Conley is best known for his contributions to understanding how socioeconomic status is transmitted across generations.
His first book, Being Black, Living in the Red (1999), focuses on the role of family wealth in perpetuating class advantages and racial inequalities in the post-Civil Rights era.
He has studied the role of health in the status attainment process. A seminal article entitled, "Is Biology Destiny: Birth Weight and Life Chances" (with Neil G. Bennett, American Sociological Review 1999) and his second book, which emerged from this and related pieces, The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances (with Kate Strully and Neil G. Bennett, 2003) showed the importance of birth weight and prenatal health to later socioeconomic outcomes, reversing the typical way sociologists viewed the health-economics relationship and anticipated a robust research literature on early life health conditions as they affect later socioeconomic processes and outcomes.
The Pecking Order, which followed in 2004, showed the importance of within-family, ascriptive factors in determining sibling differences in socioeconomic success, thereby challenging the usual association of intra-household differences with the greater salience of achievement and/or meritocracy.
In addition to these works, Conley is the author of the acclaimed sociological memoir Honky (2001), which examines Conley's own childhood growing up white in the inner city projects of New York City. Honky explores the intersection of race and class in America, outlining the subtle but profoundly important privileges even an impoverished white boy enjoys over his darker-skinned peers.
Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms and Economic Anxiety (2009) chronicles how American society has moved from embodying Max Weber's Protestant ethic in the 19th and early 20th Centuries to William H. Whyte's "social ethic" during the mid-20th Century to today's "elsewhere ethic."
His latest book is You May Ask Yourself (2011).
Conley's work has also appeared in Salon.com and Feed Magazine. He has written several op-ed pieces for the New York Times and is frequently interviewed for articles on race, family, and socioeconomic status.