Focus: Why do people put up with inequality?

Focus: Why do people put up with inequality?

Wendy Bottero

Why do people—even the most disadvantaged—so often put up with inequality and subordination? Social analysts have often been troubled by the fact that there seems to be less everyday grievance or dissent than we might expect, given the reach and severity of inequalities in people’s lives. It is long acknowledged that levels of discontent are poorly related to ‘objective’ levels of inequality, and for many analysts the most troubling aspect is that widespread compliance—or ‘acquiescence’—in the face of stark inequality helps to reproduce it. But how are we to understand this?

The perennial answer to this problem focuses on the way inequality itself restricts and distorts everyday understandings and limits social challenge—in arguments of symbolic legitimation. The problem then becomes one of the restricted visions that ordinary people have. People’s subjective grasp of inequalities has been identified as problematic in a range of work, with an emphasis on the fragmentary or distorted nature of responses to inequalities. Popular accounts have enthusiastically taken up this theme, in suggestions that ‘fake news’, organised disinformation campaigns and social media ‘bubbles’ result in brainwashed voters or gullible sheeple following the herd.

Yet at the same time we also see a widespread ‘popularisation of critique’ (Latour, 2004) with attacks – from both left and right – debunking the authority of elites, and expressing scepticism and disbelief of experts. And the last 10 years have seen an escalation in social protest, most recently in a wave of mass mobilisations—in Spain, Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong, France, Indonesia, Haiti and Egypt, for example—challenging inequality, injustice and unaccountable authorities.   It is clear that the moral economies of inequality are complex. But to fully understand them we must rethink the idea that the reproduction of inequality is essentially a problem of knowledge.

If we see symbolic legitimation as such a pervasive force distorting people’s understandings it becomes difficult to explain how critique and social struggle can ever emerge. Perhaps most damagingly, such explanations struggle to account for the degree of conflict that actually occurs.  Accounts focused on the stable reproduction of inequality are always in danger of being awkwardly wrong-footed by events, but theorists of symbolic legitimation have often found themselves more fatalistic and pessimistic than the people they analyse. This is not to deny the ongoing symbolic legitimation of inequalities, but these processes are uneven, incomplete in their grasp and always contested.

If protest, everyday resistance, non-compliance, insubordination and critique are widespread — and there is considerable support for such a claim — the conclusion must be that relations of inequality can be reproduced even when people do not consent to them.  If so, we must explain persistent inequalities not through people’s distorted understanding but rather through the practical constraints they experience. Compliance and acquiescence are important factors in the reproduction of inequality, but such conformity is often pragmatic and contingent and tells us very little about people’s level of recognition of, or indeed support for, relations of inequality (Barnes, 1988). Relations of inequality and subordination can be reproduced without widespread consent or ignorance —people can be sceptical of dominant values and beliefs, they can feel discontent, they can understand the constraints of their situation reasonably well— and yet they can still lack the capacity to change it.

Conversely, even in highly authoritarian and repressive conditions, the most disadvantaged and disempowered do dissent, resist and sometimes even topple the system.  To fully understand this requires a different explanation of the constraints people experience within social arrangements, one which focuses less on power relations or social structures and their naturalisation and more on the constraining and enabling features intrinsic to all collective practices.

Restricted visions?

Analysts have long identified a ‘problem’ with ordinary people’s subjective grasp of inequalities. One common explanation suggests that relations of inequality create systematic ‘misrecognitions’ of how inequality works, so that it is either no longer seen as an injustice or, if it is seen as unjust, becomes understood as inevitable and impossible to change. This shifts inequality from a practical social problem to be resolved into a taken-for-granted ‘fact of life’.

Such accounts arose to explain the ‘consent’ of the masses as an enduring feature of capitalist relations of inequality in liberal democracies, contexts where it was felt that compliance did not straightforwardly result from coercion.  But while we can certainly identify limits to ordinary understandings of inequalities, the ‘problem’ of people’s distorted sense of inequality is much less important in reproducing inequality than many accounts assume. Such arguments imply that if only people could recognise the true nature of their subordination then its constraint would be undermined. But placing such weight on the role of symbolic power in maintaining inequality treats subordination and powerlessness as a matter of perception or ‘practical sense’, neglecting the role of economic clout and coercion which remain powerful organising forces in liberal-democratic societies.

