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 preceding sections have outlined in detail a process that leads from background characteristics to political participation and, in doing so, have provided an account of the workings of privilege. In considering such mechanisms the focus has been on the workings of structural influences at the individual level. Those influences are external to individuals and, thus, do not account for the internal processes that are also a crucial influence on outcomes. That is to say that what people think and feel is a critical additional link in the causal chain from background to behaviour. Thus, the previous sections have dealt with the key externally observable concepts that account for the workings of the overarching concept of privilege, and can thus be seen as an account of objective privilege. They do not account for subjective privilege, or the thoughts and feelings that people have about their backgrounds, how they relate to their current place in society, and their ability to participate in certain activities such as politics. Subjective privilege is thus based on perception.
Missing the perceptual component out of any account of the influence of privilege on political participation renders the causal chain incomplete, undermining any explanation. The impact of objective privilege is crucially related to whether it is perceived and how relevant it is seen to be in a given context. Ultimately, behaviour is not influenced only by structural forces but also by beliefs about those forces. A key reason for not participating in politics is the belief that one does not possess the requisite economic, social, or cultural capital to do so. Privilege itself may have a direct impact on political participation but that impact will be notably different if it is alive in the minds of individuals. Perception of privilege is thus important in its own right but also has the potential to improve our understanding of how privilege itself impacts on political participation.
Questions regarding the origins of perception, how it functions, and its effects have been a matter for philosophical debate and extensive psychological research. The focus of the current research is particularly on the components of perception that relate to relations and causality. Specifically, it is concerned with whether individuals perceive a societal hierarchy that encompasses them (relations), and what they perceive to be the reasons for that hierarchy and any effects it may have (causality). It has been argued that ‘[i]ndividual psychology and social inequality relate to each other like a lock and key.’ This is because there is a crucial relative component to inequality, with perception of the positions of others being based on perceptions of one’s own position. This recognition of the significance of self-comparison against others informed the development of relative measures of wealth and poverty. The relative component of inequality, though, does not just relate to economic measures and, in Britain, class labels and their associated places within a status hierarchy are of great importance. Relative placement is bound up with perception and has consequences for political participation. Thus, for the sake of clarity, the focus of this research is not on perception in general but specifically on the perception of privilege. It is necessary below to consider the workings of some more general components of perception, and the impact that they have, but only in so far as they inform our understanding of perception of privilege.
Survey evidence shows that in countries with a history of enforced equality the perception of conflict in society, especially between rich and poor, leads to lower support for democracy, and a reduced likelihood of participation in it. This is complemented by impressive survey evidence that negative information, for instance relating to conflict, is more important than positive information in the formation of political impressions and subsequent behaviour. Aggregate measures also show that higher inequality depresses voter turnout in democratic societies. Experimental evidence indicates that such disengagement may be underpinned by low power individuals heightening their perceptions of relationships between the powerful, perhaps because of anxiety stemming from the perceived threat of an outgroup. Heightened perceptions of power relations further up a hierarchy could contribute to the ‘paradox of distance’ in which voters can hold negative dispositions towards politicians in the abstract whilst being much more favourable to individual local politicians. At the same time, those of higher status tend to inflate their distance from those of lower status by perceiving more layers in the hierarchy, which may inhibit reconciliation between politicians and the voting public. This has led to calls for politicians to emphasise positions on issues that are of common benefit to all rather than focussing on specific group interests.
Perceptions of certain groups can act as barriers to their participation, with evidence suggesting that those who are excluded from social groups display a disparity between how others perceive them and their self-perception. Such excluded groups may be victims of stereotyping based on characteristics beyond their control, for instance family status. It was previously noted that stereotypes of women can lead to their exclusion from politics but gender is only one basis on stereotypes can affect status. Whatever their basis, as the importance of stereotypes increases they can create a culture of symbolic politics in which certain groups trigger affective responses in the population that can be played on by politicians.
