Opportunity hoarding and durable inequality

A recent article mentioning “opportunity hoarding” opened up Durable Inequality from American sociologist Charles Tilly, providing some insight into why (dys)functional systems may persist.

A 2010 reflection article by Kim Voss provides a helpful summary:

The bulk of Durable Inequality sketches a set of processes that Tilly suggests underlie the many and varied forms of inequality that historians, sociologists and anthropologists have uncovered and described. Two powerful processes are fundamental in his view: exploitation and opportunity hoarding.

  • Exploitation is the process by which powerful connected people have control over resources and use those resources to enlist others in production of value while excluding them from the full value added by their efforts, using any of a number of means, such as legislation, work rules, and outright repression.
  • Opportunity hoarding occurs when members of a categorically based network confine the use of the value-producing resource to others in the in-group. Tilly is careful to note that elites engage in opportunity hoarding but most of his examples are of non-elites who make peace—more or less—with a categorical distinction and look for ways to advance within it rather than breaking down the distinction.

Behind his understanding of exploitation, as both Erik Olin Wright (2000) and Michael Mann (1999) have argued, prowls Marx’s labor theory of value. And his notion of opportunity hoarding owes much to Weber’s idea of social closure.

Two more processes help to cement inequality in Tilly’s model:

  • emulation (in which established organizational models are copied in new settings) and
  • adaptation , or the creation of everyday procedures and practices that people use to cope with and so reproduce the categorical distinctions in their daily interactions.

Here, of course, are echoes of the new institutionalism.

Tilly’s model rests on these four processes. The model is both relational and interactional and it identifies organizations, broadly defined, as the key sites for the creation and maintenance of durable categorical inequalities. Tilly insists that the approaches of prior scholars who focus on human capital or on labor market scarcities or on discrimination, are not wrong so much as simply drawing attention to the by-product of the four processes he identifies.

There’s also an example written by Australian researchers at:

The phrase turned up in a description of parents forming learning pods for their children, so that they may be away from larger crowds in schools.

Now, with the return to school amidst a global pandemic, those efforts to secure the best for their children, known in sociology as “opportunity hoarding,” have become more overt. The confidence many had in the public-education system has been ripped apart because of reopening plans and it seems no amount of fundraising, private meetings with principals or school council strategizing can bring about the changes many are seeking for a safe return to school.

The result is some of the most privileged public-school families are opting for distance education, hiring personal tutors and forming private learning pods – decisions that are ostensibly made in the best interests of their children, but which will likely cause major rifts across race and class. Those in lower-income communities are also choosing remote learning because they have elderly relatives living with them who are vulnerable to getting sick, they feel a heightened threat from COVID-19 because they are in areas with the highest infection rates and the buildings in which they live pose challenges to getting to school on time in a pandemic.

That families on both ends of the socio-economic spectrum are opting for remote learning exposes cracks that already existed in the system. There’s a threat the most privileged will pull out to customize their own education since they can afford to, while others who are fearful of sending their children back to school but cannot pay for private help are becoming test subjects for a new realm of online learning. As plans are pulled together haphazardly, there’s a concern the divide will deepen.

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