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Understanding public beliefs about equality, inequality, and meritocracy

Project description

Who is worried about income inequality?

Wealth and income inequality have reached levels last seen in the years leading up to the Great Depression – a time of huge disparity between the rich and the poor. A survey of public opinion since the 1980s however reveals little evidence of growing public concern. Why does the concentration of affluence in the hands of a few fail to register public consternation? The EU-funded UnEquality project investigates how people understand economic inequality, and when it worries them. Combining sociological, political science and communication science methodologies, its focus is on the tacit information, assumptions, and experiences underlying people's beliefs about inequality. It asks under what conditions people are likely to stick with their beliefs or change their mind.


The concentration of income and wealth has reached a level not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Commentators see the topic’s salience reflected in the political turmoil of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s elections. A careful scrutiny of the public opinion record however tells a different story: despite the reality of growing economic inequality since the 1980s, there is little evidence of growing public consternation. In fact, across the western world, greater levels of inequality have gone hand-in-hand with lower levels of concerns.

The proposed project is a mixed-methods investigation into the causes and consequences of this disconnect between the reality of economic inequality and what people believe to be true. Its starting point is the interdisciplinary body of research that has taken up the task to describe people’s (mis)perceptions of inequality and explore interventions to bring the public’s beliefs in closer alignment with reality. This project brings three innovations by combining sociological, political science and communication science methodologies: (1) contextualized analysis of belief formation through naturalistic deliberation and conversation rather than individual questionnaires, in order to better approximate the social process through which people develop an understanding of the world around them; (2) comprehensive description of people’s lay beliefs about economic inequality and its underlying causes, bringing state-of-the-art correlational class analysis to a research body dominated by ordinary least-square regression models; and (3) a population-based experimental test of causal mechanisms through which people’s beliefs about inequality may be changed.

In sum, the research objective is to analyze (a) what people’s beliefs about inequality are, (b) what kind of information, assumptions or experience they are based on, and (c) whether and how they are likely to change when confronted with new and/or contradictory information.



Net EU contribution
€ 187 572,48
Burgemeester oudlaan 50
3062 PA Rotterdam

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West-Nederland Zuid-Holland Groot-Rijnmond
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00