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From nationally bounded to pan-European inequalities? On the importance of foreign countries as reference groups

  • Delhey, Jan
  • Kohler, Ulrich

In sociology, the appropriateness of national approaches for understanding social inequality in today’s societies is being increasingly questioned, and EU-wide approaches are advocated instead. In this paper, we link the growing debate about national or EU-wide approaches to reference group theory, investigating whether comparisons with foreign countries influence levels of individual life satisfaction. Our results indicate that, on the one hand, more people can be assumed to have a national frame of reference than a broader international one; on the other hand, among those who do have an idea of how average people in other countries live, cross-border comparisons certainly influence people’s satisfaction with life. Upward comparisons in particular are important: The more people feel personally deprived, relative to other countries, the less satisfied they are with their lives. In contrast, the feeling of relative gratification has a much smaller impact on life satisfaction, and often no impact at all. This leads us to conclude that EU-wide approaches to inequality do make sense, but that there is also no need to jettison national approaches completely.

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Paper provided by Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) in its series Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Inequality and Social Integration with number SP I 2005-204.

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Date of creation: 2005
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Handle: RePEc:zbw:wzbisi:spi2005204
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  1. Di Tella, Rafael & Alesina, Alberto & MacCulloch, Robert, 2004. "Inequality and Happiness: Are Europeans and Americans Different?," Scholarly Articles 4553007, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. Bruno S. Frey & Alois Stutzer, . "What can Economists Learn from Happiness Research?," IEW - Working Papers 080, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  3. Ruut Veenhoven, 1999. "Quality-of-Life in Individualistic Society," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 48(2), pages 159-188, October.
  4. Alex Michalos, 1985. "Multiple discrepancies theory (MDT)," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 16(4), pages 347-413, May.
  5. Ger, Guliz & Belk, Russell W., 1996. "Cross-cultural differences in materialism," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 55-77, February.
  6. Ruut Veenhoven, 1991. "Is happiness relative?," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 24(1), pages 1-34, February.
  7. Jan Delhey & Petra Böhnke & Roland Habich & Wolfgang Zapf, 2002. "Quality of life in a European Perspective: The EUROMODULE as a New Instrument for Comparative Welfare Research," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 58(1), pages 161-175, June.
  8. Peggy Schyns, 2002. "Wealth Of Nations, Individual Income andLife Satisfaction in 42 Countries:A Multilevel Approach," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 60(1), pages 5-40, December.
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