30 August 2017
(rev 10/13/17)

Causes of Inequality: Analytical Strategies

Offered as the course: Social Stratification
SOC-GA 2137 – Fall 2017

Robert Max Jackson

This guide concerns the systematic analysis of social inequalities.  While stressing what causes social inequalities, it considers such topics as: what is a social inequality, how do social inequalities arise, why do they take different forms, why do they vary in degree across societies, what sustains social inequalities over time, how do various institutions and practices contribute to inequalities, and how does inequality change.

Table of Contents ...
click on a topic to go to that section

Overview  ·······  Scope, Organization, and Access  Read this first!
Topic I  ·······  Introduction
Topic II  ·······  What do we mean by social inequality?
Topic III  ·······  What are common forms of social inequality?
Topic IV  ·······  What distinguishes legitimate from illegitimate forms of inequality?
Topic V  ·······  What is the critical distinction between positional inequality and status inequality?
Topic VI  ·······  How do we understand "honor" status hierarchies, that lack apparent material bases?
Topic VII  ·······  How do people experience inequality and why do these experiences matter?
Topic VIII  ·······  How should we conceive interests in the analysis of inequality?
Topic IX  ·······  What determines the allocation of people (or other relevant unit) within a positional system of inequality?
Topic X  ·······  What are the bases of actions that secure dominance over time?
Topic XI  ·······  What induces reducing or overcoming inequalities?
Topic XII  ·······  What are the theoretical and empirical relationships between different forms of inequality?
Topic XIII  ·······  What causes inequality?
Topic XIV  ·······  What makes some forms of inequality more important than others to the organization of social structure and the patterns of human action?

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Table of Contents ...
click on a topic to go to that section

Overview  ··  Scope, Organization, and Access  Read this first!
Topic I  ··  Introduction
Topic II  ··  What is inequality?
Topic III  ··  The forms of social inequality?
Topic IV  ··  Legitimate vs. illegitimate inequality?
Topic V  ··  Positional vs. status inequality?
Topic VI  ··  Status hierarchies based on "honor"?
Topic VII  ··  The experience of inequality?
Topic VIII  ··  Interests?
Topic IX  ··  The allocation of people to positions?
Topic X  ··  Actions that secure dominance?
Topic XI  ··  Reducing or overcoming inequalities?
Topic XII  ··  Relationships between inequalities?
Topic XIII  ··  What causes inequality?
Topic XIV  ··  Are some inequalities more important?

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Table of Contents

Note: – This web site is both a subject reading guide and a course outline.  The contents are always in progress...   

This guide serves to provide both a guided, extended reading list on analyzing social inequality (or stratification) and the syllabus for a graduate course based on the core of this extended reading list (over 200 articles are included below).  The selection and organization of materials stresses primary analytical issues facing the study of inequality (rather than types of inequality or the popularity of topics).

Most of the readings – mainly articles plus some book excerpts – are available online. The list includes direct links to the online versions of all these references.  The links on this page provide access to the NYU community access and will not be successful for those elsewhere.  However, this entire page is mirrored with an externally oriented version (click here for the external version) that is the same as this except that it uses generic links. Anyone having access to online scholarly publications through their institutions should be able to gain access to the articles using the links on that page. Additionally, most of the links have the DOI number or the JStor number listed at the end of the citation; these can be used to access the publications if the links prove unsuccessful.  

Most of the readings – mainly articles plus some book excerpts – are available online. The list includes direct links to the online versions of all these references.  This page which you are now viewing is the alternative version designed for users outside of NYU. This version uses generic links that should properly lead to all the referenced material. These materials will be available to you if you are connecting from a university or other organizational network that has contracted rights to the material from its online publisher. Additionally, most of the links have the DOI number or the JStor number listed at the end of the citation; these can be used to access the publications if the links prove unsuccessful. (If you are from NYU, click here to go to the NYU oriented version of this page.)

Description – Scope, Organization, and Access :

The scope of the topics and materials.  Each kind of social inequality – such as class or gender – has distinctive dynamics and each concrete instance of inequality has historically and culturally specific characteristics.  Yet, all social inequalities also share critical common effects and requirements for persistence.  For example, all social inequalities produce legitimating ideologies, all must curb resistance, all have to transfer the unequal resources and positions to new generations, all produce divergent interests.  To understand a structural characteristic of some kind of inequality – such as legitimization processes in a class system or violence in gender inequality – we want to recognize that they represent a combination of the dynamics common to most inequality systems and the specific characteristics of that type of inequality.   The topics below pursue a series of fundamental questions about social inequalities, seeking to investigate the general dynamics of inequalities, comparing these dynamics across different types of inequality.  Examples of these topics include: what are the roles of interests in various kinds of inequalities, how is inequality sustained across generations, what processes induce conformity among both the advantaged and disadvantaged, what mechanisms prevent rebellion, and what decides the intensity of inequalities?

