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Inequality may be the idea du jour, but culture is the reality that confounds. Whether we are able to make progress on inequality will depend to a great extent on the degree to which policy leaders recognize the duality of social issues. Like the two sides of a coin, the ability of social analysis to affect the world is always constrained by the perceptions that people bring to that reality. If we are to win ground toward a more equitable society, policy leaders must come up with solutions to both sides of the problem: science-based policy solutions that reduce and prevent inequity, and science-based communications solutions that address the deeply held, foundational but implicit patterns of reasoning—what anthropologists call “cultural models”—that people use to think about economic mobility. As funders and think tanks gear up to prioritize inequality as a key issue for our time, it will be imperative that we come up not only with policy solutions but with narrative solutions as well.
Understanding the cultural models associated with any given issue allows communicators to view the meaning-making process more completely, identifying the deep narratives that people will use to understand new information.
“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing,” writes Thomas Piketty.
The American public deserves a better story about income inequality. It's public communicators deserve better social science on how to communicate that story. If we are to transform the culture of inequality, we will need strategy that marries the social analysis to the communications analysis. For, when we squander our storytelling resources, the current cultural models predominate.