All social inequalities, by definition, involve one group that has more and another that has less, but do people tend to describe inequalities in terms of advantage or disadvantage? 

Using multiple methods and research contexts, new research finds that journalists and laypersons frequently describe racial and gender inequalities in terms of ethnic minority and female disadvantage, respectively, as opposed to white and male advantage. 

However, wealth inequality is more often described in terms of the advantages enjoyed by the rich than the disadvantages faced by the poor. These differences are related to the perceived legitimacy of the area of inequality, explains W&M Associate Professor of Government A. Maurits van der Veen, a co-author of the study. The more illegitimate the public perceives the inequality to be, the stronger the difference in how the inequality is described.

The findings, by researchers at William & Mary, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the University of Texas at Dallas and Middlebury College, were recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

“Social inequalities are rife in society, and awareness of such inequalities and their impact has been growing,” van der Veen said. “We know from previous studies that how social inequality is described — as advantage or disadvantage — critically shapes individuals’ responses to it. Our research shows that race and gender inequality are disproportionately described in terms of disadvantages experienced by ethnic minorities and women, rather than in terms of the advantages enjoyed by white people and men, respectively. This uneven focus risks obscuring the fact that inequality is always relative, and that addressing it requires looking at both sides.” 

In this study, researchers investigated how different forms of inequality—race, gender, and wealth—are depicted in two contexts: reporting in popular media and individuals’ descriptions of inequality. They observed these differences in four studies:

  • Study 1, which was led by van der Veen, examined more than 18,000 newspaper articles about inequality published between 2000 and 2019, looking at the most prominent words on topics relating to racial, gender and wealth inequalities.
  • Study 2 hand-coded more than 750 mainstream media publications that report on racial, gender, and wealth inequality published by eight news media outlets between 2014 and 2018 to determine the number of times the outlet used the advantage, disadvantage or no frame to describe race, gender and wealth inequality.
  • Study 3 surveyed nearly 600 people, asking them to describe racial, gender or wealth inequality and counting how frequently respondents used an advantage, disadvantage or no frame. The authors also measured participants’ views on the fairness or unfairness of these types of inequality.
  • Conducted on a separate set of 593 participants, Study 4 examined the causal relationship between perceived legitimacy of inequality and individuals’ use of frames. 

Across the four studies, race and gender inequalities were more likely to be framed as subordinate groups’ disadvantages than as dominant groups’ advantages, and wealth inequality was more likely to be described with no frame and the advantage frame than with the disadvantage frame. These differences in framing were related to the perceived legitimacy of the inequality, with race and gender inequality perceived as less legitimate than wealth inequality, the researchers found. 

“Our findings illustrate how the mainstream media’s chronic framing of social inequality may inadvertently perpetuate cultural models of social inequity for the public,” said Sora Jun, assistant professor of Organizations, Strategy, and International Management at the University of Texas at Dallas, who co-authored the study. 

Chronic use of the disadvantage frame when describing race and gender inequalities likely reinforces the perception that these inequalities are driven more by processes of discrimination, hate, denigration, and animus toward racial-minority individuals and women than by processes of advantage, privilege, favoritism, and help toward white people and men, Jun said. 

In contrast, the comparatively more prevalent use of the advantage frame to describe wealth inequality likely fosters the perception that this type of inequality is driven more by processes that boost wealthy individuals than by processes that block the advancement of those with fewer resources, Jun added. 

“Our research illustrates the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration, combining insights and approaches from organizational behavior, psychology and political science,” added van der Veen. “I feel fortunate to have been a part of this exciting project.” 

This release was published in partnership with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.

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