OMNIVORES AND INEQUALITY: An Interview with Shamus Khan

Shamus Khan is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. His work focuses primarily on cultural sociology and stratification, with a particular focus on elites. Khan is an alumnus and former faculty member of the prestigious St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, which serves as the subject of his book Privilege. The Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism sat down with Khan to discuss his book, cultural omnivores and their tastes, as well as the concept of ethical capitalism.

CJLC How do you conceive of privilege?

SHAMUS KHAN: So in the book [Privilege], the idea of privilege is a little different from how it might be understood colloquially. For me, the idea of privilege is a shift in the logic of the elite: to think of oneself and one’s advantages as a product of what you do, and not of the institutions that you belong to, your family connections, or the amount of money your family might have. So in this sense, I try to juxtapose a logic of entitlement, which I think of as an old elite logic tied to class position, with a logic of privilege, which is the idea that we are each the engines of our own achievement. And in many ways I think of this logic of privilege as a total fiction. The logic of entitlement is in some ways a little bit more honest as a logic of how it is that people acquire their positions.

I think it’s important to note that meritocracy is a form of social engineering.

CJLC: How did inequality become the focal point of your research?

SK: There are two things really at the core of this. Firstly, what we saw from, say, the 1970s to today was that the position of the middle class and the poor wasn’t really changing much, but the position of the elite was changing a lot. As a person who was studying inequality, that made me really interested in the role of elites in the reproduction of inequality. And secondly, I thought that when we conceptualize inequality on a theoretical level, we are usually thinking about it relationally. But as much as we gave lip service to the idea of inequality as a relational concept, we actually didn’t study one side of the relationship very systematically. That is, we didn’t study elites.

CJLC: In your book, you talk about “the triumph of individual man and the death of collective politics”, where we increasingly view one’s economic position as determined by one’s character, as opposed to one’s class. To what extent can your work be seen as a sustained critique of the language of liberalism?

SK: It is a kind of indictment of liberalism, or certain aspects of liberalism. While on the one hand it can be quite healthy to believe that what you do matters, on the other hand, this can often lead to blaming the attributes of people who are less advantaged than you, rather than explaining their position relative to the same sense of inheritances that you have, only inverted.

Not everyone at Columbia University is rich. About half of them are. Even if you think that the average financial aid package at Columbia is around 35,000 dollars a year, more than half the people who are on financial aid are able to pay 30,000 dollars a year. That’s more than almost half of Americans’ total post-tax income. Many people on financial aid are probably in the top ten percent of families. Maybe half or a quarter of the people at Columbia come from poorer families. I think one of the ways to think about this is that the amount of money that people have invested in them is actually staggering. The average kid from a wealthy family has probably had ten times more invested in them before they get to Columbia. And the curiosity is not how amazing they are. It’s actually that they are not better.

And we should recognize it and articulate it as such.

CJLC: Your work is very much focused on the United States. Is this geographically confined at all when we’re talking about inequality, insofar as productive capital – the source of a lot of this inequality – traverses national borders?

SK: The global circulation of capital is really important to this overall story, but I think it’s massively overplayed as a way to suggest the inevitability of the process. It’s not as if we didn’t have huge flows of capital between empires throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Who was New York’s top trading partner in the 1790s? China. So to me, the argument about global capital is kind of a cop out. In many ways political choices are what’s driving this process, and I think we need to be more honest about these choices. A little bit of the weakness of the thinking of the Left is the commitment to the Marxian ideal that the economy is always the dominant, driving force and that everything else is epiphenomenal, when in many ways there is an enormous political machine that is behind the production of this inequality.

CJLC: You seem to suggest that the rhetoric of meritocracy is a part and parcel of this political machine. The Conservative government in the UK is particularly fond of the term meritocracy. Is there a productive comparison to be drawn between elites in both countries?

SK: The fascinating thing about the Cameron government and its use of meritocracy is to just ask how many people in the cabinet went to Eton. Almost to a man—and they’re mostly men— everyone in the cabinet went there.The question would be: if the world were such a meritocracy, how likely would it be that the cabinet of Britain would be all from one school?

Meritocracy is not a terrible idea, but it’s important to realize its origins. It does not emerge out of a beautiful ideal, but instead from a British education Labor minister [Michael Young, 1915- 2002] who coined the phrase meritocracy in a dystopian novel to suggest the collapse of a political society, not its triumph. I think its important to note that meritocracy is a form of social engineering. And we should recognize it and articulate it as such. Think about the metrics of meritocracy today that we deploy here in the United States. When we evaluate the SAT, one of our great meritocratic tools, we find that it is actually a terrible indicator of performance in college. We need to be critical of these modes of engineering that we think are creating fairness, but instead create systems of organization in which only certain people can invest in advantaging themselves. If you ever took an SAT prep test, it should become immediately clear to you that it’s not an aptitude test. If I can pay someone to help me improve my score, it’s not aptitude; it’s something else.

