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Developing comparative studies of plutocratic elites:

In recent times there has been a growing interest in the study of elites. This recognises that elite worlds straddle economic, social, cultural and political domains and we need to know how these circuits can reinforce each other and generate growing social closure at the top. Currently, research largely remains confined to specific national case studies, usually using different methods and perspectives. In this cluster, we will be conducting an innovative global analysis of elites through systematic cross national comparisons of elite formation, including nations in the global south as well as from Europe and North America.

Recent highlights...

  • The sociology of elites: a European stocktaking and call for collaboration, Prof. Mike Savage and Prof. Johs Hjellbrekke, Working paper 58Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice. Read the paper.
  • Inequality as Entitlements over Labour, Dr Paul Segal. Read the paper.
  • Changing Elites, final event in the Building collaborations in the sociological analysis of European elites - seminar series. Watch the video here.

Cluster members

Expand section to find out more about the academics working on Developing comparative studies of plutocratic elites



Dr Sam Friedman
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology LSE

Katharina Hecht 1

Dr Katharina Hecht
Visiting Fellow
International Inequalities Institute


Dr María-Luisa Mendez
Visiting Senior Fellow
International Inequalities Institute

Jonathan Mijs

Dr Jonathan Mijs
Visiting Fellow
International Inequalities Institute

Aaron Reeves 2

Dr Aaron Reeves 
Visiting Senior Fellow
International Inequalities Institute


Dr Paul Segal
Visting Fellow
International Inequalities Institute


Dr Chana Teeger
Assistant Professor
Department of Methodology LSE

Susanne Wessendorf

Dr Susanne Wessendorf
Assistant Professorial Research Fellow





Expand section to find podcasts with cluster members and other academics 

Changing Elites

Part of the seminar series: Building collaborations in the sociological analysis of European elites 

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Speakers: Dr Aaron Reeves, Dr Eve Worth, and Dr Sam Friedman 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage 

This seminar presented research on changes in the British elite over the last 120 years. Using data from Who’s Who, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, genealogical records, Probate data and interviews, the speakers explored topics such as social origin, diversity, power and wealth, and processes of reproduction and public performance among Britain’s elite.

Video available here

Podcast available here

Career Hubs as Corporate Global Networks

Part of the seminar series: Building collaborations in the sociological analysis of European elites 

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Speakers: Dr Felix Bühlmann, Dr Christoph Houman Ellersgaard, Dr Anton Grau Larsen, and Jacob Aagard Lunding 

Chair: Professor Johannes Hjellbrekke 

This talk introduced the concept of “career hubs” as analytical strategy to understand corporate global business elites. While studies on corporate interlocks, based on network analyses between boards of directors, investigate the organization and coordination of corporate control, career hubs, defined as the most frequent common career organizations, allows us to study the formative years and the circulation of ideas and knowledge among the most important business leaders. We asked whether we can identify global career hubs, and if those career hubs differ according to the national context in countries such as the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan or China. 

Video available here

Podcast available here

The Heirs, the Managers and the Bureaucrats: sketching economic power in contemporary France

Part of the seminar series: Building collaborations in the sociological analysis of European elites

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Speakers: Dr François Denord, Dr Paul Lagneau-Ymonet, and Dr Sylvain Thine 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage 

This talk presented an original dataset that combines organisational and prosopographical data. The authors resort to geometric data analysis to study the forms of differentiation, the principles of hierarchisation and the modes of coordination that structure economic power in contemporary France.

Video available here 

Podcast available here

Pulling Away? A social analysis of economic 'elites' in the UK 

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Speakers: Professor Lee Elliot Major, Dr Sam Friedman, and Dr Katharina Hecht 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage

This event launched a report from a research project at the International Inequalities Institute supported by the Sutton Trust to investigate whether British elites are pulling ahead, not just economically but also socially.

Video available here

Podcast available here

Aristocratic, Highbrow and Ordinary:  shifting modes of elite distinction 1897-2016 - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 03 December 2019

Speaker: Dr Sam Friedman 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage 

How do elites signal their superior social position through the consumption of culture? In this paper we answer this foundational question by drawing on 120 years of ‘recreations’ data (N = 71,393) contained within Who’s Who – a unique catalogue of the British elite. Our results reveal three distinct stages of elite culture. First, a dominant mode of aristocratic practice forged around the leisure possibilities afforded by landed estates which waned significantly in the late 19th century. Second, a highbrow mode dominated by the fine arts which increased sharply in the early 20th century before gently receding in the most recent birth cohorts; and, third, a contemporary mode characterised by the blending of highbrow pursuits with more everyday forms of cultural participation, such as spending time with family, friends and pets. These shifts not only reveal changes in the contents of elite culture but also in the nature of elite distinction – in particular; 1) how the applicability of emulation and misrecognition theories has changed over time, 2) the emergence of a contemporary mode that publicly emphasises everyday cultural practice (to accentuate ordinariness, authenticity and cultural connection) while at the same time retaining many tastes that continue to be misrecognised as legitimate.  

