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