Rackham Centennial Profiles: Spencer Piston


By Bai Linh Hoang
Jul 16, 2012 Bookmark and Share

Piston 2011

Piston 2011

Spencer Piston's project, which is also his dissertation, investigates the puzzling phenomenon of why many Americans support government-led downward redistribution, taking from those who have more (resources, income, wealth, etc.) and giving to those who have less. Specifically, he examines the possibility that sympathy for the poor and resentment of the rich are two powerful, often overlooked forces that shape public opinion about distributive policy.

According to Spencer, social scientists have conducted valuable analyses of the determinants of public attitudes about economic inequality and government-led downward redistribution. However, this line of research has been more productive at explaining opposition to policies intended to redistribute wealth downward than the phenomenon of support for such policies, which is more widespread than some scholars claim. "I became interested in the project when I read consistent findings that many Americans support downward redistribution, but I didn't see compelling explanations for this pattern," says Spencer.

In his dissertation, Spencer argues that because researchers have overlooked the powerful forces of sympathy for the poor and resentment toward the rich, previous scholarship has not developed a persuasive account of support for downward redistribution in the United States. The research design of his dissertation has three parts, the second of which is funded by the centennial award:

(1) Analysis of secondary survey data;
(2) Pilot studies using convenience samples, where the respondents are selected at the convenience of the researcher; and
(3) A survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of adults.

When not at work, Spencer spends his time raising his five-month-old daughter Maya (with Inger Bergom) who is a wonderful child.  He also enjoys playing tennis and reading science fiction.

Bai Linh Hoang is a doctoral student in American Politics.