Politics and Culture in the Comic Zone

Daniel Rigney

Daniel Rigney
New Texas, USA
August 01
free-range writer
In this writing workshop and citizen's blog I'm exploring various short forms, often from a satiric angle. My interests include politics, culture and the human comedy; old and new media; social theory and urban life; the commercialization, corporatization and tabloidization of everything; sustainability; Unitarianism (UU); coffee; and writing (sorry, I mean providing content). Turtle stamp is from Tandy Leather. Interested in republishing a piece? Contact drigney3@gmail.com.


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SEPTEMBER 5, 2011 8:30PM

What Are Matthew Effects?

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By Daniel Rigney

Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter in Outliers to “Matthew effects.” What are these?

Matthew effects occur when social advantages of any kind generate further advantages through time in a feedback loop, widening the gap (relative or absolute) between those who have more of a given resource and those who have less.  Think of them as a kind of social or cultural compound interest.

When those who enjoy initial advantages – whether earned, ill-gotten or inherited -- reinvest some part of these in the accumulation of more advantages, and then parlay these further advantages into still more advantages, they set into motion a self-amplifying cycle. Like a snowball rolling downhill and gathering more snow as it goes, advantage tends to accumulate further advantage.

But this process of accumulation does not go on forever. Matthew effects may be limited or blocked by a variety of external or countervailing factors, such as resource depletion, economic competition, or political or moral resistance.

The influential sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term more than forty years ago in his studies of scientific prestige systems, undertaken with colleagues at Columbia University. The phrase refers to a passage in biblical scripture (Matthew 13), with variations appearing in Matthew 25, Mark 4 and Luke 8 and 19. (More recently, Margaret Rossiter has coined the corresponding term "Matilda effect" to identify social processes that perpetuate gender advantages to the detriment of women.)

Although these scriptures are often paraphrased  (somewhat misleadingly) to mean that "the rich grow richer," it is clear from their context that they do not refer  to the literal accumulation of monetary wealth, but rather to the growth of spiritual understanding.  Those who have will have more.  Initial advantage thus becomes a platform from which to pursue further advantage – in this instance, fuller wisdom.  

We observe Matthew effects across the full range of human institutions, amplifying inequalities of wealth, political power, prestige, knowledge and education, and thus tending to produce  widening gaps between the haves and the have nots (or, more typically, between the have-mores and the have-lesses) until they encounter external limits or obstacles.

The general process is analogous to the self-amplifying cycle through which compound interest and compound debt accumulate in finance.  Taking compound interest as a  model of Matthew effects, we can vary the hypothetical amounts that different investors deposit at a given time, and also vary (or hold constant) the rates of return that different investors receive through time. By changing the values in the compound interest model, we can produce diverging (or converging)  hypothetical distributions of outcome and  patterns of inequality. 

The dynamics of compound interest -- interest returned to principal to generate more interest --  may be considered a special instance of a more general process (call it "social compound interest") through which various noneconomic resources, such as political or cultural "capital," accumulate in self-amplifying cycles. Imagine many such cycles running concurrently within and among human societies.

Just as advantages tend to attract further advantages through circular positive feedback loops, initial disadvantages may likewise lead to further disadvantages,  creating downward spirals of unemployment, debt, and the swirling undertow of poverty.  These too are Matthew effects, working in the direction opposite those that carry the more fortunate aloft.  Matthew effects yield compound interest for some, even as they submerge others more deeply into compound debt. 

Merton and his colleagues at Columbia found that Matthew effects in scientific communities can have ambivalent consequences, both positive and negative. For instance, the reward system of science  may reward elite scientists disproportionately while creating a sense of unfairness among less rewarded scientists, thus undermining the cohesiveness and collegiality of the scientific community as a whole.

In some instances Matthew effects may be desirable, in other instances undesirable -- depending, I would add, on one's interests or ideology. But in any case,  Matthew effects are not entirely inevitable or beyond challenge. They can be contravened to a point. (See below.)

The term “Matthew effect” gives a convenient and easily-shareable name to these cycles of self-amplifying advantage and disadvantage in social systems.  It is, I think, a meme whose time has come in this age of networks and network thinking.  Both Matthew effects and memes travel  through social networks, and memes themselves display the characteristics of Matthew effects when they "go viral."

If you think the Matthew effect meme  is potentially important and deserves  wider awareness, please feel free to spread it!

What are some examples of Matthew effects?

We can observe Matthew effects operating in many spheres of social life today-- not just in the economy, but in politics, education and cultural institutions as well.

