Draft Literature Review: Inequality and Privilege

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion


The identification of inequalities in political participation highlights the impact of structural forces on individuals. Whilst Verba, Schlozman, and Brady provide a strong account of the processes that link background characteristics with unequal political participation they do not identify a broad theory that can accommodate their findings. This is where the concept of privilege, which can encompass the inherited advantage related to gender, race and ethnicity, and class, comes into play. The theories around privilege are numerous so it is expedient to begin the consideration of the concept with a basic definition upon which the following can rest:

“Privilege,” both in its legal and its everyday use, indicates what someone or something has in virtue of being singled out for advantageous treatment. A privilege is necessarily reserved for a few not given to all.[1]

Whilst privilege may be positive, entitling the holder to certain benefits, or negative, freeing the holder from restrictions, it is widely understood to be granted to certain groups for reasons other than merit.[2] Questions about the effects of such unearned advantage are closely linked to the wider debate around the effects of inequality. The politically heated nature of that debate has led to questions about how to define and measure inequality. For instance, it has been noted that the distribution of income is less dispersed than the distribution of wealth, and that lifetime income is more equally dispersed than is annual income, whilst some have argued that expenditure should be the measure of inequality.[3] Such measurement effects inform the criticism that ‘measures such as the Gini coefficient are not purely “statistical” and they embody implicit judgements about the weight to be applied to the inequality at different points on the income scale.’[4]

Despite such criticisms the Gini coefficient is widely used and has underpinned work demonstrating that greater inequality is linked to worse outcomes at aggregate level. These have been observed in a range of areas including levels of trust, prevalence of mental health issues, obesity rates, average educational attainment, numbers of teenage births, levels of violence, proportion of the population imprisoned, and social mobility.[5] More directly pertinent to the current research, higher income inequality has also been linked to lower turnout rates in national elections.[6] The impact of inequality on politics is not the whole story, however, and it has been argued that inequality is, in fact, a political phenomenon.[7] It has been shown that the policies of political parties can impact on levels of inequality and yet that people continue to vote for parties that do not act in their best interests.[8]

As noted previously, evidence has also suggested that elected representatives’ voting records more closely reflect the views of their wealthy constituents than of their poor constituents.[9] Thus, the day-to-day advantages of having a higher income or more wealth may be complemented by policy-making that reflects your interests and views. Such advantages might be reasonable if they were earned but, returning to the focus of the current research, the literature on privilege suggests the pervasive influence of unearned advantage on outcomes. Although those effects also relate to areas such as sexuality,[10] disability, and age privilege is most frequently cited in relation to the three commonly identified social cleavages of sex, race, and class.[11]

Moving beyond aggregate level observations of inequality more critical approaches have documented the pervasive workings of privilege at all levels of society. Research has convincingly demonstrated that, even as explicit sexism and racism are challenged, the overrepresentation of white men in senior management jobs remains constant across most sectors despite the growth in white collar job numbers.[12] At higher levels, women in elite jobs are less supported by traditional family structures, and have access to fewer elite networks to sustain their positions.[13] In fact, it has been noted that opponents of affirmative action ignore the institutionalised affirmative action that previously functioned, as a matter of course, in favour of white men.[14] Blindness to the benefits of being white and male has been posited to constitute a nonconscious ideology that pervades society, assigning roles to individuals with little consideration for their abilities or aspirations.[15]

Although the relationships between race and ethnicity, and sex and gender are complex,[16] it is agreement about what constitutes class that has perhaps been most difficult to obtain.[17] This is reflected in the number of contending class structures that have been posited, operationalised, and measured,[18] though the concept itself is generally accepted to be of import. Research controlling for educational attainment has revealed that class and gender limit social mobility in the United Kingdom, with higher class providing insurance against downward mobility.[19] This undermines the claim that Britain constitutes a meritocracy in which ability alone determines societal position. It has been argued that this is morally problematic as well as, based on formal mathematical models, economically inefficient. This is because the most able individuals are excluded from appropriate employment, which may also be the employment that they wish to pursue, by less qualified but more privileged individuals.[20]

