In his contribution to the "What Is Inequality?" series, Pedro Ramos Pinto provides a critical history of both scholarly and public attention to inequality. Ramos Pinto examines the development of GDP as a mode of comparing inequality across nation-states as well as recent efforts at documenting changes in income distribution within countries. He concludes with a paradox: a principal focus on the income levels of individuals risks oversimplifying and misunderstanding inequality, but at the same time provides a concise and potent rallying cry for egalitarian movements that contest it.
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.
Mike Savage and Niall Cunningham demonstrate how a focus on inequality can deepen understanding of major political events through their analysis of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Pairing the results of their Great British Class Survey with the geography of support for Brexit, and using data visualization tools, the authors show how the UK regions that voted for Brexit (and the anti-elite sentiment behind it) are also those areas most affected by growing inequalities, social and cultural, as well as economic.
In the latest contribution to our “What is Inequality?” series, Suresh Naidu argues that the recent focus on income redistribution as a remedy for inequality can distract from more fundamental limitations to the liberty of workers as economic actors. Naidu explores the nature of the labor contract in capitalist economies and other constraints on “economic democracy,” and suggests reforms that would make unions more effective in addressing these constraints.
In this contribution to the "What Is Inequality?" series, Kevin Leicht argues strongly that, given the nature and extent of economic inequality in the United States today, scholars and policymakers should address it directly rather than emphasize its social and educational dimensions. Leicht claims that research and public discourse on gaps between identity groups, and on the importance of education for social mobility, distracts attention from the deepening economic differentiation within groups and the need to address broader issues of labor market outcomes and wages.
In a contribution relevant to both our features on inequality and interdisciplinarity, Kim Weeden and David Grusky examine how tendencies to analyze inequality within disciplinary frames may make it difficult to address key questions about the forms that inequality takes across societies. The authors, who direct centers on inequality at Cornell and Stanford, respectively, focus principally on the assumptions and measurement strategies of economics and sociology and provide suggestions on how these fields can collaborate to provide a deeper understanding of how inequality is structured and how it changes.
Ananya Roy, director of UCLA Luskin’s new Institute on Inequality and Democracy, is concerned about the ubiquitous presence of inequality discourse within and beyond the academy. As one mechanism for the “repoliticization” of inequality, Roy calls for revived and critical attention to the concept of poverty. In particular, Roy focuses on impoverishment (and responses to it) as an active social process, how poverty comes to be defined as a social problem, and, at a global level, how conventional notions of North and South need to be reimagined in order to grasp the transnational dimensions of poverty and inequality.
Elizabeth Anderson’s essay in our “What is Inequality?” series calls attention to the limits of conceptualizing inequality through the lenses of distribution and discrimination. Anderson emphasizes a relational approach to inequality, one that focuses on enduring social hierarchies. Looking at inequality relationally, Anderson argues, better helps us understand the goals of egalitarian social movements in a way that encompasses claims for distributional fairness and the elimination of discriminatory practices.
Erik Olin Wright helps launch our “What Is Inequality?” series by offering two narratives of inequality. One focuses on individual attributes and the norm of equal opportunity, the other on social and political structures and democracy as a normative ideal. In arguing for the structural approach, Wright contends that power relations shape the distribution of opportunities, and thus inequalities, in ways that are beyond what can be captured by a perspective that focuses on individual attributes alone.
Jennifer Hochschild’s contribution is the first of several essays in our “What Is Inequality?” series that reflect on how university-based programs and institutes promote research and training on inequality. Hochschild outlines how the program she leads at Harvard provides both disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives for the study of social policies that shape or address inequality. She then discusses three understudied substantive dimensions of inequality that demand further attention from students of social policy: deeper knowledge of those at top of the socioeconomic ladder, the relationship between economic and political inequalities, and better understanding of the trade-offs involved when inequality increases within historically marginalized groups.