How Does Actual Inequality Shape People’s Perceptions of Inequality? A Class Perspective
Refereed Article, 2021
Haddon, E., & Wu, C. (2021). How Does Actual Inequality Shape People’s Perceptions of Inequality? A Class Perspective. Sociological Perspectives, 07311214211062106.
While some scholars suggest that awareness of income inequality is strongest when the actual level of inequality is high, others find that individuals’ awareness of income inequality is largely unresponsive to actual inequality. In this article, we argue that individuals in different social class positions often respond to the actual levels of income inequality distinctively, and therefore a class perspective is essential in understanding how actual inequality and people’s perceptions of it are associated. Using data from the social inequality modules of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP, 1992, 1999, and 2009) as well as the World Income Inequality Database (https://www.wider.unu.edu/) and the World Inequality Database (https://wid.world/), we consider how actual inequality interacts with social class to shape people’s perceptions of income inequality across 64 country-years between 1992 and 2009. We find that overall, perceptions of inequality are higher among the working class and lower among salariats. However, cross-nationally and over time, as the actual level of inequality increases, working classes become less critical toward inequality, whereas salariats become more critical. The actual level of inequality itself has no impact on people’s discontent toward it. This creates a counterbalancing effect that obscures the aggregate relationship between rising inequality and people’s perceptions of it.