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A sociological analysis of top incomes and wealth: a study of how individuals at the top of the income and wealth distributions perceive economic inequality

Hecht, Katharina Maria (2017) A sociological analysis of top incomes and wealth: a study of how individuals at the top of the income and wealth distributions perceive economic inequality. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom).

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.1e1f6rjaikk0


While economic research has demonstrated that the richest 1 percent in terms of income (and to a lesser extent in terms of wealth) in the UK have increased their relative advantage since the 1980s, there is little empirical research on how these individuals perceive changes in economic inequality (Chin, 2014). Following in the tradition of research on ‘elite’ perceptions of inequality (Reis and Moore, 2005), my research investigates how economic inequality, measured by top income and wealth shares, is perceived by the top 1 percent of income earners in the UK. To understand these phenomena, I interviewed and surveyed 30 participants. Additionally, I analysed data from the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) to triangulate the findings. Participants’ perceptions of top income shares closely relate to their views on the production of top incomes. For instance, GBCS data show that respondents with the highest incomes tend to select meritocratic items as important for career success. Meanwhile, a majority of interviewees, termed ‘economic evaluators’, narrate top incomes as resulting from rational, economic evaluation processes (Lamont et al., 2014), based on the idea that ‘the market’ is the best instrument for the distribution of resources. Intersectional privilege can be reconciled with ideas of a neutral market, because economic evaluative processes are gendered, ‘raced’ and classed (Skeggs, 2004a). Due to vast absolute differences between those at the top, participants view inequality from the perspective of ‘relative (dis)advantage’; while recognizing their advantage compared to the general population they experience relative disadvantage (based on Runciman’s (1966) ‘relative deprivation’) compared to others higher up the distribution. As a result, participants overestimate top income and wealth shares. Due to beliefs in markets, participants’ heightened awareness of inequality does not translate into general concern for inequality, particularly among economic evaluators. My study highlights the importance of the evaluative processes narrated as constituting top incomes for top income earners’ perceptions of economic inequality.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2017 Katharina Maria Hecht
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Savage, Mike and Friedman, Sam

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