Despite decades of battering by divorce and the proliferation of single-parent households, the family remains a source of inexhaustible fascination. The topic is of obsessive, often prurient interest, permeating every genre of popular culture, from the endless stream of sitcoms featuring a mildly troubled or outright dysfunctional household, to pop psychology and crime journalism plumbing the depths of the family romance to account for murder and mayhem (not to mention the guilty pleasure many of us have taken in following the differential fortunes of Jimmy and Billy Carter and Bill and Roger Clinton; the tragic but fascinating Kennedy family history; and, of course, the rise of George W. Bush–the least likely to succeed of Barbara and George Senior’s kids–who overcame mediocre school grades, multiple business failures, alcoholism, verbal incoherence and popular electoral defeat to become President of the United States). We’ve gotten used to blaming parents for the waywardness of their children, when we don’t blame the children themselves. In these stories the family is the place-keeper for society because it is the institution that remains closest to us.
Now comes Dalton Conley’s effort to explain why siblings often end up on opposite sides of the class divide despite being raised in the same family. The Pecking Order is a fun read with a serious intent–both a study of the family and a symptom of our fascination with it. Conley, a New York University sociologist in his 30s, satisfies our thirst for knowing the private lives of the rich and famous while also shedding light on the family lives of anonymous Americans. Perhaps more to the point, his book feeds our need for reassurance by reciting the familiar narrative of social mobility in America: In nearly all of Conley’s anecdotes, some unlikely sibling defies the social determinism of birth. Thus Bill Clinton’s rise to fame and power is an inadvertent re-enactment of that paradigmatic American success story, Abe Lincoln’s mythic overcoming of seemingly insuperable odds. Bill’s early life was marked by an absent biological father and a “bitterly jealous” stepfather who was abusive to his mother. How did Bill escape the murky fortunes of his brother, Roger, who seemed to succumb to the effects of their shared grim home life? Conley suggests that given the family’s severely restricted resources it was a zero-sum game; Bill’s gain was Roger’s loss.
The majority of Conley’s examples, however, are drawn from the lives of ordinary Americans, and he relates their stories with a novelist’s flair. (To his credit, he relegated the inevitable essay on method to a lengthy appendix, thus preserving the book’s narrative flow.) In these accounts he seeks to challenge the two most popular explanations for success: “It’s all in the genes,” and the equally determinist attribution of failure to social conditions, particularly social class. Inequality, Conley argues, cuts broadly across the class and occupational structure and begins at home; the way parents relate to their children greatly influences their chance of achieving success and social prestige outside the home. According to Conley, families set up a “pecking order” in which parents often lavish attention on one child while ignoring or giving short shrift to the others. Although he does not ignore the role the larger social structure plays in holding many kids back both from academic achievement and from social mobility, Conley places most of his emphasis on such factors as birth order–whether the older sibling has a chance to experience her or his early years as an only child, thus receiving, for a time, all of the parents’ attention; whether the middle child gets neglected; or whether the youngest are born far enough down the line so that their siblings have left the house and they are the beneficiaries of an unusual outpouring of parental love and support.