One common counter-argument is that ‘individuals and groups often see clearly the arbitrary character of power relations but lack the requisite resources to change them’ (Swartz, 1997: 289). Critics argue that domination ‘can operate on many occasions more through compliance or brute force than through tacit consent’, as power relations ‘can be clearly understood and still not contested where individuals do not see viable alternatives without tremendous risks’ (ibid: 220–1). For some, theories of symbolic legitimation too readily mistake the public performance of compliance for consent, failing to recognise that widespread levels of discontent are often concealed because of ‘the vital role of power relations in constraining [the] forms of resistance open to subordinate groups’ (Scott, 1989: 54). Here it is coercion that keeps subordinates aligned—publically at least—to the actions of the dominant.

But the long history of subversion and dissent in authoritarian contexts also means that we must think more broadly about the nature of the constraint which shapes compliance and dissent. After all, if the scale of everyday dissent, recalcitrance, resistance and protest is a problem for theories of symbolic legitimation, it also poses a problem for explanations based on coercion.

It is only once we understand how shared practices are collectively sustained and experienced that we can see why people develop a ‘realistic’ sense of what is possible and so often ‘go along’ with practices they do not necessarily commit to or support. The idea that the reproduction of inequality is essentially a problem of knowledge, conflates ‘individual reflexivity and [the] impetus to change’ because ‘most people much of the time do not have control over the circumstances in which they find themselves, nor do they consider as sensible alternative courses of action’ (Warde, 2014: 295).  An emphasis on knowledge or reflexivity in social change overestimates the degree of personal control that people have and neglects ‘the importance of context, an external, collectively accessible, social and cultural environment wherein the mechanisms steering competent conduct are to be found’ (ibid: 295; 2016: 101).

The key question is people’s concrete situation and the constraints on their capacity to effect particular outcomes. Such constraints are certainly bound up with structural inequalities and power relations, but they must also be understood as the constraints of collective practical activities.

Power relations ultimately rest or fall on the wider social alignments through which they operate —because a dominant agent can only exercise power if enough other agents’ actions are appropriately aligned with them (Wartenburg, 1990; Rouse, 2001).  This means power relations are sustained not just through the actions of the dominant but also by the accommodating actions of many other ordinary people, whose interests are often not best served by such arrangements. The typical explanation of this accommodation sees it as the result of either coercion or consent (whether genuinely self-interested or manipulated).

However, people ‘go along’ with social arrangements for a great variety of reasons often based less in consent or coercion than in more mundane processes of everyday practical constraint and pragmatic conformity to the collective steering of practices.  Of course, the degree of support for given social arrangements is ultimately an empirical matter, but the point here is that the self-interested activities of the powerful or the privileged are often less important in sustaining unequal social arrangements than the conformity of everyone else.

In many social contexts we find ourselves participating in collective arrangements which we find difficult, nonsensical or of which we disapprove, most often because we feel we don’t have much choice.  People ‘go along’ with social arrangements for a great variety of reasons, and we cannot assume that this indicates support for them. People engage in shared practices grudgingly, cynically, perfunctorily, as a matter of rote or a necessary evil. Such grudging performances occur for a variety of practical, contextual reasons: because of the weight of expectation; because we know it will help those who matter to us; because it enables us to do something else that we do value; because we feel we must pick our battles; because we fear how others might react if we do not; or simply because taking part is easier than swimming against the tide.

Barnes (1988: 21) points to the weaknesses in theoretical models which sees the ‘uncoerced component’ in people’s acceptance of the status quo as the product of manipulated consent or approval. Participants may evaluate social arrangement negatively and yet still judge that conformity to them is the only real alternative, adjusting to contingencies they feel they cannot change (Barnes, 1988: 41, 124). There can be situations where few members actively support a routine collective practice in which all are engaged, yet each conforms because they calculate that others will carry on the practice (ibid: 37, 42).

