What Is Inequality?

With so much attention to the issue of inequality and its documented growth in the United States and elsewhere, why join the fray? What more is there to say? Quite a bit, we think.

Inequality’s explosive growth in the first decades of the twenty-first century has become a profound concern for scholars. Fueled in part by the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and myriad other studies on the sources and effects of increasing inequality, as well as the significant public attention it has received, inequality has become a rallying cry for many social scientists. With this entirely salutary level of attention come potential complications, both conceptually and institutionally.

Indeed, a sort of “bandwagoning” effect may be underway, and one goal of this series is to shed light on this bandwagoning, a phenomenon that social scientists have long explored from various perspectives (but rarely in analyzing scholarly trends). At least as important, this series solicits essays from leading scholars that engage some of the complexities raised by all the attention—as a way to make sense of current research and debate, to imagine future scholarship, and to think strategically and critically about how scholarship might shape efforts to mitigate the concentration of wealth.

As the issue of inequality has entered public debate and become increasingly prominent in the academy, its meanings and uses have expanded and, at times, absorbed related concepts. Essays in this series attempt to clarify inequality as a concept in both its empirical and normative senses, and to explore its relationship to equality, poverty, social mobility, social justice, and other related constructs of fairness and human well-being. Some contributions will engage recent changes in wealth and income disparities between nation-states and suggest analytical frameworks and tools for thinking about the different directions taken by inequality within and between nations, and about whether and how they are related.

Lastly, the series will feature a set of essays by leaders of university-based institutes and programs devoted to research and training on the topic of inequality. They offer a variety of perspectives on the ways in which inequality as a field of study is being institutionalized in the academy and the diverse set of concepts, disciplines, and methods being mobilized.