What do the rich think of the poor?

How do the upper and upper-middle classes living in wealthy neighborhoods see the poor and working classes? How do they explain the differences between themselves and the most destitute?

Do they perceive the latter as a danger, a social problem or an injustice to fix? To answer these questions, four sociologists, including CEE assistant professor Bruno Cousin, conducted in-depth interviews to compare three cities generally perceived as very different: Paris, São Paulo and Delhi. They presented their results in a book: Ce que les riches pensent des pauvres (What the rich think of the poor; Seuil, 2017). Interview with Bruno Cousin, originally published in Cogito N°4, Sciences Po's Research Newsletter.

Why is it important to know what the rich think of the poor?

To really understand inequalities and poverty one must also look at how they are perceived by the people who most benefit from the current state of distribution of diverse resources: the upper classes. They have a disproportionate influence in terms of individual and collective decisions – from ordinary choices on housing, school and employment issues to political positions – that contribute to the perpetuation or aggravation of inequalities, and to the generous or repressive character of antipoverty policies. The upper classes also play an important role in the dissemination of representations and of various types of arguments underlying the stigmatization of the poor. By more or less explicitly expressing judgments on what is morally respectable, culturally distinctive and economically valid with respect to the poor, they can either deepen and entrench social boundaries, or conversely erase or shift them.

Why did you study three cities as different as Paris, São Paulo and Delhi?

The three cities chosen for the study (we conducted 80 in-depth interviews in each of them among the upper and upper-middle classes living in the most exclusive neighborhoods) are the most important metropolises of three major democracies. Indeed, interviews on these subjects in a country with an authoritarian regime would have been more complicated (we would have faced more refusals to participate in the study and self-censorship). However, besides the commonalities, these are three very different countries in terms of welfare regime, level of inequality and recent evolution of the latter (see the World Inequality Report 2018). Therefore, any common points that might emerge from the comparison of these cases would most likely be generalizable.

The upper classes’ concern with preserving a certain “moral order” that is specific to them is visibly a structuring element in their relationships to the poor or the poorer than them…

What first emerges from the study is the fact that on a daily basis the upper and upper-middle classes’ main concern in terms of self-distinction and education strategies is not to set themselves apart from the poor. This is mainly because the latter distinction is most often taken for granted. In France’s case, most working class neighborhoods are far from the wealthy ones, meaning that interaction is pretty rare. Our respondents were more concerned with differentiating themselves from the upper-middle and middle classes closer to them, and in relation to whom they seek to assert their superior status and maintain their advantages. For reasons both identity-based and strategic in terms of social reproduction, they would like their children, for instance, to grow up in neighborhoods and attend schools that “are the right match”, and they define the social class with which they identify or to which they aspire and hold as a model in a very elitist and restrictive way. However, the rare occasions when this local moral order is effectively “threatened” by the prospect of intermixing with the working classes elicit the most peremptory and strong reactions. This was particularly the case with the plan to build a shelter in the 16th arrondissement of Paris and, in Delhi, with the idea to force  elite schools to integrate by taking in students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

These residents of wealthy neighborhoods then seek to avoid the poor and shield themselves from them. Why?

Besides the dynamics of affinity and homophily-based aggregation, respondents also mentioned reasons that were more explicitly driven by repulsion towards the poor. They seek to protect themselves from interactions with the working classes when they appear to threaten their lifestyle or, as is most often the case in the cities we studied, appear to jeopardize their physical or health safety. While each of three cities exhibits a stigmatization of the poor in terms of physical danger and hygiene violations, they did not do so to the same extent. Parisian respondents did not consider the poor to be as dangerous and filthy as respondents in São Paulo, where rates and levels of violence are admittedly particularly high, including from the police. Similarly, the representation of the poor as filthy, potentially sick and disorderly, and as marring the city, is more pronounced and recurrent in Delhi. The relationship to public spaces is also different in each of the three cities: affluent Parisians regularly visit and use them, but would like to see the bourgeoisie’s norms of politeness and urbanity imposed everywhere; wealthy Delhi residents take for granted that they can only frequent ones in a few carefully selected neighborhoods that they navigate according to a secure routine; meanwhile, their counterparts in São Paulo often see themselves  as besieged by a ubiquitous threat and keep to private spaces.

Do these representations undermine social solidarity?

One of the book’s chapters focuses on the way in which the residents of wealthy neighborhoods explain poverty and come up with “solutions” to it. A rhetoric denouncing the inherited, and thus largely irremediable character of the poor’s predicament most often combines with arguments accusing the latter of failing to remedy their situation themselves… This articulation between the naturalization of poverty and blaming of the poor can translate into portraying the poor’s purported propensity for sloth as a hereditary streak that they are also guilty of failing to resist. In Paris, where the vast majority of respondents spontaneously mention the social determinants of poverty and consider it obvious that children do not all have the same opportunities and chances to succeed, they nevertheless assert that adults who remain poor lack the willpower to overcome their condition. Thus, the interviews display criticisms of the welfare state that are characteristic of the reactionary rhetoric. For the respondents, assistance for the poor often: is futile because it has no real effect on the issue it seeks to resolve;  is perverse because it is a disincentive for individuals effort; and/or is detrimental to balancing public finances, and therefore might jeopardize the State itself… So yes, definitely: none of this is conducive to solidarity.

