Wealth and social mobility: meritocracy and the legitimation of inequality

Given that the accumulation of wealth often take the form of unearned income, excessive wealth inequality cannot easily be justified by the kind of meritocratic ideologies which can justify income inequality in terms of it being a reward for talent, hard work, skill and credentials. Racist and sexist inequalities can also be reinforced and entrenched through the operation of wealth inequality, suggesting the revival of racial and gender divides in the context of escalating wealth inequality. The processes which allow the cultural and political legitimisation of wealth need to be better understood, including analyses of when these are contested and the contexts in which social and political movements can arise to challenge wealth inequality. 

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Cluster members

Expand section to find out more about the academics working on Wealth and social mobility: meritocracy and the legitimation of inequality


Fabien- accominotti

Dr Fabien Accominotti
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology


Dr Sam Friedman
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology


Dr Luna Glucksberg
Research Fellow
International Inequalities Institute


Dr Jonathan Hopkin
Associate Professor of Comparative Politics
Department of Government


Kristina Kolbe

Kristina Kolbe
Research Student
Department of Sociology


Professor Nicola Lacey
School Professor of Law, Gender and Social Policy
Department of Law


Dr Neil Lee 
Associate Professor of Economic Geography
Department of Geography and Environment


Professor Murray Leibbrandt
School of Economics


Professor Stephen Machin
Professor of Economics | Director of CEP
Department of Economics

Jonathan Mijs

Dr Jonathan Mijs
Visiting Fellow
International Inequalities Institute


Emma Taylor
Research Student
Department of Sociology



Expand section to find podcasts with cluster members and other academics

The Return of Inequality

Speaker: Professor Mike Savage

Discussants: Professor Gurminder K Bhambra and Professor Patrick Le Galès

Chair: Dr Alpa Shah 

In his new book, The Return of Inequality, which he discussed at this event, sociologist Mike Savage explains inequality’s profound deleterious effects on the shape of societies.

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The Changing Geography of Social Mobility in the United States - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Speaker: Dr Dylan Connor 

Chair: Dr Neil Cummins 

New evidence shows that intergenerational social mobility – the rate at which children born into poverty climb the income ladder – varies considerably across the United States. Is this current geography of opportunity something new or does it reflect a continuation of long-term trends? We answered this question by constructing new data on the levels and determinants of social mobility across American regions over the twentieth century. We found that the changing geography of opportunity-generating economic activity restructures the landscape of intergenerational mobility, but factors associated with specific regional structures of interpersonal inequality that have “deep roots” generate persistence. This is evident in the sharp decline in social mobility in the Midwest as economic activity has shifted away from it, and the consistently low levels of opportunity in the South even as economic activity has shifted toward it. We concluded that the long-term geography of social mobility can be understood through the deep roots and changing economic fortunes of places.

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The unintended consequences of quantifying quality: Does ranking school performance shape the geographical concentration of advantage? - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Speakers: Dr Aaron Reeves and Daniel McArthur 

Chair: Dr Nora Waitkus

Based on a paper of the same name, this talk investigated whether quantifying school performance can have the perverse consequence of increasing the spatial concentration of advantage. Combining research on residential segregation with the sociology of quantification, the writers argued that ranking school performance may induce affluent parents to sort into areas with higher ranked schools. This hypothesis is explored by analysing whether the introduction of league tables measuring school performance in the early 1990s in the UK affected the spatial concentration of advantage. The writers found that quantifying school quality has the unintended consequence of increasing the geographical concentration of advantage, potentially entrenching poverty and inequality.  

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Apocalypse or new dawn? Social mobility, inequality and education in the post-COVID era - Inequalities Seminar Series




Tuesday 19 January 2021

Speaker: Professor Lee Elliot-Major 

Chair: Dr Sara Camacho-Felix 

What are the prospects for social mobility in the wake of the Covid pandemic? Britain’s first Professor of Social Mobility assessed the future implications of growing educational and societal inequalities, drawing on evidence from the latest research and his new book.