In fact, affect as well as cognition has an important impact on how political information is processed and they can work together to influence outcomes. The relevance of both cognition-based calculations and affect-based expressive motivations in political behaviour has led to the proposition that individuals have an ‘all-things-considered evaluation’ that points to their preferred course of action. The importance of affect and, in particular, anxiety in defining behaviour are the focus of the theory of cognitive dissonance. That theory posits that individuals have relatively accurate, if imperfect, perceptions of reality and thus of disparities between any of their opinions, beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviours. The anxiety caused by the dissonance between those elements motivates people to bring them into line with each other, which they may do by changing their behaviour, their environment, or by seeking new information. Considerable evidence was marshalled to support the theory, for instance demonstrating that being asked to publicly advocate a position leads to a greater adherence to that position because beliefs are brought into line with behaviour in order to avoid dissonance. This corroborated evidence of a wider trend for individuals to bring their beliefs into line with their roles, be they in the work, social, or political context.
The theory of cognitive dissonance has been influential in the field of political psychology, particularly in relation to voters’ candidate preferences. Survey evidence has suggested that voters selectively perceive their preferred candidate’s policy positions, a phenomenon referred to as projection, to ensure that it matches their own. This is especially the case when they hold a positive affective disposition towards the candidate, when the candidate is ambiguous on the policy, and when the policy is important to the voter. The evidence that voters bring their beliefs, affective dispositions, and actions into balance has been used to counter claims that voters learn candidates’ positions from cues such as their party.
Despite its influence, the theory of cognitive dissonance is of limited use in the current research because it suffers from causal ambiguity with regard to, for instance, the negative relationship that may emerge between perception of privilege and political participation. The theory suggests that this could be the result of a process in which individuals perceive their low levels of privilege as inappropriate in political contexts, and bring their political behaviour into line with those perceptions. Alternatively, politically inactive people could justify their behaviour by bringing their beliefs into line with it, thus constructing a belief in the exclusionary importance of privilege in political contexts.
Countering cognitive dissonance theory, and providing a clearer causal proposition, is the self-perception theory of Daryl J. Bem. In Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs, he suggests that the idea of cognitive dissonance holds sway with academics because they spend a large part of their lives considering the consistency of their theories. In its place he outlines an extensive theory of perception that begins with the identification of different levels of belief. ‘Zero-order beliefs’ are developed from the senses and ‘are the “nonconscious” axioms upon which our other beliefs are built’. For example, the belief that our senses do not lie, or that our parents do not lie, are zero-order beliefs. ‘First-order beliefs’ rely on zero-order ones and are based on information that is received from the sources that have been judged to be trustworthy. For example, identifying with a political party because one is brought up by parents who support it is a first order belief. Beyond first-order beliefs there is a vertical structure of higher-order beliefs, for example regarding the qualities of a policy proposed by a political party, all tracing their roots back to first- and zero-order ones. At the same time, Bem suggests that there are horizontal links between higher-order beliefs meaning that there can be multiple reasons for holding a belief. Crucially, he also posited that the order of a belief can change over time so that, for instance, if the reason for trusting a newspaper is forgotten (due to habitual readership) then that trust becomes a zero-order belief.
Based on the above ideas, Bem suggests that the links between beliefs require that they be cognitively consistent but that this does not mean that they must be logical or rational. This can be manifested in a number of ways, for instance if inductive generalisations are wrong, as with stereotypes. Alternatively, false premises may lead to false beliefs, for instance if an unreliable source is trusted. Higher-order beliefs may also be inconsistent despite shared bases, for instance if the fundamental belief in freedom leads to a contradiction in beliefs about protecting freedom with law. Finally, reasoning may be subtly illogical, for instance if correlation is identified as causation. Thus the drive to resolve logical inconsistency may not be as strong as previously suggested and the possibility emerges that people can sustain imbalance between beliefs and behaviour.
If dissonance is not the driver then an alternative explanation for the experimental results that support cognitive dissonance theory is required. In that light, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs marshals the same experimental evidence to support an alternative theory. It shows that external cues are used both in forming other’s perceptions of an individual and by the individual when forming their self-perceptions. Bem posits that self-perception is taught in childhood by parents, who diagnose internal conditions from external cues, for instance identifying soreness from bruising. Learning this process of diagnosis from their parents, people come to diagnose their own conditions based on external cues as well as internal ones. Hence, experiments have shown that when physiological responses are induced with drugs similar to adrenalin the resultant mood reflects the cues provided, which were varied to indicate anger or happiness. The importance of external cues was also demonstrated by experiments showing that obese people rely more on external than internal cues for their eating habits. Additionally, and finally, corroboration was provided by the experimental finding that attraction to semi-nude pictures altered depending on the pace of heartbeat on a recording, thought to be an amplification of the subject’s own heart.
