Research & Insights

Does Believing in a “Fair” System Stall Social Movements?

A new study has some surprising findings about the connection between the belief that we can change the political system and our willingness to mobilize. It turns out that – for minority groups in New Zealand, at least – feeling like the system is open to change may make them less supportive of social movements designed to advocate for their needs.

Conducted by researchers Danny Obsborne, Kumar Yogeeswaran and Chris G. Sibley and published in a 2015 issue of the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, the study involved 399 Māori participants. The Māori are an indigenous minority group in New Zealand, and – like minority groups in many countries – face significant socioeconomic challenges, such as increased unemployment and disproportionate incarceration.

The researchers analyzed data from nationwide surveys of political attitudes conducted in New Zealand. They focused especially on measures of political efficacy – the feeling that people can change the system – and feelings that the system is fair. Efficacy, for instance, was measured in terms of agreement with statements such as, “The average citizen can have an influence on government decisions.” System justification – the idea that the system is fair and open to change – was measured with statements such as, “In general, I find New Zealand society to be fair” and “Most of New Zealand’s policies serve the greater good.”

Māori participants were also asked how much they support mobilization activities to protect the Māori community. For example, participants were asked how much they supported “[p]rotest marches and public demonstrations supporting the rights of Māori,” and whether they believed that “Māori have too much political power and influence in decisions affecting New Zealand.”

The researchers found an unexpected link between feelings of political efficacy and support for mobilization. Rather than feeling empowered to mobilize when they felt more efficacy, participants who had high levels of efficacy were instead less supportive of activism on behalf of Māori people.

A feeling that the system was fair provides the link between these two attitudes. “[P]olitical efficacy (i.e., believing that the system is malleable)…indirectly undermine[s] people’s political mobilization support by increasing minority group members’ belief that the system is just,” the researchers explain.

“[S]ystem-justifying beliefs [such as the belief that society is just] help maintain the status quo by dampening the blow of inequality and by reducing the total effect that political efficacy has on disadvantaged group members’ political mobilization support.”

Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology

Danny Osborne and Chris G. Sibley, University of Auckland
Kumar Yogeeswaran, University of Canterbury

Posted: December 14, 2015
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