Podcast available here

The Global Distribution of Income and the Politics of Globalisation - embedded liberal capitalism 

Friday 10 May 2019

Speaker: Professor Branko Milanovic             

Discussants: Dr María Ana Lugo and Dr Paul Segal 

Chair: Professor David Soskice

The panel discussed the evolution of the global distribution of income and political implications, highlighting endogenous forces of rising inequality in liberal capitalism embedded in globalisation.

Podcast available here

The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged 

Monday 28 January 2019

Speakers: Dr Louise Ashley, Dr Sam Friedman, Dr Daniel Laurison, and Dr Faiza Shaheen 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage

How and why does class background still affect those in elite occupations? In this book launch the speakers look at barriers to upward mobility.

Podcast available here

The Paradox of Inequality: income inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in hand - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 22 January 2019  

Speaker: Dr Jonathan Mijs 

Inequality is on the rise: gains have been concentrated with a small elite, while most have seen their fortunes stagnate or fall. Despite what scholars and journalists consider a worrying trend, there is no evidence of growing popular concern about inequality. In fact, research suggests that citizens in unequal societies are less concerned than those in more egalitarian societies. How to make sense of this paradox? I argue that citizens’ consent to inequality is explained by their growing conviction that societal success is reflective of a meritocratic process. Drawing on 25-years of International Social Survey Programme data, I show that rising inequality is legitimated by popular beliefs that the income gap is meritocratically deserved: the more unequal a society, the more likely its citizens are to explain success in meritocratic terms, and the less important they deem non-meritocratic factors such as a person’s family wealth and connections.

Podcast available here

Experiences of money from the perspectives of London’s ‘rich’ and ‘poor’Inequalities Seminar Series 

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Speakers: Dr Kate Summers and Dr Katharina Hecht

This presentation compared qualitative interview data with individuals at the opposite ends of the income and wealth distributions, in a society with large economic inequality.

Podcast available here

Tracking the Rise in Global Economic Inequality: new evidence from the World Inequality Report

Monday 07 June 2018

Speaker: Dr Lucas Chancel

Discussants: Dr Rebecca Simson and Dr Duncan Green 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage

The first World Inequality Report (WIR2018), first launched in December last year at the Paris School of Economics, was coordinated by Facundo Alvaredo, Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. It draws from new findings of the World Wealth and Income Database (a project which regroups now more than 100 researchers all over the world) and provides the first systemic assessment of globalization in terms of income and wealth inequality since 1980.

Video available here

Podcast available here 

The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Speakers: Dr Aaron Reeves and Dr Sam Friedman

Chair: Professor Mike Savage

This talk drew upon 120 years of biographical data [N = 120,764] contained within Who’s Who - a unique catalogue of the British elite - to explore the changing relationship between elite schools and elite recruitment. The speakers argued that the propulsive power of Britain’s ‘public schools’ has diminished significantly over time. This has been driven in part by the wane of military and religious elites, and the rise of women in the labour force. However, the most dramatic declines followed periods of educational reform that both increased access to, and standardised and differentiated the form of, the credentials needed to access elite trajectories. Notwithstanding this fall the talk also underlined that these schools remain extraordinarily powerful channels of elite formation. Even today the alumni of the 9 Clarendon Schools are 94 times more likely to be members of the British elite than those who attended any other school.

Video available here


Who are the Global Top 1%? - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Speaker: Paul Segal 

This seminar presented findings from the paper with the same title, representing the first in-depth analysis of the changing composition of the global rich and the rising representation of developing countries at the top of the global distribution. The authors construct global distributions of income between 1988 and 2012 based on both household surveys and the new top incomes data derived from tax records, in order to capture the rich who are typically excluded from household surveys. They find that the representation of developing countries in the global top 1% declined until about 2002, but that since 2005 it has risen significantly. This coincides with a salient decline in global inequality since 2005, according to a range of measures. The authors compare their estimates of the country-composition and income levels of the global rich with a number of other sources – including Credit Suisse’s estimates of global wealth, the Forbes World Billionaires List, attendees of the World Economic Forum, and estimates of top executives’ salaries. To varying degrees, all show a rise in the representation of the developing world in the ranks of the global elite.

