How did you get into Sociology?
I received my bachelor’s degree in social statistics and demography. My original intention was to study historical demography, or history in general – at that time, I was not brave enough to study history. During my studies I also attended a course in sociology, which got me very interested in the discipline. Eventually, I ended up writing my master’s thesis in sociology. I was fascinated with social phenomena and curious to learn how society works. I wanted to understand social structures and explain social dynamics: Why do people end up in a certain position and why not? How does this happen? Eager to learn about these questions, I moved to sociology and began a PhD in Trento. What remained from my initial bachelor in demography and statistics was my strong interest in the application of quantitative methods to sociology. Hence, it is fair to say that I started as a methodologist. My path led me from statistics to demography and eventually to sociology. Curiously, later on, I integrated my demographic interests in my sociological work. And even more curiously I am now also using qualitative methods in my research.
What makes you sociologically curious?
My original motivation was to understand social inequality and, broadly speaking, to criticize the meritocratic narrative. The study of social mobility and the intergenerational transmission of inequality has been a central focus of my research. I became interested in the life course as central institution in the creation and perpetuation of social inequality. I am particularly interested in the intergenerational reproduction of inequality: of how the family of origin conditions life chances. Such life chances refer to opportunities in terms of educational and occupational attainment of the children. I am curious to understand how exactly one’s social origin as positions of departure affects one’s life course outcomes in terms of education, occupation, and income. This relates also to the debate on meritocracy. I’ve been working on the concept of ‘compensatory advantage’, which suggests that the upper-class children benefit from a second chance in case of failure or less favorable developments in education or in the labor market. It is through this compensatory advantage that the family of origin manages to provide their children with an acceptable position even if they failed at some point. For example, if an upper-class child fails to make it to the Gymnasium in Germany, this child may pursue a less prestigious track initially but still move back to the more academic track through some “bridge programs” and enroll in university. Or if a student’s grades go down in high school that student is still unlikely to drop out of school if her or his parents are located in the upper class. It is this type of dynamic that I am interested in investigating. To me inequality is of an intergenerational nature. Hence, if you want to prioritize inequality politically, it is the intergenerational reproduction of inequality that policies would really need to tackle.
What challenges does sociology face as a science?
The major challenge for sociology and at the same time its unique strength is that the discipline is very comprehensive. Sociology tackles issues that are also addressed in its neighboring disciplines and thus is in constant competition with for example demography, political science, economics and even history. These neighboring disciplines are much more focused on two or three questions with very specialized methods. Sociologists can contribute to these specialized discourses, and at the same time, can offer a broader understanding of the functioning of society. This position of sociology, however, requires to constantly clarify the relation between sociology and its neighboring disciplines. This relates to significant institutional challenges in terms of department building, the securing of resources, recruitment, and the positioning of the discipline. It also relates to the publishing activities and opportunities of sociologists that face high competition in specialized journals such as in demography, political science, or even economics, and at the same time need to speak to a general sociology audience in sociology journals.
Fabrizio Bernardi is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology II at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. He is Editor in Chief of European Sociological Review