Equitable Growth in Conversation: an interview with William A. Darity Jr. (“Sandy”) of Duke University

Tuesday, March 21, 2017
The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

“Equitable Growth in Conversation” is a recurring series where we talk with economists and other social scientists to help us better understand whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability.

In this installment, Equitable Growth’s Research Director John Schmitt talks with economist William A. Darity Jr. (“Sandy”), the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, about the importance of stratification economics in understanding U.S. economic growth and inequality. Read their conversation below.

John Schmitt: I have not too many questions, but hopefully we’ll have a good conversation. You are the founder of stratification economics, which you pioneered with a group that includes Darrick Hamilton, James Stewart, Gregory Price, and others. How would you describe the main features of stratification economics? And how would you differentiate them from the kind of standard, neoclassical economics that most of us were taught in graduate school or in undergraduate economics classes?

Sandy Darity: So, I think the core of stratification economics offers a structural rather than a behavioral explanation for economic inequality between socially identified groups—whether they’re racial groups, ethnic groups, gender groups, or groups that are differentiated on some other basis such as religious affiliation, for that matter. Stratification economics goes against the grain of trying to argue that the kinds of differences that we observe and economic outcomes are attributable to cultural practices or some forms of dysfunctional behavior on the part of the group that’s in the relatively inferior position.

We argue instead that economists and other social scientists have to look at social structures and policies to really explain why those differences exist. What might be unique about stratification economics is the particular way in which it offers the structural analysis of these kinds of inequalities, and that particular way is by focusing on the importance of relative group position from the standpoint of participants in our social world.

That persons compare themselves against others is based on research on happiness, which suggests that the major factor in determining whether a person reports feeling happy is actually their perception of their position in comparison with others—not their absolute position, but their relative position. What stratification economics brings on the scene is a specific view of exactly with whom individuals are comparing themselves.

Not only are folks making comparisons with individuals who they perceive as being part of their own social group, but they also are making comparisons about their group’s position.

The cross-group comparisons are made against the social groups that are “the other” for them. It’s those two sets of comparisons that drive behavior and drive people to actually act in ways that are supportive of the status of their relevant social group. I think traditional economics doesn’t pay much attention to the comparative dimension, and it certainly doesn’t pay much attention to the comparative dimension in terms of an individual’s sense of group identity or group affiliation.

I do want to add that a lot of this work is deeply collaborative. And I think it’s important that my collaborators be recognized, particularly [associate professor of economics and urban policy] Darrick Hamilton at the New School, Mark Paul, who is a postdoctoral fellow here at the Cook Center at Duke, and Khai Zaw, who is a statistical researcher at the Cook Center, who all have worked very closely with me.

And there’s a string of folks who have been involved in various dimensions of the development of stratification economics as a field, among them economists Greg Price [Morehouse College], James Stewart [Pennsylvania State University], Patrick Mason [Florida State University], Marie Mora [University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley], Alberto Dávila [University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley], Sue Stockly [Eastern New Mexico University], and Stephanie Seguino [University of Vermont].

So even though I don’t think stratification economics is sweeping the economics profession, there’s actually a significant core of folks who are embracing the approach, and, hopefully, the numbers will grow.

Read the full interview here