Podcast available here

Social comparisons and perceptions of top incomes and wealth (presentations by PhD students at III Annual Conference) - 2016

Speaker: Katharina Hecht 

Podcast available here

Mike Savage - Accumulation and Timespaces of Class (Inequality in the 21st Century Conference)

Jane Waldfogel -  Too Many Children Left Behind: the US achievement gap in comparative perspective

Mike Savage, Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa McKenzie, Andrew Mile, Helene Snee, Paul Wakeling - Social Class in the 21st Century

Katharina Hecht (PhD) -  Social comparisons and perceptions of top incomes and wealth (presentations by PhD students at III Annual Conference)

Satanuka Roy (PhD) -  Education and caste in India (presentations by PhD students at III Annual Conference)

Rebecca Simson (PhD) - Public employment and inequality in Kenya and Tanzania since Independence (presentations by PhD students at III Annual Conference)

Educational Inequalities - APPAM 2016 International Conference

Joan C. Williams - Why did Trump win? Overcoming class cluelessness in America


Expand section to find related topical publications by cluster members and other academics

Ethnic minorities' reactions to newcomers in East London: symbolic boundaries and convivial labor (2020)

Author: Susanne Wessendorf

In much public discourse on immigrants in Western Europe, perceptions towards newcomers are discussed in relation to what white national majorities think. However, today, new migrants often move into places which are already settled by previous migrants. This article investigates the local experiences, perceptions, and attitudes towards newcomers among long-established ethnic minorities in an area which they have made their home, and where they predominate not just in numbers but also by way of shops, religious sites, school population, and so on. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in East London (UK), it looks at long-established ethnic minority residents' attitudes towards newcomers from Eastern Europe, and how these are shaped by their own histories of exclusion. By bringing together theories on symbolic boundary making with the concept of convivial labor, it shows how experiences of stigmatization impact on perceptions of white newcomers, and how these perceptions are characterized by a combination of empathy and resentment.

From workers to capitalists in less than two generations: the Chinese urban elite (2019)

Authors: Li Yang, Filip Novokmet, and Branko Milanovic.  

The transformation of China from a poor and egalitarian country to an upper middle-income country with the level of income inequality greater than in the United States has been the subject of innumerable publications. The Chinese transformation is a unique event in world economic history: never have so many people over such a relatively short period of time increased their [...]

Visualizing Belief in Meritocracy, 1930–2010 (2018)

Author: Jonathan J. B. Mijs

In this figure I describe the long trend in popular belief in meritocracy across the Western world between 1930 and 2010. Studying trends in attitudes is limited by the paucity of survey data that can be compared across countries and over time. Here, I show how to complement survey waves with cohort-level data. Repeated surveys draw on a representative sample of the population to describe the typical beliefs held by citizens in a given country and period. Leveraging the fact that citizens surveyed in a given year were born in different time-periods allows for a comparison of beliefs across birth cohorts. The latter overlaps with the former, but considerably extends the time period covered by the data. Taken together, the two measures give a “triangulated” longitudinal record of popular belief in meritocracy. I find that in most countries, popular belief in meritocracy is (much) stronger for more recent periods and cohorts.

Inequality Is a Problem of Inference: How People Solve the Social Puzzle of Unequal Outcomes (2018)

 Author: Jonathan J. B. Mijs

A new wave of scholarship recognizes the importance of people’s understanding of inequality that underlies their political convictions, civic values, and policy views. Much less is known, however, about the sources of people’s different beliefs. I argue that scholarship is hampered by a lack of consensus regarding the conceptualization and measurement of inequality beliefs, in the absence of an organizing theory. To fill this gap, in this paper, I develop a framework for studying the social basis of people’s explanations for inequality. I propose that people observe unequal outcomes and must infer the invisible forces that brought these about, be they meritocratic or structural in nature. In making inferences about the causes of inequality, people draw on lessons from past experience and information about the world, both of which are biased and limited by their background, social networks, and the environments they have been exposed to. Looking at inequality beliefs through this lens allows for an investigation into the kinds of experiences and environments that are particularly salient in shaping people’s inferential accounts of inequality. Specifically, I make a case for investigating how socializing institutions such as schools and neighborhoods are “inferential spaces” that shape how children and young adults come to learn about their unequal society and their own place in it. I conclude by proposing testable hypotheses and implications for research.

The Shifting Politics of Inequality and the Class Ceiling (2017)

Authors: Mike Savage and Sam Friedman

Keywords: class, class analysis, narrative, inequality

Britain's class landscape has changed: it is more polarised at the extremes and messier in the middle. The distinction between middle and working class is less clear-cut. The elite is able to set political agendas and entrench their own privilege. The left needs a clear narrative showing how privilege leads to gross unfairness - and effective policies to tackle the 'class ceiling' so entrenched in our society.

