Rings', right, like the super popular series is about, like, each one of the little people who's a member of 'The Lord of the Rings' is like the elite of their tribe that is then going like, it's the elite dwarf, the elite elf, the elite human, who are like helping the elite Hobbit, the like, you know, the family member of the previous elite Hobbit, navigate to take over with like, you know, everybody else is just kind of like, slaughtered in the pathway. They don't even get the privilege of a narrative. And so it's, it's not just the Kardashians, right, it layers on in so many levels. There's 'Blackish', again, with like a very elite black family in the United States. There's some shows, I'm probably painting with too broad of a cloth to painting with too broad of a brush, excuse me but it's, it's interesting to me how the drive of so many of our narratives, it's those stories, right? Those are the stories that that really capture so much of the imagination, like, you know, who was James Bond but the elite of a policing society, right, like he's not an everyday cop. And so as much as I don't like watching those shows, like you also can't consume popular culture without seeing the normalisation of stories about powerful people being the kinds of stories that are valuable.

Alexis Hieu Truong  43:04 
This reference to the fact that we're always watching elites on television and really makes me think about, for example, work on reality shows also, and when when people are not elites, for example, Bev Skegg's work, they're actually people that we're watching fail at some of the norms around success and so on. And it kind of like what you've mentioned here brings the meta question of what even counts as a show about elites.

Rosie Hancock  43:32 
I mean, Shamus, I'm curious here because I reckon there's there's sort of two types of shows about elite. So you have this sort of background elitism, just in television, right, we have fantastical, you know, 'Friends' being the example, right? But then there are narratives and really, I mean, it's like the classic narrative trope that there's this wild story about an individual getting rich or at least becoming successful, whatever that might mean. Even if they do eventually crash. So an example from a few years back would be 'The Wolf of Wall Street', right. But there's this focus in this, this particularly the second type of narrative on individuals, it feels like it could be a bit of a red herring to me, and I hope this isn't a depressing note for us to end on but I wonder whether the reality increasingly seems to be that you're either going to be okay or not based on things like inheritance, family wealth, and so on. Like, are we kind of heading back to a time where – I know we've been talking about privileges, this idea that maybe you can make it as an individual but really, is inheritance, still just kind of the defining thing for the creation of elites.

Shamus Khan  44:51 
So, this isn't my work but Piketty, Thomas Piketty – this is his argument in 'Capital' basically, that there is a period of time, you know, basically from the 60s to the early 2000s, where income really, really mattered but that people with highly high incomes are establishing enormous capital holdings like just really significant capital holdings, that are transforming, you know, them back into elites of old, which is that the amount of money that they have in investments is actually going to far exceed the incomes that they make and then inheritance is going to become super important. We're beginning to see this, like so on, you know, the Forbes wealthiest list, now the inheritors of wealth, their wealth overall, exceeds the makers of wealth. And I would even note that that measure is really skewed because, you know, Bill Gates is seen as a maker of wealth, he comes from an extremely wealthy family, Mark Zuckerberg is read as an as a maker of wealth. Mark Zuckerberg went to Phillips Exeter Academy, which is like 30 miles down the street from St. Paul's. So, he went to an elite boarding school and then on to Harvard. Elon Musk is read as a maker of wealth, Elon Musk is from, you know, an extremely wealthy lived in one of the largest homes in Johannesburg, like, you know, that all of these people are, you know, taking significant fortunes and turning them into much bigger ones. But yes, I think, you know, so much of what I've said is like, there's this individualization but I think that that's a story of the second half of the 20th century at the beginning of the 21st. And that the story of the 21st century could well be that this account that I provide no longer works because of exactly the things you've said about like, actually, capital holdings, à la Piketty are becoming more and more important for understanding elites and so you know, this is going to be a living research field and a living space that we all experience and being like, you know, actually, maybe the made wealth narratives aren't going to fly anymore, because they don't really make sense of our experience.

Rosie Hancock  47:14 
Yeah, thanks, Shamus. And as for your pop culture tip for this section, I understand that you've taught Tom Wolfe's 'Bonfire of the Vanities' here and if it's okay with you, we're gonna throw that in our show notes. But that's all we have time for today, so thank you so much for joining us, Shamus, it's been a real pleasure. Thanks.

Shamus Khan  47:32 
It's been so nice to be part of the conversation with the two of you.

Alexis Hieu Truong  47:37 
We'll put the different readings Shamus mentioned into today's show notes that can be found in the app you're using to hear this and on the podcasts page at thesociologicalreview.org, where you'll also find all episodes from our past two series. And over at that site, you can also find out more about the Sociological Review, our manifesto, our other podcasts or magazine, new fiction and our image maker in residence section, our monthly showcase of creative work that puts visual sociology in the spotlight.

Rosie Hancock  48:09 
We'll be back next time with more Uncommon Sense. Thanks for listening. Bye