Studying the Rich

While universities have long been home to departments and programs devoted to studying various subgroups—women, African Americans, even Jews and Armenians—Columbia University has decided to devote some of its attention to studying one (kind of) neglected American subgroup: rich people.

According to an article by Paul Sullivan in the New York Times:

It was a serendipitous time for Columbia University to convene the first Elites Research Network conference last week. The conference drew in scholars focused on inequality across academic disciplines, like economics, political science, sociology and history.

…Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

One of the problems with this particular line of inquiry, however, is a matter of definition. Who, exactly, is this elite?

The increasingly concentration of wealth among a small group of people (the richest one percent of American families now own almost 35 percent of the country’s net worth; the top 10 percent of families have more than 70 percent of the country’s wealth) has implications for American economics, but are only rich people the American elite? Certainly when Sarah Palin talks about the pernicious influence of “the elite” it’s not the Walton family she’s worried about.

Indeed, by most understandings of the word, the Columbia professors convening the conference are themselves elite, despite the fact that they earn less than six figures each and are likely to live in four-room apartments not terribly far away from Harlem. As the article explains:

Those at the conference defined the elite as people with power over others, and the debate was framed largely in economic terms. But professors at an Ivy League university are part of an elite, even if their salaries do not reflect it.

Very exciting discussion. It’ll be interesting to see what new research “elite scholarship” produces.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer