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‘There Is Only One Solution to the Problem of Social Inequality: Information’

Elena Agadullina on the psychology of social inequality


This September, work was in full swing at HSE University’s Laboratory for Psychology of Social Inequality. The laboratory, which was established in spring 2021, is the first research centre in Russia devoted to researching perceptions of inequality in various fields. IQ.HSE spoke to Elena Agadullina, head of the laboratory, about the research projects underway at the lab, the psychological mechanisms that support and maintain inequality, and Russia-specific trends in the field.


Elena Agadullina,
Candidate of Sciences in Sociology,
Associate Professor, School of Psychology,
Laboratory Head, Laboratory for Psychology
of Social Inequality at HSE University

— Tell us about your laboratory. How did it come into being and what are its goals?

— We won a laboratory contest run by HSE University. The laboratory opened this spring. Since the start of the academic year, we’ve been actively seeking out students from various disciplines to join our projects. We plan to make the laboratory more visible in the university space.

We have philosophers, sociologists, and economists working on our studies of inequality. Our primary focus is the psychological aspects of inequality, how it’s perceived, and the common myths and views surrounding it in different areas of life. All laboratory staff have a basic education in psychology, and many of them are currently working towards specializations in sociology, economics, and measurement.

As head of the laboratory, I see us as having two main goals. The first is to develop the potential of young researchers. In my opinion, the only way to truly develop the study of inequality in Russia is to attract students at all levels to work at the laboratory, include them in international projects, and encourage new research.

Our second goal is to develop links between research and social practices. Everything we do can used to improve quality of life for many groups of people. That’s why one of our biggest goals is to make sure that all of our research goes beyond just words on paper and achieves real practical results.

Social inequality is a form of differentiation in which individuals, groups and classes occupy different levels of a vertical social hierarchy and have unequal life chances and opportunities to satisfy their needs.

— To what degree is the psychology of social inequality an established scientific discipline?

— In the west, the term ‘psychology of social inequality’ is used actively by researchers. There are numerous detailed studies into perceptions of inequality, the everyday beliefs and ideas that shape it, and the consequences of its expression in various areas of life. However, there is little Russian research literature examining inequality from a psychological perspective. Our colleagues at the RAS Institute of Psychology—the Centre of Sociocultural Research—are engaged in researching economic relationships and their psychological components, including studies into perceptions of whether economic relationships are fair or unfair. A lot of work is being done in the fields of gender, sexuality and the types of inequality that surround them. But overall, our laboratory is the first centre in Russia aimed at conducting systematic research into the psychological factors behind various kinds of inequality.

— Can you tell us more about the field itself? What are the foundations of research into the psychology of social inequality?

— We devote a lot of attention to the study of everyday beliefs, ideas, and paradigms that give rise to inequality and stop us from viewing the world as anything but unequal. Each kind of social relationship (such as job or gender-based) comes with its own paradigms and beliefs that determine the distribution of status and power between different social groups.

If we’re talking about the structure of society in general, one area of interest is the motivation to defend the system, to regard existing relationships between different social groups as fair. Or there’s the inclination towards social dominance—the belief that certain groups have more rights and legitimate reasons for being higher up in the social hierarchy, while others ‘should know their place’ (which is usually at the bottom) without trying to disrupt the ‘natural’ order.

 In terms of more specific types of social attitudes, such as those based on gender expectations, we conduct research into sexism and gender essentialism. While the topic of sexism is understood, established in public discourse and familiar to most people to at least some degree, gender essentialism is barely studied in Russia. Gender essentialism is the idea that a person’s chromosomes determine not only their sex, but also their psychological characteristics, their desires and their aspirations (such as the idea that women are ‘born’ with a need to take care of other people—namely their families—while men have an innate desire to be active, productive and aggressive). Our research aims to introduce this new field into the professional community.

In the professional world, the stigmatization of jobs is one of the main factors that sustains inequality. In economic relationships, stereotypes surrounding poverty have a major influence.

— What are some of the projects already underway at the lab?

