From the dawn of sociological time, academic sociologists have described a world in crisis. We have diagnosed crisis from the ashes of the French Revolution, from the alienation wrought by industrialization, from the disintegration provoked by war and conflict. We have seen the end of society in the mass migrations and population growth of the nineteenth century, and then again in the anomie and individualism of the twentieth. We are attuned to the relentless threats to social structure.
Whatever comfort may be found in diagnosing the crises of modernity, diagnosis alone only rarely produces social change. Our willingness to diagnose crisis has not been matched by a similar enthusiasm for developing sociologically informed policy. As a result, the country’s social policy agenda is defined and dominated by other social science disciplines, disciplines with their own interests, visions, and assumptions.
The absence of sociologists from the policy world is unfortunate, because we truly do seem to be living in a time of crisis. Income inequality is at unprecedented levels, and many types of social and economic mobility are stalling and even declining. Disease and economic hardship have wreaked havoc, and will continue to wreak havoc for years to come. The racial wealth gap is a persistent feature of the American economic landscape, while police violence and mass incarceration continue to tear at the fabric of poor and minority communities. As the forces of climate change play out, these and other inequalities are likely to intensify and stretch the social contract to the breaking point.
In the context of such monumental challenges, the policy community has—with a few prominent exceptions—maintained a strikingly timid approach to reform. We have developed a precisely focused and ostensibly science-based approach that offers specific, narrow-gauge, and evidence-informed “interventions.” We have pushed toward a set of policy recommendations that are ever more incremental. This approach assumes that the best we can do is to contain the problem. It is largely taken for granted that we will never solve it.
Outside of the policy community, the larger public sees the world burning. Even politicians have stopped trying to pretend that the United States is a land of opportunity. Senator Elizabeth Warren channeled sociologists when she proclaimed in a speech to the Democratic National Committee, “This is a time of crisis . . . not the time for small ideas.”1 And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez struck a similar note when she introduced her Green New Deal legislation, stating that “small, incremental policy solutions are not enough. They can be part of a solution, but they are not the solution unto itself.”2
In 1999, Alvin Roth delivered a lecture to the Econometric Society in which he made a case for the economist as engineer. His purpose was to encourage economists to develop a science of design economics, a science that would use data and economic theory to design well-functioning economic systems.3 This science would allow economists to engineer markets that operated efficiently and effectively, thus improving the outcomes of those markets for both participants and society.
By 2017, Esther Duflo was ready to argue that economists should be not engineers but plumbers. As plumbers, economists would be required not simply to provide blueprints for the economy but to ensure that those blueprints were well implemented. This meant focusing on the details and technicalities that must be addressed when any policy is rolled out. Duflo described the key difference in approach, claiming that “engineers will start from the outcome they are seeking to attain and engineer the machine to reach it. Plumbers, on the other hand, will have to adopt a more tentative approach, starting from the machine’s characteristics and identifying their effect.”4 Although Duflo’s vision was of an economics with a healthy representation of both engineers and plumbers, plumbing was the aspect of the discipline that she felt had been historically undervalued.
A relatively esoteric debate about the nature and purpose of applied economics turns out to provide a useful illustration of how our social scientific landscape has changed over time. Economists have moved from engineering systems to focusing on the operations of individual system components, and they have taken social science and policy with them on this journey. Incrementalism may be a useful model for policy during ordinary times, but in moments of crisis we have an obligation to move beyond incrementalism and its mechanistic understanding of the social world.
Our narrowed social science provides the normalizing basis for an incremental policy agenda. We have discovered beauty in the details and lost interest in the integrity of structures. For academics with an eye to having impact, narrow-gauge proposals for reform offer a seductive appeal. Such proposals can be robustly defended because they tackle established inequality-producing mechanisms, and their efficacy can be demonstrated in a straightforward fashion. Politicians, foundations, and research institutions have enthusiastically embraced small-scale reforms, for they provide the opportunity to have an impact even when resources and political will are in short supply. All of the actors involved in the process of policy design have incentives to highlight the promise of incremental policy, and to work on the assumption that enough incremental changes might bring forth profound social transformation.
We should celebrate all that is gained through incremental science and policy. But it is important that we do not dismiss what has been lost. When we focus on precise mechanisms, quasi-experiments, and nudges, we lose an overarching appreciation of where inequality comes from, and we thereby lose an opportunity for authentically radical reform.
In this book, I describe an inequality-generating process. At the heart of this process is a set of deeply flawed and poorly integrated social institutions, with which parents must engage to raise a child to full flourishing. Instilling necessary human, social, and cultural capital in a child requires navigating this sprawling and complicated constellation of institutions. We have developed highly specialized human development institutions, each configured to solve a very narrow problem, but we have not developed the integrative capacities that help children and families to successfully negotiate the resulting highly specialized and disconnected institutions.
It is up to parents to ensure that hospitals and health care institutions are doing their job at the prenatal moment, that a low-stress and high-engagement postnatal period is available, that the nutritional needs of the child are met, that high-quality child care is delivered, that an environment conducive to cognitive stimulation and language acquisition is present, that the transition to preschool is well negotiated, that properly stimulating extracurricular activities are available, that a college preparatory curriculum is set in motion by the time the child reaches adolescence, that any potentially perilous interactions with drugs, gangs, or the criminal justice system are nipped in the bud, that internships are set up and volunteering activities organized, that SAT prep courses are attended and taken seriously, that high-quality teacher recommendations are cultivated, that the risk of college dropout is deterred via active mentoring and other interventions, that the initial integration into the labor market is well facilitated, and so much more.
