Date of Award

2022

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Sociology

First Advisor

Annette Lareau

Abstract

A historic peak of wealth inequality in the United States means that a small proportion of families have accumulated unprecedented wealth – these families must somehow manage this wealth. Scholars have tended to characterize elites as either powerful individuals or a homogenous ruling class. Meanwhile, research on managing money in intimate relations suggests that mixing the two can be a delicate process. In this dissertation I investigate how elite families organize their wealth as families using ethnographic methods. Specifically, over six months I observed a “family office” that manages the wealth of a handful of families with a minimum of $50 million per family. Additionally, I interviewed the office’s principal clients and a broader sample of 30 family offices from across the United States. I make three contributions to the literature on elites and the organization of economic relations: first, I argue that despite Weber’s definition of bureaucracy as oppositional to the family, elite families bureaucratize to hoard wealth across generations. Prior literature has pointed to the paramount role of entities like trusts in elites’ lives, but it has not exposed the practice of bureaucratization, which preserves capital while shifting relationships between family members. Second, as family bureaucratization hinges on expertise, I also investigate how wealthy families (and others) access new expertise through brokers’ behavior. Organizational literature points to the crucial role brokers play in networks, but it has not investigated how broker behavior, beyond broker characteristics, shapes the structure of networks. I show that brokers like family offices actively test brokerage opportunities, relying on contingent ties and brokerage uncertainty to expand the expertise accessible to their clients. Finally, I show that elite families do not all behave alike, and that different meanings they associate with death influence their inheritance plans. Elites use their wealth to bestow meaning onto their deaths, and by extension their lives. Thus, the meanings and practices elite families cultivate as families are crucial for how they manage their wealth and, consequently, broader patterns of wealth inequality and stratification.

Embargoed

Available to all on Saturday, July 05, 2025

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