Complicity? Undoubtedly, since compliance of this sort, however grudging, helps such arrangements to persist. But this is also a very constrained and contingent sort of complicity, which under the right circumstances can rapidly drain away or even turn into outright defiance. However a notion of caution is required, since provisional compliance with social arrangements sometime conceals some very nasty social sentiments, also biding their time for signals of greater collective support—as in the recent resurgence of racism and white supremacy into public discourse.

To focus on the grudging and provisional nature of compliance is not to deny the force of dominant practices and values on our lives, but rather to offer a different account of how they take their force, through how they form the ‘known’ environment to which we adjust our own practices. People help to constitute institutionalised social arrangements and shared practices by drawing upon them as a set of resources in the course of living their lives (Barnes, 2001: 25–6).  This locates the durability and constraint of social arrangements in people’s processes of ‘recognition’ and adjustment to them.

But while for many practical purposes people often take their social arrangements as ‘given’ or self-evident this does not mean that they ‘naturalise’ such arrangements as unalterable, nor does it mean revealing their true nature will undermine them. And while people’s practical engagements are often strategies of negotiation and manoeuvre within environments which are taken as given, this does not prevent other forms of practical activities emerging aimed at more wholesale change of that environment, which entail very different understandings of it.

One difficulty in many accounts is that many analysts’ real interest in questions of subjective inequality rests in how people’s understandings affect their consent or challenge to relations of inequality.  This question is a vital one, but to properly address it we must first analyse people’s understandings of inequality on their own terms, locating them within their ordinary practical concerns and contexts of activity, and emerging as part of their struggles to resolve their problems of experience. People’s viewpoints on inequality emerge as knowledge formed to navigate given situations and– crucially – are shaped and limited by their practical capacities for action.  People are generally more aware of, and more concerned by, how unequal relations affect their own immediate situation and concerns.

They are rather more alert to wider structural and economic processes than some analysis suggests, but typically view these processes in terms of how they must be negotiated, seeing inequality as a ‘given’ feature of the environment to be managed in their daily lives. For some, this taken-for-granted practical experience of inequality ‘naturalises’ it as inevitable or self-evident.  But despite its situated and practical character, people’s sense of inequality is ‘good enough’ for most people to want lower inequality, to fuel scepticism and dissent to legitimating ideologies, and to generate significant levels of recalcitrance, resistance and protest.

Many accounts of symbolic legitimation do in fact concede significant limits to the naturalisation of inequality, not least because much empirical research in the area shows the penetration of symbolic legitimation is uneven and contested, often takes stronger hold amongst the dominant than amongst the less advantaged, and does not prevent substantial amounts of discontent. But conceding too much discontent undermines the explanatory role of symbolic legitimation in reproducing inequality, and so it is often argued that the discontent that does emerge is limited or ultimately self-defeating.

Symbolic legitimation still props up inequality but now by dissipating and misdirecting discontent —into attempts at assimilation, divisive sectional struggles or defense mechanisms, none of which really threaten the system. Such arguments often rest on the affective nature of symbolic legitimation, in which subordination produces self-limiting choices and self-sabotaging feelings of shame, resignation and despair.  However, this move creates its own problems because while inequality does often provoke humiliation and despair, it also sparks anger, indignation and struggles for greater recognition, respect and dignity.

It is certainly true that subordinated groups cannot avoid being judged against the values and practices of dominant groups, and so often struggle to avoid internalising at least some of the values which position them as inferior. However, this represents a very incomplete and limited version of ‘naturalisation’, because such subordinating judgements and expectations are also a powerful force generating dissent and struggles for respect and recognition.  The reason for this is because subordinate groups must have a reflexive and calculative grasp of their subordination in order to be able to navigate dominant values and practices. Because we must ‘recognise’ social arrangements as ‘what they are’ in order to organise our activities, we adjust our actions accordingly and, regardless of our opinion about such arrangements, in so adjusting we often help to reproduce them. This, ironically, locates the persistence of unequal social arrangements not in people’s ‘misrecognition’ of them but rather in their processes of ‘recognition’.