CJLC: You talk about a dearth of class rhetoric in the US. In the UK, public discourse is saturated in class rhetoric, although it’s also strangely naturalized. As soon as you open your mouth, you are indexed along class lines…

SK: I make this argument about race in the US. As much as people pretend to be race blind, in the moment of an interaction, people are acutely aware of the race of the person they are interacting with. In Britain, I think class works in a similar way. As a total aside, my brother runs the largest race equality think tank in Britain, and for him, even having race be recognized as a thing in Britain is an enormous challenge, but by contrast class dynamics are incredibly transparent to people.

CJLC: You also express concern in your book that race might go the way of class, that it might continue to be an enduring source of inequality but cease to have any traction in political discourse…

SK: Before Ferguson, I think that was really a concern.The recent problems with policing have made race a more acute question. But the broader aspects of race and its relationship to class and inequality have not been as present in these conversations. Everybody cares about what is happening with these communities when it comes to policing. We don’t have as much discussion about why the average black family makes about 75 percent less than the average white family.

CJLC: Bourdieu’s work Distinction framed the basis of your inquiry. I am wondering where his framework proved insufficient, especially in regards to your examination of how elites mobilize cultural capital as ‘cultural egalitarians.’.

SK: There are two ways to read my relationship to Bourdieu. One is that Bourdieu is wrong. The other is Bourdieu is right, but things just work differently in the US than in France. The first person you meet in the book [Privilege] represents what Bourdieu thinks should happen. Chase Abbot is a wealthy guy whose family all went to St Paul’s and elite private schools. Bourdieu’s argument is that people who have the right lineage and legacy develop a set of habits and skills which match the expectations of the institution, and that allows them to have a pathway to success. Chase Abbot is the perfect representation of this. He is part of the fabric of elite America. I start with him because he’s failing at St Paul’s. And I use that to ask what’s working and not working with Bourdieu’s explanation of the social reproduction of elites. And a lot of what I point to is that there is a certain group of elites, an old school group, who thinks that their family inheritance really should matter. And it’s not that they’re wrong. It’s that they make that transparent.

CJLC: So it’s how they negotiate it.

SK: It’s how they negotiate it.They get rejected, suppressed for that kind of entitlement. Instead, what they are disciplined into doing is acting as if they earned it, as if their family didn’t matter. So a lot what’s happening among the upper classes today is this extreme attempt to make their class background invisible. You see this this refrain about the Silicon Valley guys who wear jeans and black t-shirts all the time. This is a project of making it seem as if the investments that were made in you as a kid didn’t matter. Even the way in which we talk about how, “Well, it doesn’t matter if you go to college, it matters how hard you work, look at Bill Gates, look at Mark Zuckerberg.” Well, where did Zuckerberg go to high school? Exeter— one of three major league boarding schools in the country. Bill Gates’ father was a CEO of a major bank in Seattle. That these guys started from nothing, and actually acquired their position is utter fantasy. They are a representation of the ways in which advantage can and does reproduce advantage, and can do so on a monumental scale.

CJLC: In your discussion of inequality, there is a lot imagery associated with food. For instance, you use the term omnivores in your book. Where is food implicated in the kind of cultural egalitarianism you’re talking about?

SK: The omnivore term isn’t mine. I’ve adapted it from Richard Peterson, who looks at how it is that elites at one point were sort of snobs, that there were certain sets of things collected together that defined elite taste that were fairly small: classical music, opera, very particular kinds of plays—not musicals—Shakespeare, Ibsen, things like that. By contrast, omnivores select from a cultural buffet. They are using their own interests to select from a variety of cultural objects that they can then consume.

The omnivorousness argument is often taken as, ”elites eat a wide variety of things.” But as it turns out they don’t. They may really like Chinese food, but not shitty Chinese delivery. We are talking about the explosion of Xian Famous foods, which just opened near us, which is seen as authentic—hand pulled noodles which have a kind of specialty character to it. And this is what we see when we look at the ‘omnivore’–they’re not listening to all country music, they’re listening to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, some Johnny Cash. Expanding beyond that into contemporary country, that’s really pushing it. It’s still actually highly defined in terms of what the acceptable form of that consumption is, but it appears as if elites are selecting within a flat world of availability.