Social Mobility, the Class Pay Gap and Intergenerational Worklessness: New Insights from The Labour Force Survey(2017)

Authors: Daniel Laurison, Sam Friedman and Lindsey Macmillan

Keywords: class pay gap, social mobility

Summary: Social mobility remains at the very top of the political agenda. Yet the UK has traditionally lacked a data source extensive enough to pinpoint exactly where to target policy interventions intended to improve social mobility. This report capitalises on new socio-economic background questions within the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) to provide the most comprehensive analysis of social mobility to-date. Drawing on an unusually large sample of 64,566 we are able to move beyond the normal measures of national mobility rates to shine a light on a number of pressing but largely unexplored questions. In particular, we hone in on mobility in the top echelons of British society by examining the openness of the professions, and at the bottom by looking at intergenerational worklessness. We end with three proposals to improve this important data source to help us answer some key questions regarding social mobility.

The Paradox of Land Reform, Inequality and Local Development in Colombia (2017)

Authors: Jean-Paul Faguet, Fabio Sánchez and Marta-Juanita Villaveces 

Keywords: Land reform, inequality, development, latifundia, poverty, Colombia

Summary: Over two centuries, Colombia transferred vast quantities of land, mainly to landless peasants. And yet Colombia retains one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world. Why? This paper shows that land reform's effects are highly bimodal. Most of Colombia's 1100+ municipalities lack a landed elite. Here, rural properties grew larger, land inequality and dispersion fell, and development indicators improved. But in municipalities where such an elite does exist and landholding is highly concentrated, such positive effects are counteracted, resulting in smaller rural properties, greater dispersion, and lower levels of development.

An Intensifying and Elite City: New Geographies of Social Class and Inequality in Contemporary London (2017)

Author: Niall Cunningham

Keywords: social class, London, census, cultural capital, Great British Class Survey, elites

Summary: This paper contributes to the debate on London’s social class structure at the start of the twenty-first century. That debate has focussed on the use of census metrics to argue the case for whether or not the capital has become more or less middle class in composition between 2001 and 2011. The authors contend that the definition of the middle class has become confused in the course of this debate and is of less critical importance for an understanding of the city’s contemporary class structure than is a focus on London’s elite. They make use of data from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (GBCS) to shed light on the social, cultural and economic resources of this group, in addition to their spatial location. They then return to the census data for 2001 and 2011 and posit that belying the image of stability in London’s class structure these data suggest clear and localised patterns of intensification in class geographies across the capital, an intensification characterised by a growing cleavage between inner and outer London.

The Class Pay Gap in Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations (2016)

Authors: Daniel Laurison, Sam Friedman

Keywords: class pay gap, social mobility, class ceiling, class origin

Summary: This article demonstrates how class origin shapes earnings in higher professional and managerial employment. Taking advantage of newly released data in Britain’s Labour Force Survey, the authors examine the relative openness of different high-status occupations and the earnings of the upwardly mobile within them. In terms of access, we find a distinction between traditional professions, such as law, medicine, and finance, which are dominated by the children of higher managers and professionals, and more technical occupations, such as engineering and IT, that recruit more widely. Moreover, even when people who are from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering high-status occupations, they earn 17 percent less, on average, than individuals from privileged backgrounds.

‘Like Skydiving without a Parachute’: How Class Origin Shapes Occupational Trajectories in British Acting (2016)

Authors: Daniel Laurison, Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien

Keywords: acting, class origin, class pay gap, cultural and creative industries, cultural capital, social mobility

Summary: There is currently widespread concern that access to, and success within, the British acting profession is increasingly dominated by those from privileged class origins. This article seeks to empirically interrogate this claim using data on actors from the Great British Class Survey (N = 404) and 47 qualitative interviews. The authors demonstrate the profound occupational advantages afforded to actors who can draw upon familial economic resources, legitimate embodied markers of class origin (such as Received Pronunciation) and a favourable typecasting.

Stratified Failure: Educational Stratification and Students’ Attributions of Their Mathematics Performance in 24 Countries (2016)

Author: Jonathan J. B. Mijs

Keywords: educational stratification, lay attribution, mertiocracy, inequality, PISA

Summary: Country rankings based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) invite politicians and specialists to speculate about the reasons their countries did well or failed to do well. Rarely, however, do we hear from the students on whose performance these rankings are based. This omission is unfortunate for two reasons. First, research suggests that how students explain their academic performance has important consequences for their future achievements. Second, prior studies show that students’ attributions of success and failure in education can develop into explanations for social inequalities in adulthood. This article draws on PISA 2012 data on 128,110 secondary school students in 24 countries to explore how educational stratification shapes students’ explanations of their academic performance. I find that students in mixed-ability groups tend to attribute their mathematics performance to their teachers and to (bad) luck, whereas vocational- and academic-track students are more likely to blame themselves for not doing well. These differences between mixed-ability group students and tracked students are more pronounced in school systems where tracking is more extensive. I conclude by discussing how these findings speak to the broader impact of educational stratification on students’ psychology and cognition and the legitimation of inequalities.

