Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Rand Quinn

Second Advisor

Charles L. Bosk


We are a society of organizations—schools, churches, corporations, clubs, prisons—that structure our everyday lives, enable and constrain our actions, and shape our life chances. In this dissertation, I investigate how discourses, organizational structures, and interactions within organizations bolster and challenge social inequalities. I examine these processes within two institutions that shape and are shaped by unequal social conditions: education and philanthropy. The dissertation draws on ethnographic data and interviews at three organizations seeking to transform social inequalities: a “pipeline” program that prepares low-income students of color to attend elite boarding schools and go on to elite colleges; a democratic school designed to give students and adults an equal voice in decisions; and a philanthropic foundation seeking to transfer control over its grantmaking to a community-based board. Based on data from the pipeline program, I argue that organizational structures can function as tools for building—and embedding participants within—social networks with advantageous structural characteristics. Alongside these mobility-enhancing organizational structures, I find that the program’s academically-induced emotional rollercoaster strengthens students’ confidence in their academic skills and their ability to persist in the face of academic challenges—a valuable emotional asset for the students as they enter elite boarding schools. However, I argue, the feeling students emerge with of having earned their successes (and failures) may ultimately serve to reproduce the individualistic, meritocratic discourses that support the patterns of social inequality the program helps its students sidestep. At the other two organizations included in the dissertation, I examine organizational attempts to redistribute power across institutional roles: from teachers (more broadly, adults) to students, and from a foundation to the community it funds. Based on an analysis of interactions within these two organizations, I offer a typology of power-balancing encounters. I argue that the sustained power-balancing potential of an encounter is based on its being embedded in institutionalized, power-balancing structures within the organization. Taken together, these findings contribute to the limited empirical literature on pipeline programs, democratic schools, and alternative models of philanthropy. The findings also contribute to theoretical literatures on the creation of social capital, mechanisms of social reproduction via elite schooling, and power.