Inequality is a trending topic in public discourse among the democracies of the world. But what is inequality? Given the ways values are intertwined with the idea of inequality, how should the social sciences understand it? The questions we ask the social sciences to answer are inextricably connected to human interests. We want to know, for example, if and when inequality is bad for people, or serves valuable social functions. Our conception of inequality should track these normative concerns. We could turn to political philosophy to sharpen our ideas. But political philosophy itself is only vital when it addresses the concerns of the wider public.

“Inequality does not become an explicit object of theorizing until it is challenged.”

This suggests a path forward: we should draw our conception of inequality from the social movements that have made it a central concern. That is, it should be able to track what these movements do and have cared about. Historically, concern about inequality has originated from egalitarian social movements, which have made inequality an object of contention. Inequality does not become an explicit object of theorizing until it is challenged. There are, of course, inegalitarian movements as well. But they arise in reaction to the egalitarian movements, in defense of the inequalities under challenge, and so inevitably take their cues from egalitarian movements. So, the social sciences should delineate conceptions of inequality that track the normative concerns of egalitarian social movements. This is not necessarily to endorse these movements. Whether their evaluations of inequality are sound, and whether their solutions are any good, depends on empirical inquiry into the consequences of inequality and equality, as these movements understand them.

The limitations of distributive and discrimination models

It might seem that my proposed method—to delineate the concept of inequality from the concerns of egalitarian social movements—begs the question: How can we identify what counts as an egalitarian movement without already having a conception of equality (and thus, inequality) on hand? In practice, this is not so difficult. The movements themselves declare their egalitarian concerns in the content of their complaints: for example, feminists are against gender inequality, socialists against class inequality, antiracists against racial inequality, and so forth. Political philosophy enters to offer a theoretically articulated conception of inequality that captures the object of their critique. Social science investigates the phenomena covered by that conception, including their causes and consequences, and thereby supplies knowledge that feeds back into the normative concerns of these movements and their conceptions of inequality.

“Applying this method leads us to challenge two dominant ways of conceiving inequality.”

Applying this method leads us to challenge two dominant ways of conceiving inequality, which I will call the “distributive” and the “discrimination” models. On the distributive model, inequality consists in patterns of the distribution of goods (and bads), in which some individuals or social groups have more than others. We have developed sophisticated measures of inequality in income and wealth, education, health and morbidity, and so forth. Yet egalitarian social movements have frequently articulated claims that are not easy to fit into this conception. Antiracist activists in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrated against racial segregation of schools, hotels, restaurants, and parks. Feminists claim rights to reproductive freedom, and freedom from sexual harassment and assault. LGBT people claim the right to marry, rejecting civil partnership even when it is legally equivalent to marriage.  Some autistic activists seek acceptance of their differences rather than a “cure,” much as transgender people seek to depathologize their identities. Labor activists seek a voice for workers in decisions about working conditions. In the United States, some workers are still fighting for the right to urinate during working hours.

These claims do not seek equality in the distribution of material goods. Brown v. Board of Education declared racially segregated schools inherently unequal, even had they been equally funded. Control over reproduction is not distributed more equally between men and women when women gain access to contraception and abortion. The bare verbal difference between marriage and civil partnership is enough to make it objectionable to many LGBT activists, even when the two forms are legally equivalent.

The second dominant way of thinking about inequality comes from legal discourse, where inequality is conceived as discrimination—as differential treatment of individuals on forbidden grounds, such as race and sex. One might try to fit opposition to racial segregation into an antidiscrimination conception of equality. This conception yields a considerably narrower view of the target of egalitarian opposition, neglecting the myriad ways in which de facto segregation is perpetuated by formally race-neutral policies and decisions, such as zoning regulations. In addition, many of the other egalitarian objectives don’t easily fit the discrimination model. Women would not be satisfied in a workplace governed by the oft-used hypothetical “bisexual boss,” who indiscriminately subjects all employees to unwelcome sexual advances. Nor would workers be satisfied by a workplace regime in which bosses, too, were denied access to the bathroom.

A relational conception of inequality

“I advocate a third way of conceiving of inequality, which focuses on social relations.”

I advocate a third way of conceiving of inequality, which focuses on social relations. In this view, inequality consists in unequal social relations—enduring practices whereby some people occupy superior positions and interact with others as inferiors, along with institutions that establish and maintain such relations. In other words, inequality refers to varieties of social hierarchy. Hierarchy can be analyzed along three broad dimensions of normative concern: power, status, and standing. In a hierarchy of power, superiors dominate inferiors: they hold power over inferiors, by being able to order them around or arbitrarily limit their options, in ways that inferiors are powerless to challenge. In a hierarchy of status, superiors are exalted in esteem, while holding inferiors in contempt. Superiors monopolize honors; inferiors are stigmatized, despised, ostracized. Myriad social practices reinforce status hierarchy, including honorific titles, pathologizing and closeting of stigmatized identities, and modes of dress, speech, and bodily comportment (consider how “manspreading” expresses a masculine assertion of entitlement to physical space). In a hierarchy of standing, the interests and perspectives of superiors count in the thinking and deliberation of third parties, while those of inferiors count much less or may be ignored altogether. Usually, the same groups enjoy superiority on all three dimensions. But they can sometimes come apart, particularly in relation to different groups. For example, under the law of coverture, women who married into wealth could enjoy high esteem relative to workers, but were powerless in relation to their husbands.

