Spotlight on...

Dr Jonathan Mijs
Assistant Professorial Research Fellow in Ethnicity, Race and Equity

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Looking at inequality through the lens of hard work and ingenuity implies a meritocratic worldview where people get what they deserve, or deservingly miss out. An alternative worldview is one that acknowledges the role of structural forces in shaping our lives.

Jonathan Mijs

What areas of inequality does your research focus on?

I focus on the cognitive dimension of inequality: how we learn about inequality, and how we make sense of it.

From Julius Caesar's self-described decisive victory over the Gauls, to the superior ingenuity of David in defeating Goliath, Western culture is rife with stories of individual accomplishment. We celebrate the success of leaders in business, science and sports, and when we do, we tend to attribute the outcome of events to the achievements of (extraordinary) individuals. 

In today's unequal world, how we make sense of wealth and poverty similarly depends on the way we understand the causes of events; in particular, whether we consider  successes and setbacks to be the result of hard work and ingenuity (or lack thereof) or regard them as the outcome of circumstances not fully within our control. Looking at inequality through the lens of hard work and ingenuity implies a meritocratic worldview where people get what they deserve, or deservingly miss out. An alternative worldview is one that acknowledges the role of structural forces in shaping our lives.

How people make sense of inequality in turn drives their feelings of sympathy and solidarity with fellow citizens, informs their policy attitudes and motivates their voting behavior. This makes it an important area for research. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a couple of projects at the same time (too many, actually!). I'll briefly describe one. This project builds on my earlier work looking at how college students learn about inequality. This time I zoom in on minority students at elite institutions. Specifically, I ask, how do African American and Hispanic students at elite US colleges understand their group's disadvantaged place in society? And how do these students' beliefs change over the college years? 

I can share one set of preliminary findings: the more minority students interact with white students, I find, the more they come to think that what explains racial inequality isn't discrimination, but a lack of hard work and effort. Interestingly, for white students the impact of interacting with African American and Hispanic students seems to be quite different: the closer they get to minority students, the more they come to think that what explains racial inequality is the discrimination that these groups face (not a lack of trying!). Different groups of students may thus learn rather distinct lessons about inequality depending on their relative position, as well as their unique trajectories. White students, by interacting with their peers from diverse backgrounds, come to be more aware of the obstacles that minority students have had to overcome. Meanwhile, many of these minority students, well underway to becoming the country's elite, take their own success to mean that talent and effort can take you anywhere. 

What is your favourite non-academic book, and why?

The book that probably most impacted my thinking about race and inequality is Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. There's a poignant quote from his book that especially resonated with me, illustrating how our experience powerfully shapes our understanding of the world: "When their own vulnerabilities become real---when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their own children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities---they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be." 

His is a quintessential sociological observation, echoing the very definition of what sociology is and ought to be about. In Max Weber's words: "Sociology is a science concerning itself with the interpretative understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences." 

I take Ta-Nehisi's (and Weber's) words as a call to arms as well as a call for research. 

Rana Zincir-Celal
Deputy Director of the Atlantic Fellows programme, III

Rana Zincir Celal spotlight

What, for you, is the most exciting part of the Atlantic Fellows programme?

There are many exciting things about the Atlantic Fellows programme. It’s very global in its outlook, which you can see with the incredible group of Fellows from around the world in our first cohort. After attending our inaugural summer school here in London in July, the Non-Residential Atlantic Fellows will attend additional short courses in Cape Town and again in London throughout the year, where they'll also interact with the Residential and Visiting Atlantic Fellows.  

We're also developing long-term partnerships with organisations around the world, which will significantly extend the programme's global reach and impact. We’re only one of six Atlantic programmes, with the others based in Australia, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and the US. Within our own programme, we’re already working with University of Cape Town, Young Foundation and Oxfam, and will soon form new partnerships in South America and Asia.  To be serious about challenging the pervasive, interconnected and deep-rooted nature of inequality, it’s imperative that we think and act globally.

We also have to be creative, nuanced and bold. That means adapting how we think about, study and teach inequality, integrating different perspectives and new voices, and taking on cutting-edge strategies and approaches.  As the community of Fellows and partners grows over time, I feel that the Atlantic Fellows programme has both the commitment and the potential to be a leading player in working towards all of this.

Where do you see the Atlantic Fellows programme in 10 years?

