The old saying does often seem to hold true: the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, creating a widening gap between those who have more and those who have less. The sociologist Robert K. Merton called this phenomenon the Matthew effect, named after a passage in the gospel of Matthew. Yet the more closely we examine the sociological effects of this principle, the more complicated the idea becomes. Initial advantage doesn't always lead to further advantage, and disadvantage doesn't necessarily translate into failure. Does this theory need to be revisited?
Merton's arguments have significant implications for our conceptions of equality and justice, and they challenge our beliefs about culture, education, and public policy. His hypothesis has been examined across a variety of social arenas, including science, technology, politics, and schooling, to see if, in fact, advantage begets further advantage. Daniel Rigney is the first to evaluate Merton's theory of cumulative advantage extensively, considering both the conditions that uphold the Matthew effect and the circumstances that cause it to fail. He explores whether growing inequality is beyond human control or disparity is socially constructed and subject to change. Reexamining our core assumptions about society, Rigney causes us to rethink the sources of inequity.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, "To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away." Based on this enigmatic statement, the sociologist Robert K. Merton labeled the tendency of the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer "the Matthew effect." St. Mary's University sociology professor Rigney (The Metaphorical Society) presents evidence from science, technology, the economy, politics, public policy, education, and culture to show that, generally speaking, this dynamic is so strong that it might be considered a social law: initial advantages position one for further advantages. The writing is terse, cataloguing study after study in a few paragraphs to establish the tendency of inequality to grow with the passage of time. A concluding chapter examines the ethical and policy implications of Matthew effects for example, should socially disadvantaged students be given more aid than the advantaged? Rigney's summary of the latest research findings should contribute to a much needed discussion between policy makers, social scientists, and the general public.