In addition to wider societal inequalities based on privilege there is also evidence of the specific relevance of sex, race, and class to political participation. Gender stereotypes associate masculine and feminine traits in candidates with competence in certain policy areas, and inform the widespread belief, held by both sexes, that men know more about politics than women.[21] Such beliefs may contribute to the exclusion of women from politics, with even otherwise progressive groups sometime becoming dominated by men, raising the need for organisations to positively encourage female participation.[22] At the same time, turnout and representation in the UK differs between races, and a range of models have been tested to explain observed differences in general political participation rates between races.[23] In relation to class, it has been convincingly argued that occupational status is still significantly related to both volume and type of political participation, and that class is still related to party choices.[24] There is also evidence that political participation can be related to other factors such as religion and, to a very great extent, age.[25] Crucially, the structuring of political participation by background characteristics, whatever they may be, can be difficult to overcome when dominant groups fail to acknowledge their privilege by resisting information that runs counter to their existing beliefs.[26] This can inform opposition to attempts to make the participation more open, and thus sustain patterns of exclusion based on privilege.

The observation that people are advantaged or disadvantaged by background characteristics such as sex, race, and class is hardly controversial; the idea that society is structured by these cleavages is commonplace. Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfactory about that observation when it comes to explaining why people do or do not engage in political activity; to simply observe such patterns is not to explain them. This recognition led to the previously noted call for research to move ‘beyond SES’ when attempting to account for political behaviour.[27] In answering this call it is possible to deploy privilege as the overarching concept accommodating the mechanisms through which background characteristics translate into advantage or disadvantage. The nature of those mechanisms will be more fully elucidated below but there are two points about their relationship with background characteristics that are worth making at this point. First, they are not simple relationships; characteristics such as sex, race, and class, not-to-mention sexuality, religion, age, disability, and location, interact to give each individual a unique privilege profile.[28] Second, each individual cannot, thus, be placed in a neat privilege compartment but will hold a unique position on a spectrum of privilege relating to any given context,[29] such as that of political participation.

To summarise, the literature on inequality and privilege emphasises the impact of background characteristics on unequal outcomes across society, including in political participation. That literature often focuses on the frequently cited cleavages of sex, race, and class but the concept of privilege can also accommodate the impact of other characteristics such as sexuality, disability, age, and location. Thus, privilege acts as an overarching concept that can accommodate the mechanisms that translate all those background characteristics into advantage or disadvantage. One account of those mechanisms was presented when outlining Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s work in the previous section. However, that work does not provide a full account of those mechanisms, which suggests the need to turn to a more complete theory of privilege.

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion

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[1] Alan R. White, ‘Privilege’, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 41, No. 3 (May, 1978), pp. 299-311, p. 299.

[2] White, ‘Privilege’, p. 300.

[3] Anthony B. Atkinson, The Economics of Inequality (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 19-21, pp. 42-43, pp. 50-51.

[4] Atkinson, The Economics of Inequality, p. 56.

[5] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better or Everyone (London, Penguin, 2009), pp. 52-54, pp. 66-69, pp. 91-101, p. 105, pp. 122-123, pp. 131-144, pp. 148-149, pp. 160-161.

[6] Frederick Solt, ‘Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 2008), pp. 48-60.

[7] Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 3.

[8] Bartels, Unequal Democracy, pp. 47-50, p. 62, p. 125.

[9] Bartels, Unequal Democracy, pp. 255-262.

[10] Michael A. Messner, ‘Becoming 100 Percent Straight’, in Michael S. Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber (eds.), Privilege: A Reader (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 2003), pp. 181-187, p. 186; Damien W. Riggs, Priscilla, (White) Queen of the Desert (New York, Peter Lang, 2006), p. 5.

[11] Peggy McIntosh, ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies’, in Kimmel and Ferber, Privilege, pp. 147-160, p. 158.