The burden of acting wise: sanctioned success and ambivalence about hard work at an elite school in the Netherlands (2016)

Authors: Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Bowen Paulle

Keywords: oppositional culture, acting white, acting wise, elite schools, educational tracking, the Netherlands

Sam and his classmates despise ‘nerds’: they say working hard in school makes a student unpopular, and that they purposefully do only the minimum to pass. Research suggests that such ‘oppositional’ attitudes are prevalent among working class students and/or ethnoracial minorities. Like most of his classmates, however, Sam is white, hails from a privileged background, and attends a selective school in the Netherlands. Deeply ambivalent about working hard and ‘acting wise’, Sam and the others constituting his adolescent society are thoroughly caught up in peer dynamics which sanction success and promote mediocrity. We link these anti-school peer dynamics to the institutional configuration of education in the Netherlands, characterized by rigid tracking at the end of primary school and non-selective universities: state structures and policies contribute to these privileged students’ rationale for ‘taking it easy’ and doing poorly in school.

Neoliberalism and Symbolic Boundaries in Europe: Global Diffusion, Local Context, Regional Variation (2016)

Authors: Jonathan J. B. Mijs, Elyas Bakhtiari, Michèle Lamont

Keywords: Europe, inequality, neoliberalism, symbolic boundaries

Studies suggest that the rise of neoliberalism accompanies a foregrounding of individual responsibility and a weakening of community. The authors provide a theoretical agenda for studying the interactions between the global diffusion of neoliberal policies and ideologies, on the one side, and cultural repertoires and boundary configurations, on the other, in the context of local, national, and regional variation. Exploiting variation in the rate of adoption of neoliberal policies across European societies, the authors show how levels of neoliberal penetration covary with the way citizens draw symbolic boundaries along the lines of ethnoreligious otherness and moral deservingness.

Horizontal inequality, status optimization, and interethnic marriage in a conflict-affected society (Working Paper 2016)

Author: Omar Shahabudin McDoom

Keywords: horizontal inequality, ethnic conflict, social status, ranked groups, intermarriage, Philippines

Although several theories of interethnic conflict emphasize ties across group boundaries as conducive to ethnic coexistence, little is known about how such ties are formed. Given their integrative potential, I examine the establishment of cross-ethnic marital ties in a deeply divided society and ask what drives individuals to defy powerful social norms and sanctions and to choose life-partners from across the divide. I theorize such choices as the outcome of a struggle between social forces and individual autonomy in society. I identify two channels through which social forces weaken and individual autonomy increases to allow ethnic group members to establish ties independently of group pressures: elite autonomy and status equalization. I find, first, that as an individual’s educational status increases, and second, as between-group inequality declines, individuals enjoy greater freedom in the choice of their social ties. However, I also find that in an ethnically ranked society this enhanced autonomy is exercised by members of high-ranked and low-ranked groups differently. Members from high-ranked groups become more likely to inmarry; low-ranked group members to outmarry. I suggest a status-optimization logic lies behind this divergent behaviour. Ethnic elites from high-ranked groups cannot improve their status through outmarriage and their coethnics, threatened by the rising status of the lower-ranked group, seek to maintain the distinctiveness of their status superiority through inmarriage. In contrast, as their own individual status or their group’s relative status improves, members of low-ranked groups take advantage of the opportunity to upmarry into the higher-ranked group. I establish these findings in the context of Mindanao, a conflict-affected society in the Philippines, using a combination of census micro-data on over two million marriages and in-depth interview data with inmarried and outmarried couples.

Reductions in the United Kingdom's Government Housing Benefit and Symptoms of Depression in Low-Income Households (2016)

Authors: Aaron Reeves, Amy Clair, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Keywords: depression, housing, mental health, natural experiment

Housing security is an important determinant of mental health. This paper uses a quasinatural experiment to evaluate this association, comparing the prevalence of mental ill health in the United Kingdom before and after the government's April 2011 reduction in financial support for low-income persons who rent private-sector housing. It concludes that reducing housing support to low-income persons in the private rental sector increased the prevalence of depressive symptoms in the United Kingdom.

Entry to elite positions and the stratification of higher education in Britain (2015)

Authors: Paul Wakeling and Mike Savage

Keywords: class, elite, education, higher education, institutional stratification, social class, inequality

This paper uses the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) to examine association between social background, university attended and social position for over 85,000 graduates. This unique dataset allows the researchers to look beyond the clear labour market experiences of graduates investigated in previous studies and to examine the outcome of attending particular institutions.

Introduction to elites from the 'problematic of the proletariat' to a class analysis of 'wealth elites (2015)

Author: Mike Savage

Keywords: wealth elites, class analysis, class, GBCS, inequality, proletariat

This introductory paper argues that it is vital to reorient class analysis away from its long term preoccupation with class boundaries in the middle levels of the class structure towards a focus on the class formation at the top.

