October 15, 2004

· Sociology

Brad DeLong notices a relationship between the PSAT tests and the magazines lying around his home:

Dubbed… declaimed… reflexive… inquisitive… sustenance… enumerated… demeaned…harangue… munificent… straitened… divestment… sinecure… corollary… culmination… manifestation… constellation… amalgam… embodies… sanguine… impudent… reiterating… carapace… antennae…

[I]t’s hard to avoid noticing something about the vocabulary that they are testing. It’s not, by and large, science or engineering vocabulary. It’s not financial or commercial vocabulary. It’s not political or quantitative vocabulary. What they are testing is the high humanistic vocabulary of the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section, of the New Yorker, of the New York Review of Books.

Now we get all three of these publications. And my children thus get an extra edge through this testing process. But is this really what we want to allocate resources based on—whether people’s parents have the NYRoB lying around and whether their children pick it up and read it?

Cultural capital is indeed a vital factor governing resource allocation in contemporary societies. For more information on what might happen to his fourteen-year-old in the near future, Brad should consider reading an oldie-but-goodie article from Paul DiMaggio, 1982, “Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades of U.S. High School Students” (American Sociological Review, 47: 189-201). And for longer-term prospects, there’s Paul DiMaggio and John Mohr, 1985, “Cultural Capital, Educational Attainment, and Marital Selection” (American Journal of Sociology 90: 1231-61).

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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