A new socio-ecological class conflict?

Farmers protest against government policy. Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena
Farmers protest against government policy. Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

    The climate crisis, farmers’ protests, the rise of right-wing parties, ongoing disputes in government, wars in Ukraine and the Middle East: the crisis is becoming a permanent feature of politics and society. In view of the enormous challenges, does a socio-ecological transformation even stand a chance? The BMBF junior research group "Mentalities in flux" (flumen) at Friedrich Schiller University Jena investigated this question.

    The researchers at the Institute of Sociology surveyed 4,000 people across Germany to find out their views, attitudes and feelings regarding socio-ecological change. The results show that opinions differ, in some cases strikingly, on the question of whether, how quickly and in what form a socio-ecological transformation is necessary. The opinions are strongly linked to the social situation of the respondents and their respective interests. The "flumen" group interprets its findings as a new socio-ecological class conflict.

    Ten mentalities in three spectrums are emerging

    "In the survey, ten mentalities emerged along several conflict dimensions, which can be clustered into three mentality spectrums," says Dr Martin Fritz, who heads the "flumen" junior research group since April of this year. Each spectrum can be linked to specific positions in social space, Dr Fritz continues.

    Specifically, the researchers identify an eco-social spectrum that calls for swift and decisive transformation and is predominantly concentrated in education-based middle and higher social positions. In contrast, the conservative, growth-oriented spectrum, which is more likely to be found in property-based social positions, defends the familiar, growth-focussed way of life and economy. The third spectrum predominates in disadvantaged social positions and is described as defensive-reactive; it is characterized by resignation and withdrawal and even angry resistance to "green" and transformative initiatives. 

    The interplay of spectrums of mentality and social positions can be located in various dimensions of conflict. For example, there is the conflict between "top" and "bottom", with the people in the lower social space feeling overwhelmed by societal expectations of growth and accelerated processes of change. "This fosters resentment and regressive defence movements against ’those up there’ in this group," says Martin Fritz. The result is a feeling of being "alienated" from society.

    Another conflict centres on the clash between private property interests and the need for publicly shared infrastructure. The Jena researchers also identify a conflict surrounding change, which is fuelled by the question of whether transformation is necessary at all, how far it should go and who should bear the resulting costs. Finally, an externalization conflict is diagnosed, which revolves around the cost outsourcing of the previous fossil lifestyle.

    Representative study

    In the study, a total of 4,000 randomly selected people were surveyed at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022. The data is representative of the German population as a whole in terms of age, gender, place of residence and level of education. Compared to similar studies, an interesting difference in this study is that neither polarization nor a broad consensus in society is observed for the dispute over transformation, but rather a triangular relationship between the three spectrums mentioned, which holds both the potential for various alliances and the dangers of political radicalization. The results of the study are available as a compact research report and will be published as a full-length book in the summer.