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Social Class Justifications:
The Capitalist Conspiracy?

By: Wendi Kane
Mentor: James Wright

Introduction

Capitalism creates social stratification whereby some members of society are very wealthy while others are extremely poor.  In between are endless degrees of privilege that unite into what most of society refers to as the middle and working classes.  Inequality exists within each class to the extent that prestige, education, lifestyle, rewards, and life-chances are unevenly distributed (Johnson, 2006).  With excessive wealth on one end and extreme poverty on the other, justifications must be created to rationalize these inequalities (Johnson, 2006).  These justifications provide answers to the disadvantaged who may begin to question the current system, especially when wealth gaps seem excessive and unfair (Huber & Form, 1973).  Capitalists need to create the illusion of a fair economic social structure and justifications to fulfill this purpose.  The result is the “legitimization of inequality” that functions to preserve social inequality by making it seem normal, fair, and even moral (Rothman, 2005).  Stereotypes, myths, and ideologies— in short, justifications— become tools to make the poor, as well as the rich, believe that they deserve their place in the stratification spectrum; thus, system justifications are how inequality is perpetuated (Rothman, 2005).

Research in this area is important because the income gap between the top and bottom earners is growing (Klinger et al., 2002).  Those who believe the stereotypes, myths, and ideologies used to justify the lower classes’ position in the economic social structure will do little to curtail this gap.  For the poor, the income gap is a quality-of-life issue.  They are plagued with insurmountable strain and stress that result in a life that has no comparison to the benchmark “American Dream.”

The purpose of this study is to address justifications; specifically, the stereotypes, myths, and ideologies that are often used to characterize the lower class.  Do members of the lower class believe that they have the same opportunities as everyone else in society?  Do those with privilege believe more than those without privilege that the distribution of rewards is based mainly on individual hard work and effort?  Do relationships with members of the lower class minimize these beliefs?

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