POLINEQUAL is a comparative research project that aims to understand, first, the factors at different levels (institutions, media, political elites, individuals) that shape people’s perceptions of economic inequality and, second, the political consequences of those individual perceptions, that is to say how perceptions influence political behaviors which affect political output. POLINEQUAL investigates these questions/subjects in different work packages that combine different methodological approaches: online focus groups, discourse and content analysis, online population surveys and online framing experiments.
In the frame of the first workpakage, the first fieldwork of POLINEQUAL, namely online focus groups were conducted in France, Great Britain, and Sweden between January and February 2022 in order to explore how people form their ideas about the level of economic inequality in their own country.
Focus groups as a promising avenue to explore these perceptions
Focus groups are a qualitative method consisting of a collective time of discussion between several people around a given topic, which is generally moderated by an expert or a researcher. Focus groups come with an advantage: they allow for different levels of analysis (e.g. the group, the individual) (Cyr, 2019). This qualitative approach may lack generalizability, but it allows us to dive into individuals’ thinking and understand how people come to think about a certain topic. It allows us also to capture ideas and nuances, that would not be measurable with a quantitative approach. As the formation of perceptions of economic inequality has yet to be studied, it seems appropriate to start with online focus groups. In doing so, this allows us to remain open to and explore which cues, signs, or signals people spontaneously use to verbalize when they are asked to think about economic inequality at different levels of personal proximity. This exploratory approach aims pave the way to the next phases of the project.
Even though this blog focuses on presenting the results only for France, we briefly recall the main reason for the selection of France, Great Britain and Sweden as countries of comparison.
The influence of the welfare regime on citizens’ views and attitudes on economic inequality
First, these three countries represent the three so-called ‘ideal’ welfare regime types, conceptualized by Esping-Andersen (1990). Great Britain represents the liberal welfare regime (the less redistributive/protective one), France represents the conservative welfare regime (offering a certain degree of social protection while maintaining a strong social stratification), and Sweden stands for the social-democratic type (more redistributive). Based on this contribution and other empirical findings (see for instance Svallfors 2007; Sachweh 2012), we hypothesize that citizens are influenced by their welfare regime type as each welfare regime promotes different norms that are anchored in citizens’ views and attitudes. Along this line, we would assume that a Swedish citizen would be more likely to support redistribution than a French or a British citizen. Redistribution of income and wealth refers to political measures that aim at transferring resources from one group to another, to reduce the wealth gap between the poorest and the richest, and in the ideal, allow everyone to live a decent and dignified life.
Studying subjective perceptions of inequality to understand support for redistribution
At the same time, however, these three countries exhibit different levels of economic inequality: Great Britain has the highest level of economic inequality, Sweden the lowest, and France stands in the middle. Congruently, we could expect that citizens from the country with higher levels of inequality would support more redistribution, while the ones from a more egalitarian country would support less redistribution. However, results concerning the influence of objective levels of inequality on support for redistribution often proved to be contradictory. Instead, it is becoming clearer that subjective perceptions of inequality shape support for more redistribution (Hauser, Norton 2017). As perceptions of economic inequality affect support for redistribution and political behavior, we may need to look at how people form their perceptions of economic inequality in the first place. That is why we conducted online focus groups in the first stage of our project.
How did we conduct our online focus groups?
Given the logistical complexity of collecting qualitative data in different countries and the Covid-19 crisis, the focus groups were run online through the intermediary of Kantar, which is an international expert firm in opinion studies. Online focus groups offer some advantages such as flexibility and facilities to recruit people from different places.
To make sure we would have a certain degree of diversity and richness in terms of participant profiles, the research team defined several criteria to set up the online focus groups (i.e. age, gender, level of education, place of residence, occupation, and political ideology).
As this first work package was very exploratory, the research team decided to form “homogeneous” online focus groups, and other “heterogeneous” ones, based on the social and economic backgrounds of the participants. By doing so we intended to see whether we would observe differences or similarities in perceptions between heterogeneous groups, and groups identified as “upper classes” or “lower classes”.
