Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A good example of how to go about asking people about inequality

I have written here about a sensationalist and mostly irrelevant paper about inequality in the US. That paper attempted to detach the term “inequality” from any concrete meaning it might have in people’s lives, which I claimed that this was ridiculous, as people only form meaningful opinions about things that are grounded in their realities.

Anyway, a good soul sent me a link to Patrick Sachweh’s paper, The moral economy of inequality. It has less colorful charts and more meaningful questions. Here’s the abstract:

This article asks how ordinary people in Germany perceive and legitimize economic disparities in an era of rising income inequality. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews with respondents from higher and lower social classes, the paper reconstructs the ‘moral economy’ that underlies popular views of inequality. While respondents agree with abstract inegalitarian principles—i.e. income differentiation
based on merit—they are concerned with specific instances of inequality, especially poverty and wealth. These are criticized because they are seen to imply intolerable deviations, both upwards and downwards, from a way of living presumed as universal, thereby fostering a segregation of life-worlds and social disintegration. Thus, perceptions of injustice do not seem to be based on the existence of income inequality as such, but rather on the view that economic
disparities threaten the social bond.

Significantly, the literature review show that it has been known to science since the 1970’s that people have multi-faceted and ambivalent opinions about inequality – that don’t lend themselves easily to surveying of the type Norton & Ariely did. People generally accept the notion of inequality based on merit, but

as Huber and Form (1973) have shown, such consensus on the dominant ideology is greatest when its main tenets are put in general terms. It is noticeably reduced when more concrete statements (e.g. about existing opportunities for rich and poor people) are presented.”

And later:

Hochschild’s research illustrates that people are torn between different and partly conflicting values and principles when thinking about inequality (Hochschild, 1979, 1981). While differentiating norms prevail in the economy, egalitarian norms are supported in social relations and the polity.”

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