In addition to reporting the above, Bem replicated experiments demonstrating that individuals change their opinions to match conditioned or paid behaviour that contradicts their initial opinions if the conditioning or payment is not too incongruous. Crucially, the experiments are also replicated with individuals observing the behaviour in others and building their perceptions on that basis, with the same perceptual outcomes. It is argued that individuals are not driven to resolve cognitive dissonance in relation to others, rather their perceptions and self-perceptions are based on the same external cues that others use to perceive them. This accommodates the importance of context and roles in defining behaviour. At the same time, the theory provides a link from external structural influences to internal influences and provides a clear causal process leading to behaviour.
In relation to the current research, self-perception theory suggests that individuals utilise the same indicators to perceive their levels of capital as do those around them. Thus, individuals are likely both to perceive the extent to which they are privileged and, using different cues, the extent to which they are involved in political activity. This suggests that those who are less privileged, who are also less likely to participate in political activity, are likely to think of themselves as ‘not political’ or to consider that politics is ‘not for them’. This is not just a process leading from external cues to perceptions; Bem did not deny that beliefs can also influence behaviour. Thus, once the belief that one cannot engage in political activity is established it is likely to contribute to and sustain disengagement. This is similar to the observation made by Brady, Schlozman, and Verba that motivations may be post-hoc rationalisations of behaviour but retain significance because of their capacity to influence future behaviour.
Crucially, the complex relationships between the three forms of capital, and the varying prominence of different types within each form, suggests that perceptions of capital will not be uniform. Different capital has relevance in different contexts and the significance of a certain type or form at a key formative stage of socialisation could influence persistent perceptions. In short, there is the possibility of variance in the relationship between privilege, perception of it, and political participation. This also has the potential to explain the different trends in participation in implicit and explicit political participation because people may perceive those activities, and thus their ability to participate in them, differently.
The above process leading from external structure to internal beliefs and then to subsequent behaviour fits within the molecular opinion structure proposed by Bem. This posits that a given belief is grouped with an attitude and a perception of social support. Again this proposal only relates to a structure, not to the content of any of its parts. Thus, a person who believes that they are not privileged, by Bem’s reckoning because they have observed external cues indicating as such, will feel a particular way about it and will seek other opinion that is supportive of that belief and feeling. This indicates that social groups can be important in maintaining beliefs, perceptions, and, as already noted, behaviour.
The importance of social groups is emphasised by social identity theory. That theory is based on experimental evidence suggesting the formation of group identity, and associated positive and negative emotions relating to in- and out-groups, independently of competition between groups for scarce resources. The process that leads to that group identity begins with social categorisation, or ‘the process through which separate individuals are clustered into groups.’ Subsequently social comparison is undertaken in which ‘characteristic group features are interpreted and valued.’ Finally, social identification leads to seeing one’s self as part of a given group to the extent that the features of the group become associated with the self. It is argued that social identification is an affective process, with the complement to this being the more cognitive self-categorisation theory. That theory posits that identification can occur at different levels of abstraction, for instance from the individual to the national. It further posits that self-categorisation depends on which other groups are salient, for instance influencing whether gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, or another grouping provides the basis for categorisation. The process depends not only on which groups are salient but also the size of the differences between them, meaning that categorisation is likely to be defined against the most different group. Thus, the process of self-categorisation means that patterns of assimilation and contrast stem from identification with or against the salient groups at the time.