Bruno Cousin, assistant professor at Sciences Po’s Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics, is a sociologist. His research focuses on class relations and inequalities, urban segregation, forms of sociability and elite legitimation processes.

More information

  • This article was originally published in the 4th issue of Cogito, the Sciences Po Research Newsletter, focus on Education & Inequalities.
Décès de Pierre Hassner, un des plus éminents professeurs de Sciences Po

Décès de Pierre Hassner, un des plus éminents professeurs de Sciences Po

Spécialiste éminent des relations internationales, Pierre Hassner fut un théoricien, philosophe de la politique et observateur subtil de la scène mondiale. Européen de l’Est exilé à l’Ouest, roumain de naissance et français d’adoption, juif éduqué catholique mais profondément laïc, Européen ami des Américains, il fut « homme de paradoxes ou homme des passages » dont la vie et le parcours reflètent les contradictions du monde de l’après-guerre. Il est décédé ce samedi 26 mai, à l’âge de 85 ans.

Lire la suite
L’occupation de Sciences Po

L’occupation de Sciences Po

En mai et juin, Sciences Po dévoile des documents inédits sur les événements de mai 68 survenus dans ses murs. Photos, témoignages, archives… L’ambition de cette série d’articles est de redonner la parole aux acteurs, de saisir l’événement sur le vif et de comprendre la parole de 68 autant que son contenu. Deuxième épisode de “Ça s’est passé…” : le 14 mai 1968, certains étudiants de Sciences Po décident d’occuper leur école et la rebaptisent “Institut Lénine”.

Lire la suite
Sciences Po, université la plus internationale de France

Sciences Po, université la plus internationale de France

Sciences Po à la 17e place mondiale et à la première place en France pour sa part d’étudiants internationaux, c’est le résultat du classement “International Student Table” 2018 de Times Higher Education qui vient distinguer les 200 universités les plus internationales dans le monde.

Lire la suite
La bataille des examens

La bataille des examens

En mai et juin, Sciences Po dévoile des documents inédits sur les événements de mai 68 survenus dans ses murs. Photos, témoignages, archives… L’ambition de cette série d’articles est de redonner la parole aux acteurs, de saisir l’événement sur le vif et de comprendre la parole de 68 autant que son contenu. Premier épisode : 11 mai 1968, les étudiants de Sciences Po entrent dans le mouvement en refusant de passer les épreuves de langue du diplôme.

Lire la suite
Qui est satisfait d’Emmanuel Macron ?

Qui est satisfait d’Emmanuel Macron ?

Par Luc Rouban (Cevipof). L’élection présidentielle de 2017 a provoqué un choc important dans le paysage politique français, du moins sur l’organisation de l’offre partisane et sur le positionnement stratégique du PS comme des Républicains ou même du FN. Son impact auprès des électeurs est plus difficile à évaluer car plusieurs registres se superposent et brouillent la perception que l’on peut avoir des changements en cours.

Lire la suite
Grandir dans un bidonville

Grandir dans un bidonville

Que deviennent les enfants qui ont grandi dans l’un des bidonvilles français d’après-guerre ? Sociologue de terrain, Margot Delon a consacré sa thèse à cette question en retraçant les trajectoires d’enfants de bidonvilles et de cités de transit à Nanterre et à Champigny-sur-Marne. Croisant entretiens et observations ethnographiques avec l’analyse de bases statistiques, de fonds d’archives et de blogs sur la mémoire de ces vécus, sa thèse a été couronnée par le Prix de la recherche Caritas - Institut de France.

Lire la suite
Réussissez le Bac avec Sciences Po !

Réussissez le Bac avec Sciences Po !

Vous révisez le Bac ? Sciences Po vous accompagne dans la dernière ligne droite avec “Sciences Po passe le Bac”. Des tutoriels en vidéo dans lesquels les profs de Sciences Po planchent sur un sujet et donnent leurs conseils pour le traiter. Quel plan ? Quelles notions-clés ? Que faire des documents ? Quel piège à éviter ? De quoi se préparer à l’épreuve avec méthode, précision, et clarté.

Lire la suite
Ça s'est passé en 68 à Sciences Po

Ça s'est passé en 68 à Sciences Po

Tout au long des mois de mai et juin, Sciences Po dévoile des documents inédits sur les événements de mai 68 dans ses murs. Photos, témoignages vidéos, documents d’archives… L’ambition est de "donner à lire mai 68 par quelques-unes de ses archives, de ces “traces écrites”"*. – de revenir aux sources, de redonner la parole aux acteurs, de saisir l’événement sur le vif et dans sa contemporanéité. La mise à disposition de ces témoignages donne ainsi à voir la rhétorique et le style, les mots, les sigles et les slogans, le graphisme et la typographie de la parole de 68 autant que son contenu, permet d’en restituer la fraîcheur et le sérieux, la familiarité et l’étrangeté, les clichés et l’inédit, voire la "beauté".

Lire la suite
Junior Consulting, l’asso qui fait carrière

Junior Consulting, l’asso qui fait carrière

Fondée en 1980, l’association Junior Consulting de Sciences Po est une des premières junior entreprises créées en France. Véritable cabinet de conseil étudiant, Junior Consulting propose aux étudiants des missions dans les conditions du réel. Ou comment acquérir de l’expérience tout en arrondissant ses fins de mois. Rencontre avec les étudiants-consultats de l’association.

Lire la suite