Rereading Becker: Contextualizing the Development of Discrimination Theory

By Figart, Deborah M.; Mutari, Ellen | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Rereading Becker: Contextualizing the Development of Discrimination Theory


Figart, Deborah M., Mutari, Ellen, Journal of Economic Issues


Gary Becker's "tastes and preferences" approach to labor market discrimination, articulated in The Economics of Discrimination ([1957] 1971), has been the dominant theory of discrimination within mainstream economics. Neoclassical economists have tended to treat Becker's construct as a general theory, a timeless model that can be applied to various forms of discrimination. Becker himself encouraged this interpretation. Instead, we provide an institutional analysis of Becker's work on discrimination that locates his theory within the social, economic, and political context of the mid 1950s, the period in which he wrote. In particular, Becker's focus on a desire for social and psychological distance as the basis for discrimination and his emphasis on job segregation as the critical outcome reflect the way civil rights issues were framed during this period.

Our deconstruction of Becker's theory relies on the assumption, defended in our previous work, that the implicit wage theories guiding economic actors and policy makers interact with the development of academic economic theory (Figart, Mutari, and Power 2002). Similarly, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in their seminal study of racial formation in the United States, maintained that "[r]acial theory is shaped by actually existing race relations in any given historical period" (1994, 11). The development of race theory in the social sciences is part of the process of racial formation. Science and politics, according to Omi and Winant, are among the historically situated projects (or social practices) through which "racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed" (55). Rereading Becker, therefore, exemplifies the need to think about why certain theories arise within a particular time, space, and place.

There have been many criticisms of Becker's work (see Marshall 1974 for a summary). Our analysis does not comment on the strengths and weaknesses of these critiques unless they echo concerns raised by our contextualized reading. Rather than cataloging all of the strengths and weaknesses of Becker's view of discrimination, we focus on demonstrating the limits of his definition of discrimination. We conclude that the quest to develop a universal model is inferior to an institutionalist methodology. An institutional approach focuses on the diverse manifestations of discrimination in particular social, economic, and political contexts.

General Theory or Race Theory? Becker's Mixed Signals

Becker's pioneering work on discrimination began as a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Chicago in 1955. He defined discrimination in monetary terms. (1) A person (either an employer, coworker, or consumer) is said to have a "taste for discrimination," just like a [dis]taste for strawberries, if he or she would pay to maintain social or psychological distance from members of a particular group. (Nepotism represents a sacrifice of income to maintain proximity to members of a particular group.) Reflecting on the concept in 2002, Becker succinctly argued that "[d]iscrimination comes from prejudice, and I translate that into a monetary amount--how much you are willing to pay" (Clement 2002). One actually discriminates, as opposed to merely having a taste for discrimination, when one forfeits income in order to indulge this preference. Thus, discrimination is never profitable for the employer, by definition. While Becker claimed to leave the motivation behind such tastes to the province of sociologists and psychologists and to focus solely on the economic consequences of discriminatory preferences, he was clear that he considered the motivation to be nonpecuniary.

The strength of discriminatory preferences can be measured by the amount of income an employer (or co-worker or customer) is willing to sacrifice to maintain distance, which Becker has referred to as a "discrimination coefficient." For an employer with a taste for discrimination, the effective wage (including both nominal and psychic costs) for hiring a member of an undesired group is w(1 + d). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Rereading Becker: Contextualizing the Development of Discrimination Theory
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.