Institutions as Inferential Spaces: How People Learn About Inequality
PhD dissertation, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.
Income inequality is on the rise across the Western world. The reality of increasing inequalities has however not been accompanied by growing popular concern. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people increasingly believe their society functions meritocratically. Paradoxically, citizens of some of the world’s most unequal societies think of their country as the paragon of meritocracy. This dissertation is an attempt to resolve this puzzle by describing a link between people’s changing social environments and the ways in which they learn about inequality. I argue that what explains citizens’ meritocratic beliefs is the fact that the lives of the rich and poor are increasingly organized in relatively homogeneous institutions: people live in neighborhoods, go to schools, and pick romantic partners and friends that fit their education and income level. As a result, people on either side of the income divide are unable to see the breadth of the gap that separates their lives from those of others: as the gap grows larger, other people’s lives fade out of view. Hence, rising inequality paradoxically leads to insulate people from seeing the full extent of it.