Last week, the sports world was abuzz with what some were calling “ an almost unimaginable comeback” (see here). In the eleventh hour, the American sailing team managed to overcome an 7 point deficit, winning 8 straight races, to win the America’s Cup and thwarting the New Zealand team by a narrow margin. Now, I don’t know much about sailing, but from all the media I’ve come to understand that this is a big deal. It is as exciting as watching your favorite football team, down by 14 points and with only two minutes on the clock, suddenly score two touchdowns and field goal for the win. It just doesn’t happen all that often. (For more on the sailing win, see here , here , and here).
But when I read a little more about the sailing victory for the U.S., it started to seem like a familiar story and slightly less miraculous. There is some important context to this victory. The American team, also known as the Oracle Team, is owned and sponsored by Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle. So, to say the least, the American team is well-funded with state of the art equipment. In addition, the Oracle team also won the cup in 2010. This gave Ellison the rights to set to conditions and rules of the competition for this year. Ellison chose the location near San Fransico. In addition, “he called for the new AC72 catamaran, which can hydroplane on top of the water at speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour. These boats are among the fastest, most sophisticated, most expensive, and most dangerous sailboats ever built” (see here). They are also incredibly expensive. Much of the would-be competition did not even compete because they could not afford the right kind of boat. So, while the Oracle team’s victory may be impressive, I wonder if we should really be all that surprised. After all, they set the conditions of the game. Should we be so surprised that they won?
This strikes me as an interesting analogy to the social world. A number of sociologists and conflict theorists suggest that our culture is structured in such a way as to keep the dominant group in dominant roles and all others in less privileged positions (Marx, Adorno, Bourdieu). For instance, American culture emphasizes individualism, personal success, and equal opportunity. When someone fails to get into college, to save enough to buy a house, or to work their way up the economic ladder, we believe it to be their fault. We don’t blame the social conditions. We assume the rules of the game are fair; some people simply do not play well enough. Furthermore, when we do succeed, we see it as a personal triumph. “I have a master’s degree because I worked really hard!” Never mind all the networking, economic support, and skills and manners cultivated through my upbringing that facilitated getting the degree.
Sociologists Lareau and Bourdieu pay particular attention to the role of culture in primary schools. The school environment tends to favor certain ways of behaving, speaking, and even self-advocating that are associated with the middle class. The degree to which students walk, talk, or negotiate with the teacher in the right way really has little to do with their actual intelligence. And yet, students who display these proper behaviors get better grades, and as a result, do better in school. And as we all know, doing well in school has long term implications for later career and educational outcomes. In essence, the middle and upper classes set the rules of the game and then reward themselves for playing the game well. This process may not be intentional, but the outcome is the same. Before we declare ourselves winners, we better think about who set the rules.