— At the moment, we are working on four major projects, which are partially funded by grants from Russian research foundations. We are currently doing a lot of research into attitudes towards people with different disabilities, an area where there a lot of separate beliefs that contribute to inequality. 

Dehumanization — the belief that some people are less human than others—is a major contributor to the perception that people with disabilities should have fewer rights, for example.

Social norms often revolve around the idea of the ‘average person’—someone with no features that set them apart from the majority of others. People with any kind of disability represent a deviation from this norm, and thus ‘lose’ part of their humanity. They are denied the same status and treatment as ‘normal’ people. One of our current projects focuses on the process of dehumanization.

We are also conducting a major study into perceptions of inequality in the professional sphere. As I mentioned earlier, this kind of inequality is rooted in perceived stigmas surrounding jobs—the idea that some kinds of work are seen as prestigious while others are ‘dirty’ and diminish a person’s dignity. We are actively looking into the fundamental factors that can create such stigmas. One of them is dirtiness. For example, a job as vital as refuse collection can be subject to severe stigmatization due to negative attitudes towards ‘dirt’ among many people.

There are also stigmas surrounding danger. People admire fire fighters for being brave and saving lives. At the same time, the average person tries to avoid danger, and this can create a stigma around ‘dangerous work.’ People whose work involves interacting with stigmatized groups like the homeless or those in hospice care are another example. These very important jobs are stigmatized due to a fear of ‘catching’ some kind of disease through contact with such people. 

Some jobs are also ‘tarnished’ by perceived immorality. Examples include casino owners, belly dancers, defence lawyers for murderers, etc. There is a perception that these jobs defy conventional moral standards, which is another example of stigmatization. We research the various causes of job-related stigmatization and their psychological and social impact.

We are also conducting an important study into the motivation to justify different systems of relations in various regions of Russia. We try to understand how socioeconomic factors interact with psychological variables, as well as the degree to which these interactions are linked to a willingness to accept the existing system of social, political, economic and gender relations as fair, natural, and immutable.

Finally, we are also running a large-scale project to research the characteristics of perceptions of inequality. The word ‘equality’ can mean very different things to different people. To some, equality is when everyone has the same rights, obligations, and everything else. To others, it means equality of opportunity—though the question of how different people provide such opportunities is a whole other matter. Perceptions of inequality and its prevalence are directly related to how people define equality. We examine how individual personalities and social factors are related to people’s attitudes.

We are also conducting research into perceptions of whether inequality is a natural or artificial phenomenon, whether or not people are born equal. These views influence people’s attitudes towards the redistribution of resources, various egalitarian initiatives, gender non-conformity, professional stigmatization and more.

— What kind of personality characteristics enable and support social inequality?

— Some studies describe the ‘prejudiced personality’—a person likely to hold various prejudices. It is important to note that prejudice is a specific worldview based on an assumption that some people are better than others. As such, if someone holds sexist beliefs, then they are also likely to have racist and ageist prejudices.

Researchers believe that the prejudiced personality can be described using personality traits from the Big Five. These include a low level of openness to new experiences, the inability to accept others’ points of view, a lack of interest in variety, high neuroticism, the inclination to hold one’s own opinion in higher regard than other peoples’, and low levels of goodwill.

The prejudiced personality type is also characterized by rigid attitudes such as authoritarianism. This stems from the belief that power should rest in the hands of a strong leader capable of using any means necessary to uphold the ‘proper’ order of things.

Another contributing factor is the belief that the world is dangerous and full of enemies and people with bad intentions. This kind of attitude can form in people who experienced violations of basic social trust in childhood. As a result, they treat the most other people with caution and examine their behaviour for signs of non-conformity and bad intentions. This can foster various kinds of prejudices. 

Of course, all of this is a generalization. It doesn’t mean that everyone with high levels of neuroticism or low levels of openness are prejudiced.

— Does your laboratory have any plans for external collaboration?

