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To solve social problems, we must address a combination of individual and environmental factors, says Professor Nicole Stephens.

Assistant Professor Nicole Stephens

The social class divide

Kellogg Professor Nicole Stephens makes the case for a new model to understand and reduce class disparities in health and education

By Daniel P. Smith

8/17/2012 - As the 21st century unfolds, so too does debate about disparities between America’s rich and poor, particularly in the areas of health and education.

Kellogg Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Nicole Stephens beleives the gaps can be narrowed.

Alongside Hazel Rose Markus (Stanford University) and Stephanie Fryberg (University of Arizona), Stephens has introduced a theoretical framework for a new model of understanding social class disparities.

In an article slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Review, Stephens and her colleagues contend that integrating the “sociocultural self model” can provide tools and interventions for reducing these longstanding disparities in health and education.

What does current literature say about social class disparities in health and education?
There are two underlying, yet often opposed, models of behavior: the individual model, which assumes that people’s behavior is a product of their individual characteristics or skills, and the structural model, which assumes that behavior is a product of the material resources available in one’s environment. While both models are a necessary part of the solution, neither is sufficient by itself to change behavior. Merely having the skills to cook healthy food is no more the solution to addressing social class health disparities than the ability to purchase fresh produce outside one’s door.

How can the proposed sociocultural self model prompt change?
The sociocultural self model conceptualizes individual characteristics and structural conditions as interdependent forces and ones that are best understood together. We can better understand behavior if we recognize the joint contributions of individuals, structures and the self-understandings that guide how people interpret their experiences and, in turn, shape patterns of thinking, feeling and acting.

Therefore, interventions should address the interdependence of all three factors and how they influence one another. If we want healthy eaters, for instance, we need to provide the individual skills and structural conditions that encourage this, but also help people understand that healthy food is for someone like them.

How might this theory influence public policy?
Rather than asking whether individual or structural factors are responsible for unhealthy eating or poor academic performance, leaders should ask how each of these factors contributes to behavior and, furthermore, how they interact with one another to shape how people think about themselves in the context of health and education.

How are you further testing this theory?
I am currently applying these principles in intervention work, specifically by evaluating the effects of an experimental intervention that seeks to improve the transition, social engagement and academic performance of first-generation undergraduate students at Northwestern.

Further Reading
An Unseen Disadvantage