6.6 Dealing with Disadvantage: Cooperation, Conflict and Resistance

Aim of the project

This project addresses the conditions under which disadvantaged or low status groups accept their disadvantage, whether and when they consider this legitimate, and when and why they resist or rebel. This has important consequences for sustainable cooperation and addresses question of whether acceptance of inequality, manifested as cooperation and lack of conflict, are always desirable, especially from a long-term or sustainable perspective. The research addresses key debates within Social Psychology between system justification theory (SJT: Jost, 2019; Jost & Banaji, 1994) and the social identity model of system attitudes (SIMSA: e.g., Owuamalam, Rubin & Spears, 2017, 2019), as also informed by the sister project in Philosophy. The research involves a combination of lab experiments and field studies address status-based disadvantage in terms of education.

Theoretical background

An unfair society can be stable because those who are discriminated or oppressed believe that this is how things should be. This has been the central premise of the system justification theory (SJT) approach developed by Jost and his collaborators and followers within social psychology. This theory proposes a system justification motive that is independent of individual and group level processes and that, uniquely for low status or disadvantaged groups, justifies their disadvantaged position because to acknowledge and accept this can be psychologically painful and threatening. Paradoxically some of the people most disadvantaged are thus most motivated to maintain the system and the status quo according to SJT. Jost has linked this in early statements of the theory to false consciousness (within Marxist political theory) and within social psychology to dissonance theory. However this approach has been challenged by researchers working within a social identity framework who dispute the existence of this independent system justification motive, and argue that effects of system justification (and related effects such as out-group bias or out-group favoritism) can be explain by a range of processes consistent with social identity theory. This has been developed into an alternative theoretical framework referred to as the social identity model of system attitudes (SIMSA: Owuamalam, et al., 2017; 2019). Research by Brandt and his collaborators, not explicitly identified with either theoretical camp also raises doubts about the SJT prediction that low status groups justify the system or favor out-groups (Brandt et al., 2020).

         The SIMSA account does not deny that such effects can occur, but disputes the central argument of SJT that low status groups are motivated to justify or rationalize these group differences and the system that fosters them. For example, they may feel forced to accept differences implied by social reality constraints and legitimacy concerns relating to the status hierarchy, and may accept these in the shorter term of they think there is hope and scope for their group to improve its status position at some time in the future (e.g. because the status hierarchy is not stable in the longer term). The “system” may after all be the only game in town, and the only way to improve their group’s status in the long term short of revolution or open conflict.

         Gender and stratification based on ethnicity or social class are examples of social categories that may reflect social inequality and disadvantage, but where there may also be hope and scope for social change in the long term. However, the case of education level is a particularly interesting test case because the pervasive ideology of meritocracy (Young, 1958) has been taken to imply that the lower educated in some sense only have themselves to blame for their lack of status and advancement because they lack of ability and/or effort to gain educational credentials (Kuppens et al., 2018). In other words, if there is a readymade justification for the deservingness of low status it is perhaps most powerful in the domain of education. However, recent research from our own lab suggests that (contra SJT) the lower educated are less likely to justify the legitimacy of higher educated leaders, than the higher educated do, when they have the scope to challenge this (van Noord, Kuppens, Spears & Spruyt, 2020). In short there seems to be some evidence of a motivational resistance to accept in-group inferiority (rather than justify it) and challenge this where the social reality affords this (see also Doosje, Spears & Koomen, 1995). Education based status is therefore an important test-bed of the debates between SJT and SIMSA.

         The relevance of these theoretical debates is of central interest to the SCOOP project. On the one hand the idea that disadvantaged groups might be motivated to justify the existing status hierarchy (and even more so than high status groups do) could help to explain the lack of conflict that might otherwise be predicted to occur between such groups, based on conflict theories in political science and sociology (e., Marxist social theory, resource mobilization theory) and also in social psychology (realistic conflict theory, relative deprivation theory, social identity theory). On one level, if the SJT thesis is correct, and the disadvantaged can be motivated to justify systems supporting inequality this might seem good for cooperation and reduced social conflict. However, if research from the SIMSA program is to be believed, this basis for cooperation (or lack of conflict) is tenuous and continually under tension if lower status groups do not accept, internalize or justify the basis for their lower status but try to test and challenge it when the conditions allow. Moreover, there are central questions as to whether lack of cooperation despite inequality is sustainable, or leads to social stability in the long term, and indeed whether it is fair or just to maintain such inequalities that are based on illegitimate status differences. Indeed, sociological research suggests that the degree of inequality in society may be associated with a range of negative social and individual outcomes in terms of health and well-being (e.g., Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Moreover, attempts to reduce conflict between groups in line with the ‘contact hypothesis’ can backfire, and entrench social inequalities if it undermines the strategies of collective action that might otherwise challenge illegitimate intergroup inequality (the so-called ‘irony of harmony debate’; see research by Saguy, Tausch, Wright, etc). Indeed, where lower status groups see their position as being illegitimate with little scope for change, this can result in greater conflict in the long term. For example, among the lower educated, this can be seen in the rise of support for right wing populism, and also prejudice and racism (Kuppens et al., 2018). Suggestions that powerlessness can reinforce support for the system (van der Toorn et al., 2015) is countered by other evidence that disempowering conditions can also increase support for extremism and radical action if disadvantaged groups feel they have nothing to lose (NTL: Scheepers et al., 2006; Tausch et al., 2011). In short processes that seems to support the justification of the status quo, may simply store up greater prospects of conflict and undermine cooperation in the longer term.