The above again points to the importance of context and role in defining perceptions and, in particular, it suggests the relevance of group status. It has been shown that membership of a low status group, especially in contexts where that low status is salient, lowers self-esteem, aspirations, and performance. This can be linked to research suggesting that feelings of insecurity, which may be prompted by low status, make one less open to new ideas and settings. The power of low status can feed into patterns of self-verification, in which people seek information that affirms their perceived status, potentially leading to an ongoing cycle of low self-esteem, limited aspirations, and underperformance. The significant impact of low group status, and perception of that status, is important for the current research. Status is assigned on the basis not only of background characteristics but also of the associated levels of capital. This provides a direct link from privilege to group status and its associated behavioural implications.
The proposition that the negative feelings, such as anxiety, associated with low status lead to worse performance contradicts other theory that suggests the motivating impact of negative affect stemming from behaviour being inappropriate to the current setting. The important point to note here is the different bases for the negative emotions; in the latter instance it is behaviour or beliefs that are at stake but in the former it is the status of the individual, which is more fundamental. That is to say, it is rather more challenging to struggle with a low status that implies an overarching inferiority, especially if that status has been assigned from an early age, than it is to deal with current behaviour being inappropriate to a particular setting. This can be linked to Bem’s suggestion of zero-, first-, and higher-ordered beliefs; in the latter instance it is only higher order beliefs or behaviours that are being challenged whereas in the former it is a zero-order belief. Being in a context in which one’s own capacities and worth are identified as low affects not only the zero-order belief about one’s status but also, potentially, associated first- and higher-order beliefs.
The importance of low status the focus of social dominance theory, which identifies five different strategies for dealing with it. First, individuals may try defection from a group with low status, though this requires that the boundaries between groups are permeable or that they are able to disguise themselves. Second, they can be socially creative by redefining the grounds upon which groups are compared and selecting those that give their group high status. Third, retaining the current grounds that are used to assign status to groups, they can assert that their group’s current practice is high status. Fourth, they can identify lower groups against which they can compare themselves. Fifth and finally, they can choose to compete with higher status groups for a better position. Interestingly, these strategies echo features of Bourdieu’s market for cultural capital, in which the classes not only compete for cultural capital but also to define which cultural capital has value. Crucially, competition stemming from hierarchies can take place outside the cultural domain and it has been posited that aggression stemming from marginalisation can lead to political activity.
Beyond culture and politics, the general idea of group competition fits within the broader propositions of social dominance theory, which assumes that:
- Human social systems are predisposed to form group-based social hierarachies. This social hierarchy consists of at least one Hegemonic group at its top and at least one Negative Reference Group at its bottom. . . .
- Males will tend to possess a disproportionate degree of political power. We refer to this as the Iron Law of Andrarchy. . . .
- Most common forms of group conflict and oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, nationalism, classism) can be regarded as different manifestations of the same predisposition toward group-based social hierarchy.
- The formation of social hierarchy and primordial groups are survival strategies adopted by humans.
The result of the above assumptions is the assertion that there will always be hierarchies with negative reference groups at the bottom, and questions remain about the extent to which challenging such inequality will be fruitful. Part of the reason for the difficulty of challenging inequality is that there are those who defend the existing hierarchies, often amongst those who are in higher status groups or enforcement roles. Such people, who are disposed towards upholding the hierarchy, are referred to as having a high ‘social dominance orientation’.
According to social dominance theory, the maintenance of the hierarchy, in part by those with a high social dominance orientation, disempowers those with low status and restricts their options for action. This leads to behavioural asymmetry, in which:
on the average, the behavioral repertoires of individuals belonging to groups at different levels of the social hierarchy will show significant differences, differences that have been produced by the dynamics of and which, in turn, reinforce and perpetuate the group-based hierarchy system. This behavioural asymmetry is induced by socialization patterns, stereotypes, legitimization myths . . . , and the operation of systematic terror.
Thus, the hierarchy is sustained not only by the actions of those in enforcement roles or with high status but also, in part, by the behaviour of those with low status. In fact, social dominance theory suggests multiple different ways that behavioural asymmetry may manifest itself in high and low status groups. It may take the form of systematic out-group favouritism or deference amongst low status groups or, at the other end of the hierarchy, in-group bias. Alternatively, it may take the form of self-handicapping amongst low status groups, resulting in the lower performance noted previously. Finally, it may take the form of ideological asymmetry, in which the political ideology of a high-status group is more related to in-group favouritism than is the political ideology of a low-status group. Such behavioural patterns are based around perceptions of in- and out-groups that may become entrenched from an early age and lead to automatic associations, implying that it may be difficult for individuals to change the associated behavioural patterns.
