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What’s your class? South Africans let race get in the way of the truth, study says.

  • Coloured, Indian, and white South Africans have a tendency to inflate their social positions beyond what is objectively true, say economists in a new study.
  • Black people tend to underestimate their position, possibly because they’re reluctant to identify with the historically white middle class.
  • The legacy of apartheid still dominates discussions about class and status, says the University of Johannesburg team.
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South Africans have a strong tendency to get their social status wrong, and race is a key obstacle they face in matching their class to what is objectively true, according to a new study.

Education levels also influence people’s incorrect perceptions of their class, according to an analysis by economists at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

“Coloured, Indians/Asians and whites have a stronger tendency to inflate their social position compared to [black] Africans, who have a strong tendency to deflate their social position,” the researchers say in the journal Sociological Inquiry.

“One of the reasons for Africans having deflated social perceptions could be linked to [their] reluctance to identify in the historically white middle class.” 

Women and older people also tend to underestimate their class, and people who describe themselves as Christian or Muslim tend to have inflated perceptions.  

“Race seems to have the most significant impact on bias perceptions,” says economics lecturers Frederich Kirsten, Mduduzi Biyase and Marinda Pretorius, and Professor Ilse Botha.

“These results make sense in a society like South Africa where the legacy of apartheid has persisted and dominates class and status discussions. 

“Given that the country has also experienced increased intra-race inequality [since 1994], the lines between race and class have become even more blurred.”

The data behind the study’s conclusions came from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), a collaboration that conducts annual surveys on topics related to social sciences. Its findings on social inequality cover South Africa for 2009 and 2019, and draw on information from just over 6,000 adults.

The objective measure of social position uses a system based on employment, and the UJ analysis omitted South Africans who do not have a job.

For the subjective measure, respondents were asked to place themselves on one of 10 ladder rungs representing South African society, and they answered another question about whether they saw themselves as working class, middle class or upper-middle class.

South Africans’ perceptions of their class were low compared to 13 other countries involved in the ISSP, but on average local respondents placed themselves on higher social rungs than people in Japan, Chile, Russia, and the Philippines. 

“This is surprising, since South Africa suffers from higher inequality and poverty compared to these developing countries,” say the researchers. “It indicates that overall, South Africans might have a strong tendency to inflate their social positions.”

About two-thirds of lower-class respondents had an inflated idea of their positions in society, and more than half of upper-middle class people deflated their positions. “This confirms the substantial presence of biased perceptions for different objective class positions in South Africa,” says the paper.

People with tertiary education tended to deflate their position, while the opposite applied to those with only primary education. “This makes sense, since those with tertiary education levels have more information about the social inequalities in South Africa and can therefore place themselves in a position that is more aligned with their objective position.”

Future research should analyse perceptions of class among people who are unemployed and not economically active, the researchers say.

“This is important because these social groups tend to form the largest part of South African society and are the main drivers of social unrest.”

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