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The Active Ingredient of Inequality

Monday 26 October 2020

Speaker: Professor Francisco H. G. Ferreira 

Chair: Baroness Minouche Shafik

Around the world, people’s life chances are powerfully shaped by their race, gender, place of birth and family background. Two individuals born in the same city and on the same day may turn out to have very different schooling opportunities, to meet with different treatment by the police and other state institutions, and to face different job market conditions, depending on the neighbourhoods and families they were born into. In this lecture, Professor Ferreira discussed how (some) economists have come to define, model and measure inequality of opportunity, and why it can be seen as the active ingredient of inequality – both in terms of injustice and inefficiency. He discussed the close relationship between this type of inequality and intergenerational mobility, and review both the progress made and the challenges remaining in attempting to quantify and compare inequality of opportunity across countries and over time.

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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

Speakers: Dr Patrick McGovern, Dr Sandra Obradović, and Professor Martin W. Bauer 

Chair: Professor Mike Savage 

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 found 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.

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It’s Slippery at the Top: churn and anxiety amongst elite families Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 04 February 2020

Speaker: Dr Luna Glucksberg 

Chair: Dr Nora Waitkus 

This presentation took as a starting point the apparent paradox in the behaviour of elite families who strive to accumulate more and more wealth, fearing to lose their position at the top and slip down the inequality curve. To unpack this contradiction the presentation explored the fundamental problem that all elite families face, or rather are told they face, by their advisers: the issue of ‘generational algebra’.

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How the Reification of Merit Breeds Inequality: theory and experimental evidence - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Speaker: Dr Fabien Accominotti

In a variety of social contexts, measuring merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. At the same time, workable measures are bound to obfuscate the fuzziness and ambiguity of merit, i.e. to reify performance into an artificially crisp and clear-cut thing – such as a rating for example. This talk explored how the reification of employee performance in organizations breeds inequality in employee compensation. It reported the findings of a large-scale experiment asking participants to divide a year-end bonus between a set of employees based on the reading of their annual performance reviews. In the experiment’s non-reified condition, reviews are narrative evaluations. In the reified condition, the same narrative evaluations are accompanied by a crisp rating of the employees’ performance. I showed that participants reward employees more unequally when performance is reified, even though employees’ levels of performance do not vary across conditions: the bonus gap between top- and bottom-performing employees increases by 20% between the non-reified and reified conditions; and it rises by another 10% when performance is presented as a quantified score. Further analyses suggest that reification acts by making participants more accepting of the idea that individuals are indeed more or less talented and valuable, thereby increasing their willingness to reward them unequally. This has direct implications for understanding the legitimacy of inequality in contemporary societies – and ultimately for working toward curbing this inequality.

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Engines of Privilege: Britain's private school problem  

Monday 11 February 2019                   

Speakers: Professor Francis Green and Professor David Kynaston 

Discussant: Dr Luna Glucksberg

Chair: Dr Sam Friedman

A rigourous, compelling and balanced examination of the British private school system and the lifetime of inequalities it entrenches.

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The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged

Monday 28 January 2019                 

Speakers: Dr Louise Ashley, Dr Sam Friedman, 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.

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The Paradox of Inequality: income inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in handInequalities 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? The presentation argued 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, Dr Mijs showed 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.

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Ethnographic exploration of the socio-economic transformation of the Basque country - Inequalities Seminar Series

Tuesday 02 October 2018

Speaker: Dr Luna Glucksberg

The aim of this research project conducted by the LSE Inequalities Institute in collaboration with the Agirre Lehendakaria Center was to understand the values, narratives and strategic decisions that have been taken in the Basque Country by public and private institutions during the last decades, to build a unique socio-economic model that presents positive equality indicators combined with a competitive economy.

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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.

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Charles Booth Centenary Lectures

Session 2: Economy, Work, Pay, Class - Then and Now

Thursday 03 November 2016

Speakers: Professor Fran Tonkiss, Professor Stephen Machin, and Alan Manning 

Chair: Professor Nicola Lacey

Prof Fran Tonkiss reflected on some of the key issues for geographies of poverty and inequality which Booth tracked through his work, and how we might connect with these in the London of today. Prof Stephen Machin and Prof Alan Manning discussed the labour market problems we face today, drawing links to those that Booth documented.

