Over the past decade the challenge of rising inequality has mobilized remarkable academic and public interest around the globe, to the extent that we have argued that we might be seeing the emergence of an interdisciplinary ‘”inequality paradigm’ paradigm” in social science. We have seen analyses of inequality causing major debates in economics through the work of highly esteemed scholars such as Tony Atkinson, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty. In sociology the study of social stratification has moved from becoming a niche to almost the defining issue. In the United Kingdom, where we work, as well as in many European nations, this has led to a resurgence of interest in social class—a topic which fifteen years ago had been seen as wizened and outdated. We see similar trends toward the rediscovery of inequality in political science, anthropology, geography, and across the social sciences.

But these are not just academic debates. We have also seen how social scientists of different hues have used the inequality theme to write genuinely popular works which have attracted mass public interest at the same time that it feeds into major academic debate. In the UK, the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book on The Spirit Level1 has sold over a quarter of a million copies, has inspired the formation of a powerful campaigning group, the Equality Trust, and even led to a box office film, The Divide. Our own work on the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (GBCS) led to over nine million people playing an interactive quiz to decide which class they fitted into these days, as well as our recent, widely reviewed book, Social Class in the 21st Century.2 In the United States, academics such as Joseph Stiglitz and Raj Chetty are leading public intellectuals as well as esteemed academics. Of course, surely the biggest show stopper is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century,3 the bestselling university press monograph in history (over a million and a half copies sold).

This focus on inequality has been underpinned by a very fast institutional investment in the analysis of inequalities. A notable British example is the LSE’s own International Inequalities Institute, of which I (Mike Savage) am codirector, which recently announced major funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies to train leaders to combat inequality. To put the scale of this investment in perspective, this is the largest grant in the history of the LSE. We are working closely with partners in the global south to develop our Atlantic Fellows program, notably University of Capetown’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice and the Centre for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion in Chile.

No doubt we can expect many more initiatives such as this in the near future. A striking recent feature is the interest of philanthropic foundations in investing specifically in inequality work. Atlantic Philanthropies has already blazed this trail through its investments at LSE, University of Cape Town, and Cornell (amongst others). The Ford Foundation has also placed its forthcoming focus on inequalities, and philanthro-capitalists such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have all expressed their intention to intervene in this area.

“Aren’t there actually fundamental differences with the way that economists and sociologists might analyze inequality?”

With such a huge intellectual and institutional investment there is bound to be some critical reaction. Isn’t there a danger of crossed wires and misunderstandings with the inequality label being used as a saggy banner under which anything can sit? Aren’t there actually fundamental differences with the way that economists and sociologists might analyze inequality, for instance, which can’t really be glossed over through an appealingly broad catch-all term? As Ananya Roy asks in her very interesting contribution to this discussion, isn’t there a danger that inequality simply becomes a synonym for ”social justice,” and that enduring issues such as poverty become glossed over? Don’t fundamental issues of racism and sexism get rather lost in the gooey inequality mix? Isn’t the inequality catchphrase simply a chance for academics to get on the bandwagon of public and political concerns about the super-rich and the 1 percent? And aren’t the philanthro-capitalists who want to tackle inequality simply trying to ease their consciences (whilst also thinking about tax “efficiency”)?

While these are all legitimate questions, nonetheless we very strongly believe that the inequality issue is not simply a fad and actually points to a fundamental rethinking which needs to take place. We see the key emphasis of the inequality paradigm here being the need for relational analysis, so that we need to look at the top, as well as the bottom, of economic and social hierarchies if we are to adequately understand the dynamics of social change today. We also see the inequality paradigm as taking up the intersectional argument that we stop trying to list different elements or variables of inequality and instead focus on their spillover and mutual reinforcements. We thus move beyond economic growth models and move away from linear conceptions of inequality itself.

This step is urgently needed because there is ample evidence that political dynamics are being increasingly driven by the dramatic spiraling of escalating inequalities. To put this another way, growing economic inequalities are spilling over into all aspects of social, cultural, and political life, and that there are powerful feedback loops between these different spheres which are generating highly worrying trends. In our view, the way that the wealthy elite are increasingly culturally and socially cocooned, and the extent to which large numbers of disadvantaged groups are outside their purview is deeply worrying. We see the powerful “anti-elite” sentiment which this generates as taking on increasingly turbulent and tempestuous forms in many parts of the world. In the case of the United Kingdom, the recent example of Brexit shows this all too clearly.