The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education (2015)

Author: Jonathan J. B. Mijs

Keywords: Meritocracy, Educational institutions, Educational policy, Social stratification 

This paper draws on a literature in sociology, psychology and economics that has extensively documented the unfulfilled promise of meritocracy in education. I argue that the lesson learned from this literature is threefold: (1) educational institutions in practice significantly distort the ideal meritocratic process; (2) opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors; (3) any definition of merit must favor some groups in society while putting others at a disadvantage. Taken together, these conclusions give reason to understand meritocracy not just as an unfulfilled promise, but as an unfulfillable promise. Having problematized meritocracy as an ideal worth striving for, I argue that the pervasiveness of meritocratic policies in education threatens to crowd out as principles of justice, need and equality. As such, it may pose a barrier rather than a route to equality of opportunity. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse legitimates societal inequalities as justly deserved such as when misfortune is understood as personal failure. The paper concludes by setting a research agenda that asks how citizens come to hold meritocratic beliefs; addresses the persistence of (unintended) meritocratic imperfections in schools; analyzes the construction of a legitimizing discourse in educational policy; and investigates how education selects and labels winners and losers.

Understanding Inequalities: Stratification and Difference (2011)

Author: Lucinda Platt

Keywords: inequalities, stratification, life course, difference

Bringing together the latest empirical evidence with a discussion of sociological debates surrounding inequality, this book explores a broad range of inequalities in people’s lives. As well as treating the core sociological topics of class, ethnicity and gender, it examines how inequalities are experienced across a variety of settings, including education, health, geography and housing, income and wealth, and how they cumulate across the life course.

Achievement Inequality and the Institutional Structure of Educational Systems: A Comparative Perspective (2010)

Authors: Herman G. Van de Werfhorst, Jonathan J.B. Mijs

Keywords: tracking, stratification, standardization, PISA, TIMSS

We review the comparative literature on the impact of national-level educational institutions on inequality in student achievement. We focus on two types of institutions that characterize the educational system of a country: the system of school-type differentiation (between-school tracking) and the level of standardization (e.g., with regard to central examinations and school autonomy). Two types of inequality are examined: inequality in terms of dispersion of student test scores and inequality of opportunity by social background and race/ethnicity. We conclude from this literature, which mostly uses PISA, TIMSS, and/or PIRLS data, that inequalities are magnified by national-level tracking institutions and that standardization decreases inequality. Methodological issues are discussed, and possible avenues for further research are suggested.

Meritocracy or Plutocracy? Finding Explanations for the Educational Disadvantages of Moroccan Immigrants Living in the Netherlands (2009)

Author: Jonathan Mijs

Keywords: educational inequality, tracking, segregation, immigration, The Netherlands, meritocracy

Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands have, throughout the last decades, been relatively unsuccessful in both schooling and job attainment. Although later generations of immigrants are doing better than those of their parents (and grandparents), young Moroccan men tend to do worse than both native Dutch and other immigrant groups (especially those from Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles). Educational failure and high (youth) unemployment rates are seen as explanatory variables for their disproportionate dominance in the Netherlands’s crime statistics. This fact especially underlines the importance of an empirical investigation in the causes of, and policy resolutions for, Moroccan immigrants’ position within the Dutch educational system. In this paper a theoretical approach is formulated which integrates elements of the competing traditions of Human Capital Theory and Cultural Reproduction Theory into one theoretical framework. It is shown how social locations account for initial differences in educational opportunity, which tend to be reinforced through peer pressure in schools and neighborhoods, and through specific institutional characteristics of the Dutch educational system, namely, tracking and school segregation. It is only by taking into account these three factors that we can come to a comprehensive understanding of immigrants’ educational disadvantages. Furthermore, it is argued that such an understanding has profound consequences for questions of meritocracy and plutocracy relating to the educational system and to how we perceive the Moroccan immigrant position in Dutch society.

Working papers

Expand section to view LSE III working papers written by cluster members and other academics

The sociology of elites: a European stocktaking and call for collaboration

Mike Savage and Johs Hjellbrekke
Working paper 58 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

The aim of this working paper is to provide a stocktaking of major sociological interventions in elite research over the past decade, as a means of providing a comprehensive account of what has been achieved so far by numerous research teams (see also Heilbron 2017). This stocktaking is designed to clear a platform for the more important work of developing a methodology and perspective for comparative sociological analysis of elite formation going forward. It is hoped therefore that this working paper will be a valuable resource for anyone wishing to find a systematic bibliography to recent sociological research on elites. 

