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The Pecking Order by Dalton Conley
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The Pecking Order

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The Pecking Order by Dalton Conley
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Apr 12, 2005 | ISBN 9780375713811

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    Apr 12, 2005 | ISBN 9780375713811

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“Lucid and provocative. . . . It will make you think twice about how you became what you are.” —The Washington Post Book World

"Don’t get too attached to tidy assumptions, such as ‘firstborns succeed’ and ‘elite colleges make the difference.’ The Pecking Order is bound to shatter them.” —Detroit Free Press

“Conley turns conventional wisdom on its head. . . . Astonishing.” —The New York Times

“A profound, controversial and blessedly easy-to-read book that ought to be required reading for armchair experts about families–their own families, and others about whom they gossip.” —The Oregonian

"Intriguing and provocative." —Howard Gardner, The Boston Globe

"[Conley] offers a revolutionary new theory — grounded in facts and statistics — detailing the complexities of both the familial and the societal sorting process." —Booklist

“Families can be tough. Now there’s statistical proof.” —O Magazine

“Fascinating…The Pecking Order provides a revealing and well-researched insight into modern American society.” —Tulsa World

“Authoritative yet lively… [Conley] chooses stories that get complicated, but he does not compromise the nuances of the statistical research. He keeps his prose simple…The Pecking Order brings an important but technical branch of social science to a new readership.” —Michael Hout, Contexts

“An interesting and eminently readable combination of overall trends and individual family histories.” —The Providence Journal-Bulletin

“From the first page, this book is engaging because you cannot help but think of your own family predicament.” —The Seattle Times

“A fun read with a serious intent…Conley satisfies our thirst for knowing the private lives of the rich and famous while also shedding light on the family lives of anonymous Americans.” —Stanley Aronowitz, The Nation

The Pecking Order is not a conventional parenting book, but it stands as a daunting reminder of the significant roles both parents and sibling play in determining a child’s success in the world.” —National Post (Canada)

"Reveals a much more fascinatingly shaded world than that of those who choose either nature or nurture." –Kirkus Reviews

Author Q&A

Q&A with Dalton Conley

Let’s start with the title of your book: THE PECKING ORDER: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. What factors help determine this?

You name it, it matters. Let’s start with class: Parents with money, education and social connections are able to provide all of these things for all of these children, thereby minimizing the differences between them. By contrast, when a kid from a family without resources “makes it” it almost by definition means that other siblings are going to be left behind, since usually not all kids experience upward mobility. That just leads to the big question, of course, which is when there are differences between siblings in terms of who succeeds, what explains those differences. The answer is innate ability; the economic trajectory of the family; family changes such as parental death or divorce; family size and its relation to birth order; geographic mobility; peer and mentor influences; even sexual and religious orientation. To top it all off, how all these factors matter depends on each other. The family is a bubbling cauldron, not a simple sorting machine.

In the intro to your book you use the example of siblings, Bill and Roger Clinton, two vastly different siblings brought up in the same household. Most families don’t have such glaring discrepancies, or do they?

In most families one kid doesn’t end up in jail ala Roger; and of course, practically nobody ends up President. But they do represent a widespread pattern in America – sibling differences in class status are often dramatic, especially when a family is coming from the bottom rungs of the ladder—as the Clinton brothers were.

You argue that the pecking order in a family is not established by parents or by the "natural abilities" of a child. If not, then what factors do create a child’s identity?

There is a wide range of factors. Natural abilities and parental behavior and “investments” certainly do matter; but so does the size of the family, the timing of major changes to the family such as parental death or divorce, the overall economic status of the household and the economic trajectory; the roles that the mother and father play in the wider world (for instance, whether or not the mother works outside the home); and so on. Genes are definitely important, but how they matter depends totally on the environmental factors surrounding the kid.

So you’re saying birth order doesn’t matter? Is a family’s size the key?

Birth order as a psychological variable—as in first borns are Type A and last borns are laid back and so on—does not matter much for who succeeds. After all, in our wide-ranging economy, there is theoretical a path for all personality types. Where birth order does matter is in its relation to family size. In families that have more than two children, the middle children often feel the squeeze from both sides and receive less parental investment in the form of time and money and thus perform less well than first or last borns. It is really a question of a fixed resource pie, though, more than the individual psychology of kids.

And what about children of divorce?

I noticed a couple patterns with respect to divorce. First, the kids who have already left the nest, so to speak, when then bomb drops endure the fewest long-term effects on their life paths. However, among those who are still at home, the eldest often suffers the most—particularly when she is female—since that child often has to take over many of the responsibilities of the missing parent. Of course, if divorce represents a “relief” from a highly conflictual or abusive situation, then everything is flipped and all bets are off.

Class identity plays an important role in determining sibling disparity–shouldn’t’ that be shared by siblings? Why or why not?

Class is experienced very differently for different kids. First of all, families often experience a significant amount of upward (or sometimes downward) mobility over their history—so in a very real way the class status of the kids growing up can differ.

As the American family changes in the 21st century, (and is continually impacted by such factors as an increase in divorce, remarriages, adoption, etc.) how is class status affected?

Probably means that siblings will be experiencing their families more and more differently, which may result in sibling class disparities becoming more common. But there are so many other trends, like increasing inequality in society as a whole, that make it hard to predict exactly how it will all shake out.

What role does genetics play in our success or failure? How do twins pan out?

Twins do turn out more similar than the rest of us, on average; take the case of Dear Abby and Ann Landers, for example. But we cannot know for sure whether twins are more similar thanks to their genes or because of the fact that people treat them so similarly. Being a twin gives one a special status, so that makes it really hard to draw general conclusions about the rest of us based on their similarities or differences. And of course, there are major exceptions to the twin similarity pattern, cases where twins work so hard to forge their own, distinct identities that they end up radically different.

Isn’t some of our identity simply determined by pure luck?

Definitely; luck plays more of a role than we’d like to admit—in the form of accidents, breaks, and so on. Of course, when bad things happen to a sibling, that person is likely to attribute them to bad luck, but when good things happen, s/he is more likely to say that it was of his/her own doing. But luck is not totally random, if you know what I mean. Getting raped is really bad luck that can throw a young woman’s class trajectory off-course, but it doesn’t often happen to men; getting placed in a terrible track at school is also damaging to a sibling but is more likely to happen to poor and minority families.

Tell me how you researched the book. What in your background led you to be so interested in sibling differences?

I combined the power of numbers—statistically analyzing three national surveys—with the intimacy that came from family case studies, where my research team and I interviewed multiple siblings from 75 families, for a total of 175 interviews. I always say that all professors are studying themselves in some way or another. I’m not quite sure how that works for, say, mathematicians or astronomers, but it is certainly true for sociologists. So, I guess that’s a way of admitting that the differences in values and career paths between my sister and myself have always fascinated me. It’s cheaper than therapy, after all.

Table Of Contents

1. Inequality Starts at Home:
An Introduction to The Pecking Order

2. Butterflies in Bialystok, Meteors in Manila:
The Nature-Nurture Red Herring

3. Love Is a Pie:
Birth Order and Number of Siblings

4. Death, Desertion, Divorce:
When Bad Things Happen to Good Families

5. Movin’ On Up, Movin’ On Out:
Mobility and Sibling Differences

6. Legacies and role Models, Fat and skin:
Gender Dynamics in the Family

7. Random Acts of Kindness (and Cruelty):
Outside Influences on Sibling Success

8. From Tribes to Markets:
Conclusions, Implications, and Insinuations

About The Pecking Order:
A Technical Appendix


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