economic inequality and attitudes toward homosexuality

Attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing dramatically in recent years. Unlike many other social issues, in which people make a decision about them at one point in young adulthood and then stick with that decision for the rest of their lives, this has been an issue on which even older people have changed their minds. Earlier this summer, I mentioned an article* that a colleague, Bob Andersen (now at University of Toronto), and I had published demonstrating that, in Canada and the United States, this unusual shift in attitudes had occurred. Still, many questions remain about the mechanisms that cause shifts in attitudes, especially one so sudden.

Can it be, as we speculate in this paper, that social policy differences between Canada and the United States are responsible for the differences in timing of the attitudinal shifts in these countries? Or is it larger economic forces that push both countries in the direction of greater tolerance as they become richer? This latter question we take up in a second article, just published in the American Journal of Political Science.*

One theory, the postmaterialist thesis, holds that as countries gain wealth, their citizens enter a postmaterialist state, in which they don’t need to worry much about putting food on the table, and they can turn their attention to other issues, such as women’s rights, human rights and other issues that promote greater tolerance overall. The evidence supporting this shows that cross-national comparisons show that countries with greater GDP also show more tolerant attitudinal scores on a wide range of social issues. In our article, we consider the role that inequality plays in this process.

We compare attitudes in 33 European democracies, plus the U.S. and Canada, and we have two main findings. The first is that that class does matter to attitudes toward homosexuality. Class matters, in that working-class people not only have lower levels of tolerance than professionals and managing classes, but they have very similar attitudes to other working-class people in other countries, regardless of GDP. Or, another way to say that is that the postmaterialist state of rich countries does not necessarily trickle down to working-class people, and neither do the tolerant attitudes that national wealth supposedly ushers in.

The second finding is that national economic inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, is a significant predictor of overall levels of attitudes toward homosexuality. In fact, the effect washes out the significance of GDP as a predictor of attitudes in our models. In other words, rich countries that have high inequality are less tolerant than less wealthy countries with lower inequality.

How does inequality disrupt the development of tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality, something seemingly so unrelated to the economy? One idea is that greater equality breeds greater general trust in fellow human beings. Under conditions of high inequality, this general trust dissolves and is replaced by a more specific trust in people we know and people who are “like” us. Specific trust is more of an “us vs. them” mentality, allowing for the scapegoating of marginalized groups, such as lesbian and gay people.

Although we didn’t speculate even further in the paper, I continue to wonder if the social policies that create greater inequality can be found to produce or reinforce negative attitudes toward homosexuality and toward other marginalized groups? I am not sure how one would embark on such a project, but I am curiouser and curiouser about the links between policy, inequality, and attitudes.

*Subscription required, but pdfs are also available on my website.

6 thoughts on “economic inequality and attitudes toward homosexuality”

  1. VERY interesting, Tina. I feel I owe a great deal of my knowledge of the current literature on these topics to your Scatterplot posts. I appreciate it, very much.

    A question: how is tolerance measured in the study? Today I taught the first of two Intro Sociology sessions on sex and gender and realized that the same students who had expressed physical disgust at the mention of homosexuality earlier in the term were eager to express tolerance in today’s discussion. If my perceptions are correct, they obtain two distinct points of view, depending on the frame in which they are asked.

    (Apologies if this feature of attitudes is well known–I ask as a humble Intro instructor, working outside their expertise.)


  2. This post, and your findings, remind me of Arlene Stein’s The Stranger Next Door. I had my students read it in a freshman seminar last year and they really seemed to get a lot out of it.

    I think you’ll be excited to hear that other people are fallowing this as well and I hopefully there will be an article in this vein appearing in AJS soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @2 Jessica: Wow–I’ll keep my eye out for the AJS article. I am very excited to read more. I love the Arlene Stein book, which I think is very clear in laying out a set of mechanisms through which class and economic distress produce negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. I even tried to reference it in the article, but it didn’t make it through to the final version.

    @1 Jenn: Thanks! The wording of attitude questions, as well as contextual things like what other questions are asked just before, has strong effects on how people answer. In our papers, we get around this problem because the question asked has the same wording regardless of what country is asked, or what point in time the survey is administered. So, even though the question* is not neutrally worded, and likely brings out more negative attitudes than a better question would, since we are using it in a comparative research design, the key is that it is consistently so for all cases.

    In the World Values Survey, homosexuality is one of a list of items under this question:

    *”Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justifiable, never be justifiable, or something in between, using this card.”

    Then, there is a 1-10 scale in which 1 is labeled “Never Justifiable” and 10 is labeled “Always Justifiable”


  4. Speaking of the ASR, I just got a table of contents for the current issue in my email inbox, and what do you know? It’s Jenn Lena, right there as the first author of the first article. I am looking forward to reading that, whenever it makes its way across the border.


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