The Symbolic Order of Social Inequalities: Strategies of Justification in the German Upper Middle Classes

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:00
Oral Presentation
Sarah LENZ, Basel University, Switzerland
Hannah Ruth MANSTETTEN, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
Patrick SACHWEH, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
Our paper aims to provide a better understanding of the symbolic order of social inequality in Germany by analyzing how it is perceived and justified among upper middle-class members. Since the early 1990s, social inequality in Germany is rising. Currently, especially right-wing populists’ interpretations of the subject are gaining popularity. Against this backdrop, we consider it crucial to investigate, how influential social groups understand social inequality and its possible political consequences. Thus, we focus on these elitist groups, who are equipped with cultural, social, and economic capital and have a significant influence on public discourses and political decisions.

By following the theory of justification as it was described by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, we assume that societal orders can only exist on a normatively legitimized basis. In what is called “orders of worth”, different orientations towards a “greater good” create guidelines for a justifiable implementation of principles of fairness. We therefore examine, how upper middle-class members relate to the issue of social inequality by mainly analyzing what they consider as serving the common good. Our findings derive from three group discussions with upper middle-class members. To identify characteristics of the symbolic order of inequality our analysis is based on the Documentary Method of interpretation which pays attention to the underlying normative orientations of everyday practices.

Our findings show that social inequality is a central topic in the perceptions of upper middle-class members. Nevertheless, they tend to legitimate these inequalities functionally as inducing productivity. Furthermore, they justify inequalities through a cultural and moral devaluation of lower classes, claiming that differences in chances of social advancement are due to a lack of individual motivation and merit as well as “deficits of socialization”. Paradoxically, the way inequalities are criticized here leads to a reproduction of these inequalities.