In identifying ways in which unequal systems are maintained social dominance theory fits within a broader system justification theory, which posits that there are a range of beliefs that can be held to justify unequal systems. It has been argued that social dominance orientation functions as one of the main modes of system justifying alongside right-wing authoritarianism. Whilst the former is based around group competition, and the resultant right of high status groups to retain their earned position in the hierarchy, the latter is much more focussed on the threat posed by out-groups, with the in-group taken to be ‘normal, morally good, [and] decent’. It has been observed, based on survey evidence, that social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism function as separate spectrums in a similar fashion to the left-right and liberal-authoritarian political spectrums, which they may underpin. As such, there is the possibility that individuals may be high in social dominance orientation but low in right-wing authoritarianism, vice versa, high in both, or high in neither.
Being high in either social dominance orientation or right-wing authoritarianism means that one holds system justifying beliefs. One of the forms that such beliefs frequently take is the ‘fundamental attribution error’ in which the low status of others is seen to be the result of their failings whilst one’s own successes are considered to be due to hard work. Thus, those adhering to the error assign low status groups characteristics such as laziness, lack of worth ethic, or lack of money management skills. Such beliefs are associated with the background characteristics of those who hold them but are also sustained through their prevalence in society at large. As such, it has been argued that:
those who make external attributions have overcome the fundamental attribution error, the dominant ideology of individualism, the dearth of coherent philosophical justification for egalitarianism, and a noticeable lack of forthright political leadership.
Thus, in ‘explaining differences in the distribution of social and material goods in terms of differences in individual effort, talent, and merit and by holding people responsible for their outcomes’ system justifying beliefs are here considered to exist in opposition to perception of privilege, which requires recognition of systemic causes of inequality. This opposition is of particular relevance to the current research because system justifying beliefs have been found to relate to lower involvement in political activity. Such beliefs are not only held by those with high status, and it is possible that the extent of disengagement from politics differs between individuals of varying statuses. This also suggests that the impact of perception of privilege may differ across different status groups, an idea that will be developed in subsequent chapters.
In summary, the combination of Bem’s self-perception theory and theories related to group identity and status suggest an important role for perception of privilege in influencing political participation. It has been posited that individuals perceive their status in a hierarchy, albeit imperfectly, based on the same cues that others use to assign a status to them. At the same time, they perceive their status as a ‘political person’ from their activities in that area. To the extent that those activities are influenced by their social status the latter perception will be a reflection of their perception of that status. To the extent that they influence subsequent behaviour both perceptions will feed into future political participation. This is particularly important for low status groups that not only face structural barriers but, upon perceiving their low status, are also likely to respond with less effective behaviour. Even when successfully adopting strategies to overcome low status, for instance in the form of competition with other groups, low status groups may not fundamentally challenge the hierarchy itself. Since, as is argued in previous sections, background characteristics are an important influence on status and since hierarchies are widespread it is likely that perception of status begins at an early age. Despite those early origins the perception of status does not necessarily entail perception of the reasons for that status. This is a crucial focus for the current research, which is concerned with the perception of role of background characteristics in defining status and that perception’s impact on political participation.
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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 Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs, pp. 11-12.
 Bem, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs, p. 13.
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 Ellemers and Haslam, ‘Social Identity Theory’, p. 388; see also John C. Turner and Katherine J. Reynolds, ‘Self-Categorization Theory’, in Van Lange, Kruglanski, and Higgins, Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, pp. 400-414.
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 Knight, ‘In Their Own Words’, p. 221.
 Knight, ‘In Their Own Words’, p. 228.
 O’Brien and Major, ‘Group Status and Feelings of Personal Entitlement’, p. 432.
 Carolyn L. Hafer and Becky L. Choma, ‘Belief in a Just World, Perceived Fairness, and Justification of the Status Quo’, in Jost, Kay, and Thorisdottir, Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, pp. 107-119, p. 109.