American Sociological Association

Symbolically Maintained Inequality: How Harvard and Stanford Students Construct Boundaries among Elite Universities

The study of elites is enjoying a revival at a time of increasing economic inequality. Sociologists of education have been leaders in this area, researching how affluent families position their children to compete favorably in a highly stratified higher education system. However, scholars have done less research on how students do symbolic work of their own to bolster elite status. In this study, we use qualitative interviews with 56 undergraduates at Harvard and Stanford Universities to explore how students construct a status hierarchy among elite campuses. Students come to campus with a working knowledge of prestige differences between top institutions but then are influenced by others to refine their perceptions. We find that Harvard and Stanford students value universities that offer a ‘‘well-rounded’’ liberal arts education while criticizing other selective institutions for being, alternatively, too intellectual, connected to the old-world status system, overly associated with partying and athletics, or having a student body too single-minded about career preparation. Our findings suggest that through constructing these nuanced perceptions of elite universities’ distinctiveness, students justify their rarefied positions and contribute to the ongoing status distinctions among social elites more generally.


Amy J. Binder and Andrea R. Abel





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