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

Earning rent with your talent: modern-day inequality rests on the power to define, transfer and institutionalize talent (2020)

Author: Jonathan J.B Mijs

Keywords: Talent, meritocracy, rent, inequality

The appeal of meritocracy is plain to see, because it appears to promote equality of opportunity. However, in this paper we argue that meritocracy is also a deeply elitist project. Firstly, we place Michael Young in context to show how his critique of meritocracy should be understood as a socialist vision to ameliorate class divides. Secondly, we show how economic inequality in the UK has not generated systematic resistance: in fact, inequality and belief in meritocracy have gone hand in hand. Thirdly, we argue that people see their own lives as meritocratic rather than ascribed, and that such values are deeply embedded in popular life. We offer two explanations for how such views have come about, and show how they have helped construct a more unequal society.

Meritocracy, elitism and inequality (2020)

Authors: Jonathan J.B Mijs and Mike Savage

Keywords: meritocracy, Michael Young, inequality, popular beliefs, trends, elites

The appeal of meritocracy is plain to see, because it appears to promote equality of opportunity. However, in this paper we argue that meritocracy is also a deeply elitist project. Firstly, we place Michael Young in context to show how his critique of meritocracy should be understood as a socialist vision to ameliorate class divides. Secondly, we show how economic inequality in the UK has not generated systematic resistance: in fact, inequality and belief in meritocracy have gone hand in hand. Thirdly, we argue that people see their own lives as meritocratic rather than ascribed, and that such values are deeply embedded in popular life. We offer two explanations for how such views have come about, and show how they have helped construct a more unequal society.

Visualizing Belief in Meritocracy, 1930–2010 (2018)

Author: Jonathan J. B. Mijs

Keywords: meritocracy, inequality, cohort, trend, visualization

Abstract: 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

Keywords: inequality; meritocracy; inference; social context; institutions

Abstract: 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.

A gendered ethnography of elites: Women, inequality, and social reproduction (2018)

Author: Luna Glucksberg

Keywords: Alpha Territories, class, elites, ethnography, gender, wealth transfer

Summary: This article offers a critical ethnography of the reproduction of elites and inequalities through the lenses of class and gender. The successful transfer of wealth from one generation to the next is increasingly a central concern for the very wealthy. This article shows how the labor of women from elite and non-elite backgrounds enables and facilitates the accumulation of wealth by elite men. From covering “the home front” to investing heavily in their children’s future, and engaging non-elite women’s labor to help them, the elite women featured here reproduced not just their families, but their families as elites. Meanwhile, the aff ective and emotional labor of non-elite women is essential for maintaining the position of wealth elites while also locking those same women into the increasing inequality they help to reproduce.

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

Authors: Mike Savage and Sam Friedman

Keywords: class, class analysis, narrative, inequality

Summary: 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 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

Summary: 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

Summary: 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.

Crime, punishment and segregation in the United States: the paradox of local democracy (2015)

Authors: Nicola Lacey and David Soskice

Keywords: crime, punishment, law, segregation, United States, poverty, education, inequality

Summary: This paper examines the differences in crime and punishment of the United States and other  liberal market economies as products of dynamics shaped by the institutional structures of the U.S. political system, including residential zoning, public education, and incorporation of suburbs.

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 

Summary: 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.

Inequality of Educational Outcomes: International Evidence from PISA (2011)

Authors: Richard B. Freeman, Stephen J. Machin, Martina G. Viarengo

Keywords: Education, Public Policy, Inequality

Summary: This paper examines the relation between measures of the within-country inequality of student scores on international academic tests and the average level of scores across countries, using the PISA mathematics tests over 2000-2009. It finds that average test scores are higher in countries with lower inequality in scores – a virtuous efficiency-equity relation in test performance – and that family background factors are differently associated with student test performance across countries, but display little impact on the countrywide dispersion of test scores.

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

Summary: 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

Summary: 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

Social Mobility and Political Regimes: Intergenerational Mobility in Hungary,1949-2017

Pawel Bukowski, Gregory Clark, Attila Gáspár, and Rita Peto
Working paper 67 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper measures social mobility rates in Hungary 1949-2017, for upper class and underclass families, using surnames to measure social status. In these years there were two very different social regimes. The first was the Hungarian People’s Republic, 1949-1989, a Communist regime with an avowed aim of favouring the working class. Then the modern liberal democracy, 1989-2020, a free-market economy. We find five surprising things. First, social mobility rates were low for both upper- and lower-class families 1949- 2017, with an underlying intergenerational status correlation of 0.6-0.8. Second, social mobility rates under communism were the same as in the subsequent capitalist regime. Third, the Romani minority throughout both periods showed even lower social mobility rates. Fourth, the descendants of the noble class in Hungary in the eighteenth century were still significantly privileged in 1949 and later. And fifth, while social mobility rates did not change measurably during the transition, the composition of the political elite changed fast and sharply.

