Unequal Foundations: The New Book by Professors Hitlin and Harkness

Unequal Foundations: Inequality, Morality, and Emotions Across Cultures, by Drs. Steven Hitlin and Sarah Harkness, offers readers a new theory and a rare treatment of cross-cultural data asserting that the level of economic inequality in a society is reflected in its members’ moral emotional experiences. Those living in societies with more equality regularly experience more positive, binding emotions. On the other hand, those living in unequal societies are significantly more likely to experience negative, sanctioning moral emotions. 

Unequal Foundations
Unequal Foundations: Inequality, Morality, and Emotions Across Cultures


They explore the links between societal structure and individual emotion, contending that individual moral emotions represent the distal structures of society. They develop a broad theory ranging from society to the individual, and present data supporting their general thesis that sanctioning is generated by and reinforces a pronounced social hierarchy, using cross-cultural comparative data. 

Unequal Foundations offers two main contributions to the research literature. First, it links a variety of disciplines under a broad umbrella, showing ways that national cultures, intertwined with levels of societal inequality, shape individual experience. This is not only a focus on people’s location within social structure, but on the nature of that structure, itself. Secondly, it offers a new use of an established data tool within affect control theory, Interact, to tell us how the fabric of societies differ based on semantic, cultural meanings. Steve and Sarah use Interact to test their theory that moral sanctioning maintains hierarchy, and will occur more often when people feel under threat, which happens – implicitly and explicitly – in societies with more inequality.

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