On average, each focus group was composed of 6 people, and in total 10 focus groups were conducted in France (including the “pilot” group conducted in December 2021 which aimed at verifying that the developed interview guide was working smoothly). Before the fieldwork started, the team worked on an interview guide and a survey questionnaire. The interview guide, which was equally employed in every country and every focus group, first asked participants to think about their neighborhood and say whether they were observing economic inequality there and which clues, signs, or signals brought them to this conclusion. We then repeated the same question with regard to the city or community level, the regional level, and finally the country level. Afterwards, the moderator asked participants whether they believed political parties, politicians, the media, and social media were a source of information people used to form an idea about inequalities in income and wealth. Very importantly, participants were also asked about their feelings toward economic inequality. Finally, we wanted to know whether they were open to discussing economic inequality generally speaking, and which actor should taek an action? about it if they thought inequality was a problem to solve.
During the online sessions, which lasted around ninety minutes, participants were also asked to fill out a short survey before the collective time of discussion, and another one afterward. Even though these surveys do not allow us to run generalizable quantitative analyses, given the small size of the sample, they gave us precious complementary information about the participants (ideology, media consumption patterns, attitudes toward redistribution, political trust, social dominance orientation, emotions, etc.). Similarly, they allowed us to observe discrepancies between what participants said during the focus group discussions and their responses to the survey questions.
First insights from France:
France represents a particularly interesting case, not only because of the conservative nature of its welfare regime, but also because of the specific arrangements of social insurances that is interrelated with the market economy such as employment (Merrien 2007). Over the past few years, French public opinion appeared very divided on the question of economic inequality and social justice. Since the movement of the Yellow Vests started in October 2018, France has seen numerous mobilizations and demonstrations related to the standard of living and economic inequality. Some social reforms, such as the unemployment reforms in 2021, reinforced cleavages in public opinion on these issues.
In addition, our fieldwork took place at a particular point in time: between December 2021 and January 2022, marking the beginning of the campaign for the presidential elections of 2022. This campaign was polarized between the far right with Marine Le Pen, head of Rassemblement National, the far left with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of La France Insoumise, and the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, often depicted as “The president of the rich”. According to numerous polls, “social questions” and that of purchasing power, often appeared as one of the major preoccupations of the French population during this campaign (see for instance this poll conducted by IPSOS and Sopra in January 2022). However, each candidate had very different views on “the social question”, on the causes of inequality and the appropriate responses to it. As a consequence, we expected that our French online focus groups would potentially reflect these divisions.
Notwithstanding, the online focus groups went overall very smoothly. At first glance, we didn’t observe that the homogeneous or heterogeneous composition of groups played a significant role in the discussions. Only one homogenous focus group with higher social status participants was particularly legitimizing economic inequality, while another homogeneous group with lower social status participants appeared rather powerless and resigned.
This said, we commonly found large degrees of consensus across groups: all participants perceived and agreed that there is economic inequality in France, be it at the regional or the community level.
Economic inequality was particularly perceived in terms of geographical cleavages
People use different categories of cues to describe economic inequality but some of the signals used reoccurred through most groups, such as housing, transportation, the cost of living, accessibility of services, shops, and businesses.
Two ideas were constantly discussed among all the focus groups. These included, first, the cleavage between the center of cities and their peripheries and, second, the cleavage between rurality and urbanity. Generally, both issues were framed in terms of housing and real estate prices and were mostly associated with the quality of life (e.g., time spent on transport, facility to access some services, etc.). They also highlighted the geographical “segregation” in terms of one’s salary and the difficulties or opportunities resulting from it.
“The car is very expensive. And public transportation is not very accessible (…) it’s glaring this gap between (…) the rural and the…and the urban people.” Renaud (206 bis)
“These are the working-class neighborhoods (…) So less fortunate. The further away you go, the more you end up in places where there are large housing estates (…), the large ZUPs (Zone à urbaniser en priorité) where you’re really in the hardcore of misery.” (Max 202)
Perceptions of inequality in the direct environment (the neighborhood)
By contrast, perceptions of economic inequality in the direct environment are much more heterogenous. Some participants noticed signals of inequality right away, particularly those living in big cities such as Paris or Lyon. For these participants, inequality is visible in many ways such as via housing conditions, the price of real estate, the standard of living, the shops that they see around them, the services they have access to, homelessness, etc.
