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Stigmatization, neoliberalism and resilience

by CIFAR Jun 3 / 13

Social scientists are digging deep to understand how 30-years of pro-market policies around the world have changed economic outcomes as well as our values and behaviours.

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Group of people walking.
Credit: istockphoto


The era, defined as neoliberal, is characterized by a dominant belief in free market capitalism, competition, privatization with limited regulation and meritocracy, where wealth is allocated according to who performs best. The era, according to social scientists, influences more than just our economic behaviour; it also influences our politics, culture and sense of self.

As part of her contribution to a ten-year exploration of neoliberalism through the CIFAR program in Successful Societies, Senior Fellow Leanne Son Hing (University of Guelph) provides a social and organizational psychology perspective on this era, focusing on how discrimination fares under this prevailing ideology. Through a review of research literature and her own empirical studies, Son Hing asks: is discrimination more or less prevalent and how resilient are individuals and groups who face discrimination? Her work, which forms the chapter, “Stigmatization, Neoliberalism, and Resilience”, in the forthcoming book, Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era, uncovers a number of surprising findings.

Son Hing investigates the expected view that meritocracy of neoliberalism, should lead to less discrimination because the system, in theory, should uphold “unrestricted competition,” which would allow for equal opportunity and social mobility. Instead, Son Hing provides evidence that characteristics of the era – such as greater competition over resources, rising inequality and more uncertainty about the future– leads to psychological feelings of threat and protective values and beliefs, like prejudice.

Son Hing shows through empirical research a high correlation between those who hold neoliberal values (i.e. favouring the status quo) and those who believe people of different backgrounds (out-groups) are less deserving. According to Son Hing, although explicit discrimination may be on the decline, studies of hiring practice and work performance evaluations provide evidence of “modern racism”, or implicit discrimination. Son Hing concludes that “neoliberal values have, for some individuals, provided narratives to articulate their racial prejudice in less blatant ways.”

Further, she found that when people subscribe to neoliberal values and are victims of discrimination they are more likely to suffer from the lack of fairness.

“If you think the system is fair and a perfect meritocracy, then it is hard to say you have been discriminated against. You are left seeing yourself to blame for coming up short to societal ideals of how to make it,” she said.

Conversely, Son Hing also found evidence that there was only a weak correlation between experiencing discrimination and a decline in well-being.

“This is because people can be resilient,” says Son Hing. “Not everyone will respond negatively to being discriminated against. For example, people are able to cope better with a specific instance of discrimination if they have good social support, if they have a strong and positive sense of identification with their in-group, and if they see that in general discrimination is not tolerated.”

Though more work is still needed, what is clear from the research that the rise of neoliberalism has not effaced prejudice, even though explicit instances of prejudice are on the decline thanks to civil and human rights movements.

“The key lesson,” says Son Hing, “is that our social and cultural contexts act as important psychological buffers. Neoliberal ideas are not irrelevant to the likelihood that someone will discriminate, but there are many other elements in the wider cultural environment that contribute to resilience.” She adds, that for a neoliberal society to be truly effective and fair, we have to work harder at “identifying the biases that exist against stigmatized group members when assessing the merit of individuals.”