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Disadvantaged people may support social hierarchies, inequality to benefit their group

In sum, when social competition is favored, low-status group members may intend to establish and maintain hierarchically structured intergroup relations not only because it serves a palliative function for them, but also because they believe it is possible for their group to achieve a higher status in the existing status hierarchy.

Photo by Brian Kyed from Unsplash.com

There is a theoretical assumption that members of low-status groups support hierarchical social systems because they feel negatively about their group membership or because it may help them to deal and cope with their disadvantaged position. This is, basically, where the idea of “social climbing” is anchored.

But a newer study is contesting this, claiming that as long as status positions between social groups are perceived as unstable and thus, reversible, people who identified with a lower social-status group may support hierarchical relations and inequality between groups as a long-term strategy to engage in collective actions to eventually take over the position, power and resources of the current domineering party.

This is according to a study – “Support for Group-Based Inequality Among Members of Low-Status Groups as an Ingroup Status-Enhancement Strategy” by Catarina L. Carvalho, I.R. Pinto, R. Costa-Lopes, D. Paéz, and J.M. Marques – published in Social Psychological Bulletin.

All in all, “people in lower status groups may engage in actions to achieve a more advantageous position in the status hierarchy motivated by different concerns,” stated the researchers.

On one hand, such efforts could be aimed at promoting equality between all social groups, for example the civil rights movements.

But on the other hand, they may feel motivated to compete with another relevant group with higher status in an attempt to claim more power and resources for their group, to the detriment of the opposition. This is the case in sports, university rankings and political elections.

“Yet, while the former strategy seeks to close the gaps between the parties, the latter effectively legitimates the existing hierarchical social system and status differentials between groups,” the researchers added.

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In sum, when social competition is favored, low-status group members may intend to establish and maintain hierarchically structured intergroup relations not only because it serves a palliative function for them, but also because they believe it is possible for their group to achieve a higher status in the existing status hierarchy, explain the authors of the study. 

However, advances in the status hierarchy and improvement in group status will only be possible if the hierarchical system remains (i.e. maintenance of groups status differentials where one group has more power and prestige than the others) but with an unstable character.

“Indeed… endorsement among low-status group members can represent an ideological strategy to maintain the existing hierarchical social system to guarantee a legitimate future advancement of the ingroup within the prevailing status hierarchy, offering a new perspective on why members of low-status group endorse hierarchy-enhancing ideologies,” Carvalho stated.

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