[12] Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, ‘Intersections of Power and Privilege: Long-Term Trends in Managerial Representation’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 74, No. 5 (Oct., 2009), pp. 800-820.

[13] Mino Vianello and Gwen Moore (eds.), Gendering Elites: Economic and Political Leadership in 27 Industrialised Societies (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000), pp. 270-271.

[14] Troy Duster, ‘The Structure of Privilege and Its Universe of Discourse’, The American Sociologist, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1976), pp. 73-78.

[15] Sandra L. Bem and Daryl J. Bem, ‘Case Study of a Nonconscious Ideology: Training The Woman to Know Her Place’, in Daryl J. Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs (Belmont, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1970), pp. 89-99; John Ellis, ‘Ideology and subjectivity’, in Stuart Hall (ed.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (London, Hutchinson, 1980), pp. 186-194, p. 189-190.

[16] Andrew Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 204-205, pp. 226-227.

[17] Stephen Edgell, Class (London, Routledge, 1993), pp. 1-2.

[18] Manfred Max Bergman and Dominique Joye, ‘Comparing Social Stratification Schemas: CAMSIS, CSP-CH, Goldthorpe, ISCO-88, Treiman, and Wright’, viewed at http://www.freewebs.com/stratificare_mobilitate/Comparing%20Social%20Stratification%20Schemas.pdf on 27.08.2012.

[19] Gordon Marshall and Adam Swift, ‘Social Class and Social Justice’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), pp. 187-211.

[20] Richard Breen, ‘Inequality, Economic Growth and Social Mobility’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 429-449.

[21] Leonie Huddy and Nayda Terkildsen, ‘Gender Stereotypes and the Perception of Male and Female Candidates’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1993), pp. 119-147; Jeanette Morehouse Mendez and Tracy Osborn, ‘Gender and Perception of Knowledge in Political Discussion’, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Jun., 2010), pp. 269-279.

[22] Jane Ward, ‘“Not All Differences Are Created Equal”: Multiple Jeopardy in Gendered Organizations’, Gender and Society, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 82-102; Richard L. Fox and Jennifer L. Lawless, ‘If Only They’d Ask: Gender, Recruitment, and Political Ambition’, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Apr., 2010), pp. 310-326.

[23] Shamit Saggar, ‘Race and Political Behavior’, in Dalton and Klingemann, The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, pp. 504-517; Muhammad Anwar, ‘The participation of ethnic minorities in British politics’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 533-549; Jan E. Leighley and Arnold Vedlitz, ‘Race, Ethnicity, and Political Participation: Competing Models and Contrasting Explanations’, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Nov., 1999), pp. 1092-1114.

[24] Miguel Caínzos and Carmen Voces, ‘Class Inequalities in Political Participation and the “Death of Class” Debate’, International Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3 (May, 2010), pp. 383-418; Geoffrey Evans, ‘The Continued Significance of Class Voting’, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jun., 2000), pp. 401-417; Bartels, Unequal Democracy, p. 96.

[25] Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza, ‘A Great Divide? Religion and Political Change in U.S. National Elections, 1972-2000’, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 421-450; Achim Goerres, The Political Participation of Older People in Europe: The Greying of our Democracies (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillian, 2009), pp. 161-167.

[26] Angela T. Haddad and Leonard Lieberman, ‘From Student Resistance to Embracing the Sociological Imagination: Unmasking Privilege, Social Conventions, and Racism’, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jul., 1983), pp. 328-341.

[27] Brady, Verba, and Schlozman, ‘Beyond SES’, pp. 271-294.

[28] bell hooks, ‘Class and Race: The New Black Elite’, in Kimmel and Ferber, Privilege, pp. 243-252; Mary Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 209-214; Riggs, Priscilla, (White) Queen of the Desert, p. 5 ; McIntosh, ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege’, pp. 147-160; Vianello and Moore, Gendering Elites, pp. 270-271

[29] Les Back, New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racism and multiculture in young lives (London, Routledge, 1996), p. 11.


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