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Rethinking Inequality

Dec 12 / 19

The Role of Identity, Narratives, Recognition, and Judgements


Executive Summary

One of the most pressing issues in today’s liberal democracies is the persistent, and in many cases deepening, social inequality that is contributing to increasingly stark political polarization. Many in government, academia and civil society organizations are eager to identify and combat the factors that are producing and reproducing such inequality. The role of identity and narratives in either reinforcing or disrupting this process is an area of active inquiry and engagement.

On October 8, 2019, CIFAR, in partnership with the Ford Foundation, convened a roundtable that brought together Fellows from CIFAR’s Successful Societies research program, whose disciplinary expertise encompasses sociology, political science and social psychology, along with leading change makers from influential foundations, community and social movement organizations, and think tanks across Canada and the US. Through brief talks and facilitated discussion, researchers and practitioners learned from each other about different approaches to examining and addressing social inequality, and explored ways to turn these insights into action by informing both a future research agenda and the on-the-ground work to bring about social change.

Key Insights from Research and Practice in Social Change

  • Despite rising inequality in income and wealth in many societies, there has not been an overwhelming outcry for more economic redistribution. This may be due to a number of factors, including “status quo bias” (the belief that what is, is the natural state of affairs), a belief that meritocracy and social mobility exist in society (so people are already “getting what they deserve”), a lack of trust in the government’s ability to manage redistribution, and a belief that those who would benefit from redistribution are not “one of us” and thus are not deserving of assistance. In particular, as income inequality rises, motivation for prejudice (to see have-nots as undeserving) grows, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to tackle.
  • One possible approach to reducing inequality is by addressing the issue of pay dispersion (the pay gap between top executives and regular employees) at the workplace — a form of “predistribution” (reducing inequality at the source). The workplace may prove to be an ideal site for such an approach, as it is a place where people from different demographic groups interact closely, are interdependent, and often build friendship and trust in the course of working together. It may also present an opportunity to subvert the meritocracy narrative: while those who believe meritocracy exists may believe that pay dispersion is right, there is evidence that those who desire a truly merit-based system are opposed to pay dispersion. A similar approach could possibly be more broadly applied to other institutional settings where people come together daily, such as university dormitories.
  • There is evidence that when employees perceive more inequality, they experience negative effects on their mental and psychological health, and the workplace sees a breakdown in social relations, more conflicts and less cooperation, whereas higher equality levels lead to higher cohesiveness in the organization.
  • In the United States, since 2016 there has been a noticeable shift in the political mainstream towards conversations about income inequality, and possible policy solutions (in terms of taxation, market structure, or even industrial policy) that have a certain degree of bipartisan support. However, there is also a significant segment of the population that takes a progressive stance on economic issues but a conservative one on questions of culture and identity (such as immigration). This has the potential to give rise to a redistributive but nationalist political agenda.
  • There is a lack of effective models for building solidarity among different segments of society: “shared history” is often not shared by all (especially marginalized) communities, and “getting to know a friend” from different demographic groups does not always lead to reduced prejudice. New narratives and metaphors are needed, e.g., by reclaiming “identities” (be it family, religion, or “the nation”) from nationalists and nativists and promoting the idea of inclusive (rather than exclusive) national solidarity and belonging. The nurturing of dual or multiple identities (subnational, national, supranational) has seen some success in places such as the European Union.
  • While stories are able to elicit empathy and galvanize action in ways that data cannot, they often do not have the intended effects. Research has identified a number of possible reasons. We tend to “blame the victim” in a story, attributing their fate to their individual actions, especially if they are part of a powerless group in which case they would be seen as representative of their group (whereas a powerful person would often be seen as a singular “bad apple”). Additionally, the more detail we are given about a story’s character, the less empathy we tend to show. And we often consider stories about how the powerless are taking advantage of the system, especially when they are vivid, to indicate that the problems are more prevalent than they actually are. At the same time, studies show that people who are more absorbed by a story are more likely to be persuaded and less likely to spot false notes. The same stories may also elicit different responses from different audiences depending on their background or what information they have been primed with.
  • While there is a tendency in the current political moment to value “authenticity”, not everyone is a good storyteller, and being able to tell stories well takes training. A focus on storytelling may also risk exacerbating existing social inequities. The ability to tell good stories is not equitably distributed in the population, and the stories that one is able to tell are also shaped and limited by their inequitable life experiences and history.
  • There are different levels of political rhetoric that work differently as sites or tools of social change. For example, calls-to-action and personal stories may fit within broader societal narratives (such as racism or neoliberal economics), which in turn reflect broader worldviews or sets of values. Importantly, more than just being useful skills that are added on to improve social change campaigns, narratives and similar tools should be at the core of campaign strategies to align actors around specific goals or values.