“Apart from that, yes, there are still people who are on the street, and that’s where you can see the…the difference.” (Stéphane, 203)
The most frequent cue that people used to refer to inequality in their neighborhood is housing by comparing upper-class housing to social housing and often referring to real estate prices. Shops are also a reoccurring cue because they offer people an idea about what others can afford or are looking to consume in the neighborhood.
“I think that it can also be seen in terms of, for example, the restaurants offered. Are there fast food restaurants or are there organic grocery stores? “(Jeanne, pilot group)
By contrast, participants who don’t perceive inequality in their immediate environment are mostly people who perceive their neighborhood as “economically homogeneous” (really poor, or really rich), or people living in the country-side and small villages.
“I would say that in general there is not a very, very strong social diversity. It’s (…) a fairly, fine bourgeois neighborhood.” (Félix, pilot group)
“Yeah, so uh…it’s all buildings. There’s no…no apartments or houses at all. And we’re all, uh, struggling.” (Anthony, 202)
“In our village, uh, we, we, we have a hard time perceiving these inequalities.” (Jean Paul, 206)
It is important to note that even though participants may not perceive economic inequality in their direct environment, it does not appear as a major obstacle to perceive inequality at other levels. Indeed, all participants who do not observe inequality in their direct environment perceive inequality at other more abstract or remote levels.
The geographical mobility of individuals seems to play a role in the extent to which they perceive economic inequality
People often infer about economic inequality by drawing on their personal experiences. Indeed, a lot of participants have lived or traveled to different places in France and verbalized these experiences to refer to economic disparities. They often spontaneously compared the place they live in with others they have come to know. In general, people that fall into this category relied on more cues than the participants that had not moved and also seemed more concerned about inequality.
“I live in a village after I left the city. Uh in the city there was a lot of. well there are inequalities, that’s clear.” (Charlène, 202)
As discussing economic inequality implies being able to compare, this would seem quite logical that people who have more points of comparison can discuss this topic more easily. It is possible that the fact of having moved or travelled creates a certain openness and curiosity that makes these participants more sensitive to observe such differences.
The openness of participants to discuss this topic and their social circle appeared as an important indicator in forming ideas about economic inequality
During the online focus group discussions, some participants spontaneously told stories about their friends, relatives, and colleagues that relate to economic inequality. In general, they used these stories to talk about people that have different social and economic backgrounds and different living conditions. This seemed to be associated with a certain openness to discuss inequality more generally.
“It’s true that the MJCs (Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture) are quite pleasant in this respect, but it does allow us to observe that there are differences and we realize this by talking to each other.” (Stéphane, 203)
Sometimes, people referred to conversations with people that they identify with. When using this process, participants try to reinforce their arguments. There is a sense that they were trying to legitimize what they experience and feel by showing that they are not the only ones thinking that way.
“I work in a school complex (…) And between colleagues of the same grade we tend to talk about people who are much higher than us and who are not from the same world in fact (…). So I’m in charge of a team of maintenance agents, so the lowest level in the civil service and we talk about inequalities where the highest, the A-categories for example, tend to denigrate the work of the C-categories (Categories A, B and C correspond to the hierarchical and salary levels of civil servants, A being the highest and C the lowest category.) without realizing that they are people who work hard, who earn little”. (Séverine, 206)
French people are skeptical about the media and particularly critical of political elites as reliable cues to form perceptions of economic inequality
Participants generally reported that politicians cannot be a reliable source of information to infer about inequality because they “don’t know anything about it, they are detached from people’s reality”, “disconnected” (France_201), and live “in their own world beyond reality” (France_201). Participants in different focus groups mentioned examples of politicians that went “viral” for not knowing the prices of very basic goods to explain that politicians cannot be a credible source to rely on.
French participants also showed a low level of trust towards the media, but to a lower extent than towards politicians. Even though some participants affirmed that media cannot inform perceptions of inequality and insisted on manipulation of numbers, biases, exaggerations, ‘fake news’, etc., others said that media still plays a role. They use media to get an idea outside of what they can see, their “daily bubble”, and recognize that without them they would have a limited vision of the world.
