Contending With Social Positions and Social Inequality

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Kraus, Michael


Social categories are a fundamental organizing feature of social life and determine how we respond to and affiliate with other people. Marking individuals with not only a label but also a position in a social hierarchy, these categories correspond to societal inequities in important life outcomes. The individual and structural dynamics undergirding the relationship between social positions and social inequalities motivate my dissertation research. Specifically, my dissertation addresses two questions: (1) How do people’s experiences of social positions maintain inequalities in important life outcomes? (2) How do social positions create barriers when people challenge societal structures that give rise to these inequalities?The first chapter examines how people's socioeconomic position shapes their beliefs about economic conditions—and consequently, support for redistributive policies—in ways that maintain economic inequality. Using a national sample of adults in the US, I find that Americans from higher income households report higher—and less accurate—estimates of a living wage, nearly $1,100 (or 48%) greater than those from lower income households. However, these higher thresholds do not translate to support for progressive economic policies (e.g., minimum wage increases) because higher-income Americans also believe that workers make more than enough to meet basic needs. These findings suggest that people’s perceptions of economic realities are calibrated to their socioeconomic experiences, which can bias those with more resources to underestimate the need for economic redistribution. The second chapter of my dissertation examines whether people’s beliefs about standards of living change over time. Using longitudinal survey data collected before and after the start of COVID-19, I explore whether salient financial, social, and health crises are associated with changes in people’s beliefs about a living wage. I find that, on average, Americans’ estimates of a living wage did not change significantly over time; however, at the individual level, changes in people’s household income were positively associated with changes in their living wage estimates. These findings once again corroborate the prediction that people extrapolate broader economic conditions based on their own socioeconomic experiences. My third and final chapter examines how social positions create barriers when people challenge societal structures that give rise to social inequalities. Specifically, I examine how social positions undermine coalitions between members who are on the same side of an issue. In both surveys and experiments with social movement activists, I find that beneficiary activists can hold critical views of allies due to their allies’ privileged social positioning, which acts as a liability in a context that aims to upend existing social systems. In this work, I identify the specific ways of being an ally—namely, being high in trustworthiness and low in movement centrality—that elicit the most positive impressions from their intended beneficiaries. Taken together, my dissertation deepens our understanding of how people challenge or reinforce societal inequities while occupying different social positions, making contributions to an important and diverse literature on social class, economic inequality, and collective action.

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