Big Data and the American Dream, an Interview with David Grusky
Stanford sociologist David Grusky spent more than three decades conducting research on inequality and social mobility. I sat down with him to talk about how the field has changed—and where it might be going. We talked about the promise of big data and the significance of redistribution and decommodification as policy solutions to social inequality. [Eds. note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
Reeve Vanneman (RV): How do you think research on inequality and mobility has changed, and what might you envision for its future?
David Grusky (DG): I think some of the developments are wholly methodological…. The main methodological development of late is the rise of administrative data. It offers opportunities that simply were not possible with conventional survey data. I’m working with a group of folks on linking census and American Community Survey data, which allows us to study occupational mobility. But, we have so many cases that we can examine differences in mobility across about 60 racial and ethnic groups, and even within the so-called White group.The second advantage with administrative data [is that] we can now finally evaluate the extent to which the American Dream is in in play for particular subpopulations. Here’s the third advantage: with administrative data, it will be possible to bring together the analysis of economic, occupation, and education mobility. We didn’t have the cases to do that with conventional surveys. But with administrative data, we can now bring together fields that were very artificially separated into different disciplines.
RV: Oh, wow! That’ll be great. Maybe this is a little esoteric, but you mentioned that all these have to be done in special facilities. What issues have you encountered with organizational software as you shift from doing research on small, manageable datasets to these massive, administrative “big data”?
DG: I think there are huge problems to solve. Here’s what I would nominate as the number one problem: access to administrative data on a wider basis. We now have one-off deals that are individually negotiated, that are time-consuming to negotiate, and that don’t expose administrator data to the full analyses that they should. I mean, these are public data. They are data that are collected with taxpayer dollars. They are our data. They are the people’s data, and we should be able to use them to ascertain whether or not we’re living up to our most profound commitments, to determine whether or not our programs and institutions and policies are working as intended.
And yet, it is extremely difficult to get access. I think the United States is losing out in a competition with other countries that have access to these sorts of data. Losing out in a competition to evaluate its programs and assess whether or not its living up to its commitment. So, we all lose by virtue of making access so difficult.
Redistribution and Decommodification
RV: I know you’ve founded a couple of interdisciplinary and equality research institutes. You are a co-editor of Pathways, designed to bring some academic research out into a larger arena. What’s been your experience in trying to make sociology more public and impactful for policy?
DG: The first conversation is about how we can make incremental changes to our existing programs and institutions that are immensely important. Sociology should be right there in the mix. But we’ve often withdrawn from those everyday policy questions… we have a lot to offer. I think we’re getting back in the mix and understanding those sorts of everyday policy questions that are immensely important in making decisions about what sorts of investments we should make. We’re back in the mix there, increasingly, and I think that’s really important. We ought not withdraw to the academy.
The really important conversation about whether or not our existing policies are working well, but there’s a second conversation. Again, I’m drawing on the work of this piece by Michelle Jackson in Pathways. This second conversation is about bolder change, not just reform, but big institutional change. We need to have that conversation, too, and that’s what Pathways is about as well.
RV: I agree there’s both the incremental change and then there’s sort of bolder kinds of change. What do you have in mind by “bolder” things?
DG: I think we should be thinking about radical experiments with desegregation, both economic and racial. I think there is nothing more un-American than living separately as we now do. We ought to commit in a wholehearted way to experimenting with how we can end this. I think so many of the problems that we see with respect to inequality and poverty arise because we live in a deeply segregated world. We [should] live together.
I think we should undertake some bold experiments in redistribution. I think we should undertake a lot of bold experiments in what I would call decommodification. I would say, for example, early childhood education, childcare, these are domains that once were actually services that were delivered in the family, right? They weren’t on the market. Then, they were put, basically, on the market and you have to pay for high-quality childcare. You have to pay for high-quality early childhood education.
RV: So, what are the routes to fixing this? What types of policy could possibly be implemented to curve toward what you’re describing as an end game?
DG: We can either engage in radical redistribution or in radical decommodifications. You can first say, “Look. We’ve put opportunity on the market. That’s done. That’s over. That’s happened.” But, what we now need to do is to give poor people some amount of money so that they can buy opportunity for their kids. If it’s gonna be on the market, they need the money to buy it so that we can live up to the American Dream.
Or, we say, “Let’s take it back out of the market. Let’s decommodify. Let’s provide those services that are fundamental for providing opportunity to kids.” So, everyone gets high-quality childcare. Everyone gets high-quality schooling. And we say, “Those things are sacred.” The market’s wonderful, but when it comes to opportunity, that’s sacred. It should be delivered to everyone, and so we’ll take it out of the market and provide basic public services. But, we [have] to do one or the other. If you don’t do either, then the American Dream will be something that’s trotted out every four years for good political speak, but it’ll mean nothing.