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Status Conflict: When and How People Contest The Ordering Versus Bases of Unequal Social Hierarchies
Despite the growing attention placed on redressing group inequality in the US, the divide between have and have-nots have only widened. One of the drivers of the durability of inequality is that status characteristics (i.e., the association between objective group differences and status) privilege dominant group members and are sticky. In this paper, we examine how people may contest unfair social hierarchies by building on cultural schema theory that posits that status characteristics persist because people uphold a set of shared status beliefs about a certain trait that serve as basis of worth in a hierarchy and about social differences which indicate greater or lesser worthiness within that hierarchy. Specifically, we theorize that people can contest unjust hierarchies by adopting these two distinct pathways: challenge either the hierarchy order (claiming the relative position of the groups is incorrect) or challenge the hierarchy bases (entire basis of worth is illegitimate) itself. In an exploratory study, we asked participants whether they were more likely to challenge bases versus order of status hierarchies across various domains. We find that people always prefer challenging the order, and that people’s preferences for challenging bases versus order varies across issue domains (Study 1). Next, in an experiment (Study 2), we provide causal evidence that people are more willing to challenge hierarchy order, and think others (second-order beliefs) and general society (third order beliefs) are more likely to support challenging the hierarchy order. Finally, we also demonstrate downstream consequences of greater support for challenging order: greater support for hierarchy order impacts participants’ willingness to engage in collective action to address the inequality (Study 3). Overall, we disentangle two distinct strategies people use to contest inequality, extending our understanding of the microfoundations of inequality and collective action.