The UK is analytically interesting as one of the nations that has moved rapidly towards increased inequality since the 1970s across the developed economies. As we discuss in Social Class in the 21st Century, this is linked to the way that the City of London became the major global financial center and the heartland of the super-wealthy, at the same time that the old industrial areas of the north, Wales, and Scotland saw nearly complete deindustrialization.

Using the Great British Class Survey to explain the Brexit vote

The recent “Brexit” referendum indicated how massively divided United Kingdom was over whether it wanted to remain in the European Union, and this fracture is associated with the gulf that has opened up. The first map indicates where the “remain” voters in England and Wales were concentrated, and reveals a very telling geography.

Scotland and Northern Ireland are not included because of the distinctive political path which these nations have taken. For Scotland, EU membership has become a symbol of Scottish sovereignty and a means of reaching beyond England and emphasizing their alterity from it. For Northern Ireland, the EU is a super-structure which promotes a cross-border approach to a range of infrastructural and economic issues, thus facilitating a tacit, low-key, de facto sort of unification between the North and South of Ireland across a range of issues.

Focusing on England and Wales, most of London and its affluent western hinterland voted solidly to remain, as did a number of cities with well-established universities—such as Bristol, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, and York. The blue areas where “remain” voters were much fewer on the ground were the old industrial heartlands of the English north and midlands, industrial Wales, and the rural areas, especially in eastern England.

This map is overwhelmingly associated with the map of inequality in the UK as we can show using data from the Great British Class Survey, which, because of its unusually large sample size, can be mapped at a granular level. The second map shows the geography of household income, property value, and savings. We see, unsurprisingly, how London and the southeast stand out.

But the fit with the “remain” vote is not perfect. This map does not pick out the university cities outside the southeast, which were also strong supporters of “remain,” nor does it clearly distinguish the eastern areas of England—notably the Thames Gateway to the east of London—which were disproportionately supporters of “leave.”

sc-img-2The GBCS data allow us to develop a measure of “highbrow”—or what might be seen, following Bourdieu, as “elite”—culture to see if this is better associated with the “remain” vote. As we explain in our book Social Class in the 21st Century, this map distinguishes people likely to attend classical music concerts, opera, and theatre; to visit art galleries and museums; to own stately homes; and so forth.


The map of cultural capital also shows clear affinities with the “remain” vote, especially with the high scores around London. But the fit is far from perfect—with pockets of highbrow culture in the north, east, and west of England not being matched by strong showings for “remain” voters in these areas.

We can also develop a measure of “social capital”—people’s social networks. The final map pulls out the areas where people’s social contacts tend to have the highest occupational status scores—or to put this another way, where the most exclusive and “elite” social networks are located. Once again, we see the very high scores in much of London—but we also see with much more clarity how the eastern areas of England with very weak support for “remain” also have low scores for social capital. Some of the northern strongholds for “remain” also tend to have more exclusive social capital.

sc-img-4Simple bivariate correlations as well as regression models confirm that it is actually exclusive social capital that is the single biggest measure predicting whether areas are likely to vote for “remain.” And indeed the correlation coefficient, 0.790, is staggeringly high.

How do we interpret this finding?

What the Brexit example demonstrates, therefore, is that it is the association between different facets of inequality that is now fundamental, and it is the way that economic inequalities are refracted and made tangible in social and cultural arenas that gives them such significance. The fact that exclusive social capital is the single best predictor of the “remain” vote explains why those who supported “remain” were so genuinely surprised that the case was not accepted across the board.

The people they associated with, who shared their cultural and leisure interests, and who were in similar economic situations, thought like they did. What these people—which included liberal professionals as much as corporate managers—had simply not recognized is the very large number of people in England and Wales who were in a very different situation to themselves and were simply outside their social orbit. The GBCS data on social capital underline in a powerful way the high levels of class insulation that exist within the urban middle classes, particularly in London.

