Perceptions of inequalities in the world: food for thought

In a guest post Charlotte Cavaille reviews recent data on perceptions of inequality internationally, and amid some surprising findings finds both reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic… 

How did we do research before the internet?! Yesterday, I randomly bumped into a 2010 survey on perceptions of inequality that had not shown up on my radar the first time its results was published. Thanks to the La Vie des Idees website I finally got to read an overview of the findings, and they provide a lot of food for thoughts.  (On La Vie des Idees: this is the best social science research website I have ever encountered so far. They also have an English version. For anyone interested in France they have a post that sums up all recent research on social stratification in France and how it has changed in the past three decades: priceless!)

This survey asks respondents from 12 different countries (Germany, Australia, Brazil, China, Spain, United States, France, Great-Britain, Italia, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland) questions on their perceptions of and attitudes towards social inequalities. I will highlight only three findings and will let you use your table-reading skills (and French skills) for the rest (available here)

1. Tocqueville’s paradox…once again

When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete. [English edition]

Quand l’inégalité est la loi commune d’une société, les plus fortes inégalités ne frappent point l’œil; quand tout est à peu près de niveau, les moindres le blessent. C’est pour cela que le désir de l’égalité devient toujours plus insatiable à mesure que l’égalité est plus grande.

Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE, De la démocratie en Amérique, Livre II (1840), CHAPITRE XIII. 

 Tocqueville, in his opus on democracy in the United States, famously pointed to the paradox of plenty, i.e. the dialectic between plenty (be it  plenty of income, equality or liberty) and individual satisfaction (the more I have, the less satisfied I am). It has been further developed by famous social scientists such as Boudon (see his article this 1986 volume edited by Jon Elster) and Runciman, who have provided invaluable insight on the concept of relative deprivation.

Who else but France could provide a nice country-level illustration of Tocqueville’s paradox? While France is one of the rare countries where overall income inequalities have remained stable, if not decreased (see page 33  in the Oxford Handbook of Inequalities), it is the country where concerns about inequalities are the highest.  80 % of respondents believe that inequalities have increased in the past 10 years, and only 27 % think that France is a fair society. This has to be compared to the 42 % of Americans who think that inequalities have increased in their country and the 54 % of them who believe they live in a fair society.

Would you say that your society today is fair?

Most interesting is the apparent inverse correlation between trends in inequality and perception of inequality/fairness. Among the inequality-unhappy countries, one finds Germany and Italy, while Australia and the US are on the other side of the satisfaction spectrum despite a sharp increase in income inequalities in these countries.

How to interpret this? As already mentioned , I believe that Tocqueville’s intuition can be useful in this case. Kathy Thelen in a recent workshop at Harvard, noticed that one could interpret the “frustration” of these countries’ inhabitants as the success of social democratic parties in making inequalities intolerable (at the cost of national optimism!). There aren’t any Scandinavian countries in the sample so we can only speculate whether the same applies in their case. My hint is that the German and French dissatisfaction comes as much from social democracy as from other forms of social inequalities not captured in measures of income inequality (most famously, the Gini coefficient). On these other dimensions, I expect the Scandinavian countries to have faired better and thus levels of concern over and perception of inequality to be lower (see below for these other dimensions).

Interestingly, this same “Tocqueville paradox” seems to be at play for other countries regarding issues of inequalities between majority and minority groups. In the UK, minority populations have comparatively better outcomes (education and labor market-wise) than in most western countries, thanks to multiculturalist policies that have focused the attention on the issue. Though they have now come recently under attack, these policies have succeeded in making inequalities between natives and immigrants a concern for all. Indeed, 44 % percent of British respondents find that inequalities between natives and immigrants are the most unjust, a percentage similar to the one for wage inequalities.

The link between objective inequality and subjective perceptions and attitudes is thus, as could be expected, highly mediated by national narratives and policies.

In addition, as alreay mentioned, I believe that to understand the French and the German responses, one needs to look beyond the Gini coefficient. The most likely culprit are changes in modes of access to stable, well-paid career paths and to the social protection that often goes with them.

In these countries, there is indeed a growth in what is loosely described as labor market outsiders, i.e. individual whose work biographies depart from “the industrial blueprint of stable, full-time and fully insured insider employment” (Hausermann and Schwander, 2009, 2). Outsider status in the new economy is no just limited to long-term unemployed individuals. It also includes a growing proportion of the labor force confronted with unstable employment relations and shrinking social protection. On the other hand, labor market insiders are better isolated from new post-industrial constraints on labor costs thanks to labor regulation and social insurance entitlements. This inequality in labor market conditions is also expected to feed into important new political dynamics. As shown by Chauvel, age is a key predictor of one’s status as an outsider.

Thus, while Germany and France look good on one dimension (income as measured by the Gini), they fail on the other (labor market access and the distribution of income uncertainty). This is why one needs to move away from a blind focus on the Gini when thinking about attitudes towards justice and equality and their political effects. More on this in a future post.

2. Belief in the power of politics

This is the most heart-warming finding: a majority of respondents in nearly all countries believe in politics as a remedial channel for inequalities. The only fatalistic countries on this issue are China, a dictatorship, and Germany (no clue why, any ideas?). In most countries, to the exception of the UK and Poland, 60 % or more believe in “the power” of politics. And the US and France score similarly on this question. In addition, it appears (though this is only after a quick look at the data) that those who believe in politics are also those who perceive their society as unjust and believe that inequality has increased. It seems that attitudes, perceptions and beliefs are, for once, aligned in a way favorable to change.

Along the same line, the left/right distinction remains correlated to perceptions and attitudes towards inequality. One could, with a bit of imagination, imagine the resurgence of a strong political debate over what a just society is and how to get there. This would introduce a healthy level of political disagreement in a boring political landscape (I am thinking here of Europe,  American readers might disagree…)

3. Generational change and attitudes towards inequalities

Here I will focus on the four countries I am the most familiar with, namely France, Germany, the UK and the US. The dualism of the conservative welfare states, described above, seems to be creating an unexpected generational cleavage: young individuals are less likely than their baby-boom parents to believe that something can be done about inequalities. This is not the case in US and the UK.

More generally, young people are less likely to see society as unjust and to be aware of changes in  social inequalities. In their analysis, Daniel Cohen and Gilles Filchenstein wonder whether this is just a phase linked to young age or if this is specific to the young generations. My own intuition is that the neoliberal narrative of self-help and individual strategies of success has forced its way into young minds.  I have no evidence to support my point but the dissertation is on its way.

All the above thoughts rely on a quick reading of the data but hopefully they point to fascinating areas of enquiry for social scientists trying to study the political implications of social inequalities.

[With thanks to the study funders: l’Ifop pour la Fondation Jean-Jaurès, la FEPS, Italianieuropei]

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3 Responses to Perceptions of inequalities in the world: food for thought

  1. Pingback: Health Promotion Headlines from Robyn and Meghan – October 3, 2011 | Health Nexus Today / Nexus Santé aujourd'hui

  2. Marion says:

    Thank you very much for this very interesting article.
    I had some questions about your data :
    – “80 % of respondents believe that inequalities have increased in the past 10 years, and only 27 % think that France is a fair society. This has to be compared to the 42 % of Americans who think that inequalities have increased in their country and the 54 % of them who believe they live in a fair society.” : When were these percentages measured ?
    – Where does the graph right under this paragraph (or the data used to draw it) come from ?

  3. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    Hi Marion, just saw this, apologies for the late reply. The study is available through the link in the article. You can directly email the Fondation Jean-Jaures and they will put you in touch with the people who did the study (my own recollection is that it is 2010 data).

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