Violations of fairness in a generation of protests 

By Tina Cormier

What moves a group of people to protest? When do they remain peaceful? During the economic crisis in 2008, many European countries saw their economies crumble. In response, protests and riots erupted in many places, including Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Italy. While demonstrations became almost commonplace across Europe, there was one conspicuous exception: Ireland. Why? What was different about Ireland, which was enduring similar economic adversity as other countries in the European Union at the time?

“That’s the question I set out to answer when I arrived at the University of Chicago in 2012,” says Séamus Power, now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Comparative Human Development. “What I found was that, among other factors, the Irish did not see the government as the clear enemy. Instead, they accepted at least partial responsibility for their financial situation, and so they were willing to bear the hardship.”

Power is a cultural psychologist who brings together a mix of disciplines to study questions relating to group perceptions of fairness and equality within the context of how people remember the past and imagine their future. His interest in inequality and economic hardship is motivated by his own life experience growing up in a working class family, where his mom was a part time florist and his dad worked in a factory. These experiences from his youth fueled Power's curiosity about the mechanisms behind some of their challenges.

As he got older, his interest in the topic continued to develop, driving him to pursue advanced degrees in the subject, including both a masters and a doctorate in Comparative Human Development. Prior to UChicago, he earned a masters degree in Social and Developmental Psychology from the University of Cambridge in 2008. He was just finishing at Cambridge when the economic crisis began; while he was interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, funding was becoming scarce, and he decided to wait. On a shoestring budget, he and two friends bought one way-tickets to New York City, on a trip that eventually took him across four continents.

“I was always personally and academically interested in cultural psychology,” says Power, “But in hindsight, this trip from Europe through north, central, and south America, Australia, and Asia gave me valuable insights into inequality and how different economic and political structures affect everyday life.”

Throughout this eye-opening adventure, Power amassed even more questions and was again ready to pursue a doctorate. He contacted Professor Richard Shweder, the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development at UChicago, with whom he eventually began researching Ireland’s quiet acceptance of both the 2008 economic collapse as well as the consequent austerity measures, despite tumult in other countries.

In 2015, Power was in the midst of his dissertation research when something interesting happened: The Irish began to protest. After several years of rapid economic growth – the Irish economy was the fastest growing in all of Europe – the peaceful public sentiment had paradoxically changed. At the same time, an unpopular new charge on water was introduced, which further fueled public angst and spurred protests in spite of a thriving economy. 

“There was this omnipresent narrative in the media and from the government that the economy was improving,” explains Power. “Objective economic indicators were pointing toward rapid growth and decreasing unemployment, but regular people weren’t feeling it.”

Power attended some of the large demonstrations and interviewed a wide range of people about why they were protesting. A common theme in their responses was inequality, not just with the water charge, but generally. He heard from them that the economy was improving, but not for everyone.

Other protests have emerged during prosperous economic times, including recently in the United States. The Occupy movement that began in 2011 was catalyzed by a widening income gap wherein, rather than most of the country growing and prospering together, the top 1% got richer, while the majority of Americans suffered stagnant or declining wealth and wages relative to the 1%.

“It’s about violations of fairness,” says Power. “There is a tipping point when the misalignment between prosperity and equality becomes too great. When people feel like the deck is stacked against them, that there is not equality of opportunity, they will take action.”

While inequality is a common thread throughout much of Power’s research to date, one of his latest projects, which he is currently developing with Shweder, tackles some new and tough, controversial topics. Titled “What’s on your un-American Activities List?” the project is designed to test the scope and limits of tolerance and pluralism in the US. Given a list of activities that could be perceived as ‘un-American,’ such as arranged marriage, wearing a headscarf to school or work, or burning the American flag, participants are asked how often these activities occur, versus whether they should be allowed to occur.

Power is no stranger to uncomfortable, controversial topics. His research on Irish protests landed him several contentious articles in The Guardian and other media outlets. “Freedom of inquiry, the ability to ask big questions and to follow an argument where it leads, is huge at UChicago,” says Power. “My job is not to be popular; it is to seek the truth.”