This fundamental social division crystallized in the two major issues of the campaign. These were first, the mobilization of the views of “experts.” For those in the “remain” camp, the near universal support of professional and scientific opinion to remain in the EU was utterly compelling. However, what they failed to recognize was the existence of large numbers of people who, in an anti-elite reaction, have come to find experts repellent and were fed up of being categorized and misunderstood by “experts.”

It was this motif which Michael Gove, one of the main Tory campaigners to “leave,” made central to his rhetoric in his claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” This should not simply be dismissed as anti-intellectualism, since it touched a powerful nerve: expertise is not seen as a neutral and objective quality, but as a tool that is loaded in favor the advantaged. This kind of anti-elite discourse has surfaced in numerous arenas, as Thomas Frank’s prescient work on What’s the Matter with Kansas has shown very well. And of course, this anti-elite discourse has a real basis. Unemployed steel workers, textile workers, or potters will have seen their skills made redundant, whilst those with a stake in technical and scientific expertise have done very well. Liu and Grusky’s finding from the American case that those with analytical skills have had the greatest pay premium of any kind of skill should be underscored. In recent decades experts have done very nicely, thank you. To be sure, they may want to keep the hand that feeds them.

The second, related issue is immigration, which was to prove crucial in the campaign. Notwithstanding racism amongst professionals and managers, there is a liberal, cosmopolitan consensus in favor of immigration, which is seen to increase the pool of skilled workers as well as enhance the range of expertise and markets one might work with. It also is seen to exemplify social justice and enhances urban diversity and the quality of life. For many people with cultural capital, this is common sense and uncontroversial. However, as our colleague Lisa McKenzie has emphasized, there is little awareness and even less sympathy for how this issue plays in different ways for those who are more disadvantaged. For many white British people in less fortunate economic positions, immigration can appear genuinely threatening—not only in terms of job security, but also in terms of demands on services, housing, and the like. The question of immigration therefore exposed two different orientations and expectations that are difficult to reconcile.

“Inequalities are not discrete.”

Brexit demonstrates, in an especially virulent way, that inequalities are not discrete—being confined to specific arenas, such as income and wealth, or distinguishing discrete variables, such as class and race. They spill over across social, cultural, and intellectual arenas to the extent that they become linked to fundamental cleavages and with relatively little opportunity to bridge these worlds. These divisions are far from being confined to the United Kingdom—they are readily apparent in the American presidential campaign, as well as in many European nations, and elsewhere.

Beyond Brexit: The critical study of inequality

In many parts of the world this issue is coming to a head over the question of meritocracy. The prospect of upward mobility for the deserving has been a fundamental mantra essential to legitimating and justifying high levels of economic inequality. Of course, meritocracy has so often been found to be wanting. Women, ethnic minorities, and those from poorer backgrounds have not had equal chances to men, whites, and those from well-off backgrounds. In the past, however, this could be a spur for action, as a means of finding mechanisms to redress this shortfall through various kind of antidiscrimination and affirmative action policies. Today, the awareness of meritocracy has reached a different level, in which increasing numbers of people are questioning its very basis, given that elites are able to use meritocracy so effectively to get ahead.

Meritocratic values do not just fall short, but actually reproduce mechanisms which allow the advantaged to secure and reproduce their privileges. As numerous sociologists have shown, in a highly competitive education system where access to elite institutions figure disproportionately, it is those who can bring the most prior assets and advantages to the table—not only economic, but also cultural and social capital—who are likely to do best.

The state education system in London is a prime example of how this happens and why space must also be central to our understanding of inequality. In London, the catchments around the best and ostensibly meritocratic “comprehensive” schools have become almost completely colonized by affluent professional families who can afford the extortionate cost of property in these areas. Yet, such urban liberals can salve their consciences in the knowledge that they remained true to their “meritocratic” principles by eschewing the transparent elitism of fee-paying private education.

It is for these reasons that we think we need to place the critical study of inequality at the heart of our concerns today. Circuits of inequality are powerful, move among different arenas of inequality, and are now generating fundamental social ruptures. The strong fractures that already surround us increasingly generate challenges to our social fabric that urgently demand redress. In this context, we can’t simply fall back on disciplinary perspectives, or established mantras, but must think in a creative, interdisciplinary way about how to address what is becoming the greatest social challenge we face.


Posted on September 20, 2016