Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. It is the differentiation preference of access of social goods in the society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class. Social inequality usually implies the lack of equality of outcome, but may alternatively be conceptualized in terms of the lack of equality of access to opportunity. The social rights include labour market, the source of income, health care, and freedom of speech, education, political representation, and participation.
Social inequality is linked to economic inequality, usually described on the basis of the unequal distribution of income or wealth, is a frequently studied type of social inequality. Although the disciplines of economics and sociology generally use different theoretical approaches to examine and explain economic inequality, both fields are actively involved in researching this inequality. However, social and natural resources other than purely economic resources are also unevenly distributed in most societies and may contribute to social status. Norms of allocation can also affect the distribution of rights and privileges, social power, access to public goods such as education or the judicial system, adequate housing, transportation, credit and financial services such as banking and other social goods and services.
Many societies worldwide claim to be meritocracies that is, that their societies exclusively distribute resources on the basis of merit. The term “meritocracy” was coined by Michael Young in his 1958 dystopian essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy” to demonstrate the social dysfunctions that he anticipated arising in societies where the elites believe that they are successful entirely on the basis of merit, so the adoption of this term into English without negative connotations is ironic; Young was concerned that the Tripartite System of education being practiced in the United Kingdom at the time he wrote the essay considered merit to be “intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education” and that the “obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications” it supported would create an educated middle-class elite at the expense of the education of the working class, inevitably resulting in injustice and eventually revolution.
Although merit matters to some degree in many societies, research shows that the distribution of resources in societies often follows hierarchical social categorizations of persons to a degree too significant to warrant calling these societies “meritocratic”, since even exceptional intelligence, talent, or other forms of merit may not be compensatory for the social disadvantages people face. In many cases, social inequality is linked to racial inequality, ethnic inequality, and gender inequality as well as other social statuses and these forms can be related to corruption. The most common metric for comparing social inequality in different nations is the Gini coefficient, which measures the concentration of wealth and income in a nation from 0 (evenly distributed wealth and income) to 1 (one person has all wealth and income). Two nations may have identical Gini coefficients but dramatically different economic (output) and/or quality of life, so the Gini coefficient must be contextualized for meaningful comparisons to be made.
Social inequality is found in almost every society. Social inequality is shaped by a range of structural factors, such as geographical location or citizenship status, and are often underpinned by cultural discourses and identities defining, for example, whether the poor are ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. In simple societies, those that have few social roles and statuses occupied by its members, social inequality may be very low. In tribal societies, for example, a tribal head or chieftain may hold some privileges, use some tools, or wear marks of office to which others do not have access, but the daily life of the chieftain is very much like the daily life of any other tribal member. Anthropologists identify such highly egalitarian cultures as “kinship-oriented”, which appear to value social harmony more than wealth or status. These cultures are contrasted with materially oriented cultures in which status and wealth are prized and competition and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures may actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing because they believe that could lead to conflict and instability. In today’s world, most of our population lives in more complex than simple societies. As social complexity increases, inequality tends to increase along with a widening gap between the poorest and the most wealthy members of society. Certain types of social classes and nationalities are finding themselves in a tough spot with where they fit into the social system and because of this they are experiencing social inequality.
Historical Context of Inequality and Social Unrest
The economies of the world have developed unevenly, historically, such that entire geographical regions were left mired in poverty and disease while others began to reduce poverty and disease on a wholesale basis. This was represented by a type of North–South divide that existed after World War II between First world, more developed, industrialized, wealthy countries and Third world countries, primarily as measured by GDP. From around 1980, however, through at least 2011, the GDP gap, while still wide, appeared to be closing and, in some more rapidly developing countries, life expectancies began to rise. However, there are numerous limitations of GDP as an economic indicator of social “well-being.”
If we look at the Gini coefficient for world income, over time, after World War II the global Gini coefficient sat at just under .45. From around 1959 to 1966, the global Gini increased sharply, to a peak of around .48 in 1966. After falling and levelling off a couple of times during a period from around 1967 to 1984, the Gini began to climb again in the mid-eighties until reaching a high or around .54 in 2000 then jumped again to around .70 in 2002. Since the late 1980s, the gap between some regions has markedly narrowed between Asia and the advanced economies of the West, for example but huge gaps remain globally. Overall equality across humanity, considered as individuals, has improved very little. Within the decade between 2003 and 2013, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions France, Japan, Spain the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind. By 2013, a tiny elite of multibillionaires, 85 to be exact, had amassed wealth equivalent to all the wealth owned by the poorest half (3.5 billion) of the world’s total population of 7 billion. Country of citizenship (an ascribed status characteristic) explains 60% of variability in global income; citizenship and parental income class (both ascribed status characteristics) combined explain more than 80% of income variability.
Social and Economic Reforms