As people climb the economic ladder, their political leanings stay the same

February 2, 2021

Better economic class doesn't necessarily change social views. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Different social classes are often split on a range of economic and political issues, and new research finds that improved socioeconomic status doesn’t change individuals’ social views and only modestly alters their opinions on economic redistribution — a result that suggests that such divisions are rooted in deeper social forces and could be exploited by politicians.

According to a paper published Jan. 22 in the British Journal of Political Science, moving from a job associated with a lower class into a role linked to a higher class results in only small increases to an individual’s economic conservatism, and doesn’t impact views on party choice, class identity and a range of non-economic issues at all.

The findings may mean people’s political views aren’t straightforwardly linked to their class positions at a given point, but instead are shaped to a large degree by experiences they had early in life or the way they were socialized over long stretches of time.

“Our results suggest that the observed association between class and a range of identities, opinions and preferences at a given point in time is more likely to be caused by early life experiences and longer-term socialization than by the immediate material interests associated with jobs,” co-authors Peter Egge Langsæther of the University of Oslo, Geoffrey Evans of the University of Oxford and Tom O’Grady of University College London wrote.

“They thus challenge the conventional wisdom that such preferences are primarily driven by economic self-interests,” they continued.

To investigate the relationship between class and political preferences, the researchers used data collected between 1991 and 2007 from the British Household Panel Study, which measured individuals’ political preferences and social identities alongside their class positions.

Respondents’ class positions were measured according to the kind of jobs they had, which were themselves coded into one of four class categories. “Working class” respondents held unskilled or skilled manual jobs or unskilled non-manual roles, while people in the “routine non-manual” class worked in clerical jobs and other positions that weren’t managerial and didn’t require manual labor. “Lower service” workers included people with jobs as supervisors, administrators and other mid-level management positions, while those in the “higher service” class worked in skilled professional and management roles.

Langsæther, Evans and O’Grady focused on individuals who had experienced class mobility by moving from a job in one category to a job in another, noting that rises in the professional ranks were more common than downward slides. 

They developed regression analyses designed to uncover the effects class mobility had on five outcome variables. One was a standard index of right-left economic values, ranging from one to five, with higher values indicating increased rightward leaning. The next two variables — designed to test for shifts in social attitudes — included 5-point scales measuring respondents’ opposition to homosexuality and support for “traditional” gender roles. 

They also included variables capturing “subjective” class identity — whether or not a person identified  as working class — and whether they supported the Conservative Party or a center-left party such as Labour.

Earlier research on this topic was based on cross-sectional data, measured at a single point in time. That meant it was less useful for determining whether a person’s class position was causally connected to their economic views, for instance, or whether other factors impacted the relationship between the two. By using panel data tracking individuals’ changing circumstances through time, Langsæther, Evans and O’Grady could offer deeper insight into how much class position impacted a person’s views.

While they didn’t find evidence that a downward move between the "routine non-manual" and "working" classes was linked with changed preferences, the researchers discovered that upward mobility from the routine non-manual class to either "service" class does lead to higher economic conservatism.

But that rightward shift on economic views was modest following “immediate intra-generational mobility,” accounting for less than 20% of the inter-class differences prior research has established. The result suggests economic conservatism isn't only a function of an individual's current class position, according to the researchers.

“It was actually a bit surprising,” Langsæther told The Academic Times. “There is an update of economic ideology, but it’s quite small and it’s not nearly big enough to account for the cross-sectional differences that we find.”

And despite large inter-class divisions on attitudes toward homosexuality and traditional gender roles, the researchers found that a shift in class didn’t cause people to update their views. 

While individuals who moved up in class did change their economic attitudes slightly, those from the "working" and "routine non-manual" classes — who research has shown are typically more likely to disapprove of same-sex attraction and to believe women should stay at home — didn’t revise their views even after climbing the professional ladder.

“Class mobility does not affect beliefs that are plausibly unconnected to economics,” researchers wrote — which could mean that while people’s economic views are conditioned to some extent by self-interest, other social attitudes are “stickier” through time.

Changes in a person’s objective class position also didn’t change that person’s subjective class identity, according to the researchers. The persistence of class identity across changes to one’s material circumstances may explain why people maintain the views broadly associated with one class even when they’ve risen to another.

“Whether [people] move up the ladder or down the ladder doesn’t really matter — they keep their class identities,” Langsæther said. “These identities are now sticky” to a significant extent. 

That may be because they feel solidarity with the class they were born into or were socialized by, he added, noting further research would be needed to firmly establish that explanation.

While their research didn’t find a link between moving up in class and shifting party support, Langsæther and his colleagues couldn’t rule out the possibility that a larger data set might show that upward mobility could cause an individual who had previously supported a left-leaning party to back a right-leaning one.

But a growing body of evidence shows that politicians can exploit class and a range of other social identities to form ties between those identities and a political party. The process generates pressures — called “cross-cutting cleavages” — that cut across demographic groups and can lead to large-scale partisan realignments, Langsæther noted.

“People are socially grounded” in their identities, he said, adding that these roots run deeper than immediate material self-interest. “That means that people can be mobilized on their social identities … and that creates all kinds of interesting political constellations.”

The article “Explaining the Relationship Between Class Position and Political Preferences: A Long-Term Panel Analysis of Intra-Generational Class Mobility,” published Jan. 22 in the British Journal of Political Science, was co-authored by assistant professor Peter Egge Langsæther, University of Oslo; professor Geoffrey Evans, Nuffield College, Oxford; and assistant professor Tom O’Grady, University College London.

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