MIP network member Fabian Pfeffer is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, where he also leads the Inequality Lab and serves as Co-Investigator of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. His main areas of interest are the comparative study of social inequality and its maintenance across time and generations. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Describe your area of study and how it relates to current policy discussions surrounding inequality.
I study the determinants and consequences of intergenerational social mobility, with a recent focus on the study of wealth inequality and its intergenerational consequences. Inequalities in wealth (net worth = total assets minus debts) are much larger than those in income or other dimensions of socio-economic well-being. Stark inequalities in wealth also translate into inequalities in opportunity for the next generation. Much of my ongoing research seeks to add empirical evidence to what I consider the “insurance function” of family wealth for the career trajectories of the next generation, i.e. the idea that parental and grandparental wealth serve as a private safety net that alters the educational decision-making process and early labor market careers of the next generation. We will fail to fully capture and understand the intergenerational role of wealth if we focus exclusively on its purchasing function, i.e. the simple idea that wealth buys access to career-advancing goods.
What areas in the study of inequality are most in need of new research?
After decades of social mobility research that compared the economic status of parents (often just fathers) and their children (often just sons), newer contributions are taking a broader approach and consider the concentration and transmission of advantage within extended family networks that include multiple generations. Although the study of "multigenerational effects” faces considerable methodological challenges, the general insight that inequality can persist within longer family lineages should help broaden this scholarship beyond the parent-child dyad.
What advice do you have for emerging scholars in your field?
Many social scientists have become better at and more focused on causal inference. Identifying causal effects is hard and acquiring the toolbox to do so takes time. Yet, an exclusive focus on establishing the effects of X on Y can often only be the starting point for serious and impactful empirical inquiry. Often, the more interesting and important questions are about the (causal) mechanisms that connect X to Y. Clearly, the “what” question (does X affect Y?) precedes the “why" question (why does X affect Y?); I just hope that scholarship that invests more time and brain energy than ever into the what questions won’t stop there and eventually get around to the all-important why questions.