Economic inequalities, at least within societies around the world,  are currently accelerating in the United States, China, India  and elsewhere (See Rigney 2010, Appendix: "Trends in Economic Inequality").  And in our increasingly Socially-Darwinian times, few Americans -- even those who regard themselves as morally virtuous --  are more than one or two unexpected slips away from tumbling downhill as others continue to strive (or ride the escalator) upward in an everyone-for-himself society

Matthew effects are an important (though underrecognized) source of gaping social inequalities within and among societies -- not only in the social distribution of economic wealth and income,  but also of political power, prestige, health care, knowledge and education, and other scarce and valued social resources.  My recent book, The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage (Columbia, 2010), summarizes four decades of research on the subject, investigating conditions under which greater initial advantages lead to greater gains across a range of social institutions.Or put too simply, it often happens that the more one has, the more one gets, and the more one gets, the more one has.

Matthew effects are clearly not the only social program running in our hypercomplex and hyperconnected world, and so they will not yield the long-awaited universal explanation of everything.  Matthew effects  may be countervailed by other impinging processes, including the vicissitudes of world and domestic market competition, the rise or fall of egalitarian social movements, government intervention (whether progressive or regressive), altruism and enlightened self-interest.  

Matthew effects tend to confer further advantages on the already-advantaged, other things equal.  Of course, other things are never entirely equal. Multiple interacting factors are at play in a complex and connected world.  Nonetheless, more than  forty years of research findings suggest that Matthew effects are real and potentially powerful determinants of social outcomes in their own right, and especially when they are not countervailed. We simply cannot understand the dynamics of social inequalities in the world today without taking Matthew effects seriously  into account.

Such effects are well-documented in the institutions of science.  Merton’s early research on these effects in the late 1960s, in collaboration with Harriet Zuckerman and others, examined prestige systems in scientific communities. Their studies found evidence of cumulative advantage in the careers of prominent scientists, for whom early success attracted further success (prestigious appointments, grants, publications, etc.), accelerating the rise of talented scientists, with the aid of others, in an ascending and self-amplifying arc.  

Merton and his colleagues did not claim to be first to discover Matthew effects; their existence was already ancient wisdom. But Merton and others succeeded in building a platform of scholarship to support further inquiry in subsequent decades.  Today, in an age of electronic  social and economic networks and wildly-interacting feedback loops, we are now coming to understand just how powerful such self-sustaining and self-amplifying cycles can be.

In politics we see the operation of Matthew effects in  the self-perpetuating advantages of incumbency in political office.  Other things equal, candidates who are already in place and get free media attention have a better shot at election than those who enter politics unknown (and especially unfinanced by "contributions" from those with a stake in incumbent power).

Political scientists have also studied bandwagon effects in voting and fundraising (i.e.,  the self-reinforcing momentum of “momentum”), legislative  gerrymandering (i.e. using political advantage to redraw voting districts for future political advantage), and other such cycles of cumulative political advantage.

In educational psychology we find a substantial literature documenting how advantage builds upon advantage in the acquisition of reading, numerical and computer skills, creating widening gaps between the more and less skilled – a pattern that we ignore at our peril if the unskilled do not advance educationally and continue to fall farther and farther behind. Here it is not "equal" skills that are wanted, clearly, but rather improving skills from top to bottom, with special attention paid to the access of the least skilled to challenging education and emerging employment opportunities in 21st-century economies.

Matthew effects in education are apparent at the institutional level as well. Wealthy and prestigious schools and research institutes draw to themselves the resources they need to perpetuate and enhance their academic stature. Elite colleges and universities, for instance, accumulate vast endowments to draw top faculty and student  talent, which amplifies their prestige, which attracts  further wealth and talent, creating a self-reinforcing  Matthew cycle.  A subsequent  post  in this space will elaborate further on Matthew effects in education. 

More generally, as many others have said in many different ways, knowledge itself grows in cumulative cycles when new discoveries and inventions occur through the combination or hybridization of previous ones. The accumulation of knowledge forms a platform for the growth of further knowledge, compounding what is already known by creating new elements, and thereby expanding the base of elements which can be further recombined or hybridized to create new discoveries and inventions. Knowledge and invention are thus compounded and recompounded in a self-amplifying cycle.

Matthew effects emerge not just within social institutions, but also in relations between or among institutions.  Economic, political, educational  and other social and cultural networks are intricately intertwined, after all, and it is sometimes hard to say where one ends and another begins. (Where, for instance, does the "economic system" end and the "political system" begin in the United States or any other country?)

