Researching racial equity: Stratification economics

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Dania V. Francis
High school students in classroom; one with hand raised

In part three of J-PAL North America’s researching racial equity blog series, Dania Francis (UMass Boston), a researcher in the J-PAL network, provides an overview of stratification economics and how the tenets of this framework can be applied to impact evaluations.

Introduction to stratification economics

Advancing racial equity through research requires not only quantifying disparities but also rigorously investigating 1) why these disparities exist and 2) how to address them. Stratification economics is a framework that addresses these questions through examinations of systems, group membership (i.e., stratum), and the relative power of groups across various domains (e.g., race, class, gender). This framework is built upon four interrelated tenets: 

Understanding that research is not value-neutral

Like any field, economics is not exempt from bias and normativity. Stratification economics recognizes that the market does not correct for prejudice on its own—it is up to individuals and institutions to actively pursue equity. An important first step is to understand that no one can be 100 percent objective. Instead, stratification economics calls upon researchers to note our biases. Putting forward multiple explanations and conclusions about an observed phenomenon is one way to challenge a researcher’s own assumptions.

Pursuing rigor

It is easy to “undertheorize” (i.e., put forward the simplest explanation) when explaining observed economic and social disparities, particularly when those disparities are tied to race. Concluding that racial disparities are due to race may feel more straightforward than attributing them to racism. However, this tends to lead to circular logic in which people are blamed for their circumstances simply because they are in those circumstances. In stratification economics, researchers dig deeper into the details of what is occurring and the mechanisms behind what is occurring, often using both quantitative and qualitative methods. By posing additional questions and explanations—and testing them through multiple means—stratification economists deepen the complexity and rigor of this work.

Expanding beyond individual human capital

Human capital theory—a popular theory in economic research—posits that people can increase their social and economic standing by harnessing skills and knowledge valued by the market. This theory focuses on individuals in the present without considering historic and contemporary policies and systems that a) create opportunities to build human capital for some but not others, and b) provide differential returns on one’s investment in human capital depending on their strata. Stratification economics aims to more fully account for historic endowments (e.g., access to property for white people) and disendowments (e.g., redlining against Black people) and the power conferred to those with more assets. In doing so, this framework takes people out of a vacuum of individual choices and situates them in the reality of a larger ecosystem of policies and practices.

Centering freedom and agency

Stratification economics positions people in larger systems of institutions and power structures that create or constrain choices and opportunities. Understanding that some groups of people face constraints upon their agency is a critical step in identifying ways to advance equity. Stratification economists are therefore focused on developing and evaluating strategies that enable people to engage freely with economic and social systems and foster mobility across social and economic strata. 

Benefits and applications of stratification economics

Stratification economists focus our theories and research questions around the systemic mechanisms that underlie observed disparities. This focus helps us avoid two potential pitfalls: 1) concluding that disparities are due simply to cultural differences (which tend to be incomplete explanations at best and inaccurate ones at worst) and 2) drawing on deficit-based circular reasoning to explain disparities. Stratification economists seek a holistic and accurate understanding of disparities and how to address them.

For example, some of my work addresses the fact that fewer Black students take Advanced Placement (AP) coursework than white students. Some researchers have theorized that this disparity may be due to under-investment in education on the part of Black students themselves—that their culture does not value education and choosing AP courses would be akin to “acting white.” In contrast, my co-investigators and I theorized that systemic choice constraints, such as fear of racial isolation (i.e., concerns about being the only Black student in an AP class), may better explain this phenomenon. 

We began testing this hypothesis using quasi-experimental methods and found that the likelihood that a Black student would take AP math in the future was greater in schools that already had more Black students taking AP math. This finding—that AP enrollment depended on a student’s context—is more consistent with theories about racial isolation (systemic choice constraints) than “acting white” (cultural norms). Given these results, solutions that aim to reduce racial isolation will be more effective at increasing Black student enrollment in AP courses than solutions that focus on modifying the behaviors of individual Black students. We are now in the process of developing a randomized evaluation to pinpoint additional factors that may constrain Black students’ ability to choose AP courses.

Tools for getting started

Tools that are key to stratification economics can also be useful to researchers in other economic and social science disciplines. For example, stratification economists pose research questions using asset-based framing, centering people’s strengths and aspirations as opposed to their needs or deficits. This framing enables us to look for ways to make systemic changes that broaden opportunities to leverage strengths and achieve aspirations, rather than for ways to shape individual behaviors without tackling the broader forces that constrain choices.

My work is guided by two questions that I encourage others to ask as well:

  1. What happens to a person (e.g., a program participant) if they make all the “right” choices? Often even when someone from a marginalized group or strata does everything society would want them to, they still do not achieve the same outcomes as one from a group with more power. This reality forces us to question why.
  2. Why? Asking why some people who make socially desirable choices don’t always end up with the same resources as others who make the same choices forces us to move beyond questions of behavior. I tell my students to harness their inner five-year-old and ask why over and over—not to be satisfied with one explanation, but to keep thinking bigger and more holistically.

Individual choices and cultural norms tend to be easier to conceptualize than larger systems, but are only one piece of a much larger story. Stratification economics seeks to broaden our understanding of social and economic inequities so that we may address them more holistically and effectively. 

Suggested resources for future reading

Books and articles:


The researching racial equity blog series features the contributions of researchers and partners in examining and addressing racial inequities and offers resources and tools for further learning. Part one shares an example of evaluating racial discrimination in employment. Part two features work quantifying housing discrimination. Part four discusses how to center lived experiences throughout the research process and in impact evaluations. Part five shares guidance for incorporating inclusive and asset-based framing throughout the research cycle. Part six examines sources of bias in administrative data bias. Lastly, in part seven, Damon Jones and J-PAL staff share progress on researching racial equity and future areas of work.

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