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Title:Crafting public perceptions of inequality: analysis of Korean beliefs about income inequality
Author(s):Choi, Jeong Won
Director of Research:McDermott, Monica
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Liao, Tim F.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):McDermott, Monica; Marshall, Anna-Maria; Abelmann, Nancy A.
Department / Program:Sociology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Distributive Justice
Public Perceptions of Inequality
Abstract:Opinion research in major capitalist democracies has identified one of the key elements of legitimacy of the capitalist economic order in public opinion: popular adherence to the norms and beliefs that justify economic inequality. Popular commitment to those norms and beliefs in a society, scholars have suggested, buttresses the legitimacy of capitalism in Western society. In Korea, however, such favorable norms and beliefs regarding inequality have never been popularly accredited; even when Korea was achieving a respectable capitalist growth with a relatively moderate level of income inequality, unfavorable perceptions and norms of inequality prevailed in public opinion. Given the manifest discrepancy between the general attitudes and beliefs about inequality in Western capitalist countries and those in Korea, this research examined the Korean public’s beliefs about economic inequality from both cross national and domestic perspectives, using data from the 1999 and 2003 ISSP surveys on Social Inequality. From a cross national comparison for which Korea was compared to nineteen OECD nations, the following features of the Korean public’s beliefs about inequality were diagnosed. First, popular beliefs about large income differences in Korea, as contrasted with varying income inequality indices of other OECD countries, were unduly inflated; second, Koreans’ perceived injustice of the income distribution in the society, as measured by the justice gap, was relatively high; and, third, Koreans’ tolerance for unequal, if not unjust, distribution was relatively weak, given the small difference in the justice gap between people who perceived income differences in their society as too large and those who did not. With the evidence of unfavorable public perceptions and norms of inequality in Korea, the two main theoretical frames of social justice study, the ideology thesis and the structural position thesis, were introduced to better understand Koreans’ unfavorable views of income inequality. The key premise of the ideology thesis is that the subjective perception of inequality may have less to do with objective social facts, but more with value systems or ideologies regarding social justice. In this regard, the two most germane distributive justice ideologies, egalitarian (the EDJI) and meritocratic (the MDJI) justice ideologies, were measured across countries. In terms of the strength of the EDJI, popular support for the EDJI was found much higher in Korea than in most other OECD countries. The homogeneity of the EDJI was also relatively high in Korea, indicating the presence of popular consensus on the legitimacy of the EDJI. Interestingly, only in Korea and Spain, the strength of the EDJI exceeded that of the MDJI, which defined the EDJI as the primary and the MDJI as the secondary distributive justice ideologies of Korea. Using a logistic regression, along with a few key socio-demographic factors and the justice gap, the ideological impact of the two distributive norms on Koreans’ perceptions of income inequality was analyzed. The influence of the EDJI was dominant. With all predictors in the model, the EDJI was most influential in crafting Koreans’ unfavorable perceptions of large income differences. Analysis also confirmed the impact of the perceived injustice on people’s tolerance of income inequality, where a high level of perceived injustice increased the odds of perceiving large income differences. The meaningful outcomes related to the EDJI and the justice gap, thus, supported the importance of justice value scheme, as proposed by the ideology thesis, in shaping people’s perceptions of inequality in Korea. In relation to the structural thesis, following its key premise that people’s self-interest calculation based on their socio-economic positions systematically distorts their perceptions of inequality in reality, the impact of people’s mobility experiences and their justness evaluation of them on perceptions of income inequality was analyzed. Analysis found that individual mobility experience, when operationalized in terms of direction, degree, and current social status, made a clear difference in people’s perceptions of income differences: the greater the degree of an upward mobility and the higher the self-identified current social status, the more tolerance of income inequality by conceiving of current income differences in the society as not conspicuous. Analysis also showed the relevance of justness evaluation of mobility experience at a personal level to perceptions of income inequality. For those whose justness evaluation of mobility experience was positively identified, i.e., getting over compensated for the achievement of mobility, income inequality was more tolerated as they conceived of current income differences in Korean society as not conspicuous. This finding, interestingly, revealed Koreans’ contradictory reward justice scheme and its application, to the extent that when the injustice of over-reward, as measured by the justice gap, occurred at a society level, people’s discontent facilitated a very unfavorable appraisal of income differences in the society, but when the same injustice of over-reward occurred to oneself, such injustice rather facilitated a very favorable appraisal of income differences in the society. The two contrasting outcomes of the justice evaluations, despite they all derive from the same reward justice scheme of the individual, exemplified how people’s self-interest calculations, as the structural position thesis argued, distorted perceptions of income inequality.
Issue Date:2013-05-24
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Jeong Won Choi
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-05-24
Date Deposited:2013-05

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