Unequal societies, where the poorest and wealthiest in society tend to live separately, create conditions where inequality is more likely to be accepted, new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has found.

The research shows that belief in meritocracy, the view that success depends on hard work rather than social structures, strengthens with rising inequality. Additionally, concerns towards levels of inequality are also shown to be much lower in societies where popular belief in meritocracy is high.

The research highlights that inequality in the United Kingdom is rising, a trend which is repeated across developed nations, where the top 10 percent of households on average take home a third of all income, and own two-thirds of all wealth. It notes that inequality is often marked by greater social distance amongst citizens; children tend to live their lives in either poor or wealthy neighbourhoods, have friendships from the same background as them, and attend different schools to those from other income groups. Citizens are also more likely to have relationships in their own circles, and work in increasingly polarised labour markets.

The research finds that these divisions between groups leaves many citizens without direct experiences of inequality. The economically separated individuals develop an understanding of society, and their own place in it, from a position of insulation. Paradoxically, the research finds that individuals in highly unequal countries experience less income inequality in their workplace, neighbourhoods, and social networks. As a consequence, they are less concerned about it.

The paper, published in the Socio-Economic Review, tracked views on meritocracy and acceptance of inequality in the United Kingdom and across a total of 23 developed nations over a 25 year period between the late 1980s and early 2010s, measuring each country and time point.

The analysis showed a large majority in almost every country and period supporting the view that theirs is a meritocratic society. At least two-thirds of citizens in all countries (apart from Communist-era Poland) – and 95 per cent of Americans — attributed success to meritocratic factors.

The study also tracked changes in the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) over time alongside citizens’ views, finding that citizens in more unequal societies hold stronger beliefs in meritocracy, and weaker beliefs that structural inequalities might help or hinder their pursuit of social mobility.

This trend was strongest amongst citizens of more unequal societies, who are markedly less concerned about inequality and expressed the strongest belief in meritocracy, compared to those who live in more egalitarian societies.

Dr Jonathan Mijs, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at LSE, and author of the research, said:

“My research calls attention to the social and spatial impact of economic inequality. Inequality does not just impact people’s wallets. It also shapes where we live, work and where our children go to school.”

“As the income gap grows wider, the less people experience inequality. And as my research shows, people in some of the most unequal societies are the ones that are least concerned about it.

“Publics in unequal societies may find themselves stuck in a feedback loop. The less they experience inequality, the less likely they are to politically oppose it. This means that economic inequality is self-reinforcing, not just in terms of investors’ bank accounts, but socially and politically as well.

“Highly unequal societies often are blighted by social problems, such as crime and corruption, with their democratic political systems coming under great strain. There is no telling what the turning point would be with the countries featured in this study, but if Latin American levels of inequality are anything to go by, Europe still has a long way to fall while this issue is not addressed.

“If we want citizens to develop a better understanding of the world they live in, we need to create conditions for more interactions across social class lines. In the workplace, at school, and in our neighbourhoods. Key to that challenge, I believe, is to diversify, ethnically and socioeconomically, our neighbourhoods and schools. Until then, there is nothing surprising about the fact that people in unequal societies approach politics from the highly skewed vantage point of their own experiences.”

The Paradox of Inequality: Income Inequality and Belief in Meritocracy go Hand in Handby Dr Jonathan Mijs was published in the Socio-Economic Review on 23 January 2019.

The research used data from the International Social Survey Programme, covering 49,383 citizens in 23 countries, over a 25-year period between 1987 and 2012.