Of course, for some analysts, to recognise social arrangements as ‘what they are’ and to take them as a ‘fact of life’ itself reflects symbolic legitimation, in which people’s resignation about inequality limits their capacity to challenge or resist.  There is considerable evidence that people do often feel resigned about inequality and frequently make ‘realistic’ adjustments to the limits of their circumstances. But the identification of this is as ‘naturalisation’ partly depends on just how realistic we consider people’s ‘realistic’ adjustment to be.  Much social movement research shows that disadvantaged groups are often resigned to their situation and that, in order to mobilise, they must develop a sense that real change is possible. But such work also shows such resignation often rests in ‘objective’ conditions of powerlessness and constraint which must shift for people to be able to act. And much of this constraint derives from the practical arrangements of people’s everyday lives, in which the difficulties of mobilisation are not just a question of the risks of repression but also of the daily routines and obligations that keep people within unequal arrangements, regardless of their critical awareness or dissent.

People are not wrong, deluded or duped if they feel their social relations are external and constraining. Social relations are collectively ordered practices, encountered as features of a ‘known’ and ‘external’ socio-material environment, generally experienced as constraining conventions and routines which people must pragmatically negotiate. If we feel constraint in collective practices this is also the constraint of the many other ordinary people whose routines and conventions forms our social-material environment, shapes our expectations and accountability, and constrain our room for manoeuvre. Such constraint is real enough, because it is certainly not easily changed. Here the weight of the world holding us in place in our practices is the weight of other people—not just the powerful, privileged or those in authority, but everyone who participates in a practice, for whatever reason, and who so help to constitute that practice as a durable, ‘public’ feature of our environment.

However, if people’s compliance with inequality is so pragmatic and provisional, and discontent and subversion, misbehaviour and dissent are indeed widespread, this returns us to the question of why relations of inequality are so persistent.  Collective social arrangements are often experienced as taken-as-given features of our environment, but any widely institutionalised social arrangement is likely to become ‘self-evident’ simply by virtue of its ubiquity. Yet insubordination, non-compliance and strategic reinterpretation of the rules are commonplace. Some suggest that mundane and submerged forms of dissent and resistance are just survival mechanisms which help people to put up with controlling social environments but which also allow that control to continue.  Here people’s local acts of ‘letting off steam’ do not change their resignation to the inevitability of wider arrangements.

Others concede that non-compliance and rule-breaking are commonplace, but argue this does not represent ‘resistance’ rather merely practices of self-help or self-organisation.  However, regardless of whether non-conformity represents ‘resistance’ or just corner-cutting self-help, such manoeuvrings show that people do not straightforwardly naturalise their social arrangements. The point here is that people are doing what they can to change their situation. People constantly seek to adapt their circumstances as they find them to their own practical purposes, but their ability to do so depends on the situational constraints they encounter.

The reason why people so often —yet not always— put up with relations of inequality is less a question of symbolic legitimation and the production of consent and more a question of people ‘recognising’ and adjusting to the socially ordered context they must negotiate (and so help to constitute). But if the stability of social arrangements arises from the collective steering of practices and the pressures ordinary people exert on each other, this is also the means by which it can be undone. The collective steering of practices also helps explain the spread of non-conformity, since seeing others around us disobey a conventional practice or authority can result in the cascading acts of non-compliance which have sometimes caused the sudden collapse of even the most authoritarian regimes. Social arrangements are always vulnerable to ‘concerted deviance or concerted innovation’ (Barnes, 1988: 42).

Some analysts see the provisional nature of compliance with social arrangements as a source of hope, since it suggests that ‘the consciousness of subordinates does not need to be “raised”… so much as co-ordinated’ (Rafanell and Gorringe, 2010: 620).  But achieving the level of coordinated activity which can change the tide of established convention is hard and potentially risky, and always vulnerable to disruption from the powerful and the privileged. Collective social arrangements are hard to swim against, and even harder to change. It is possible to change them— through exactly the same types of collective steering, aligning, coordinating, and sanctioning activities which reproduce them. But it is only by understanding constraint and interdependence as a feature of social relations, and not just power relations that we can see how there can ever be ‘power from below’ (Piven, 2008) or understand how the practical and transformative capacities of collective action can take shape.

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Wendy Bottero is Reader in Sociology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of A Sense of Inequality Rowman and Littlefield 2019).