Is Inequality a Person Problem?
Identity is only one element in the construction of inequality.
Posted Jan 04, 2018
Evidence from survey research suggests that most people in the United States recognize economic inequality as a social problem in our society. And many of us are willing to acknowledge that discrimination based on categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation is unjustifiable and unwarranted. But there is much less consensus when it comes to explaining the causes of inequality. All too often, when confronted with a particular example of poverty, unemployment, or homelessness, for example, our initial reaction is to look to the qualities of the person for an answer. What did this person do to cause their position in life? Such a response is common and acceptable in large part because it is generally consistent with our culture of individualism, where self-sufficiency, independence, and self-reliance are valued and privileged traits (Callero, 2018). There is no doubt that personal characteristics matter and Individual choices do have consequences, but it is also true that identity is as much a sociological process as it is a psychological one. If we ignore the multiple and complex sociological factors at work in the construction of identity, we risk reducing inequality to a problem of the person.
Social inequality presents itself in many different forms and varies significantly between persons and groups, but there are at least five basic elements common to all types of inequality. I will refer to these elements as 1. sociological legacy, 2. reproduction and resistance, 3. power, 4. rules, and 5. identity. Identity is a core element, but before we can find solutions to the problem of inequality we must recognize that it operates in and through other elementary processes. In this Blog Post I will examine the first two elements: sociological legacy, and reproduction-resistance.
For most of human history, material resources necessary for survival and comfort have been scarce or meager for some individuals while abundant and hoarded by others. As a consequence, hunger, disease, poverty, fear, slavery, and servitude have always existed alongside health, happiness, freedom, dominance, and abundance. There are exceptions, of course, and there was a time in very early human history when relative equality may have existed, but in general terms, social inequality has been the rule for most every human society over the past 10,000 years. This means that the unequal distribution of wealth, power, privilege, and social status that we witness today, was firmly in place before any of us was born.
Consider, for example, the case of residential segregation based on race. The racial segregation that I observed as a young boy in my city was well established before I was born. I had no more hand in building the policies and practices of residential segregation than I did in establishing the African slave trade. In fact, racial segregation not only preceded my birth, but also preceded my parent’s birth and the birth of every other person in my neighborhood. For this reason, segregation, and social inequality more generally, can seem like an independent structure, or machine, that was constructed by our predecessors in the past but continues to operate on its own in the present. Like a runaway truck barreling downhill without a driver, social inequality can feel like it is outside of our control.
No matter what your station in life, wealthy or poor, privileged or disrespected, a history of inequality forms the foundation of our personal life experience. If we are born into a poor family, our economic future will be constrained. If we are born female, or a member of a racial minority, we will have fewer opportunities. And if we are lucky enough to be born into a family and neighborhood characterized by expensive homes, safe streets, and good schools, our economic future will be brighter, our bodies will be healthier, and life will be more pleasant.
But history is not destiny. The legacy of social inequality may very well establish the context of our social life, but it does not determine all outcomes. The momentum of historical inequality can be overwhelming, but it does not have a life of its own, and it cannot persist without the assistance of contemporary actors. In other words, if the historical legacy of inequality continues to shape life outcomes, it is because it is being reproduced by successive generations.
Reproduction and Resistance
The historical precedence and persistence of social inequality is difficult to explain if we think only in terms of isolated individuals making choices and acting on their own. It took the cooperative effort of many people to establish the slave trade, build a slave economy, and develop racially segregated institutions, and if the unequal distribution of resources based on race is to be maintained, it too requires the cooperation and joint activity of many people. The past may be prologue, but the prologue cannot write itself. In this way, the structure of inequality is less like a machine or runaway truck, and more like a language.
The English language, for example, has a recognizable structure defined by its vocabulary and rules of grammar, and no single person is responsible for its invention or its continuation. English as a language existed before all of us were born, and it will most certainly continue to exist after our death. But at the same time, the English language itself would disappear without a community of English language speakers. If nobody is around to speak or write the language, and nobody is around to hear or read the language, then the language cannot be reproduced. A language is not sustained in a dictionary or a book of grammar; it is kept alive by a community of language users. No one has to intentionally reproduce a language, but all users of a language are contributing to its reproduction.
The manner in which social inequality is reproduced involves a wide range of related social processes. In the case of racial segregation, there are blatant policies of exclusion, such as a legislative body establishing separate schools for whites and blacks, or real estate developers and homeowners who cooperate to keep blacks out of a neighborhood. But at the same time, individuals engaged in face-to-face interaction also help reproduce racial segregation in subtler ways that typically go unnoticed (such as when a white person reacts with surprise or suspicion when a nonwhite person is seen “their neighborhood”).
At the same time, it is important to recognize that the reproduction of social inequality is not inevitable. Oppressive social institutions and dominating social practices may have momentum, but no social structure is ever predestined. All of us possess some level of independence and agency from the forces of inequality, which is to say; positive social change is always on the horizon of possibilities. Resistance and reproduction represent opposing sides in a skirmish that takes places on multiple battlefields. Some are momentary scuffles that dissolve in seconds, while others are longstanding wars that last for generations. In both instances, however, the outcome is a matter of power.
In the blog post to follow, I will take up the elements of power, rules, and identity.
Callero, P. L. (2018). The Myth of Individualism: How Social Forces Shape our Lives. Lanham, Maryland: Roman and Littlefield.