Atlantic Fellows come from such different fields, such as journalism, the arts, the public sector, grassroots organisations, philanthropy, to name just a few.  They will make an enormous and real difference in the world, and not just in their own communities, organisations and fields. Their collective impact will be even broader. I feel that the Atlantic Fellows community will be a key force in paving the way for new vocabularies on equity, justice and fairness to be more widely embraced, so that in 10 years, how power and leadership play out in public life - and especially the economy - will be completely different than what we see today. 

What is the most memorable place you’ve visited?

So hard to choose only one!  

I’ll never forget walking through the “dead zone,” which is within the ceasefire line dividing the city of Nicosia - and the island of Cyprus.  At times, only a few meters separate the Turkish Cypriot soldiers on one side, Republic of Cyprus forces on the other, with UN peacekeepers patrolling the delicate space in between. It's been completely frozen in time since 1974. As you walk down what were once bustling streets of shops and cafes, you see that posters from that era still hang on the walls; on tables you find plates, utensils and cola bottles, all covered in a dense dust.  Even so, you do sense that it was once the most thriving part of the city, a crossroads for Cypriots of all backgrounds – Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Maronite. With almost no human activity other than military patrols for more than 40 years, the vegetation is at its most raw and natural state.  

Another memorable experience was in the city of Kars in eastern Turkey, where a friend, the scientist Cagan Sekercioglu established a fantastic NGO called Kuzeydoga, to study and protect the bio-cultural diversity of that region.  To welcome us on our first evening there, he took us on “safari” to the local garbage dump.  As he flashed a light across dark heaps of rotting, steaming garbage, we suddenly saw that we were surrounded by about 15 bears, who’d been forced to start feeding as threats to their own natural habitat have grown over the years.  It was an extraordinary and disconcerting experience, not to mention a little terrifying.

And finally I’ll never forget attending the Festival of a Thousand Stars in Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia,  where 56 different tribal groups, who had travelled for days on end from far-flung villages across that part of the country to perform their own traditional dances and music for three full, exhilarating days.

I suppose these three experiences remind me of how intertwined culture and nature are, and of the power of both ordinary and extraordinary human actions. 

Dr David Hope
Visiting Fellow at the III, Lecturer in Political Economy at King's College London

David Hope edited

What areas of inequality does your research focus on?

I have an academic background in both economics and political science, so am particularly interested in research questions on inequality that bridge the two disciplines.

In the long period of reduced economic volatility prior the global financial crisis, patterns of economic growth were very different across the advanced economies. High value added services, such as finance and business services, expanded rapidly in the UK and the US, whereas the export of manufactured goods underpinned growth in Germany. Little is presently known about the role that wage inequality played in the divergent growth patterns. My current research aims to fill this gap by empirically investigating the relationship between wage inequality and economic growth at the sector level. This project also hopes to shed new light on the open question of whether income inequality helps or hinders economic growth.

The Western economies are in the midst of a period of major political upheaval, as exemplified by Brexit, Trump, and the continued rise of far-right populist parties across Europe. Politics seems more divided than at any time in recent memory. Cleavages have widened between big cities and elsewhere, between the young and old, and between the university educated and the non-university educated. I believe that long-term structural economic trends, such as technological change and deindustrialization, have contributed to the emergence of these political cleavages by increasing inequality, especially inequality between different geographical areas. My next project aims to rigorously test this hypothesis by using local-level data to estimate the effect of these structural trends on voting behaviour and political preferences.

What do you enjoy most about working in the III?

The International Inequalities Institute is a vibrant and exciting place to work. As an explicitly interdisciplinary institute, there is a real plurality of views, expertise and research methodologies in the office, which helps us all do better research and gives the place a real intellectual buzz.

Academic research can all too often feel detached from the outside world. The III makes a real effort to engage beyond academic circles. In fact, this month we have our Annual Conference, which will bring together our international network of scholars, practitioners and policymakers. We also have a fantastic set of MSc students and PhDs. Our students are from a diverse range of countries and backgrounds and many have worked in the field to try and alleviate harmful inequalities. It is a major perk of the III to get the opportunity to work with such engaged and enthusiastic students. I have no doubt many of them will go on to make important contributions to academia, campaigning, policymaking, business, and the third sector.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Like many young researchers, I hope to one day be a Professor at a top tier university. In ten years’ time, I would like to be well along that journey, with a body of work that has helped advance our understanding of the political economy of inequality.

I have always admired economists who are able to bring the insights of frontier research to a wider audience such as Stiglitz, Krugman, Atkinson and Piketty. Later in my career, I would like to follow in the footsteps of these heavyweights by writing books that can be widely read and are powerful enough to change the public debate and shape government policy.