With regard to social media, opinions were divided: some said that one cannot trust anything at all on social media and had very bad opinions about it. Some people (especially younger participants) said that social media were a good source of information to infer about inequality since they allow regular people to express themselves freely on such topics. Some said that social media would open a space for “real people” and that one could learn differing opinions from people with different backgrounds, life experiences and economic situations.
“On social networks, people can express themselves more and denounce inequalities” (France_205)
French people are all aware of the existing inequality, what varies is the extent to which they perceive it and their attitudes toward it
Despite the (in)direct (non)exposure to economic inequality, the awareness of inequality is present in each participant, even though the extent to which they perceive it or their sensitivity to it may vary. We observed some variations between people concerning what they expressed when they were asked about their perceptions of inequality at different levels.
Some participants had some knowledge about economic inequality. Some participants were able to draw on a number of cues. Some of them were quite imaginative and surprising. For instance, one said that one of the signs of economic inequality was to check which posters of political parties during political campaigns one may see in the neighborhoods; another one said that one could get a sense of economic inequality by looking at what people throw away. Some of them were also able to compare inequality over time, referring to the Covid-19 crisis. Others were also aware of economic inequality between groups and mentioned characteristics that reinforce the risk of being vulnerable (gender, ethnicity). Some of them even cited reports such as OXFAM and knew some official statistics. In general, these people were more likely to be the ones critical about the wealth gap and demanded more redistribution.
Other participants were less knowledgeable. First, some of them mixed up poverty and inequality. They had fewer ideas on what to rely on to form their perceptions or stuck to one or two cues reciting them at different levels. Most participants had quite unspecific ideas, and perceived some level of inequality but did not necessarily consider it as a problem. This mostly occured when people seemed to overestimate the resources available to the lower classes, or underestimate inequality generally speaking. Indeed, many participants believed that some expensive goods were accessible to everybody. For instance, one participant said, “people who have difficulties can very well buy a very nice car” (Lambert, 205).
What is more, some participants perceived economic inequality but legitimized it. For instance, some participants used the argument “there is worse”.
“I don’t blame the people in France who are not well eh, but uh they would see themselves in Colombia, Uganda or…they would be happy actually.” (Damien, 202)
We therefore, as of now, identify different groups of perceptions of economic inequality that may lead to different responses: a group of people that knows a lot about economic disparities, perceives the gap as unfair, and is more likely to support redistribution (or, vice versa, they perceive a lot of economic inequality because they support redistribution). Another group of people that perceives economic inequality but legitimizes the wealth gap through meritocracy and deservingness criteria, but also through the necessity of having inequality to make society work. These participants were more likely to be against more redistribution.
Most participants have some ideas about economic inequality, but these ideas seemed quite limited or malleable. As a consequence, they often have ambiguous discourses about redistribution or simply do not formulate any demand.
Questioning the reliability of “visual cues” of economic inequality: A way to criticize the way of living of the “less well off”
We observed that participants often had ambiguous discourses about economic inequality. This manifested itself particularly through the use of certain cues such as appearances, cars, and accessories. In many instances, participants thought it was difficult to infer someone’s wealth by looking at these external signs.
Some participants questioned the reliability of these signs talking about the “rich effect”. This goes with the image of the “poor” trying to “look rich”. It often comes with a negative judgment towards the poor who would spend their money on “silly” or “superficial things”.
“They put everything they had into appearances indeed.” (Cédric, pilot group)
In a way, this argument seems to justify poor people’s situation of living. They believe that people are poor because they don’t make good choices and don’t spend their money wisely.
The ambiguous attitudes towards the rich: the “good rich” vs. the “bad rich”, but few people criticize their amount of wealth in general
Rich people were sometimes criticized quite harshly. However, they were almost never criticized because of the amount of wealth they possess, but because of their individual behavior.
When rich people were perceived as acting badly, cheating the system, or not deserving (because they inherited their wealth for instance), they were criticized as well as when they were perceived as “showing-off” their money. Participants disapproved their behaviors when they are perceived to be “indifferent” towards others, or when they are condescending because of their status.
