Neoliberal Policy Implementation Goes Hand in Hand with Stronger Symbolic Boundaries

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Jonathan Mijs and Michèle Lamont

Citizens in countries that implemented more rigorous neoliberal policies over the last two decades (1990 to 2010) draw stronger symbolic boundaries between themselves and unwanted others. Based on publicly available data from the European Values Study, our research suggests that neoliberal policy implementation is intricately related to the ways in which citizens define worthiness. We find that in central and eastern Europe, the adoption of neoliberalism goes together with weakening boundaries toward ethnic others and a strengthening of animosity toward the poor, who are increasingly described as lazy and undeserving of government help. Conversely, in western Europe we find a weakening of boundaries toward the poor, but a strengthening of animosity toward ethno-religious others, Muslims in particular: citizens increasingly do not want Muslims as their neighbors.

The trends we observe are supported by studies describing European citizens’ stance toward the (undeserving) poor, on the one side, and research on anti-immigrant sentiments, the rise of nativism, and the vote for extreme right parties, on the other. The contribution of our project is to offer a framework that describes these trends as two facets of symbolic boundaries and to link these to the uneven rate of implementation of neoliberal policies across European societies.

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Our findings support the thesis that neoliberalism privatizes risk and emphasizes personal responsibility, which leads to more narrow definitions of social membership where people unable to work or unsuccessful in finding employment are not considered equal members of society. The relationship between neoliberalism and boundaries toward ethno- religious minorities may be based on the fact that neoliberalist policies favor increased competition, which increases intergroup tension, undermines solidarity, and triggers resentment projected at (perceived) newcomers.

Our results speak to similar trends in North America, where increased xenophobia and far-right politics may reinforce animosity, especially in the context of a growing fear of Islamic radicalism worldwide. Understanding the role of government policies is essential to bringing a halt to the erosion of social solidarity.

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Image of Jonathan MijsJonathan Mijs is a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University. He is interested in inequality, stratification, morality, and the balance of structure/agency in shaping life concerns.

Image of Michèle LamontMichèle Lamont is the Robert L. Goldman Professor of European Studies and a professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. She currently serves as the president-elect of the American Sociological Association. She is also the director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Mijs, Jonathan J.B., Elyas Bakhtiari, Michèle Lamont. "Neoliberalism and Symbolic Boundaries in Europe: Global Diffusion, Local Context, Regional Variation." Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World January-December 2016 vol. 2: 1–8. DOI: 10.1177/2378023116632538.  A version of this piece ran in the Harvard Gazette on March 9, 2016.