The harm of experienced inequality

meritocracy (flickr)

The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) recently concluded, based on a survey, that the population perceives Dutch society as relatively egalitarian. A majority of the respondents positions themselves in the middle of the ‘social ladder’, and only a minority sees conflict between social categories, such as between the poor and the rich, and lower and higher educated people. However, what the survey does not tell us, is how people experience inequality.

Education as equalizer and stratifier

Insight into experienced or lived inequality is important for several reasons. First, the question of whether we should reduce inequality should depend not only on objectively measured differences in income, wealth, health and wellbeing, but also on the extent to which and reasons why people think that inequality is legitimate or not. Second, experienced inequality is possibly one of the mechanisms through which socioeconomic inequality is reproduced or even reinforced.

The educational system is especially relevant for studying experienced inequality, because it simultaneously equalizes and stratifies. Education works as an ‘equalizer’ when it provides opportunties for social mobility. At the same time, inequality is made explicit because students are categorized into ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ levels based on their cognitive abilities. This has consequences not only for future education, job perspectives and income, but also for the recognition they will receive from society.

Research among students

Based on a qualitative research among 177 students in secondary school of all levels – in Dutch referred to as vmbo, havo and vwo – Lenie van den Bulk and I examined the following questions: to what extent do students construct a social hierarchy in society and how do they relate such a hierarchy to their own social position?

The students were recruited for the research in various Rotterdam high schools. Lenie van den Bulk developed an innovative visual research method to invite students to show how they see society. She asked students – in groups of three – to order 23 photos of social situations in any way that the students saw fit, and recorded both the process and the result of the ordering process and the conversations that students had with each other about how to order the photos.

Social hierarchy

Our first question, when revisiting the data, was whether students constructed a hierarchical ordering or not. A hierarchical ordering, we theorize, suggests that students see differences between (categories of) people not only as different but as unequal in social positions – thus valuing ‘higher’ positions more than ‘lower’ positions.

Forty percent of the students did not order the photos hierarchically. They order the photos in categories that are valued as equal: different, but not higher or lower in relation to each other.

Sixty percent of the students did order the photos hierarchically. This ordering implies that ‘higher’ is better, and using words such as ‘high/er’, ‘low/er’, ‘rich/er’, ‘poor/er’, ‘more/less important’ and ‘elite’ to describe the ordering and the photos support our interpretation.

Students appeared to have a shared image of the ‘bottom’ and the ‘top’: the photo of a drug user usually was placed in a lower position, while the photo showing businessmen boarding an airplane was often placed in a top position. Generally, salary or income, educational level, and status played a decisive role in determining the dimensions of inequality.

The meritocratic ideal

When people talk about inequality, they often refer to broadly shared ideas and conceptions about society (what Michele Lamont calls ‘cultural repertoires’). In the ordering and conversations among the students, the meritocratic ideal was a recurring theme. At the same time, we did see that some students decoupled socioeconomic position from people’s status in society. We can interpret this as a strategy to deal with the painful understanding that socioeconomic inequality goes together with inequality in moral worth.

In addition, among students who are enrolled in the ‘lower’ level of secondary education, we saw some hostility towards privileged social categories. We can understand this when we see experienced inequality as the interplay between the internalization of cultural repertoires – meritocracy, equality – on the one hand, and the reality of their own, underprivileged position, on the other hand.

The harm of the meritocratic ideal

A social hierarchy in which moral worth is unevenly divided based on socioeconomic status is more painful for people who find themselves at the ‘bottom’. Therefore we would expect that a social hierarchy is most painful for students who are enrolled in the ‘lowest’ educational level (vmbo), and that they would avoid constructing a hierarchy based on the photos to protect their self-worth. A quantitative analysis of all 177 orderings indeed shows that whether or not students order the photos hierarchically is correlated with their educational level: 47 percent of the vmbo-level students did not order hierarchically, compared to 34 and 28 percent of the havo and vwo students (vwo is considered the highest level).

That small difference can be interpreted as the result of ‘selective perception’: we tend to see the things around us in a way that benefits us most – or harms us the least – to support our sense of self-worth. From this perspective, it is not surprising that vmbo students are less inclined to order the photos hierarchically: if they would do so, they would have to confront their own ‘inferior’ position – a lower educational level, less opportunities for a high income or powerful positions – which can easily threaten their sense of self-worth. However, that half of the students at this level do perceive society in hierarchical terms points to the dominance of the idea of a social hierarchy.

The mantra of meritocracy emphasizes that every person in the Netherlands has equal opportunities of becoming successful, as long as he or she has the right capacities and motivation, and that those who don’t ‘make it’ lack the capacities and motivation. Within a school context, this narrative can demotivate students who are not able to perform at the highest academic levels. Early selection into separate levels and the stigma attached to the vmbo level can contribute to a collective sense of ‘academic futility’. The hierarchical ordering of our educational system and society at large can thus reinforce experienced inequality in our society. When experienced inequality demotivates people, it can become a mechanism that reproduces inequality in socioeconomic outcomes.

This is a translation of a short article in Dutch based on a longer research article for the special issue of the Dutch academic journal Sociologie on inequality in the Netherlands.

Lees hier de Nederlandstalige versie op de website van Sociale Vraagstukken: Meritocratie demotiveert vmbo-leerlingen.

*Image on Flickr (cropped)

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