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The poor “sociological imagination” of the rich: Explaining attitudinal divergence towards welfare, inequality, and redistribution

Abstract

Quantitative research has tended to explain attitudinal divergence towards welfare and redistribution through self‐interested rationalities. However, such an approach risks abstracting individuals from the structural determinants of resource allocation and biographical experience. With that in mind, this article draws on a qualitative study of 50 individuals experiencing relative deprivation and affluence in the United Kingdom and New Zealand to examine how lived experiences of inequality affect attitude formation towards welfare and redistribution. Scenario‐driven vignettes were used to stimulate an applied discussion of abstract principles pertaining to welfare and inequality. Use of this methodological device proffered novel insight into the phenomenological effects of material position on public attitudes and policy preferences in a comparative context. The findings suggest that affluent individuals are less likely to acknowledge systemic features shaping socioeconomic life. As a result, they exhibit a poor sociological imagination that is deployed in distinct and patterned ways to make sense of, and at times justify, economic restructuring. By contrast, those living in relative deprivation are more likely to advance accounts of intergroup relations and social location that emphasize the structuration of (dis‐)advantage. Based on the findings, policy and political implications are considered for welfare and redistribution amidst rising structural inequality.

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