However, when rich people were perceived as “deserving”, “humble”, and behaving with “modesty”, and do not display their fortune, their wealth does not seem problematic for most participants. We see that the disparity of wealth becomes a matter of the individuals’ behavior, character, and is not approached as a general problem. This quotation sums up quite well this idea: “that’s what I have a problem with, it’s not their wealth, it’s their possible indifference.” (Garance, 204).
Most participants don’t want to look at people’s wealth and criticize them, there is a sense that people should not be envious, and that one should be happy when another succeeds. Our survey also shows that people do not have strong feelings toward richer people. When we surveyed our participants on how they feel about people that earn more money than them 25 of our 51 French respondents answered “indifference”, which is quite striking and may in part, explain the lack of action for more redistribution.
How do people feel about economic inequality?
The most recurrent verbalized emotion in our focus group was anger. We identified some contexts in which anger transpired. It is often triggered in a context of a comparison between extreme wealth and poverty, a feeling of injustice in terms of equality, equity, and need, and an unfair outcome of the initial distribution. In some cases, we observed that participants felt that social justice norms are violated by this extreme wealth gap. Additionally, some participants criticized the failure of meritocracy that does not reward everyone fairly, according to them.
“When we see the biggest fortunes, uh… the biggest French fortunes, uh… who have multiplied their profits in the space of two years, uh… almost by ten, while on the other side there are people who are starving, yeah, that tends to make me a little revolted.” (France_204)
“The inequalities there, me that…that, that makes me…that makes me angry (…) These people, instead of trying to build an airplane to go to Mars, they could also give a little on the side (…) Ah well, you went to Mars, that’s good and then next door to me there’s a guy dying in the street. So that makes me angry (…) [raises voice].” (France_205)
But paradoxically, participants mentioned that they often experience different feelings which can be contradictory: sadness, powerlessness, which can motivate people to withdraw from the political sphere. If you feel angry, but you simultaneously feel that nothing can be done to change things why would you engage politically? In this case, participants often try to relativize what they feel, and in turn their views about economic inequality become very ambiguous.
“I’m realizing that right now, in this meeting. It’s that even if there are some that are flagrant for some, I think that…well, we’ve learned to live with it, we see uh…people who are better off or less well off and then uh…that’s what we…unfortunately uh…it’s like that. We can’t…we can’t change things from…from where we are”. (Aurélie, 204)
Who should act to reduce economic inequality?
Most French participants consider the government responsible for reducing economic inequality. As France is a centralized state, and historically the government has been in charge of redistributing the resources, this is not very surprising. In this regard, some participants suggested that more power should be given to regional and local administrations to alleviate economic inequality. However, only a minority of participants assume that other actors (such as firms, or the society as a whole) could play a role to reduce economic inequality.
During the online focus group discussions, very little optimism toward the future was expressed, and very few specific preferences were formulated. Even though a few people had specific propositions on what to do (for instance, introduce a Universal Basic Income, impose higher taxes on large companies) most of them expressed that nothing could be done. This seems to relate to the disenchantment and powerlessness that was expressed verbally throughout all the focus group discussions. Besides, this may also be linked to the fact that a lot of people do not even consider economic inequality to be part of the political spectrum of action. For some participants, economic inequality appears just as a random topic of discussion about “who is able to do what” with their available resources, it is not framed as a societal or systemic political issue.
Not surprisingly? the results of the French election in April 2022, although the campaign was strongly influenced by the Russian-Ukrainian war, somewhat reflected the ambivalent attitudes and preferences observed throughout our online focus group discussions. While economic inequality is perceived to exist in society, it does not necessarily drive voters’ decisions in favor of more redistributive policies.
Marine le Pen’s electorate, for instance, seems to prioritize topics such as “security” and “migration” and Macron’s electorate does not prioritize redistribution either. Notwithstanding, the far-left candidate finished third in the first electoral round whose party programme clearly asked for social change and a reallocation of resources. Moreover, the abstention rate in the first round was over 25% which can also be conceived of as an indicator of political disenchantment and distrust expressed during the focus group discussions.
It is yet to be seen if the current complicated economic conjecture, such as the high inflation rate and the growing difficulties to access basic services such as gas and electricity, and the political reform agenda of the Macron Government will initiate new debates on social justice.
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