Polarization in Attitudes to Income Inequality in Perceived Meritocracies

Wednesday, July 12, 2017
JWS - Room J10 (J355) (University of Glasgow)
Karlijn Liselore Anne Roex , Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies
Tim Huijts , Sociology, University of York
Inge Sieben , Sociology, University of Tilburg
A protester holds a banner shouting ‘One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich’. A commenter argues ‘They will be taught to blame themselves for it. So they’ll eat each other’. Previous studies indeed found a persistently high support for the current income distribution among people largely believe that poverty (or wealth) is caused by individual failure (or achievement) (Larsen, 2016; Redmond et al., 2002). This has broad consequences, as economic inequalities have grown and will likely continue to grow without political interventions (Piketty, 2014). Also Oxfam Novim (2014) expressed worries about the consequences of growing inequalities for democracies.

However, previous research has not looked at how the poor in particular respond to growing inequalities in the face of a high belief of living in a meritocracy, and at the possibility of a growing polarization on this. Using social identity theories (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), this study predicts that in societies with strong beliefs in individual achievement, the poor are more likely to disapprove unequal income distributions because of their challenged group-identity. This group-identity is challenged because a low income is considered as a sign of laziness or inability in societies with a high dominant belief in individual achievement (Sennett, 2003; Kampen et al., 2013). This expectation was tested and supported in multi-level analyses on the latest ISSP inequality module (2009). The results imply a social action potential among the poor in Europe with a challenged social identity.