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Elites and inequality: a case study of plutocratic philanthropy in the UK

Luna Glucksberg and Louise Russell-Prywata
Working paper 49 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper investigates the role of elite philanthropy in the context of rising global inequality, asking whether large-scale philanthropic donations by elites are well placed to help tackle structural inequality. The challenges posed by such “plutocratic philanthropy” are explored through analysis of a network of the top 30 philanthropists in the United Kingdom and their connections to businesses and foundations, which shows their financial scale and connectivity. This new data is embedded into a review of the most recent social science literature on elites, which focuses on elite reproduction, how wealthy families perceive inequality, and how and why they engage in philanthropic activities. From this data, the paper develops an analysis of the current landscape of inequality, based on the work of British sociologist Mike Savage (2015), arguing that elite philanthropy as an ecosystem— made up of capital, people and institutions—is not well placed to systemically challenge inequalities, because the financial size of elites’ philanthropy tends to be dwarfed by their business activities, and the social functions of philanthropy help maintain the advantaged positions of elites. The paper concludes with informed policy considerations on the role of elite philanthropy in light of the results of the analysis.

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Inequality as Entitlements over Labour

Paul Segal
Working paper 43 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

The modern study of economic inequality is based on the distribution of entitlements over goods and services. But social commentators at least since Rousseau have been concerned with a different aspect of economic inequality: that it implies that one person is entitled to command another person for their own personal ends. I call this inequality as entitlements over labour. I propose to measure entitlements over labour by calculating the extent to which top income groups can afford to buy the labour of others for the purpose of their personal consumption. Unlike standard inequality measures, this measure is not welfarist, but instead has its normative basis in relations of domination, hierarchy and social status between people. I estimate entitlements over labour in three high-inequality and two low-inequality countries and argue that inequality as entitlements over labour is socially and politically salient, capturing a side of inequality neglected by standard measures.

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Ethnic minorities’ reactions to newcomers in East London: symbolic boundaries and convivial labour

Susanne Wessendorf
Working paper 35 - Global Economies of Care

In much public discourse on immigrants in Western Europe, perceptions towards newcomers are discussed in relation to what white national majorities think. However, today, new migrants often move into places which are already settled by previous migrants. Surprisingly little is known about the local experiences, perceptions and attitudes towards newcomers among long-established ethnic minorities in areas which they have made their home, and where they predominate not just in numbers but also by way of shops, religious sites, school population, etc. Based on ongoing ethnographic fieldwork in East London (UK), this paper looks at long-established ethnic minority residents’ attitudes towards newcomers from Eastern Europe, and how these are shaped by their own histories of exclusion. By bringing together theories on symbolic boundary making with the concept of ‘convivial labour’ (Nobel 2009; Wise 2016), it shows how experiences of stigmatization impact on perceptions of white newcomers, and how these perceptions are characterized by a combination of empathy and resentment.

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Inequality Interactions

Paul Segal with Mike Savage
Working paper 27 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice & Global Economies of Care

This paper elaborates a framework for understanding inequalities that is multi-dimensional, inter-disciplinary, and dynamic. We first clarify the conceptual relationship between individual and categorical inequalities as studied by economists, sociologists, and other social scientists. We then present a set of new concepts. Inequality diversion is defined as a reduction in one form of inequality that is dependent on sustaining, or worsening, another form of inequality. We show how it arises out of cases in the literature on intersectionality, and that it also characterizes the transition to increasing meritocracy, and the relationship between increasing professional female labour market participation and domestic service. Inequality re-ordering is defined as a change in categorical or group inequalities that leaves individual inequality unchanged, such as when elites become more categorically diverse without reducing their economic or social distance from non-elites. We use these concepts to interrogate the potential of levelling up and progressive redistribution for inequality reduction. Exploring these relationships helps us understand trade-offs and complementarities in tackling inequalities.

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The Great British Sorting Machine: Adolescents’ future in the balance of family, school and the neighborhood

Jonathan J.B. Mijs and Jaap Nieuwenhuis
Working paper 26 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice & Cities, Jobs and Economic Change

Research calls attention to the divergent school and labor market trajectories of Europe’s youth while, across the Atlantic, researchers describe the long-lasting consequences of poverty on adolescent development. In this paper we incorporate both processes to shed a new light on a classic concern in the sociology of stratification: how are adolescents’ aspirations, expectations, and school performance shaped by the combined socioeconomic contexts of family, school and neighborhood life? Theoretically, social contexts provide children with cultural resources that may foster their ambitions and bolster their academic performance. Reference group theory instead highlights how seemingly positive settings can depress educational performance as well as aspirations and expectations. We empirically test these competing claims, drawing on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) which describes the school and neighborhood trajectories of 7,934 British children followed from birth to adolescence. We find that, generally, childhood school and neighborhood deprivation is negatively associated with adolescents’ school performance, aspirations and expectations for their future, in line with the cultural resource perspective. However, there are important exceptions to this pattern which point to reference group processes for (1) children of highly-educated parents, whose academic performance especially suffers from growing up in a poor neighborhood, and (2) for children from low-educated parents, whose academic aspirations and expectations are unexpectedly high when they either went to an affluent school or lived in an affluent neighborhood—but not both. We conclude by discussing implications for theory, policy and future research. 

