Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Disadvantage and the Legitimation of the System and its Representatives

Does powerlessness and dependence lead to the legitimation of the social, political, and economic status quo and of those in authority?

Jojanneke van der Toorn

In an attempt to explain the stability of hierarchy, this research project focuses on the perspective of the powerless and how a subjective sense of dependence leads them to imbue the system and its authorities with legitimacy. Contrary to what one might expect based on theories of individual or collective self-interest, we investigate whether people who (are made to) feel relatively powerless are more likely to perceive the power structures that affect them as fair and legitimate. In one set of studies (van der Toorn et al., 2015), we found in a nationally representative sample of U.S. employees that financial dependence on one’s job was positively associated with the perceived legitimacy of one’s supervisor (Study 1), that a general sense of powerlessness was positively correlated with the perceived legitimacy of the economic system (Study 2), that priming experimental participants with feelings of powerlessness increased their justification of the social system, even when they were presented with system-challenging explanations for race, class, and gender disparities (Studies 3 and 4) and that the experience of powerlessness increased legitimation of governmental authorities (relative to baseline conditions; Study 5). In a second set of studies (van der Toorn et al., 2011), we demonstrated that in addition to perceptions of the fairness of procedures used and the favorability of the outcomes obtained, dependence is independently contributes to appraisals of legitimacy, measured in terms of trust and confidence in, empowerment of, and deference to authority. These effects were demonstrated in educational, political, and legal settings. Two additional studies provided direct causal evidence for this effect on the extent to which participants perceived the authority as legitimate and were willing to defer to his or her directives. Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that perceived legitimacy is enhanced not only when authorities exercise fair procedures and deliver favorable outcomes, but also when subordinates are dependent on them. The processes we identify are likely to perpetuate inequality, insofar as the powerless justify rather than strive to change the hierarchical structures that disadvantage them. Hierarchies, once formed, may become self-reinforcing through bottom-up processes of legitimation. To some degree at least, the powerless serve as accomplices (after the fact) in their own subjugation insofar as they legitimize rather than critique and challenge the structures of inequality that affect them.