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The research catalogue is an archive of ESRC-funded grants and outputs. Links, files and other content will no longer be maintained or updated after April 2014.

Income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes

Grant reference: RES-062-23-1671

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Impact Report details

RES-062-23-1671 - Income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes
This is the impact report for the project on 'income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes' which analysed data from the British Social Attitudes Survey 2009

Primary contributor

Author Karen Rowlingson

Additional contributors

Co-author Michael Orton
Contributor Miranda Phillips


This project has made an important contribution to knowledge about public attitudes to inequality. It has also produced data on this topic which is archived and so accessible to other researchers who wish to extend this knowledge still further. More information on this is contained in the End of Award report. The British Social Attitudes Survey is a long-standing source of information on public attitudes to inequality. Our research paid for some existing questions to be placed on the BSA to look at trends in attitudes but it also paid for the development of new questions to explore new areas of interest. Our contribution has therefore been in three domains: contribution to knowledge about trends in attitudes; contribution to understanding the apparent contradiction between high levels of concern about income inequality but apparently low levels of support for redistribution; and attitudes to issues which have not so far been explored, such as attitudes to those on high incomes, attitudes to policy responses to inequality and further exploration of the nature of attitudes to inequality. The research is particularly timely given the current economic situation and resulting cuts in public expenditure. We have been able to contribute knowledge about how public attitudes may have changed during this time. Our findings suggest that the British public will be concerned about any future rises in income inequality which look set to occur following on from spending cuts.

This study found that the majority of the British public are still concerned about income inequality. The majority also believe the government should act to reduce income inequality but only 36% say that government should redistribute income from the better off to the less well off. The research set out to explore why people generally do not support policies to directly reduce inequality. We found that self-interest played a part here but also people's underlying beliefs and values. We also found that people did not like the term redistribution when used explicitly but supported redistribution in practice. However, they were more supportive of policies around equal opportunities than equal outcomes. In line with the original proposal, and the relatively small size of the grant, the main output from the research was a book chapter in the BSA survey report: Rowlingson, K, Orton, M and Taylor, E (2010) 'Do we still care about inequality?' in Park, A, Curtice, J, Clery, E and Bryson, D (eds), British Social Attitudes: the 27th report: exploring Labour's legacy, London: Sage. We also produced a four-page summary which can be downloaded here: There are a number of conference and seminar papers which are also mentioned on the ESRC system, eg presentations at the Social Policy Association conference in Lincoln and at departmental seminars in Oxford and Edinburgh universities. The presentation in Birmingham at the British Sociological Association’s study group seminar is also mentioned below as an economic and social impact because the audience was a mix of academic and general public. Some of these were recorded and so can be viewed. Others are available as conference papers. The data itself is also an output.

These impacts were achieved through routine academic processes of carrying out, writing up, and presenting the research. The BSA report is extremely well regarded and well known to academics. It is therefore likely to have reached a wide academic audience. Presentation at the SPA conference and BSA study group also reaches our key target audience of social policy and sociology academics. Our four-page summary is very useful to reach people who would not necessarily have the time/money to access the chapter, which was only available through buying the BSA report. Subsequent BSA reports are now available online without charge. Access to the BSA data is extremely easy, either through the Essex data archive or Natcen’s britsocat which allows users to analyse the data very easily.

As this is scientific impact, the key impact is on academic colleagues, mainly in social policy and sociology. We achieved this through targeting key conferences/seminars. The publicity around the BSA report (see below) would also have helped reach these audiences. The research was featured on a blog by Ben Baumberg at the LSE which would also extend the reach of the impact.

The main economic and societal impact is on public debate. As detailed in the End of Award report, our chapter in the BSA report gained widespread media coverage and we have presented at a number of public events since then to further debate. We continue to do this as the topic has enduring public interest with the cuts in welfare spending in particular.

Findings from the research were presented in Oct 2009, at Chequers, to around 50 people - Ministers, academics and 'opinion formers' including Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, John Denham, Andrew Adonis, Harriet Harman etc. Title: 'What's fair? The public's view'. There was then huge media attention in December 2010 with claims that the research signalled a return to Thatcherism in terms of people’s values. The Guardian said ‘Britain 'more Thatcherite now than in the 80s' says survey’: The Daily Mail opined: 'After 13 years of Labour, public mood shifts right as most voters back Thatcherite values'. Stewart Lansley, Guardian journalist, wrote a response, drawn almost entirely on our data, to argue that any shift rightwards had been exaggerated in these reports. The research was also presented at a number of general public events: the Discourses of Dissent event organised by the BSA’s Theory study group in Feb 2011. Presentation was entitled:' Why doesn’t the British public seem to care about inequality or the cuts in public spending?': Presentation also at TUC conference fringe event on 'What is fair pay and how to achieve it?' organised by Unions 21 in Oct 2010: In Feb 2011, seminar to the Birmingham Fabian Society: 'is there an alternative to the spending cuts and would the public support it if there is?' Most recently, a presentation at Equality West Midlands in Birmingham in October 2012. Finally, Karen has been asked to present at a forthcoming workshop on ' a sense of inequality' at CRESC (Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change' in December 2012. The title will be '(Why) have attitudes to inequality hardened?'. In line with our proposal, we produced a comprehensive website with links to presentations and findings. See:

These impacts were achieved through a range of mechanisms not least a press release of the BSA report by Natcen and their extensive links with the media. We also carried out interviews with print and radio journalists and we gave a number of public presentations as outlined above. Our website and accessible four-page summary were also useful mechanisms to achieve impact and reach a wide audience.

Mainly the public through the media coverage, the Discourses of Dissent event, the Birmingham Fabian Society event, the Equality West Midlands event and the TUC fringe event. The event at Chequers, and subsequent publicity, will also have had an impact on policy-makers at the heart of the Labour government of the time.

We will continue to talk about the research when invited to events of all kinds, academic and public, bringing in new data from the British Social Attitudes Survey to update the findings and develop new explanations for public attitudes.


Cite this outcome


Rowlingson, Karen et al. Income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes: ESRC Impact Report, RES-062-23-1671. Swindon: ESRC


Rowlingson Karen et al. Income inequality: making sense of British social attitudes: ESRC Impact Report, RES-062-23-1671. Swindon: ESRC.