NYU's Dalton Conley is the First Sociologist to Win NSF's Waterman Award
Growing-up years gives scientist special lens on cultural and sibling inequalities
When he was growing up in a New York City East Side neighborhood, Dalton Conley recognized the societal advantages of being a white male with middle-class values, even though his family was poor and his neighborhood was predominantly African-American and Latino.
"At first, I had a heightened racial awareness. Class differences did not appear to have much impact on me at that age, and I'm not sure we had a language of class," Conley, a prominent New York University sociologist, says. "But I did come to know the advantages that came to me because of being in a dominant racial group."
Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research across nearly all fields of science and engineering, recognized Conley as one of the nation's top young sociologists. The 35-year-old Conley will receive the 30th annual Alan T. Waterman Award, named for NSF's first director. It is the first time a sociologist has received the honor, which carries a $500,000 research award.
During college, Conley's interest in immunology was overtaken by his greater desire to understand broader societal puzzles, such as how socioeconomic status and advantage is transmitted through generations and how social inequality is reproduced by mechanisms such as wealth transfer, health and status at birth, racial makeup and changing family circumstances over time. He has been studying, writing and publishing ground-breaking works ever since in a direct and popular style that has heightened his impact among academic peers and raised the attention of policy makers.
"Dr. Conley's work is the epitome of the kind of research that NSF vigorously supports," said Arden L. Bement, Jr., NSF director. "His research is filled with new and untried ideas, carved into a creative path toward solving fundamental questions of society. He communicates his findings directly and eloquently, reaches varied audiences, and by so doing, opens new avenues of interest and study, not to mention he keeps government policy makers on their toes."
Last year, Conley, who is the director for NYU's Center for Social Science Research, published The Pecking Order, a book the Washington Post called "lucid and provocative" in its explanation of how the forces of income, gender, health and birth order in families result in "a tangled web" of inequalities that create a family's own pecking order.
"We like to think of the family as a haven in harsh world – a level playing field," Conley said. "But it's really more like a bubbling cauldron of inequality."
An NSF Faculty Early Career Award supported Conley's four-year study upon which the book, and other relatated papers, are based.
Conley has written several other books, including Being Black, Living in the Red, in which he shows that class dynamics since the Civil Rights era – specifically family wealth levels - appear to be the basis of persistent racial differences in areas of life ranging from educational success to the likelihood of relying on welfare. Race, however, continues to determine wealth levels, Conley argues. He believes it was his best work.
"There was a very clear, simple study design that clearly showed how the inheritance of race and health differences manifest themselves into class differences that have long-lasting consequences," he said.
Conley's book, The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances, extends the "nature-or-nurture" discussion by showing how biological and social factors combine to produce different life-chance outcomes of family members. It is a "genes aren't everything" argument that takes into account the interplay of multiple causal forces, regardless of their origination. For example, economic resources of a family can sometimes counteract biologically inherited effects, leading to different policy implications for truly "at risk" segments of society, that is, those who face both biological and social disadvantages.
"I'm driven by empirical puzzles and other theoretical problems to solve," Conley says. "Each book or article seems to lead to another piece of the puzzle. On the other hand, I'm also interested in larger-scale studies, integrating genetic and social research, for example. I'm interested in large-scale policy questions, doing large-scale, social-intervention experiments, using control groups, which dovetail into social and economic policy.'
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.
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