Amherst Magazine

A Psychologist's Work in Progress

By E.G.B.

To examine issues of race and social class in college life, Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Aries did not have to look far for research subjects. In the fall of 2005, she surveyed nearly 60 members of the new first-year class, asking such questions as: Is your social class expressed in your clothing and hairstyle? What differences do you think your race will have on your experiences at Amherst? What might the college have done so far to make this a better place for you?

The students fell, in about equal numbers, into one of four categories: white and affluent, black and affluent, white with high financial need and black with high financial need. The affluent students were upper-middle-class and upper-class, Aries says. Those with high financial need ranged from poor to middle-class. Aries followed up with the students at the end of their first year on campus. This time she wanted to know: How often do you think about differences in wealth between students here? Has living with classmates from different race and class backgrounds changed the way you see people? Are there cliques of students based on race or social class from which you feel excluded or have avoided?

Faced with at least 1,000 pages of interview transcripts, Aries realized there was no way to squeeze her data into a journal article. She decided to write a book instead. She spent this academic year drafting nine of 11 chapters. She is now inviting two interview subjects from each category to read the drafts. “They’re filling in some of the holes,” Aries says. “I want to make sure that what I’m saying captures their experiences.”

The book will focus on the role that race and social class play in shaping the college experience, and on how students learn from economic and racial diversity in the student body. It will cover the extent to which different groups interact with one another. It will also detail the specific academic and social challenges that students face based on their race and social class.