The dog that didn’t bark? Income inequality and the absence of a Tawney moment in the mass media
Inequalities Seminar Series
Tuesday 18 February 2020, 12.30 to 1.45pm, FAW 9.05
Speakers: Dr Patrick McGovern (Director of the MSc International Migration and Public Policy and an Associate Professor, Reader, in the Department of Sociology), Dr Sandra Obradovic (LSE Fellow in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science), Professor Martin W. Bauer (Director of MSc Social & Public Communication, Professor of Social Psychology Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science)
Have rising levels of income inequality been recognized as a scandalous social problem that requires radically different kinds of policy responses? Or has the topic failed to gain enough attention to be considered as a new social problem with the result that it has become subsumed within existing discussions of economic policy? Drawing on an analysis of UK and US newspapers we find that the coverage of income inequality came in three phases; an initial surge in the 1990s, followed by a decline in the early 2000s, and a second surge that takes off after the economic crisis of 2008. Despite this surge in media attention, the problem of inequality seems to have remained an academic concern as it does not appear to have resonated more widely.
Across the three periods, we observe a shift in framing, some diversity in frame sponsors and a shift in political slant, yet public attitudes towards inequality remain stable across this same time-period. Our argument is that social inequality has not become a mobilizing social problem, at least as reflected in the print media.
First, the dominant frames were centred on seemingly natural or inevitable processes of globalization, market forces and technological change rather than a new sense of economic injustice. Secondly, the sponsors remained as a relatively narrow group of academic and applied economists with some eventual interest from politicians. Finally, resolutions of the problem were subsumed within existing approaches to economic policy that included arguments for raising taxation, increasing the minimum wage or else accepting the rise in economic inequality as a necessary evil that provided rewards for hardworking people. Furthermore, these findings are consistent with system justifying attitudes.
In sum, the academic interest in income inequality has failed to ignite a ‘Tawney moment’, by which we mean, a public discourse that recognizes inequality as a scandalous evil, and names it as such.
Dr Patrick McGovern is Director of the MSc International Migration and Public Policy and an Associate Professor (Reader) in the Department of Sociology.
Dr Sandra Obradović is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She obtained her BA in Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), her MSc in Social and Cultural Psychology and her PhD in Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Professor Martin W. Bauer is the Director of MSc Social & Public Communication, Professor of Social Psychology Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science.