Justifying unfairness

Stimulus materials for Bamfield & Horton - 'Gary'

So why do people stand for it? One of the longstanding questions in social research is why so many people accept the hand they have been dealt, rather than challenging the way society is organised. I was reminded of this several times in the past few days, partly when a UK Government Minister was (unconvingingly) denying that he’d helped fuel tabloid attacks on the ‘workshy’, and partly when discussing the acceptance of inequality in India and China with ‘Global Auction’ author Phil Brown – a chat that will turn into a future post on the site.

The best piece of research I’ve seen on attitudes to inequality in the UK is Louise Bamfield and Tim Horton’s research from 2009 – and it’s this that I want to explore in this post, as it starkly demonstrates how and why people accept inequality. In the midst of some very confusing survey evidence, Bamfield & Horton conducted a number of deliberative focus groups, and then followed this up with a revised set of survey questions. [While I’ll focus on the results, I now use this is an exemplar of how to conduct rigorous, insightful mixed-methods research].

Attitudes towards the top

Having used taxpayers money to bail out the banks, there’s now an astonishing hostility towards bankers in the UK; ‘bankers bonuses’ are now fair game for front-page headlines. Yet such antagonisms are overlain on a general acceptance of the fairness that some people earn much more than others. It’s not just that richer people self-interestedly justify their position, but that even people lower down the income spectrum accept that city workers et al (to some extent) deserve their exorbitant pay packages.  As one woman in Bamfield & Horton said, “they’ve struggled cos they’ve worked stressful lives to get where they’ve got to” (p13).

I’ve spoken elsewhere about how ignorant we are about each other’s pay, and how we need to start by being more open about it – Bamfield & Horton found most survey respondents weren’t sympathetic to high salaries of £100-150k (p16).  Yet even when people think that top earnings are undeserved, this is hard to translate into policy, because even relatively high-income people think they are in the ‘middle’. Some of Bamfield & Horton’s participants literally refused to believe that only 1 in 10 people earned more than £40k – “I just don’t believe that”, one said (p14).  The most vivid demonstration of this is from the focus groups Polly Toynbee and David Walker conducted with law partners and merchant bank staff, who thought that 1 in 10 workers earned more than £162,000!

So when surveys ask about taxing the rich, everyone is thinking of extra taxes on those people that are just a bit richer than them – but they’re very resistant to being penalised when they’re in the ‘squeezed middle’, to use Labour leader Ed Miliband’s elastic term. In their survey, Bamfield & Horton found overwhelming (79%) agreement with the phrase, ‘ordinary people in the middle have a really tough time overall, because they work hard, but without the rewards of the rich and without the benefits of the poor’ – but using this to craft popular policies is another matter entirely, particularly when many people will defend the right of unreasonably high earners to keep hold of the money that they’ve legally earned (‘norms of possession’, p19).

Attitudes towards the bottom

Stimulus materials for Bamfield & Horton - Ian'

The flipside of the deservingness of the wealthy is the undeservingness of the poor – something the UK Coalition has been excellent at exploiting as Daniel Sage has written about, despite their faux-innocence I mentioned above. Bamfield & Horton found incredibly hostile attitudes to poor people, and when they explored this they found two reasons. Firstly, people believe in equality of opportunity, so that the poor were blamed for their own situation. It’s impossible to escape the fables of people who have themselves risen up from poorer backgrounds (p23) – everyone knows someone who has achieved this, with meritocracy a feature of everyday life rather than just an abstract concept.

Secondly, people thought that benefits recipients were taking from society without giving anything back, either now or at any point in the future. Fitting the New Labour mantra of ‘no rights without responsibilities’, it wasn’t so much the causes of people’s benefits claims that determined people’s support for them, but whether they were doing everything they could to get back to work (or do some other useful activity such as caring) and make future contributions to society (p25). Twice as many people opposed benefits increases than supported them, but this was reversed in the (unusual) group of people that thought that ‘people on benefits will make a contribution to society in the future’ (p27).

Final thoughts…

We’ve already had a number of posts on the blog about political attitudes, and this is an issue we’ll keep returning to. But from talking to other researchers, it seems that pretty much the same attitudes can be found in Brazil, Mexico and Kenya – and I’d guess in much of the rest of the world as well. In a meritocratic society, people believe that the rich get their just rewards, and the poor are to blame for their failings; and even poor people in favelas in Sao Paolo hold out the dream that their children will rise to the top. And even where people don’t believe this is fair, they don’t believe there’s anything that can be done about it – “it’s just the way it is”, as some said (p15).

On some level, this is research that systematically unpacks what we all know already; it’s the everyday common-sense that we live our lives by, whatever country we’re in – and however much we personally disagree with it. But I think it’s important for inequality researchers to realise how unusual they are in contesting inequality, and to be realistic about how people think. To get political action anywhere from London to New York to Delhi, it’s not enough to demonstrate inequality, but we have to demonstrate inequity – that is, not just differences, but unfair differences. This all comes back to Daniel Goldberg’s recent argument on the blog about the ethical content of inequalities research. We may need disinterested, trustworthy research, but this either speaks to ethically charged debates or it speaks to nothing at all.

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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3 Responses to Justifying unfairness

  1. Sorry for hogging the comments section here, but one of the subjects that fascinates me is the WHY — what social and cultural factors explain why it is that Western societies display such obeisance to the just world theory. I have some work on this, believe it or not, that offers one explanation for the tight linkage between sin and suffering in American and arguably many other Judeo-Christian societies, and the ensuing stigma (read: unfairness).

    In reading this post, I thought of this nice quote from Venkatapuram and Marmot’s 2009 article on epi and social justice: “[I]t would be a strange thing indeed if scientific research on aspects of human ill-health was pursued irrespective of or devoid of any moral concern about human ill-health” (p. 81). Quite so, and this is even more applicable for the subject of your post, because really we are talking about stigma, and if stigmatization is not a meet subject for discussions of justice, unfairness, and inequity, then nothing is. The robust evidence suggesting that stigma is a significant SDOH makes the subject a critical one for those of us thinking about social justice in context of health. JMO!

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      What is the explanation – is it something to do with Judeo-Christian heritage? (Sorry if I missed this in the reply!). It seems to me that just-world theories have changed substantially over time, rising sharply in recent decades, so I guess explanations have to respond to this somehow.

      Even if we have an explanation though, I have no idea what the solution is…

  2. Ha, no, you didn’t miss it, but I didn’t want to junk up the comments with it, which is just as well as it’s kind of hard to put into a blog comment. I’ll inflict the paper on you offline if you really care to read it . . .

    The solution is radical social and cultural change. No problem, really.

    /sarcasm

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