CJLC: And do you think that is because they’ve been given the ability to cultivate these tastes—an interest in the noodles they are eating, the Patsy Cline album they are listening to? What’s the relationship between structure and agency here?

SK: Ability and desirability. One, you are given exposure to a lot of things. Two, you are given positive feedback for choosing in some ways versus others. People are making choices within a structure or patterned set of constraints. As soon as the constraint operation enters into the dimension of choice, the idea of choice doesn’t actually operate on the level of an explanation in the way that you think it does. Because people aren’t actually choosing from within everything, they are actually choosing from within something that is slightly predetermined. And that predetermination means that the model of action is neither pure structure nor pure agency. It’s actually something in between; a kind of interplay. If you only chose to listen to one kind of music, you would be mocked for being a kind of one trick pony, close minded. This rhetorical framework helps to construct an idea that what people are doing is making a set of individual choices that are driving their position. It actually helps serve the function of privilege.

CJLC: In your book you talk about how privilege is manifested differently along lines of race and gender at St Paul’s. What does this mean in the real world?

SK: So you can look at this on a structural level, or the individual level. On the large structural level, how do we see gender operating? Why does Columbia have a 50-50 gender ratio? Probably because huge numbers of men are given preferential treatment in terms of admissions over women. Women are actually more highly qualified as a pool. This creates a gendered dynamic, where men can be a little bit more ambivalent about their orientation to all kinds of things because they get rewarded for being less good.

A big curiosity for all kinds of people who are interested in education is: how and why is it that women far outperform men in the aggregate at every level of an educational institution but don’t make more money? In terms of my own argument, the basic idea is that minority students and women are constantly confronting these disconnects between the rhetoric about the way in which the world works—meritocracy, hard work, performance, etc.—, and the material consequences for themselves. And managing that set of contradictions on a psychic level is probably fairly interesting, but on an interactive level, it makes it harder to embody this kind of ambivalent ease that characterizes elites and is the driving force of a lot of elite outcomes. It creates different capacities in men and women, whites and nonwhites, to most skillfully embody the characters of a really successful student.

CJLC: And this ambivalent ease looked different when you were at St. Pauls?

SK: It looked a little different. I begin by describing how when I was there, there was a minority student dorm at St Paul’s. The first sentence of the book, “I’m surrounded by black and Latino boys,” is meant to be very jarring because the reader is learning about elites. As a young student entering the school at the age of fourteen, it wasn’t what I expected. But being placed into this dorm had a huge impact on my overall experience at the institution, and when I returned it didn’t exist anymore. The kind of explicit racial dominance that was central to my experience at the school was no longer present, and that is an important transformation. I think that we see that here at Columbia here too. The massive racial transformation at Columbia is not window dressing, it’s a kind of intentional inauguration of diversity in the fabric of the institution. And that’s actually really important, in terms of people’s experiences. Now I’m not suggesting here that I would rather go back to the incredibly racially homogenous Columbia of the 1960s, but I am saying that we need to confront the fact that this new diversity actually provides an experiential basis for the idea that we’re part of a pure meritocracy and that everybody who got here earned it. It provides a false sense that you’ve entered into a place where, if you’re just willing to compete along those dimensions, you’ll find that it doesn’t matter who you are, a wide variety of people who are the best rise to the top. The implication is that people who didn’t get here must have been doing something wrong.

CJLC: Is ethical capitalism a contradiction in terms?

SK: It’s very hard to answer that. Let me be clear as to why. There is no capitalism. There are capitalisms. Capitalism is an economic form that’s actually quite multiple. In many ways, capitalism as an epoch is a useful way to describe something that is a little bit different than previous economic forms, but at the same time, subsumed under this very large category, are very different path- ways. Here is where cross-national comparisons can be incredibly helpful. We could also look historically and say that American capitalism in the 1960s was a very different beast than it is today. That suggests that absolutely things could be quite different. The Left suffer under a little bit of this Marxist haze, of the necessary and determined development of the form of capitalism against which there is nothing one can do. And I think that it’s not determined. There are tremendous advantages to capitalism, that actually could be celebrated. There are also tremendous harms inherent capitalism that should be addressed. The result could mean that you have a kind of gentler capitalism, or it could mean that—if we’re more careful in our description—that what we are characterizing as capitalism is multiple different things and we should inhabit that multiplicity and think about which is the one that we think of as being the most desirable. It’s not just an economic form, there are social and political dimensions of our present that are intimately tied to the economic and help produce it but aren’t determined by it. Just operating on that one level of analysis—the economic—can also do an enormous amount of harm to our capacity to imagine alternative futures.