The relational perspective on inequality comprehends the full range of concerns of egalitarian social movements. Distributive inequality is one form of inequality of standing: wielding greater material resources is one way to ensure that one’s interests count more in the decisions of goods and service providers than those who cannot afford to pay as much. Discrimination is another way in which hierarchies of standing are expressed and reproduced. Yet the concept of discrimination is too intentional to account for modes of unequal standing that manifest in habits of relative neglect and implicit bias that pervade public policy making among other domains. Institutions such as local financing of public services can also be structurally neglectful without any individual decisionmaker engaging in even unintentional discrimination. In addition, as recent work by Miranda Fricker, José Medina, and others have stressed (through the notion of epistemic injustice), unequal standing arises in knowledge- and meaning-making, not only with respect to the distribution of material goods and opportunities. Feminists have long objected to the systematic discounting of women’s testimony with respect to complaints of rape and sexual harassment. Before they developed the concept of sexual harassment, society lacked the conceptual resources even to comprehend the complaints of its victims: experiences central to women’s subordination lacked an adequate accounting.

Additional concerns that are difficult to grasp within the distributive and discrimination conceptions of inequality become comprehensible in the relational view. “Separate but equal” could never be equal, even if the facilities offered to whites and blacks were materially identical, because the point of segregation was to stamp blacks with the stigma of untouchability. Similarly, the central expressive point of creating civil partnership as a separate legal regime for gay and lesbian couples is to reserve marriage as a higher-status relationship for heterosexual couples. This is objectionable for the ways it stigmatizes gay and lesbian couples as inferior. Movements to depathologize various identities, including trans, queer, autistic, and Deaf identities, seek not only better treatment of members of these groups from others, but also elimination of stigmatizing representations of them.

The goal of eliminating relations of domination and subordination helps us understand other cases difficult to fit into the distributive and discrimination conceptions of inequality. Workers seek a voice over their conditions of work not to get the same, or even more equal conditions as their bosses, but to escape subjection to their arbitrary and unaccountable decisionmaking. Women seek reproductive freedom and freedom from sexual harassment as an essential condition not only of bodily autonomy but to escape gendered norms of sexual conduct that enforce men’s power over women’s sexuality.

Enduring and social instituted inequalities

“Certain kinds of unequal distribution and discrimination are irrelevant from an egalitarian point of view.”

The relational conception of inequality also helps explain why certain kinds of unequal distribution and discrimination are irrelevant from an egalitarian point of view. To conceive of inequality as a matter of durable social hierarchies, entrenched in social institutions, habits, and public representations, helpfully focuses our attention on socially instituted group inequalities. Not every inequality between any two randomly-selected individuals matters from an egalitarian point of view. There are no social movements calling for compensation on behalf of individuals unluckily born with an irritable temperament. The fundamental inequalities that matter are socially instituted, not mere matters of luck. Not even every act of discrimination on morally arbitrary grounds matters from an egalitarian point of view. An employer might unconsciously favor a job applicant for wearing his favorite color at the job interview. Such arbitrary discrimination, being idiosyncratic, has no tendency to establish or reinforce durable social hierarchy. Hence it is irrelevant from an egalitarian point of view, even if it is unjustified.

Recent philosophical work on inequality has stressed the supposed injustice of idiosyncratic inequalities in the distributions of goods that are due to bad luck as opposed to social institutions. This effaces the centrality of social hierarchy as an object of egalitarian concern. There are vast differences between material inequalities that happen by accident and those imposed by others, either through direct discrimination or institutionalized subordination, stigmatization, and disregard. The latter inflict expressive harms that reach to the core of people’s identities. In the wake of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and other black men and boys, the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite arose to document how whites committing crimes receive lenient treatment by the police compared to blacks. In some cases, police have taken care to spare the lives of white men who were actually shooting at them. What does it say about racial inequality in the United States that police will shoot a black boy, Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun, but not a white man trying to kill them? Black Lives Matter captures the heart of the problem: the most fundamental inequality is not simply in the chance of getting killed, or even in the fact of racial discrimination. It lies in what this discrimination expresses: the systematic disregard for the value of black lives. This is an inequality in how police value black people compared to whites, not simply an inequality in what blacks and whites happen to have. The relational conception of inequality captures this concern, in which inequalities of power, esteem, and standing are united.