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Inequality is a problem of inference: how people solve the social puzzle of unequal outcomes

Mijs, Jonathan J. B. (2018) Inequality is a problem of inference: how people solve the social puzzle of unequal outcomes. European Societies, 8 (3). ISSN 2075-4698

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Identification Number: 10.3390/soc8030064


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.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2018 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (
Divisions: International Inequalities Institute
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2019 13:12
Last Modified: 18 Feb 2021 00:13

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