Postdoc researcher Jonathan Mijs (1983) holds a doctorate in sociology from Harvard, where he worked for years as a lecturer. Currently, he has a part-time position at Boston University as well as Erasmus University. In his comparative research, Jonathan Mijs is looking for an answer by analysing public concepts about inequality in the Netherlands and the USA.
You are now in Boston, how did that happen?
“After my doctorate from Harvard, I remained associated here as a part-time lecturer, first at Harvard and now at Boston University. With my Veni grant at Erasmus University, I am researching American and Dutch inequalities and how citizens conceive of them, with one foot in Boston and one in Rotterdam. At EUR I supervise master students and work together with colleagues Jeroen van der Waal and Willem de Koster a lot.”
Where does your interest in the theme of inequality come from?
“It started quite early on, I believe. I grew up in a neighbourhood in East Amsterdam where a relatively large proportion of people from a migrant background lived. As a child I was used to interacting with many children as a result. My parents put me in a predominantly white primary school in another neighbourhood, which made my world at school entirely different from the world in my neighbourhood. The parents of the children in my school were all well educated and relatively well-off, very different from my neighbourhood.
“As a trainee sociologist I later conducted research in Amsterdam into how schools split up neighbourhoods. That problem is still around, of course.”
What do you mean by a growing belief in meritocracy?
“By meritocracy I mean the ideal that people have of a society in which the best people naturally arrive at the right positions and their success is entirely due to their own efforts. That idea is being embraced more and more strongly by people.”
By that, do you mean a sort of American Dream concept? That if you work hard enough, you will succeed?
“Certainly, only the American Dream is no longer as American as believed in the Netherlands. What I basically mean by that is that Americans are becoming more aware of the inequalities in society. At the same time, they accept this inequality more easily because it is the outcome of a process they support.
“In the Netherlands there is also a belief in the dream, but inequalities are regularly denied. In the Netherlands, the predominant idea is that society is relatively fair, although 10% of the richest Dutch people own 80% of the wealth, and almost half of the Dutch people have more debt than wealth. This makes them one of the most unequal societies in the world. But that does not match the image the Dutch have of themselves.
“The same applies to discrimination. Considerable research has shown that the discrimination in the Netherlands is equivalent to that in the USA. That contrasts strongly with the popular convictions in the country.”
What is the connection of that belief in meritocracy to the growth in economic inequality?
“Given the belief in meritocracy, the best people earn more and start living in the same areas where fewer and fewer less-qualified people live. At the same time, people from different backgrounds and wealth meet each other less often at school or in supermarkets. The increasing segregation means there are fewer opportunities for people from a socio-economically disadvantaged position, which leads to increasing economic inequality.”
The KNAW jury felt that your research methods were very original; what is original about them?
“I really wanted to know where the public conceptions of inequality come from and under what conditions people would change their minds.
“I conducted that research by organising group discussions in which participants discussed current issues of a theme like inequality. In the group discussions, a student of mine tested a new method out a so-called sandbox method, literally a small sandbox with which participants could sketch how they perceived equality, for example. A group discussion works very differently than a standard questionnaire.
“Along with group discussions, we also conducted experimental research in which a group of participants reads articles about wealth inequality, another about discrimination and another about something else, that is the control group, to see how that would influence their conceptions.
“This revealed that whether people accepted information about inequality depended strongly on personal experiences. Only if they had had to deal with inequality or knew someone who had, did they recognise that it existed. They often live in a kind of impenetrable bubble that is difficult to puncture.”
Do the impenetrable bubbles change society?
“Yes, until the 1960s the Netherlands was a heavily segregated society, with different groups with their own way of life barely encountering each other. It is possible that a form of segregation is re-establishing itself, but now not between, for example, Catholics and Socialists, but between poor and low-skilled versus rich and well-educated.”
The Early Career Award is being presented for the third consecutive year on 14 February by the scientific association, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). There are 12 Dutch winners this year, and two are from Rotterdam: sociologist Jonathan Mijs and medic Stefan Barakat. The EUR researchers will receive an artwork and 15,000 euros.