Advantages accumulated in one institutional sphere (say, the economy) are often converted and spent in another (for instance, to purchase political or educational or communicative advantage) much in the way that currency accumulated in one country can be converted and invested in another. Thus, for instance, money can be (and is) converted into political and media power, power into prestige, and so on, in a continual circulation of institutional currencies.

Why do we not hear more about Matthew effects from economists?

Economists whom I’ve talked with and read  (I’m a sociologist) tell me that the concept of self-reinforcing and self-amplifying advantages is widely prevalent in economics, though it usually goes by other names. 

One economist in particular deserves special mention here. The Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal, writing at about the same time Merton did, examined Matthew effects in several of his works without  naming them as such.  Myrdal’s notion of “circular causation” parallels Merton’s treatment of Matthew effects at several points, and Myrdal even cites the same scripture from the book of Matthew to illustrate the cycles of self-amplifying advantage that operate in socioeconomic systems.

Matthew-like phenomena in economics include capital investment and accumulation processes, which often display the familiar feedback pattern.  Economists commonly speak of “wealth effects” when financial gains stimulate further gains. Compound interest is itself an instance of self-amplifying growth, especially when investors who begin with more resources than others also receive higher rates of return than others, accelerating the self-amplifying process. Elsewhere I've discussed how such self-amplifying processes can produce  social spirals and, in extreme cases, Matthew hypereffects. (See link below.)

Are Matthew effects an ironclad law of nature, or are they, at least in part, socially and politically constructed and therefore capable of alteration?

On whether Matthew effects are natural laws or social constructions, I take an intermediate position. Matthew effects are what I prefer to call natural tendencies in social institutions, working to favor the more advantaged, other things equal.  When they operate without interruption or intervention, they tend to favor the already-advantaged.  But  as we have noted, they can be mitigated by a variety of countervailing factors or forces, including social  movements that work toward more equitable distributions of economic, political or educational power and opportunity.

Egalitarian social movements, from abolitionism to the rise of organized labor to civil and gender rights movements, have long challenged Matthew effects when their outcomes have seemed profoundly unfair or inequitable.  Popular and progressive movements in the United States continue today, without much success lately, to challenge a pattern of galloping economic inequality that could eventuate in an uncontested plutocracy in the absence of significant democratic constraint. Some think the United States is already there now.

One leading critic of gross and polarizing inequalities in the United States today,  Nobel economist Paul Krugman, argues that unemployment and inequalities are ultimately a more worrisome problem  than are debts and deficits, despite political hysteria to the contrary. Krugman and others in the not-Chicago School plausibly contend that only substantial public investment in areas such as infrastructure, clean technology, research and development can stimulate the aggregate demand needed to sustain long-term economic growth and  create a positive-sum society in which we grow together rather than apart.

In our responses to  the more destructive consequences of Matthew effects, we should acknowledge the role played by philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who rightly see private philanthropy as a worthwhile investment in the well-being of future generations around the world.  I applaud them and wish that more of the hyper-rich would follow their lead. I admire the intelligence they bring to the business of making a humane difference. But their good works can never supplant the role of smart  public investment in creating better opportunities for those who begin life with fewer advantages, through no fault of their own, while others are born into high privilege, having done nothing to earn it.

The widening inequalities that Matthew effects produce do not establish evidence of the moral superiority of winners or the moral inferiority of losers, as Social Darwinists past and present like to imagine. Such inequalities reflect, at least in part, the inherent dynamics of feedback loops. Matthew effects rain and shine on both the good and the wicked, and they do not care whether we like them, or even whether we know they exist. They are like gravity in that way.

Yet unlike natural laws such as gravity,  Matthew effects can be contravened and ameliorated, if never eliminated entirely, through political and social agency when their  consequences are unbearably painful, if we choose to do so as political communities. In American history alone, social movements from abolition to 21st-century progressivism have challenged an unheavenly host of "natural" inequalities.

Here are some things I am emphatically not saying about Matthew effects.  I am not saying that all or even most inequalities in the world are due to them; nor am I suggesting that  all equalities are good, nor that all inequalities are unjustified or destructive.  I am also not saying that Matthew effects constitute an iron law of society and history, or, at the opposite, constructionist extreme, that they are entirely social or political inventions. 

I am only saying that Matthew effects are real, and that they represent a persistent and recurring process in social life, among other processes; that they may have both constructive and destructive consequences, falling differently on some than on others; that we can attempt to countervail them when they are unnecessarily destructive; and that our unawareness of them or our refusal to see  them  -- sometimes because it is not in our interest to see them --  does not make them go away. 