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Mapping Systemic Approaches to Understanding Inequality and Their Potential for Designing and Implementing Interventions to Reduce Inequality

Irene Bucelli and Abigail McKnight 
Working paper 62 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

Inequality has become a pressing issue across the world and a growing focus of the work of many experts and organisations. Multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, development agencies as well philanthropic organizations are among those who have developed, or are in the process of developing, programmes to understand and address inequalities. This focus has grown out of evidence that economic inequality is high or rising in many countries across the world and that inequality is harmful for economic growth and has negative effects on individuals and society more broadly.

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Prioritarianism and equality of opportunity

Paolo Brunori, Francisco H. G. Ferreira and Vito Peragine
Working paper 60 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper asks whether prioritarianism – the view that social welfare orderings should give explicit priority to the worse-off – is consistent with the normative theory of equality of opportunity. We show that there are inherent tensions between some of the axioms underpinning prioritarianism and the principles underlying equality of opportunity; but also that these inconsistencies vanish under plausible adjustments to the domains of two key axioms, namely anonymity and the transfer principle. That is: reconciling prioritarianism and equality of opportunity is possible but allowing room for individual responsibility within prioritarianism requires compromises regarding the nature and scope of both impartiality and inequality aversion. The precise nature of the compromises depends on the specific variant of the theory of equality of opportunity that is adopted, and we define classes of social welfare functions and discuss relevant dominance conditions for six such variants. The conflicts and the paths to reconciliation are illustrated in an application to South Africa between 2008 and 2017, where results suggest broad empirical agreement among the different approaches.

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Income Inequality and the absence of a Tawney moment in the mass media

Patrick McGovern, Sandra Obradović, and Martin W. Bauer
Working paper 53 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

In this paper we address the paradox of increasing income inequality and the absence of public mobilization around the issue. As the mass media are our most important source of information on wider economic affairs, we examine the salience and framing of income inequality within major UK and US newspapers over the period 1990 – 2015. Despite an initial surge in media attention and again towards the end of the period, the issues-attention cycle of inequality resembles a hype-cycle that is more common with arcane academic or techno-scientific topics than with social mobilisation. The dominant frames present income inequality as the seemingly inevitable result of globalization, market forces and technological change. No new radical frames of economic injustice have emerged, neither have any new actors, and so policy solutions fall back onto existing left-right approaches.

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Occupational dualism and intergenerational education mobiltiy in the rural economy: evidence from China and India 

M. Shahe Emran, Francisco Ferreira, Yajing Jiang, and Yan Sun    
Working paper 52 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper extends the Becker-Tomes model of intergenerational educational mobility to a rural economy characterized by farm-nonfarm occupational dualism and provides a comparative analysis of rural China and rural India. The model builds a micro-foundation for the widely used linear-in-levels estimating equation. Returns to education for parents and productivity of financial investment in children’s education determine relative mobility, as measured by the slope, while the intercept depends, among other factors, on the degree of persistence in nonfarm occupations. Unlike many existing studies based on coresident samples, our estimates of intergenerational mobility do not suffer from truncation bias. The sons in rural India faced lower educational mobility compared with the sons in rural China in the 1970s to 1990s. To understand the role of genetic inheritance, Altonji et al. (2005) biprobit sensitivity analysis is combined with the evidence on intergenerational correlation in cognitive ability in economics and behavioral genetics literature. The observed persistence can be due solely to genetic correlations in China, but not in India. Father’s nonfarm occupation was complementary to his education in determining a sons’ schooling in India, but separable in China. There is evidence of emerging complementarity for the younger cohorts in rural China. Structural change in favor of the nonfarm sector contributed to educational inequality in rural India. Evidence from supplementary data on economic mechanisms suggests that the model provides plausible explanations for the contrasting roles of occupational dualism in intergenerational educational mobility in rural India and rural China.

