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Monday, January 06, 2014

"Class Essentialism" and "Social Darwinism"

An article that really annoyed me:

Social Darwinism and class essentialism: The rich think they are superior.

"London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, drew criticism late last year for saying that economic inequality can be attributed, in part, to IQ...

In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful. Many forces out of their control, including sheer luck, are at play.

But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.

In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism...

A diverse group of American adults rated their endorsement of such statements as “I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class,” and “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining their genes.” On average, people rated the items a 3.43, where 1 means completely disagree and 7 means completely agree...

The researchers found that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism. This pattern remained even after controlling for political orientation as well as objective measures of a participant’s income and education level, indicating that it’s one’s sense of being above or below others, not one’s actual resources, that drives the result...

The higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs, and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: Apparently if you feel that you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it...

Upper-class people are more likely to explain other people’s behavior by appealing to internal traits and abilities, whereas lower-class individuals note circumstances and environmental forces...

There is a grain to truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success. But that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma).

One repercussion of social class essentialism is a lack of forgiveness for criminals and cheaters...

Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism...

A top adviser to the U.K.’s education secretary just produced a report arguing that “discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics.” He claimed that school performance is as much as 70 percent genetic and criticized England’s Sure Start program as a waste of money. (As Scott Barry Kaufman, an intelligence researcher at NYU and the author of Ungifted, points out, “Since genes are always interacting with environmental triggers, there is simply no way to parse how much of an individual child’s performance is due to nature or nurture”)...

Privilege is often invisible, especially one’s own."

The problem with wielding the "Essentialist Beliefs About Social Class Categories Scale" (the one where people rated the items at 3.43) like a Claymore (i.e. without subtlety) is that the statements were diverse, and not all of them are indicative of "Social Darwinism"/believing that social class is immutable/dependent on genes.

The items on the scale:

1. A child from a higher class can be easily picked out from a group of lower-class children.
2. It is easy to figure out another person’s social class just by looking at them.
3. A person’s social class is easy to figure out even when they are from another country.
4. I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class.
5. Other people’s social class is easy to figure out.
6. Children probably learn about social class automatically, without much help from adults.
7. A person’s social class does not change from their social class at birth.
8. Social class is partly biological.
9. Even after centuries, families will have the same social class as now.
10. It is impossible to determine one’s social class by examining their genes. (reversed scale)
(Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment, Kraus & Keltner 2013)

The thing is - people actually rated 7-10 (the ones indicating belief in biologically determined and/or immutable social class) from 2.41 to 2.93.

Recall that:
1 - Complete disagree
2 - Mostly disagree
3 - Tend to disagree
4 - Neutral

So these statements were actually not endorsed by the sample.

Meanwhile, 1-6 are indeed endorsed or strongly endorsed by sociologists (not the most "conservative" bunch) when they claim that socialisation is pervasive and deep-rooted. And 7 is strongly endorsed (and 9 possibly less strongly endorsed) by those who believe that social mobility is dead (i.e. those who are of a similar ideological persuasion to the writer).

And given that even the writer acknowledges that "income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more)", he would presumably have to endorse 8 and thus be a "Social Darwinist" (in his own book).

So the only item that possibly indicates "Social Darwinist" beliefs (in the classic sense of the term) is 10.

While the study found that:

"Social class rank was significantly positively associated with..the biological basis subscale, .22, t(148) 2.51, p < .05" (people from higher social classes felt that social classes were more biologically determined), it also found that:

"In the biological basis analysis, the originally significant relationship of income to biological beliefs about social class categories was rendered nonsignificant when social class rank was added to the regression mode".

In other words the rich are not believers in "Social Darwinism" (inasmuch as that is what believing class is biologically influenced means) but people who believe they are superior to others in their local community believe this

This is also a mischievous misrepresentation of Cummings (the "top adviser to the UK's education secretary"). He didn't say Sure Start was a waste of money because 70% of a child's performance is genetic but because there is "little scientific testing, refinement and changing budgets to reinforce demonstrated success".

Some other problems of the article:

- You don't need to be 200 times smarter to earn 200 times as much. This is like the diamonds-water paradox - are diamonds really that important to human life (given that water is a need?)

- The author posits just world theory as a coping mechanism for the rich so they feel entitled to what they have. An alternative interpretation: the less well-off do not believe in just world theory as a coping mechanism for their lack of success

- Lots of research (twin studies) shows that genetics is a major factor determining life chances

- "Conservatives" are bashed for believing that poor people are poor because they don't work hard enough, and they are bashed because they believe in social mobility (which according to people like the ones writing this article is limited by social forces). Here they are bashed for believing that poor people are poor because they are inferior. One cannot criticise them on both fronts at once.
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