Rosenberg Forum: Annette Lareau (by Ann Horwitz)

Speaker Annette Lareau with department chair Patricio Korzeniewicz, enjoying the post-lecture reception.

On Friday, October 18th, Dr. Annette Lareau spoke at the Department’s Rosenberg Forum. Lareau is the Stanley I. Sheerr Term Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the current president of the American Sociological Association. Her talk was entitled, “Housing, Schools, and the Maintenance of Inequality: How Upper Middle Class Parents Can Afford to be Nonchalant.” In her current work, the intellectual seed of which was planted during her tenure in the sociology department here at UMd, Lareau asks how people form neighborhood preferences when they move to a new area. In essence, she wants to know, how do people end up where they do?

Lareau used the concept of “concerted cultivation” as her starting point in the talk. Concerted cultivation—which she first wrote about in her seminal work, Unequal Childhoods—refers to middle class parents’ habit of designing their children’s schedules to be packed with extracurricular activities meant to “cultivate” well-rounded individuals. So, little Johnny might go to soccer practice, then to trombone lessons, then to his math tutor, and so on. She related her finding that middle class parents can be quite anxious micromanagers, worrying over every last detail of their kids’ lives.

Students from sociology and beyond, engrossed in Lareau's talk.

Students from sociology and beyond, engrossed in Lareau’s talk.

Departing from the notion of concerted cultivation, Lareau hypothesized that, in her current work, she would find similar behavior among parents when they were choosing which neighborhoods to call home; that there would be very deliberate, careful fact-finding and research about a given district’s schools, for example. To further illustrate the point, she cited the statistic that 73% of American children attend their neighborhood school. In other words, choosing your residence is tantamount to choosing your children’s school, which seems all the more reason to expect parents to be very thorough in their decision-making process. To test this idea, Lareau undertook in-depth interviews with parents in three suburban school districts outside of a large northeastern city. One district was heavily upper-middle class, another was solidly middle class, and the third was lower-middle, working class. The sample of parents was 50% white, 50% black.

To her surprise, Lareau’s findings up to this point suggest that there is actually very little hand-wringing among parents when choosing neighborhoods. In the interviews, she said, what parents didn’t say was more telling than what they did say. Rather than waxing on about how they had researched an area’s schools, property values, etc., many parents shrugged when asked about their decision of where to live. The responses tended toward statements about social connections in the area (e.g., My cousin/sister/college roommate/etc. lives here and says it’s a good area).  Ultimately, then, people often depend on their social networks—rather than in-depth research—to inform them of the “good” areas. Because networks are inherently stratified, though, what this translates to is the seamless reproduction of inequality.

The very idea of having “choices” in the moving decision did not resonate with Lareau’s subjects. Social networks imparted the impression that certain neighborhoods were “obvious” choices. Given the relatively stark stratification of suburban districts along racial and socioeconomic lines, “obvious” choices, in effect, are neighborhoods whose residents generally match one’s own background. In answering the question of how people end up in the neighborhoods they do, then, it seems that informal social networks play a large role in the process. Lareau’s findings indicate that this process occurs across all SES groups. While the process may be the same across groups, though, what is important to note is that the end result is upper-middle class children attending better-funded schools.

The nonchalance of even the affluent parents in the choice of where to live is somewhat baffling, considering the habit of concerted cultivation in so many other aspects of their children’s lives. In the end, it appears that parents practice such concerted, deliberate thinking in a vast array of areas, but not when deciding where to live and send their children to school. Where to live is a major, consequential decision, and yet parents who are otherwise very involved micromanagers defer to the wisdom of their social networks in this regard. Interestingly, and further illustrating the inherent stratification of networks, many of Lareau’s upper-middle class subjects knew of and had considered other well-off districts 30 or 40 miles away, but had never heard of middle- or working-class districts ten minutes’ drive away. To Lareau, these findings show the extent to which people’s decisions of where to live reify a stratified system of privilege.

Ann is a 3rd Year Graduate Student.

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