Rational Inequality: Micro-Social Segregation and the Basis for Economic Opinions

We know that weak ties can have large effects. What we do not know is how the collection of every day interactions shapes attitudes or the perception of the economic world. Polls and opinion surveys routinely ask Americans to express an opinion on the state of the union and their economic priorities. In particular, Americans are called upon to rule on the health (or lack thereof) of the national economy and express preferences for different income distributions. Together, these economic evaluations seem, at first glance, to be the product of simple objective judgments. However, such a model assumes that all respondents are passing judgment on an objectively identical economic landscape. When asked for economic opinions, survey participants first form or retrieve perceptions of the economy, and then apply evaluations to those perceptions. Through their knowledge of the economic world, people transform their social class into economic decisions and attitudes. This conceptualization of the role of economic perception demands separate study of two linkages: first, the way that economic position translates into subjective knowledge; and second, the translation of subjective knowledge into opinion and behavior. Attitudes towards welfare, support for redistribution, and even ostensibly objective evaluations such as the health of the economy, are processed though personal filters that can be influenced by the likelihood that we interact with someone who is struggling financially or works at the minimum wage. This project seeks to understand the influence of class segregation in micro-social exchanges and the impact of exchange on ‘objective’ economic knowledge and, by extension, economic attitudes and behaviors.