The Politics of Genetic Explanations for Social Inequality

Awarded Scholars:
Elizabeth Suhay, American University
Project Date:
Jul 2016
Award Amount:

Over the past two decades, scientific arguments for the influence of genes on illness, personality, intelligence, criminality, and many other characteristics have increased significantly. Yet, we know little about what the public thinks about these matters and the connections they draw between such ideas and politics. To address this, political scientist Elizabeth Suhay will examine Americans’ beliefs about the causes of socioeconomic inequality—in general, as well as betweem gender, racial, and ethnic groups—with a particular focus on the belief that innate biological differences between groups of people contribute to inequality. 

Suhay will commission a series of questions in a cross-sectional survey of 2,000 citizens in order to study whether (1) dominant groups—whites, upper-income people, and men—are more likely to draw genetic distinctions between unequal groups of people and more likely to ascribe socioeconomic inequality and unequal talents (e.g. lower intelligence) to genetic factors than members of other groups; (2) whether individuals who perceive a greater threat to their dominance are more likely than others to ascribe inequality to innate factors; (3) whether those who ascribe a specific type of inequality (class, race, ethnicity, or gender) to innate differences tend to support inegalitarian political preferences; and (4) whether groups with different broad political values—Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals—might associate genetic explanations with divergent policy stands that reflect their different worldviews.


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