Key research questions

We aim to look at these processes in the lower educated because this is the clearest case in which SJT ideas might have a grounding due to the powerful ideology of meritocracy (that social position basically reflects the fruits of one’s own labor and talents). However, the question remains whether this justification process reflects a motivated legitimization of the status quo or whether these responses reflect processes associated with group identity (social reality constraints, legitimacy concerns) that mask an underlying rejection of implied inferiority and strategies of resistance. Are the lower educated motivated to justify the system or are there other SIMSA mechanisms operating which reflect the operation of a group identity, and resistance to accepting their inferiority (lack of ‘internal’ legitimacy)? A second aim is to investigate the conditions that lead to more conflictual and less cooperative coping strategies (prejudice toward minority groups, support for right wing populism and extremism). Paradoxically, whereas the justification for status stratification based on many forms of categorization is in political retreat (gender, ethnicity etc), the rise of the educated society means that stratification and even discrimination based on educational credentials is on the rise (Bovens & Wille, 2017; van Noord et al., 2020). Classic socio structural variables address within SIT and SIMSA such as perceived legitimacy, stability of these status difference and the permeability of group boundaries will likely play a crucial role here.

Research design

The proposed research will include:

  • Experimental studies that test evidence for the motivational process/dissonance mechanisms proposed by SJT. Evidence against this view has already been demonstrated for group disadvantage based on ethnicity (See Owuamalam & Spears, 2019)
  • Field studies that look at the process of how disadvantaged groups cope with and channel the perception of their lower status and measure support for populism, racism, extremism (NTL). We predict that where society sees group differences as large, stable and not open to change will exacerbate these negative tendencies.


Bovens, M., & Wille, A. (2017). Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Political Meritocracy. Oxford University Press.

Brandt, M. J., Kuppens, T., Spears, R.,... et al. (2020). Subjective status and perceived legitimacy across countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 921-942.

Doosje, B., Spears, R., & Koomen, W. (1995). When bad isn’t all bad: The strategic use of sample information in generalization and stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 69, 642-655.

Jost, J. T. (2019). A quarter century of system justification theory: Questions, answers, criticisms, and societal applications. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58(2), 263-314.

Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system‐justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(1), 1-27.

Kuppens T., Spears, R., Manstead, A.S.R., Spruyt, B., & Easterbrook, M.J. (2018). Educationism and the irony of meritocracy: Negative attitudes of higher educated people towards the less educated. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 429-447.

Owuamalam, C. K., Rubin, M., Spears, R., & Weerabangsa, M. M. (2017). Why Do People from Low‐Status Groups Support Class Systems that Disadvantage Them? Journal of Social Issues, 73(1), 80–98.

Owuamalam, C.K., Rubin, M., Spears, R., (2019). Revisiting 25 years of system motivation explanation for system justification from the perspective of social identity model of system attitudes, British Journal of Social Psychology, 58, 362-381.

Scheepers, D., Spears, R., Doosje, B., & Manstead, A.S.R. (2006). Diversity in in-group bias: Structural factors, situational features, and social functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 944-960.

Tausch, N., Becker, J.C., Spears, R., Christ, O., Saab, R., Singh, P., & Siddiqui, R.N. (2011). Explaining Radical Group Behavior: Developing Emotion and Efficacy Routes to Normative and Nonnormative Collective Action  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 129-148. 

Van der Toorn, J., Feinberg, M., Jost, J. T., Kay, A. C., Tyler, T. R., Willer, R., & Wilmuth, C. (2015). A sense of powerlessness fosters system justification: Implications for the legitimation of authority, hierarchy, and government. Political Psychology36, 93-110.

Van Noord, J., Kuppens, T., & Spears, R. & Spruyt, B., (2019). The role of educational level in the election of political candidates and why deference is not necessarily preference. Ms. submitted for publication.

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: why more equal societies almost always do better. London UK: Allen Lane.

Young, M. (1958). The rise of the meritocracy 1870–2033. An essay on education and equality. London: Thames and Hudson.


Mortada al Amine 

Project initiators

prof. dr. Russell Spears (Social Psychology)

dr. Toon Kuppens (Psychology)

prof. dr. Frank Hindriks, (Philosophy)


Groningen University

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University of Groningen
SCOOP - Sociology

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