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Managing racism? Race equality and decolonial educational futures

Suki Ali
Working paper 47 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

The Office for Students is now holding UK universities to account for their failures to address racial inequalities, and the Teaching Excellence Framework is bringing the student experience to the fore in assessing higher education institutions. As the twin crises of Covid- 19 and the murder of George Floyd have highlighted in an unprecedented way, racial inequalities and injustices persist in spite of decades of legislation aiming to promote equality and end discrimination. The paper considers two main areas of ‘racial equalities’ work, namely anti-racist initiatives and decolonial initiatives. It suggests that the rise of managerialism and in particular, audit cultures, have allowed racism to flourish in spite, or rather because of, the need to account for equality, diversity and inclusion in global markets for higher education. Auditing requires a focus on identities, and cannot take into account the complex ways in which race, race thinking and racism are maintained in knowledge production. The lack of consensus around what decolonial education should be undermines attempts to produce educational social justice. From a feminist postcolonial perspective, the paper suggests that recentralising racism and reengaging difference as a way to negotiate more just educational futures.

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Entrepreneurship and the fight against poverty in US Cities

Neil Lee and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose 
Working paper 44 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

Entrepreneurship is sometimes portrayed as a cure-all solution for poverty reduction. Proponents argue it leads to job creation, higher incomes, and lower poverty rates in the cities in which it occurs. Others, by contrast, posit that many entrepreneurs are actually creating low-productivity firms serving local markets. Yet, despite this debate, little research has considered the impact of entrepreneurship on poverty in cities. This paper addresses this gap using a panel of US cities for the period between 2005 and 2015. We hypothesise that the impact of entrepreneurship depends on whether it occurs in tradeable sectors – and, therefore, is more likely to have positive local multiplier effects – or non-tradable sectors, which may saturate local markets. We find that entrepreneurship in tradeables reduces poverty and increases incomes for non-entrepreneurs. The result is confirmed using an instrumental variable approach, employing the inheritance of entrepreneurial traits as an instrument. In contrast, while there are some economic benefits from non-tradeable entrepreneurship, we find these are not large enough to reduce poverty.

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How the reification of merit breeds inequality: theory and experimental evidence

Fabien Accominotti and Daniel Tadmon
Working paper 42 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

In a variety of social contexts, measuring merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. At the same time, workable measures – such as ratings – are bound to obfuscate the intricacy inherent to any empirical occurrence of merit, thus reifying it into an artificially crisp and clear-cut thing. This article explores how the reification of merit breeds inequality in the rewards received by the winners and losers of the meritocratic race. It reports the findings of a large experiment (n = 2,844) asking participants to divide a year- end bonus among a set of employees based on the reading of their annual performance reviews. In the experiment’s non-reified condition, reviews are narrative evaluations. In the reified condition, the same narrative evaluations are accompanied by a crisp rating of the employees’ performance. We show that participants reward employees more unequally when performance is reified, even though employees’ levels of performance do not vary across conditions: most notably, the bonus gap between top- and bottom-performing employees increases by 20% between our non-reified and reified conditions, and it rises by another 10% when performance is presented as a quantified score. Further analyses suggest that reification fuels inequality both by reinforcing the authoritativeness of evaluation and by making observers more accepting of the idea that individuals can be meaningfully sorted into a merit hierarchy. This has direct implications for understanding the rise of legitimate inequality in societies characterized by the proliferation of reifying forms of evaluation.

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The art world’s response to the challenge of inequality

Kristina Kolbe, Chris Upton-Hansen, Mike Savage, Nicola Lacey, Sarah Cant
Working paper 40 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper considers the challenges which rising economic inequality poses to the art world with a special focus on museums and galleries in the UK. Based on interviews with artists, curators and managers of leading art institutions in London, we discuss how issues of economic inequality are reflected in their thinking about cultural work and how these relate to questions of spatial power, post-colonial sensibilities and diversity issues. We show how increasing economic inequality brings about deep-seated, systematic and sustained challenges which extend well beyond public funding cuts associated with austerity politics to a wider re-positioning of the arts away from its location in a distinctive public sphere and towards elite private privilege. Against this backdrop, we put forward the term ‘the artistic politics of regionalism’ and suggest that the most promising approaches to addressing contemporary inequalities lie in institutions’ reconsideration of spatial dynamics which can link concerns with decolonisation and representation to a recognition of how economic inequality takes a highly spatialised form.