— We will be launching at least two research projects with outside organizations by the end of the year. Both projects concern attitudes towards people with various medical conditions or disabilities. One of the studies will be based at a major medical centre in St. Petersburg. They want to know how doctors behave towards people with various medical conditions. Primarily, they want to investigate whether doctors can form their own prejudices about whether certain groups can’t have certain medical conditions. Or, for example, that there is no use in providing treatment to people above a certain age, expressing an attitude of ‘why spend so much time and resources treating 80-year-olds? There’s no treatment for simple old age.’ These kinds of attitudes can prevent people from getting the timely, effective care they need.

We will also be conducting joint research with a non-profit that provides help and aftercare for cancer patients. Our partner is interested in how society forms attitudes about people in remission or going through cancer treatment, particularly in terms of their opportunities for living a full life—in this case, a ‘full’ life in the eyes of ‘normal’ society. Developing a better understanding of the processes that lead to social and psychological distancing from people with illnesses can make it possible to develop more effective means of support for cancer patients.

— At present, are there sufficient methodologies and data for researching the psychological aspects of social inequality?

— My colleagues and I have adapted and translated a large number of methodologies for effectively measuring various kinds of beliefs and perceptions. We usually start by selecting the appropriate instruments before spending a long time adapting them thoroughly.

In addition to methodologies that (for example) make it possible to determine the degree to which a person holds sexist views, their ability to defend the existing system, or their inclination towards social dominance, we also use factorial experiments in which respondents are presented with various situations that can be perceived as examples of either equality or inequality. This is a well-developed procedure used widely overseas.

— Let’s talk about Russia-specific characteristics. How is Russia different in this area from other counties? What is unique about Russia in terms of the prejudices and attitudes that create social inequality?

— At the moment, we are researching the level of support for the existing system outside the major cities. Our work paints quite a contradictory picture. Russians are not very satisfied with their lives, yet they show high levels of support for the political system.

— Why is there such a high level of support for the political system among Russians?

— Our research shows that income is a reliable predictor of willingness to defend the system. Interestingly, this is not the case for most European countries. According to data by the World Values Survey, Russia is a country that prioritizes survival values. Income affects subjective wellbeing, as high incomes can cover basic needs effectively. In this case, if the political system allows someone to avoid poverty, then there is a perception that nothing is wrong with said system. In other words, the higher a person’s income, the stronger their belief that the system is working well.

— So this connection between income and support for the system is strongest in major Russian cities?

— Yes, this correlation is strongest in Moscow. Salaries are higher there than in other regions, which results in a higher level of support for the system. Interestingly, in poorer regions, levels of support do not depend on how much a person earns. In those regions, people are much less likely to agree that the system of relationships between different groups, such as the authorities and citizens or the rich and poor, is fair. 

— Can you tell us more about the causes of attitudes that lead to support for one system or another?

— There are several key needs that influence a person’s behaviour. People try to have consistent perceptions of themselves and of the world. They want to think well of themselves and consider themselves ‘normal,’ ie, not different from the majority of other people in a negative way. Often, these needs can be met by supporting negative aspects of society or its structure. For example, the belief that our society is just and fair can help people to maintain a positive image of themselves.

The fact that many people criticize the authorities while doing nothing to change the situation is a sign that ‘normal’ people actually have no issues with the existing system.

— In your opinion, what can we do to solve the problem of social inequality in society?

— I think there is only one solution to the problem of social inequality: information. There’s no point in demanding that people do more than they’re able to. We can preach all we want about how we can make the world better through tolerance and egalitarianism, but it will only be met with aggression.

People naturally want to find the easiest way to do things, to understand what’s happening and how to make decisions. Beliefs, stereotypes, and attitudes—including those relating to inequality—allow people to simply and quickly form perceptions and make judgements about others, as well as maintain good perceptions of themselves and the group they are part of. It isn’t easy to force people to turn away from simple decision-making approaches, including prejudices. It’s a process of give and take. We have to create an environment that encourages the formation of new views which, over time, can become new ‘quick’ approaches to thinking about others. However, this process takes a long time. I think that providing people with information is an effective way to tackle inequality in society. But it is important to remember that change doesn’t come quickly.

Author: Marina Selina, October 11, 2021