Please Mind the Gap: A Response to Chan, et al’s “Status in Norway”
by Shaun Terry
In “Social Status in Norway,” Chan, et al assert that class and social status are distinct things, and that each affects people’s political leanings in a distinct way. Here, Chan specifically studies Norway, but he notes that the results in Norway appear similar to those in other countries, albeit contrasting in terms of degrees.
Class is defined here by the type of work someone does, and ostensibly, by the associated income. In contrast, Chan describes status as consisting of people’s cultural consumption and being primarily based on the ascriptions of a person and their partner and whether they work in manual or non-manual industries. It may be worthy to note that this ends up meaning that the manual/non-manual dichotomy affects both class and status, with the distinction being that class has to do with the type of work a person does and the income that they make while status is more reflective of the industries that a person and their spouse work in and their levels of education and not with their incomes.
That Chan defines status by these two, not-so-obviously related things is interesting and implies possible correlation between them, and we’ll get to more of that later.
First, social class seems to be a good predictor for whether someone leans left or right on economic issues, with wealthy people preferring economically liberal policies and low earners choosing more leftist policies. To put this more simply, poor people tend to prefer wide, robust social safety nets, while rich people tend to prefer lower taxes and less regulations on business.
On the other hand, social status is a strong determinant for where people fit on the authoritarian-libertarian scale. People of high status tend to prefer socially permissive policies while less-privileged people prefer stricter measures of authority and more social homogeneity.
Chan notes that the UK experiences greater inequality, but that much of that inequality is concentrated at the more status-poor end of the spectrum.
Some interesting findings in Chan’s study include that older, female, less educated, and poorer Norwegians tend to prefer greater redistributive measures. Put the other way around, younger, male, better educated, and wealthier Norwegians prefer less wealth redistribution. In regard to social issues, women, highly-educated people, and people with high status tend to be tolerant of homosexuality, and older people, highly-educated people, and people with higher status tend to be more supportive of immigration. Further, Chan finds that people who vote left on economic issues include women, income-poor people, people in the bottom two social classes, and people with high status.
In Chan’s conclusion, it’s pointed out that status plays a bigger role in society in the UK than in Norway. British people more frequently partner with people of more-or-less equivalent social status, which, again, is defined mostly by the industries within which people work, their ascriptions, and the levels of education they attain. Norway’s decreased partnering by social status pairing may be explained by shorter social distances between people or it may be that, because Norwegians tend to have more egalitarian views, they partner with less concern for status. If differences in Norwegians’ perceptions of people, based on ascriptions, work industries, and educations, are less than that in some other countries, this may explain why there is less difference in people’s social choices and cultural consumptions, and greater support for income redistribution and social programs in general.
But the reality in Norway is more complicated than any utopic notion. In fact, Chan’s assumptions indirectly point this out. If it were the case that people’s ascriptions determined social status, and by proxy, status’s constituent aspects — education and whether people choose to work in manual or non-manual industries — then that would seem to necessarily imply that there would be no correlation between societal differences and differences in hierarchies of social status. Clearly, this isn’t the case. Instead, countries that are reputed for subscribing to more egalitarian views and for invoking more egalitarian policies tend to attain smaller differences in social status. Based on this reasoning, it may be the case that Norway could do more to make things equal between people born into different situations.
Consider a possible link between education and the manual/non-manual dichotomy: were there a genetic explanation for whether people went into manual or non-manual jobs, then correlation between social mobility and egalitarian policies would be more difficult to explain. Instead of assuming that people sort into jobs based on in-born preferences, perhaps Merton’s “Self-fulfilling Prophecy” provides a clue. In highly-stratified countries, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that ascriptions could lead to biases and discriminations on the parts of institutions, which might lead to conditioning of children such that some gravitate toward manual industries and others to non-manual industries.
But is it unreasonable to think that Norway might be subject to the same sorts of discriminations that you might find in the UK, the US, or other less-equal societies? Recent studies in social psychology show a tendency in some people to show subconscious preferences based on race, just as an example.
This doesn’t mean that we should let perfection be the enemy of the good; indeed, I’m inclined to applaud Norway’s efforts in creating one of the most equal and equitable societies in the world, but Norway didn’t achieve this distinction by being complacent in the face of apparent injustice. And this injustice isn’t trivial.
Michael Marmot’s research has become so widely accepted that its conclusions are largely taken for granted: we accept that differences in status lead to worse health outcomes and shorter lives. But others have taken this line of thinking and expanded on it. Richard Wilkinson recently came into public consciousness when he, with help from Kate Pickett, demonstrated that greater social equality leads to better health outcomes not only for people at the bottom of society or even those in the middle, but for those at the top as well. This may come as counterintuitive to those who might assume that the attraction that inequality is sold on is the promise of the greatest possible life, but the data show otherwise. You might be better off being wealthy in a more equal society than being one of the richest people in the world and living in a more unequal society. But in economic terms, Norway has been getting more unequal over the last few decades, as has been the trend with OECD countries over that time.
Thomas Piketty’s assertion that stratification is an essential characteristic of capitalism was controversial for its forcefulness but well-demonstrated. The acceleration of global capitalism in recent decades has made the world smaller and sorted winners and losers with increasing rapidity and expanding devastation. When we consider Marmot’s distinction between absolute and relative poverties in a global context, it becomes clear that all poverty is relative in some sense. In an ever-shrinking world, it’s evident that absolute poverty is the product of disparate access to resources and that solving relative poverty necessarily entails solving absolute poverty. To be clear, absolute poverty is distinct from relative poverty and absolute poverty’s problems are clearly more acute and in need of redress, but to take the argument to its end, a solution for absolute poverty likely requires the kind of thoughtful redistributive measures that one would expect in an egalitarian society, but applied within a global framework, i.e. intentional, intelligent investment from wealthy countries to those over-exploited countries most in need.
To double back to the article, this means that there can no longer be the divorced argument that has been neo-liberalism’s failing; libertarian rhetoric is hollow without the efficacy of leftist economics. So it’s important to see that Norway performs better than most other countries in terms of social mobility and earnings mobility, but there are still opportunities for Norway to improve.
Marmot’s research shows that even small amounts of relative poverty have devastating effects on people’s health and mortality outcomes; i.e. any inequality results in suffering and shortened lives.
The uncomfortable, but seemingly true, end is that any differences in people’s class or status lead to people’s suffering, poor health, and shortened lives, and that goes for both within individual countries and between countries. To put it bluntly, Norway and her Scandinavian fraternity may perform well relative to other countries, but so long as unnecessary stratification persists, wherever it exists, nevermind grows, there’s clearly work to be done.
Chan, Tak Wing; Birkelund, Gunn Elisabeth; Aas, Arne Kristian; Wiborg, Oyvind. “Social Status in Norway.”
Friedman, Thomas. The World is Flat.
Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome.
Merton, Robert. “The Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”
Pickett, Kate and Wilkinson, Richard. The Spirit Level.
Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century.