Social Inequality

Author(s): Robert Miller
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Eighth Report
Editor(s): Ann Marie Gray, Katrina Lloyd, Paula Devine, Gillian Robinson and Deirdre Heenan
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 1911 4
Pages: 178-194
Subject Area(s): Employment, Economic Issues

Abbreviations: NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times, NI - Northern Ireland, ISSP - International Social Survey Programme

Background to the Research

  • The concept of 'social inequality' as operationalised in the NILT survey has a focus that is both specific and diffuse, and centres around the inequality of income and wealth.
  • This chapter looks at the relative importance of class, religion, gender and age in their effects upon attitudes to material social inequality with particular recourse to social class.

Research Approach

  • The NILT survey began in 1998 and is carried out annually.
  • Each year, interviews are carried out with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI.
  • The sample size for the 1999 NILT survey was 2,200.
  • The NILT survey is a participant in the ISSP, an annual survey of attitudes to social and economic policy issues that is carried out in more than 35 countries.
  • The ISSP addresses a different topic each year, which in 1999 was social inequality. Consequently, this module was included in the 1999 NILT survey.

Main Findings

  • A 'left/right wing' scale was constructed based upon the additive responses to 17 questions. The values of the scale range from 28 to 79 and low scores indicate 'left wing' views and high scores indicate 'right wing' views. Social class is the only variable that significantly affected respondents' scores on the 'left/right wing' scale; the higher the social class, the more conservative the responses.
  • Overall, respondents tend towards moderation in their opinions regarding attitudes to general social inequality issues such as 'you have to be corrupt to get to the top' and 'ordinary people get a fair share of wealth'.
  • Significant proportions of respondents are fairly cynical about the general 'fairness' of social stratification, with over half of the sample agreeing with both the statements that 'inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful' and that 'there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor'.
  • In contrast to the other social classes, nearly half (47%) of respondents within the highest social class stratum, the professionals, disagree with the latter statement.
  • Three times as many people disagree than agree that 'large differences in income are necessary for NI's prosperity' and that 'ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation's wealth'.
  • Over half of respondents feel that 'coming from a wealthy family' is important.
  • The proportion believing that 'knowing the right people' is important is even higher, with less than a quarter saying these type of connections are not significant.
  • Proportionately more of the professionals than any other strata see 'connections' as being 'not very important'.
  • More respondents say that it is right that 'people with higher incomes can buy better health care' and 'people with higher incomes can buy better education' than those who say it is wrong.
  • Three quarters of respondents say people with high incomes should shoulder a larger share of the tax burden
  • In deciding pay levels, respondents were most likely to say 'how well job is done' is essential (31%) followed by 'how hard one works' (28%).
  • Respondents generally feel that the highly paid are overpaid and that the lowly paid deserve more (with the exception of General Practitioners). All class strata, including the higher strata, see the higher occupations as being overpaid and the lower occupations as underpaid.
  • Just over 40% of respondents feel that their pay is 'about fair for me', and a similar proportion feel that their earnings are 'what I deserve'. However, almost no one feels they are overpaid and the majority feel underpaid, including 16% who feel their pay is much less than what is fair and 16% who feel it is much less than they deserve.
  • In particular, it is the partly skilled strata that feels it is paid 'much less than I deserve'.
  • Respondents were asked to compare the status of their job with that held by their father when they were 16. Reflecting the general trend of upward social mobility in NI over the last generation, over half assessed their present status as being higher than that of their father, with only one in five saying it was lower.



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