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Social Class Justifications:
The Capitalist Conspiracy?

By: Wendi Kane
Mentor: James Wright

Literature Review


Marx’s theory of class conflict has been the traditional source of understanding the various ideologies associated with social class.  Marx (1846/1970) predicted that modern capitalism would evolve into a two class structure with an owner class and worker class becoming increasingly hostile toward one another.  The worker class would eventually become aware of its oppression (class consciousness), then overthrow the owner class in a revolution that would restructure society and establish a fair system (Marx, 1846/1970).  This revolution has never ensued in the advanced capitalist societies and many researchers have wondered why not. 

Recent research on what has been termed the “system justification model” seeks to address this very question.  Social psychologists argue that by way of continued focus on in-group and out-group conflict, System Justification Theory has long been ignored in favor of the conflict theories (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004).  Their research on more than 20 hypotheses concludes that the stereotypes, myths, and ideologies that are used to legitimize inequality are not only maintained by the dominant group through in-group favoritism, but are also accepted by subordinate groups through out-group favoritism (Jost et al., 2004).  This research suggests that the disadvantaged believe the dominant group’s ideologies.  Jackman’s (1996) research contends that the “ideology of individualism” explains why the subordinate group remains silent in the face of inequality by fostering the belief that equal opportunity exists for all classes.

Stereotypes and Myths

There is an abundance of studies related to racial stereotypes, myths, and ideologies, specifically as it pertains to African Americans.  Studies show that Americans in general accept the “black, violent criminal” stereotype (Livingston & Nahimana, 2006; Barkan & Cohn, 2005).  Findings indicate that belief in racial stereotypes by the white majority directly affect negative views on issues like affirmative action, welfare, and especially crime policy (Barkan & Cohn, 2005).  Their research concludes that racial beliefs are the main factor in whites’ wanting more money to be spent on crime control (Barkan & Cohn, 2005). 

Belief in racial stereotypes by the white majority is a concern but hardly the cause of persistent poverty.  The research of Harvey and Reed (1996) acknowledges that studies of social class inequalities have generally been abandoned for the last 30 years in favor of race and gender studies.  Commenting on the new “denial of class” ideas, they state that scholars are using generic arguments to “augment class-based explanations of poverty by adding racial, ethnic, and gender considerations” (Harvey & Reed, 1996).  By shifting focus away from the unequal class structure and attributing poverty to racial or ethnic differences, capitalists are able to deflect attention from the economic system itself as responsible for persistent inequalities. 

Many researchers have studied the gender stereotypes, myths, and ideologies that surround the issue of social class.  Many of these gendered class stereotypes involve welfare recipients.  Enacted in the 1930s to support deserted and widowed mothers during and after the Great Depression, welfare has evolved, or so it is frequently maintained, into a system that promotes dependency and thus fosters lazy and irresponsible behavior (Harris & Parisi, 2005).  This study argues that even lawmakers attribute poverty to the growing number of welfare mothers, shifting focus from structural factors like lack of jobs, low wages, and affordable child care (Harris & Parisi, 2005).  The conundrum is, when women are part of the workforce, conservative gender ideologies are pervasive and society blames America’s problems on mothers being absent from the home (Stewart, 2003). 

Stereotypes, myths, and ideologies that work to legitimize a system of class inequality are even recognizable at an early age.  Woods, Kurtz-Costes, and Rowley’s (2005) study shows that some stereotypes about the disadvantaged are embraced by adolescence.  Differences in age, race, and socioeconomic class help shape children’s beliefs about the rich and the poor (Woods et al., 2005).  Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more acutely aware of the problems that face the poor, whereas the affluent believe the stereotypes that popular media convey (Woods et al., 2005).  Children’s recognition of the differences between the poor and affluent directly supports the conflict theory.

The myth of equal opportunity is challenged by Jennifer Hochschild (2003) who has researched social class in public schools and concludes that now, more than in the past 30 years, schools are segregated by social class.  The schools composed of poor children are under-funded and suffer from problems related to poverty such as poor health, family instability, dangerous communities, less educated parents, and anxiety about discrimination (Hochschild, 2003).  It is unclear whether the segregation of the poor from middle and upper class children cause stereotypes, myths, and ideologies to be reinforced through lack of association or through some other mechanism, but class segregation and the consequent lack of interaction between classes is certainly a possible source of stereotyping that deserves further research.

Similar studies have been conducted on college campuses.  One study in particular conducted by Abowitz (2005) tests college students’ beliefs in meritocracy and the justification of inequality.  Her findings indicate that college students believe in the achievement ideology: individual effort as the predictor of future success.  Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (and males) also tended to believe that social inequality is justified.  However, Abowitz (2005) acknowledges that her sample was drawn from an elite liberal arts institution and may not be representative of most college students. 

The prevailing ideology is that equal opportunity exists for those who work hard; moreover, research shows that this view is pervasive in America.  Some research posits that the lower class believes this ideology as much as the middle and upper classes believe it (Jost et al., 2004).  Conflicting research argues that the lower class may be more aware than the affluent that opportunity is biased based on social class (Woods et al., 2005).  The shift from social class explanations of poverty to race and gender explanations in the past 30 years has left a gap in research (Harvey, Reed 1996).  This study attempts to address the question: Do members of all social classes believe the ideology of individualism or do members of the lower class recognize that they are at a disadvantage?  This research addresses individuals’ social class and to what extent they believe in the stereotypes, myths, and ideologies that legitimize class inequality.  It also attempts to measure exposure to the lower class to see if relationships with members of the lower class minimize these beliefs.

Hypotheses >>