The family is our haven, the place where we all start off on equal footing — or so we like to think. But if that’s the case, why do so many siblings often diverge widely in social status, wealth, and education? In this groundbreaking and meticulously researched book, acclaimed sociologist Dalton Conley shatters our notions of how our childhoods affect us, and why we become who we are. Economic and social inequality among adult siblings is not the exception, Conley asserts, but the norm: over half of all inequality is within families, not between them. And it is each family’s own “pecking order” that helps to foster such disparities. Moving beyond traditionally accepted theories such as birth order or genetics to explain family dynamics, Conley instead draws upon three major studies to explore the impact of larger social forces that shape each family and the individuals within it.
From Bill and Roger Clinton to the stories of hundreds of average Americans, here we are introduced to an America where class identity is ever changing and where siblings cannot necessarily follow the same paths. This is a book that will forever alter our idea of family.
In recent years, people have begun to examine family dynamics for clues to individual success. Birth order, in particular, has been a favored explanation for the differences between siblings in everything from leadership skills to romantic conquests. Now Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at NYU, reveals that indeed our siblings may affect how our lives turn out, but not in the ways we might think. Conley made an effort not to simplify the very complex familial data collected by both the United States Census, a long-term study conducted by the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. What he found was that the differences between siblings outweigh almost every other kind of difference between any two individuals in the United States. Every family has a pecking order independent of birth order, and the differences between siblings are magnified by poverty and disenfranchisement. In these situations, families invest in the sibling most likely to succeed, leading to stark divides, even class differences between family members. Oddly, the choice of successful sibling is made independent of birth order, parental attention, or innate talents, and becomes a tacit agreement among family members. Conley uses a plethora of examples, including Bill and Roger Clinton, to illustrate his findings, and readers will nod knowingly at many of the ubiquitous family behaviors that set siblings up for differing life paths. Ultimately, what The Pecking Order reveals is that there is no single factor that can predict one's success or failure in life, but that complex, multilayered familial dynamics play the biggest part in determining our fate. --Therese Littleton