But I know too that, as Upton Sinclair observed in another context, some people’s livelihoods depend on their not understanding – and this is especially true, I would add, of those who desparately need to believe that every advantage they have in life, and every disadvantage that someone else has, is entirely earned and deserved.

Why should the general public and policy-makers be aware of Matthew effects?

If we understand Matthew effects, we can anticipate, and perhaps avert, their most potentially-destructive consequences. Extreme and growing inequalities threaten not only to damage the most vulnerable members of society, but also to increase the likelihood of violent conflicts, such as we have seen recently in class-related uprisings in England and elsewhere.

In the United States, upper classes have fled increasingly into gated residential and commercial fortresses to try to escape not only the Dangerous Other, but their own fears and vulnerabilities as well. We cannot understand ominously-polarizing trends like these, let alone avert them, without being aware of underlying processes, such as Matthew effects, that work to produce them by putting increasing social and  geographic distance between the most and least advantaged members of society. 

Thinking about these issues in purely individualistic and psychological terms obscures extreme inequalities in the social structure of opportunities experienced by those who are born into widely-separated stations of life in an extremely class-stratified society such as ours. (By many measures, the United States has the most extreme economic inequalities of any society in the advanced-industrial world.)

Doing a purely psychological or individualistic analysis of our situation would be akin to studying the behavior of mice by focusing on their motivations in the maze without paying attention to the structure of the maze itself, or to their starting places relative to the cheese. An analysis of this kind would be all psychology and no sociology.

It is also a fallacy, prevalent among Social Darwinists and those who take an "everyone for himself" view of social life, to believe that we are like disconnected atoms, and that our choices affect only ourselves. Aristotle got it right when he said that we are social and political (of the polis) animals, and our well-being is ultimately inseparable from the well-being of others with whom we are connected -- which, today, means seven billion others. Personal responsibility and social responsibility are ultimately not separate. They are throughly interwoven, as each choice you make affects me, and each choice I make affects you, directly or indirectly. 

Denying interdependence does not make us less interdependent. Yet in the United States, the very ideas of interdependence and social responsibility are under continual assault, especially from the conservative and economically-libertarian right.

Finally, it is a fallacy to believe that the Market is an omniscient and infallible god, and that whatever distribution of rewards the Market allocates is beyond question or restraint. Markets respond first to the needs of those who have more to spend in them, and they tend to favor the advantaged. (See "Matthew effect.") Markets are useful mechanisms, no doubt, but they are not omniscient or infallible, and their outcomes are not beyond question or criticism. They are like "dollar democracies" in which some have millions of votes and others have few. And markets tend to produce Matthew effects, further advantaging the already-advantaged.

I sometimes wonder lately if we are becoming a kind of self-perpetuating caste system for all practical purposes, with an emerging plutocratic hereditary aristocracy, and whether there is anything even remotely approaching "equality of opportunity" in the United States, or ever has been, notwithstanding cherry-picked anecdotes to the contrary. ("But what about Oprah?")

I’ve tried to contribute to the awareness of Matthew effects  by writing, here and elsewhere, in a way that might reach a general reading audience, including people working in politics and public policy, social services, and non-profits, as well as academic and scholarly audiences.  I hope that one day “Matthew effect” will be a household phrase and idea (or "viral meme," as we now say), and that it will inform policy-analysis and policy-making in the interest of those who are most vulnerable to being dragged under the waves of Matthew effects and drowned in their powerful undertow.

If you would like to promote awareness of Matthew effects, please pass this article on.



Daniel Rigney is a sociologist and writer living in Houston. He is professor emeritus at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and is the author of The Metaphorical Society (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) and The Matthew Effect (Columbia University Press, 2010), recently published in Italy as Sempre Più Ricchi, Sempre Più Poveri  (Etas, 2011). Portions of this article are adapted from a personal correspondence with the Italian magazine Vita (forthcoming).

For more on  Matthew effects by this author, see  http://www.cupblog.org/?s=Rigney&x=0&y=0






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Fascinating post. First I've read of this phenomena, though I can see it in many places now. Thank you for sharing this.
I can't really follow all you are saying but somehow it reminds me of the Peter Principle. So many trends.
Thank you, ReiMomo and zanelle, for taking the time to read this longer piece. Yes, this phenomenon is all over the place, and yes, Zanelle, it is kind of in the same vein as the Peter Principle, now that you mention it!