Raising a child has not always looked like this. It used to be that even poor children could follow a simple and well-lit path; there was no complicated array of institutions that had to be successfully negotiated to get into the middle class. But over the past half century we have developed a highly specialized and poorly coordinated array of such institutions that only richer parents are able to make work. In effect, privileged parents have knitted together a pathway from one human-development institution to the next that serves 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 underprivileged parents face this complex of social institutions, they find that they do not have access to the same road map, and so they lack ways to coordinate their engagement with institutions so as to ensure their child’s opportunity. To them, each institution presents 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 privileged and disconnected for the underprivileged—that is overlooked in a small-scale, mechanistic, and incremental approach to policy.
In a time of crisis, there is a hunger for change. But when an entire policy infrastructure has been built on a foundation of incremental reform, endogenous change is hard to come by.
Meaningful social change will require radical reform, which means that we must attack the institutional roots of inequality of opportunity. The aim of radical policy is to discern the larger institutional whole and then reconstruct it for everyone. While privileged children experience a well-integrated and coordinated cocoon of institutions, which protects and promotes their opportunities, the underprivileged are caught in a fractured institutional web. We must reconstruct our institutions so that everyone, not just the well-off, has a route to success. There are many ways to achieve a positive outcome. This book is not a tract for a single proposal for reform. Instead, its aim is to outline a process by which we can begin to see—and test—a variety of radical options that provide the same well-orchestrated pathways for underprivileged children as are currently available to privileged children.
To illustrate the promise of radical policy, I draw upon models from other countries that have taken seriously the task of building webs of institutions, webs that are available to all rather than purchased by the few. I outline how radical policy can be undergirded by a new type of radical science, and indeed, I stress 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. I show that when we adopt this new approach, we suddenly discover many available paths to full equality of opportunity in this country.
A central theme of this book is that sociology as a discipline is indispensable to the task of developing radical reform. The flaws in social institutions are clearly evident, as is the potential for change. Or as Emile Durkheim put it, “The purpose of sociology is to enable us to understand present-day social institutions so that we may have some perception of what they are destined to become and what we should want them to become.”5
Although as sociologists we have no doubt been influenced by the incremental tendencies of modern-day social science, we continue to hold institutions close in understanding society and social inequality. The development of radical policy does not require of sociologists that they embrace engineering or plumbing, for sociologists have always understood that societies are complex and responsive systems. Radical policy simply requires that sociologists think like sociologists.
In writing a book, one is frequently reminded of one’s good fortune in being part of an academic community that offers criticism, encouragement, and friendship. All of these elements are important in seeing a book through to completion, and I have benefited from all three.
I thank the administrative staff, faculty, and students of the Stanford University sociology department for providing a supportive and stimulating intellectual environment. So many of the conversations that I have enjoyed within the department have shaped the arguments and evidence in this book. I have been particularly touched by the enthusiasm that my students have expressed for the project. My friends and colleagues at Nuffield College, Oxford, continue to guide and encourage me even when my time in the dreaming spires is limited. In the 2018–19 academic year, I was based in Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS). Although much of the book had been completed in advance of my CASBS year, the manuscript still benefited greatly from my discussions with the community of interdisciplinary scholars brought together under Margaret Levi’s leadership.
I was fortunate to receive detailed comments on the manuscript from David Cox, Matthew Desmond, Kathryn Edin, Michael Rosenfeld, Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, Kim Weeden, and Cristobal Young. Each has contributed to shaping the manuscript and has pushed me to develop the argument to its full fruition. I had stimulating conversations on topics related to the book with Corey Fields, Jeremy Freese, Sihla Koop, David Pedulla, Deborah Rhode, Aliya Saperstein, Florencia Torche, and Robb Willer. My sister Alexandra Wall provided both provocative commentary on the book’s argument and the wonderful drawings included in Chapter 3. I am grateful to Jan McInroy for her sociologically nimble edit of the final manuscript. I also thank Marcela Maxfield and the reviewers for Stanford University Press for helpful comments. Stanford University Press provides a vital outlet for research on the sociology of inequality, and I appreciate the work of SUP staff in helping to develop the project.
Throughout the years spent working on this book, I have been blessed with a supportive and thoughtful partner. David Grusky provided comments on the manuscript and was always generous with his time. He and Rover, our beautiful dog, were a constant source of comfort and encouragement.
I had expected to conclude this preface with acknowledgments to my family for their unwavering support. My mother and father, Susan and William Jackson; my sisters, Catherine Rose and Alexandra Wall; and my grandmother Eva Jackson have always provided warmth and genial encouragement. As I completed revisions to the manuscript, my father was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, a brain tumor with a devastating prognosis. Of everything that I have written, this book is the piece of work that most shows his influence. He was saddened by injustice, and throughout his career as a teacher he worked to help those who would otherwise be left behind. His loss will always be felt, and I dedicate this book to him.
1. Elizabeth Warren, speech to the Democratic National Congress, San Francisco, Saturday, June 1, 2019.
2. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, news conference, Washington, DC, Thursday, February 7, 2019.
3. Roth 2002.
4. Duflo 2017, 5. See Duflo and Banerjee (2019) for a more recent defense of this approach in light of public and political demands for non-incremental policies.
5. Durkheim  1982, 245.