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Mapping recent inequality trends in developing countries

Rebecca Simson
Working paper 24 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

Over the course of the middle half of the 20th century, countries around the world underwent dramatic social transformations as incomes grew, inequality declined and living standards improved. Since roughly 1980, however, this downward trend in income inequality has reversed or stagnated in many regions. Leading researchers have warned that we are entering a new era of high and persistent inequality coupled with low economic growth (Piketty 2014; Scheidel 2017). Yet other research suggests that this inequality escalation is not a universal phenomenon. As many scholars of global inequality have noted, Latin America saw a sizable decline in the gini index in the 2000s. The available evidence also suggests that many countries in Africa and the Middle East experienced an inequality drop in the 1990s-2000s. Even in Asia, where aggregate inequality has been on the rise, there are nonetheless a few countries where inequality is defying the regional trend. What does the available evidence tell us about inequality trends in these less studied regions of the world? What may explain these different trajectories across regions or countries? This paper provides a review of the state of knowledge about inequality dynamics in developing regions, with a focus on countries where the level of income inequality has fallen in recent decades. It is written to inform future research at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute about the political drivers of redistribution.

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Can cultural consumption increase future earnings? Exploring the economic returns to cultural capital

Aaron Reeves and Robert de Vries
Working paper 20 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice & Cities, Jobs and Economic Change

Cultural consumption is often viewed as a form of embodied cultural capital which can be converted into economic rewards because such practices increase the likelihood of moving into privileged social positions. However, quantitative evidence supporting this proposition remains uncertain because it is often unable to rule out alternative explanations. Cultural consumption appears to influence hiring decisions in some elite firms, in both the U.S. and the U.K., but it is unclear whether these processes are generaliseable to other professional occupations and other labour market processes such as promotions. We examine these processes using data from Understanding Society, an individual-level panel survey conducted in the UK, allowing us to explore whether cultural consumption predicts future earnings, upward social mobility, and promotions. People who consume a larger number of cultural activities are more likely to earn higher wages in the future, to be upwardly socially mobile, and to be promoted. Cultural consumption, then, can function as cultural capital in some labour market settings, potentially contributing to the reproduction of income inequality between generations.

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Inequalities in the application of welfare sanctions in Britain

Robert de Vries, Aaron Reeves and Ben Geiger
Working paper 15 - Global Economies of Care

Unemployed people in Britain who are in receipt of government welfare benefits can have these benefits stopped if they fail to comply with certain conditions. Such a stoppage is known as a 'benefit sanction'. This working paper has two aims: 1) to provide an introduction to the British system of sanctions, specifically as it applies to unemployed people who are not disabled, and ii) to identify demographic inequalities in the application of sanctions. Using data published by the UK Department of Work and Pensions, we find that some groups of unemployed claimants (younger people, men, and ethnic minorities) are at substantially higher risk of experiencing a sanction. This paper will be updated at a later date with analyses investigating the drivers of this inequality.

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A Relational Analysis of Top Incomes and Wealth: Economic Evaluation, Relative (Dis)advantage and the Service to Capital

Katharina Hecht
Working paper 11 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

While an impressive body of economic literature documents increases in top incomes and wealth in liberal market economies, few studies focus on the social and cultural processes constitutive of this inequality. Drawing on a mixed-methods study in the UK, this article elaborates how top incomes and wealth are made sense of and produced by economic ‘elites’ through the cultural process of economic evaluation. Economic evaluative practices are based on the idea that ‘the market’ is a neutral and fair instrument for the distribution of resources. Due to economic evaluation and inequality at the top, top income earners experience relative (dis)advantage; while recognizing their advantage compared to the general population they experience disadvantage when ‘looking up’. Top incomes are produced via economic evaluative practices which conceptualize the value of labour based on increases in the value of capital. Hence the legitimating purpose of top incomes and wealth is service to capital. 

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Who are the Global Top 1%?

Sudhir Anand and Paul Segal
Working paper 8 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper presents the first in-depth analysis of the changing composition of the global income rich and the rising representation of developing countries at the top of the global distribution. We construct global distributions of income between 1988 and 2012 based on both household surveys and the new top incomes data derived from tax records, which better capture the rich who are typically excluded from household surveys. We find that the representation of developing countries in the global top 1% declined until about 2002, but that since 2005 it has risen significantly. This coincides with a decline in global inequality since 2005, according to a range of measures. We compare our estimates of the country-composition and income levels of the global rich with a number of other sources – including Credit Suisse’s estimates of global wealth, the Forbes World Billionaires List, attendees of the World Economic Forum, and estimates of top executives’ salaries. To varying degrees, all show a rise in the representation of the developing world in the ranks of the global elite.

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