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Joe Soss affiliated with Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

For the next three years, the American political scientist, Joe Soss, will be affiliated with the research community Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS). He will be working with discriminatory treatment of ethnic Danish children and children from a minority background.

When Joe Soss was appointed Dale T. Mortensen’s Senior Fellow at AIAS, he accepted enthusiastically. He already has many good research experiences with researchers from Aarhus University and is now looking forward to being affiliated with the university in the period 2013-2016.

At AIAS, he will be working on the project “Teachers, Parents and Co-Production of Educational Outcomes” which is a study of whether or not children from a minority are discriminated against in relation to ethnic Danish children, and and how their parents and teachers can be involved in decisions regarding the education of their children.

Disciplining the poor

Joe Soss has a background as a professor from the University of Minnesota where he works with political questions about inequality and poverty. His focus is on public policy, and he is specifically interested in the welfare state and social welfare programmes for the disadvantaged. In the USA, policy in these areas are strongly connected with race, gender and class. 

His latest major work is the book Disciplining the poor in which he criticises the way the USA manages poverty problems in the population, i.e. ‘poverty governance’. The pursued policy assumes that poverty and the lack of self-discipline are intertwined and therefore focuses on disciplining the poor.

According to Soss, in order to understand this policy one must understand how important racial differences have been in the promotion of ‘poverty governance’. For instance, why do Afro-Americans have a much greater probability of being punished and thrown out of social welfare programmes than is the case for similar white clients?

Unconscious discrimination of minorities

Joe Soss has explored this problem by means of a number of experiments. “We had the welfare case manager respond to vignettes with made up stories. The case files were identical except for two things: In half the cases we used a name we had tested beforehand that people understood as a white person. And in half the cases we used a name that people would interpret as a black person’s name. And for half of each of those – randomly assigned – half the time it was an indication that this person had been sanctioned in the program before,” Joe Soss explains.

None of these factors should have any influence on the social workers’ decision on whether or not the client should stay in the programme or not, and Joe Soss and his colleagues do indeed find that prior sanctions have no implications for the white clients. However, their findings on black clients are more complicated: If the black clients had not been previously sanctioned, they were treated like the white clients.  However, if they had been previously sanctioned, there was a significant increase in the probability that they would be thrown out of the welfare programme. The explanation for this situation is not entirely straightforward:

““It is not really the case that people want to think of themselves as racists and are consciously trying to do this. And in fact the old image of white case managers discriminating against people of color that are clients really also doesn’t hold, because in many cases the case managers themselves  - a majority of them – are women of color actually. Race works in an implicit way, a kind of race level below consciousness to shape peoples’ perceptions and decisions in ways that if they were aware of it wouldn’t like themselves.” 

Co-operation between parents and teachers on children’s education

Joe Soss now intends to test his ideas, methods and theoretical model in a Danish context. In the project “Teachers, Parents and Co-Production of Educational Outcomes” with which also researchers from the Department of Political Science and Government are associated, he is studying Danish schools’ and teachers’ treatment of ethnic Danish children and children from a minority background.

Soss uses a similar method, where a typical Danish name and a typical Muslim name are used in cases where information which might have negative associations is added. It might be alcohol related violence in the home, prior contact with the child welfare authorities and the like. If they find a connection between the teachers’ treatment of the child and the child’s ethnic background, they will work to find out what should be done.

This is where a new supplementary project will enter the picture. Joe Soss believes that steps to improve conditions for the children discriminated against should involve teachers and parents.  They need to talk together in order to allow parents to contribute to decisions regarding how their children should be educated. This democratic strategy will give the most disadvantaged parents a voice and will give them a feeling of not just being objects subject to changes that are imposed on them from above.