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Michelle Jackson

Assistant Professor of Sociology
Director Coterminal MA Program
Michelle Jackson

My main research interests lie in the sociology of education and social inequality, with a focus on understanding the power and persistence of socioeconomic background in shaping life chances.

In my current book, Manifesto for a Dream: Inequality, Constraint, and Radical Reform, I offer both a strong critique of contemporary inequality policy and a constructive proposal for radical social reform. Although it is well-known that the United States has an inequality problem, the social science community has not mobilized in response. With very few exceptions, social scientists have instead developed or embraced a strikingly insipid approach to policy reform, a precisely focused and ostensibly science-based approach that offers incremental, narrow-gauge, and evidence-informed “interventions”. This approach assumes that the best that we can do is to contain the problem. It is largely taken for granted that we will never solve it.

I argue that we will never make strides toward equality if we do not get back to our sociological roots and start to think radically. The turn to narrow-gauge proposals for reform has diverted our attention from a root institutional problem that can only be rectified with radical policy. It is the structure of social institutions that generates and maintains social inequality, and it is only by attacking that structure that progress can be made. We have developed highly differentiated human development institutions (e.g., preschools, primary and secondary schools, hospitals), each configured to solve a very narrow problem, but we have not developed the integrative capacities that help children and families to successfully negotiate these specialized institutions. Only rich parents have the capacity to make this poorly-coordinated array of institutions work together. In effect, rich parents have knitted together a pathway between human development institutions that works as a virtual cocoon for their children, so that from the child’s point of view it is a single coordinated institutional structure. By contrast, when poor parents face this complex of social institutions, they do not have the same roadmap – or the money to buy a roadmap – that allows them to coordinate their engagement with these institutions in ways that protect their child’s opportunity. Each institution is a new set of constraints, a new set of challenges, a new and foreign world. It is this hybrid institutional structure – interlocking and coordinated for the well-off and disconnected for the poor – that is overlooked in a small-scale, mechanistic, and incremental approach to policy.

The book proposes an alternative, more radical, approach to policy reform that proceeds from a scientific foundation. I make a scientific case for considering large-scale institutional reform, and draw upon examples from countries across the world to demonstrate that reforms that have been unthinkable in the United States are considered to be quite unproblematic in other contexts. I argue that our well-meaning but half-hearted efforts are doing us in, and that an emboldened social science has an obligation to develop and test the radical policies that would be necessary for equality to be assured to all.

My personal website  offers more information on my research and teaching.


Bldg. 120, rm. 136

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