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Perceived inequality and the strive for standardization

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Social scientists are increasingly interested in studying lay perceptions of inequality, that is, people’s beliefs about the extent of inequality in society. It is thought that subjective perception better explains the societal consequences of inequality than measurements of inequality which are objective but hardly accessible to the general public.

The empirical investigation of perceived inequality, however, has produced largely heterogeneous results, with no clear correlation identified between perceived inequality and social consequences such as demand for redistribution. To make progress, it is argued, the literature needs a clear conceptualization of perceived inequality and a standardized framework for measuring it.

I challenge this claim. This paper questions two assumptions underlying the standardized approach to measuring perceived inequality: first, that perceived inequality, when correct, should approximate measurements of actual inequality; and second, that perceptions can be studied independently of people’s normative views about inequality. By questioning these assumptions, I suggest that the notion of perceived inequality does not allow for broad standardizations.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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