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Social Class Justifications:
The Capitalist Conspiracy?

By: Wendi Kane
Mentor: James Wright


Overwhelmingly, all social classes, genders, and races in this study believe the individual achievement ideology; i.e., individual talent and hard work are the key predictors of future economic success.  This tends to support the System Justification Theory (SJT) which suggests the ideology of individualism is shared by the disadvantaged and privileged alike.  Based on these findings, privilege has little to do with beliefs in the ideology of individualism.  These findings are in line with two studies presented in the literature review that deal with system justifications.

While respondents believe it is their own hard work that is the predictor of their success, most respondents understood that the lower class is disadvantaged in our society.  The most significant finding in this study was the group that identified themselves as being members of the lower class.  Prior SJT research posits that this group would be the least likely to recognize their disadvantaged position, and, even more, they would support the system the most.  A significant percentage of this group strongly disagreed with the statement that the lower class has the same opportunity as everyone else.  This finding does not support the System Justification Theory.

This research thus poses a dilemma.  While the SJT is supported when the ideology of individualism is tested, it is not supported when dealing with the equal opportunity myth.  Those who identify as being members of the lower class believe that individual talent and hard work is the biggest predictor of future economic success but at the same time strongly disagree that they have the same opportunities as everyone else.  It may be that they have an accurate impression that the lower class has less opportunity, but, if given the chance, they have to work harder or be more talented than everyone else. 

In the literature review, a comparison can be made with the research from the private liberal arts college that found students supporting meritocracy.  Private liberal arts schools tend to be higher in socioeconomic status compared to a state school such as UCF.  By believing in meritocracy or the ideology of individualism, those who are more privileged (in this case, students), justify their place in the stratification spectrum.  Even those who identify as members of the lower class can strongly disagree with the equal opportunity myth but seek to justify their current college success as individual hard work or talent even when they are the exception to the rule.

A limitation of this research is that college students are very different from the US population.  They are in a sense privileged for having the opportunity to attend college.  Even college students who say they are members of the lower class are more privileged since they are the exception to the aggregate rule.  In addition to being thus privileged, college students typically encounter classes that expose them to liberal views on inequality, especially structural factors for failure.  Future research on beliefs in ideologies should look at a more socio-economically heterogeneous group.  If more disadvantaged groups reject personal explanations for failure and recognize structural dysfunction within the economic structure, then the question is raised: Why do they continue to remain silent?

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