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Social polarisation at the local level: a four-town comparative study

Insa Koch, Mark Fransham, Sarah Cant, Jill Ebrey, Luna Glucksberg and Mike Savage
Working paper 37 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

The concept of polarisation, where the extremes of a distribution are growing and where there is a missing or shrinking ‘middle’, has attracted recent interest driven by concerns about the consequences of inequality in British society. This paper brings together evidence of economic, spatial and relational polarisation across four contrasting towns in the United Kingdom: Oldham, Margate, Oxford and Tunbridge Wells. Deploying a comparative community analysis, buttressed by quantitative framing, we demonstrate the need to recognise how local social processes vary amongst places that on the face of it display similar trends. We show how local polarisation plays out differently depending on whether it is driven ‘from above’ or ‘from below’. Across all four towns, we draw out how a ‘missing middle’ of intermediaries who might be able to play roles in cementing local relations poses a major challenge for political mobilisation in times of inequality.

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American Exceptionalism in Inequality and Poverty: a (tentative) historical explanation

Nicola Lacey and David Soskice
Working paper 32 - Cities, Jobs and Economic Change

The United States is a fascinating case study in the complex links between crime, punishment and inequality, standing out as it does in terms of inequality as measured by a number of economic standards; levels of serious violent crime; and rates of imprisonment, penal surveillance and post-conviction disqualifications. In this chapter, we build on previous work arguing that the exceptional rise in violent crime and punishment in the US from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s could be explained by the interaction of four political and economic variables: ‘technological regime change’; ‘varieties of capitalism’ and ‘varieties of welfare state’; types of ‘political system’; and – critically and specifically – the US as a radical outlier in the degree of local democracy.  Here we ask three further questions implied by our previous work.  First, why did such distinctive patterns of local democracy arise in America? And to what extent is this political structure tied up with the history and politics of race? Second, what did the distinctive historical development of the US political economy in the 19th century imply for the structure of its criminal justice institutions? And third, why did the burden of crime and punishment come to fall so disproportionately on African Americans? 

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Populism and the Rule of Law

Nicola Lacey
Working paper 28 - Cities, Jobs and Economic Change

The resurgence of populism in Europe and North America is widely thought to have placed the rule of law under pressure. But how many of the relevant developments are indeed associated with populism? And is any such association a contingent or analytic matter: does populism inevitably threaten the rule of law, or do other conditions intervene to shape its impact? After setting out how I will understand the rule of law and populism, I examine the ways in which contemporary populist discourse has challenged the rule of law through a variety of mechanisms - notably agenda-setting, policy impact, influencing discretionary decisions and convention-trashing - considering the institutional and social conditions which conduce to strengthen or weaken these mechanisms in particular contexts. Finally, I consider the implications of the analysis for contemporary criminalisation, assessing how many of the factors producing ‘penal populism’ or ‘overcriminalization’ are truly a product of populism.

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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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Understanding the Determinants of Penal Policy: crime, culture and comparative political economy

Nicola Lacey, David Soskice and David Hope
Working paper 13 - Cities, Jobs and Economic Change

This review sets out four main explanatory paradigms of penal policy—focusing on, in turn, crime, cultural dynamics, economic structures and interests, and institutional differences in the organisation of different political economies as the key determinants of penal policy.  We argue that these paradigms are best seen as complementary rather than competitive, and present a case for integrating them analytically in a comparative political economy framework situated within the longue durée of technology regime change.  To illustrate this, we present case studies of one exceptional case—the United States—and of one substantive variable—race. Race has been thought to be of importance in most of these paradigms and provides a pertinent example of how the different dynamics intersect in practice. We conclude by summarising the explanatory challenges and research questions that we regard as most urgent for the further development of the field, and point to the approaches that will be needed if scholars are to meet them.

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Gendering the elites: an ethnographic approach to elite women's lives and the re-production of inequality

Luna Glucksberg
Working paper 7 - Wealth, Elites and Tax Justice

This paper argues that the process by which accumulated capital is socialized and passed down the generations of the 'super-rich' is gendered in nature, heavily reliant on women, and currently under-researched. The author addresses this gap ethnographically, focusing on the gendered labour that women perform to sustain and reproduce the dynaist projects of elite families. In light of this data, elite London emerges as a social space structured around strong hierarchies not just of class but also gender. The paper concludes that it is essential to understand more about the interplay of these two structuring principles within elite spaces, focusing on the 'invisible' labour performed by elite women.

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