Sociology 154: Getting Rich


The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has more money than 90 percent of the U.S. population combined. Lisa Keister '90 and her students are exploring why wealth distribution is this lopsided.

While Keister teaches her students about financial markets, including markets for housing, stocks and bonds, credit, and related instruments, this is not merely an economics course. To decipher the dispensing of dollars, Keister and her students apply sociological concepts to inspect the economy.

A financial market is a social system. After all, money would not be valuable unless all members of society agreed on its worth. Keister is struck by social forces at work in an arena ruled by the almighty dollar. "I am fascinated by the fact that social processes are so important in financial decision-making," she says. "It seems an area in which people should be purely rational actors, but that is far from the case."

The intersection of sociology and economics raises revealing questions about financial markets: How are relationships between firms established and carried out? How much power does a bank have, and how does it dictate social interactions in the market? How does the market change over time? By analyzing how people and financial markets interact, students learn that the conventional wisdom—the rich get richer and the poor get poorer—is in fact a function of social relationships.

By using both the rich and the poor as examples, this course gives practical advice on handling money. Financial literacy, how fluent people are with money management and financial planning, dictates how affluent they become.

In addition to readings and lectures, guest speakers provide students with practical money advice. Students also write four essays using their newfound fiscal knowledge. Possible topics include investigating potential homes or apartments in a place they want to live and deciding what the best option is based on their budget, crime rates, and zoning rules; devising a personal strategy to become wealthy in a decade; and interviewing two financial advisers and comparing their varying approaches toward their clients.

At the end of the semester, all students must answer "How much wealth is enough?"  Since this question commands an answer that is deeply rooted within themes from the entire semester, Keister expects her students to be wary of the meager 500-word response limit. Her advice to them might mirror the necessities of today's economy: Be creative and rational.

Lisa Keister is a professor of sociology and director of the Markets and Management Studies Program. One of her books, Getting Rich: America's New Rich and How They Got That Way, inspired her to develop this course. She holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in sociology from Cornell University.


Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan, All the Money in the World: How the Forbes 400 Make and Spend Their Fortunes
E. Thomas Garman and Raymond Forgue, Personal Finance

Essays and class participation 

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