Historical Social Research

Patrick Sachweh: Criticizing Inequality? How Ideals of Equality Do – and Do Not – Contribute to the De-Legitimation of Inequality in Contemporary Germany. [Abstract]

Social inequality in modern societies requires legitimation. Yet, while ideals of equality are ascribed a central role in philosophical and public debates about inequality and social justice, less is known about how ordinary people draw on principles of equality in criticizing and justifying social inequalities in the current era of a “crisis of equality.” From the perspective of the sociology of critique, this article asks how different social classes refer to beliefs about equality of outcomes and opportunity when criticizing and justifying inequality in contemporary Germany. Based on qualitative interviews with respondents from upper and lower social classes, I show that the ideal of equality is inherently ambivalent and contested: On the one hand, respondents across classes reject the idea of equalizing outcomes but criticize unequal opportunities. However, only upper-class respondents demand greater state intervention to bring about equality of opportunity, indicating that this ideal does not serve as a normative point of reference for the lower classes. At the same time, due to its individualist undertones, the ideal of equality of opportunity also contains a legitimizing potential. Paradoxically, then, ideals of equality appear to contribute little to the de-legitimation of inequality in contemporary Germany.

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