Working Paper 2016-07: Sarah K. Bruch & Joe Soss
Sarah K. Bruch, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology,
University of Iowa
Joe Soss, Cowles Chair for the Study of Public Service, University of Minnesota,
Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs
How does formal education matter for political inequality? Most answers focus on the things schools allocate, such as skills, knowledge, and other forms of human capital. In this paper, we shift attention to the relations that schools organize and the ways students experience them. Schools, we argue, operate as sites where individuals have their first, formative experiences with the rules and cultures of public institutions, authority relations with officials, and what it means to be a member of a rights-and-obligations-bearing community of putative equals. Connecting the recent turn toward meso-level analysis in citizenship studies to relational theories of inequality, we develop a novel account of how schools construct citizens and position them in the polity. Building on this theoretical intervention, our empirical analysis shows, first, how race (in conjunction with class and gender) structures experiences of school relations and, second, how school experiences matter for citizens’ positions and dispositions in the polity. American schools, we conclude, function as relational mechanisms that convert social hierarchies into civic and political inequalities.