Priorities and Next Steps

  • To help understand the factors that create and perpetuate inequality, there is value in doing more comparisons across countries (e.g., between the United States and Canada) and in looking at non-Western or Indigenous social/economic models. In particular, perspectives from the developing world, where much innovation in democracy is happening, can be instructive.
  • To advance both the research on narrative social change and its applicability outside of research settings, academic researchers need to engage more with social change organizers, especially those bringing in lived experience and perspectives from marginalized communities, who do not always share the same terminologies and idioms as academics, and who may have a better understanding of how social or structural changes happen on the ground.
  • The role of narratives has been studied by many disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology, the humanities, marketing), but there is often little communication or common definitions across disciplines. Research on narratives can benefit from establishing multidisciplinary teams to pursue such work from different angles and levels.
  • Nonprofit foundations, philanthropies and government funders can play important roles in advancing the infrastructure for narrative-driven social change by investing in convening and in building collaborative spaces; training researchers and staff, especially those who can translate between different communities and disciplines; and developing tools and technology for communication, implementation and evaluation.
  • Upcoming election campaigns, including efforts to enfranchise communities that have lost their right to vote, can be good opportunities to invest in the research and implementation of narrative change, and to experiment with different strategies or practices.

Roundtable Participants

  • Jason Bates, Vice President, Grants and Community Initiatives, Calgary Foundation
  • Xav de Souza Briggs, Senior Advisor, Ford Foundation
  • Sheldon Danziger, President, Russell Sage Foundation
  • Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Executive Director, Pop Culture Collaborative
  • Rebecca Finlay, Vice-President, Engagement and Public Policy, CIFAR
  • Alvin Herring, Executive Director, Faith in Action
  • Alan Jenkins, Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School
  • Jee Kim, Executive Director, Narrative Initiative
  • Michèle Lamont, Professor, Harvard University / Co-director, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • Hazel Markus, Professor, Stanford University / Advisor, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • Ami McReynolds, Chief Equity and Programs Officer, Feeding America
  • Dara Parker, Vice President, Grants and Community Initiatives, Vancouver Foundation
  • Hillary Pennington, Executive Vice President for Program, Ford Foundation
  • Francesca Polletta, Professor, UC Irvine / Fellow, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • john a. powell, Professor and Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, UC Berkeley
  • Sanjiv Rao, Director, Civic Engagement and Government, Ford Foundation
  • Vijayendra Rao, Lead Economist, World Bank / Advisor, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • Ryan Rippel, Director, US Economic Mobility and Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Prerna Singh, Associate Professor, Brown University / Fellow, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • Leanne Son Hing, Associate Professor, University of Guelph / Fellow, Successful Societies program, CIFAR
  • Dorian Warren, President, Community Change
  • Felicia Wong, President and CEO, Roosevelt Institute

Further Reading

CIFAR resources:

Perceptions of Deservingness & Persistent Social Inequalities (event brief)

Theorizing the Power of Citizenship as Claims-making (research brief)

2018 David Dodge Lecture: Boundaries of Inclusion (event brief)

New Models for Thriving (event brief)

Other resources:

Inequality as a Multidimensional Process (special issue of Daedalus collecting insights from across the Successful Societies program)

Policy and Race Through a Belongingness Lens, by john a. powell

2018 Inclusiveness Index Report, by the Haas Institute

Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, by More in Common

Why Stories?, by Working Narratives

Tell Better Stories, by the Narrative Project

The Trouble with Stories, by Francesca Polletta

Changing Our Narrative About Narrative, by the Haas Institute


For more information, contact

Amy Cook, Senior Director, Knowledge Mobilization, CIFAR

Xav Briggs, Senior Advisor, Ford Foundation