The readings represent the core of the stratification field in sociology, the materials that sociologists working in this area expect other others in the area to know, plus materials needed to pursue important analytic issues under represented in the field.

The class organization and goals.  The class is intended for both beginning and advanced graduate students.   Critical requirements for taking this course are a strong interest in inequality and a commitment to the class project of investigating new ideas.

In this class, each week's activities will be organized around an analytical task, as well as a set of readings.  Rather than focusing on discussion of the readings, the analytical tasks involve attempting an analysis of inequality related to the week's issue, building on the materials we read (in brief papers of 2-3 pages).  While mastering the existing research and theory is obviously a prerequisite to doing good work, the approach in this class seeks to develop analytical skills as well as understandings of the literature by stressing actual analyses of inequality rather discussions of the literature. 

The course readings stress the foundational sociological literature on inequality.  Each week we will all look at some common readings.  The course guide will also point toward a range of other recommended and related readings for further study for each topic - students are not expected to read these optional materials as part of the course.  The recommended and related readings represent what a student seeking to specialize in this area might read. Students in the class are encouraged to scan these optional lists each week and look at any pieces that seem particularly valuable or interesting. 

All class meetings are organized as discussions.  Part of our class discussions will be on the common readings and part on students' efforts to explore the analytical tasks  each week.  We will adjust the time devoted to these two goals according to our experiences over the class.  Every week, students will initiate discussions on readings and papers.  To see the discussant responsibilities for each week, go to: 

The readings below (the recommended and related readings as well as the common readings that are the basis of the course) are almost all available online – simply click the links to get to the articles.  For convenience, some readings are selections (excerpts from articles or books) that appear in two printed collections that are now available online: articles with "[Grusky – Classic]" appended to the listing are from Inequality: Classic Readings in Race, Class, & Gender, 2006, eds. David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelènyi; articles with "[Grusky - Contemporary]" appended are from Inequality Reader: Contemporary & Foundational Readings in Race, Class, & Gender, 2006, eds. David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelènyi – for most of the selections from these readers, alternative citations and links are also provided for the original publication or an appropriate alternative.Note: Links for all readings will appear in the online version of the course guide. 

A note on the "hidden" material below:  Each section of this guide includes – beside the common readings – three subsections, one for an analytical task, one for recommended readings, and one for related readings.  To simplify navigating through the course guide, only the headings for these subsections are initially visible.  The content of all these subsections are hidden (so that the beginning appearance of the page is similar to a standard syllabus) until the viewer clicks on the subsection heading, then its contents will appear.  While this organization is helpful for negotiating the page most of the time, it can become an obstacle if we want to search the page (for example, for a particular article) as searches will ignore the hidden material.  To overcome this limitation, it is possible to show all the hidden sections by clicking the § symbol at the top of the page (and simply reload the page to collapse all the "hidden" sections to their usual look).  The table of contents at the top of the page will still work to aid speedy navigation to any section.

The Topics

I. Introduction

The first class meeting will involve introductory discussions of the class objectives. 

II. What do we mean by social inequality?

How can we conceive of and talk about social inequality in ways that are general enough to apply across the range of relevant phenomena, consistent enough to minimize conceptual ambiguities, and precise enough to be analytically effective?  Inequality is ubiquitous.  People are unequal in every conceivable way in endless circumstances, both immediate and enduring, by both objective criteria and subjective experience.  So, what counts as social inequality?  Can we characterize it in ways that let us confidently and impartially assess when there is more or less of it?

III. What are common forms of social inequality?

What is the range of social inequalities that we should be addressing?  Pundits, scholars, and ordinary people usually focus on the couple forms of inequality they experience as most troubling.  Contemporary sociology's sometimes blinkered perspective is reflected in the many readers and texts on race, class, and gender.  The range of analytically relevant inequalities is considerably wider.

IV. What distinguishes legitimate from illegitimate forms of inequality?

We often use the term inequality to refer only to forms of inequality we consider unjust or otherwise undesirable.  Yet, much inequality is commonly accepted as appropriate, fair, or desirable in societies.  The amount of legitimacy attributed to a form of inequality can be anywhere between extremely high (e.g. the authority of parents over infants) to extremely low (e.g., slavery in a modern society with well-developed civil rights).  The assessment of legitimacy  should always consider potential differences among differentially situated groups (e.g., those enjoying advantages in a system of inequality, those disadvantaged, and those relatively unaffected), and the degree of agreement or disagreement about legitimacy assessments.  Analytically, we want to ask what processes or conditions cause a form of inequality to be considered more or less legitimate.  When does the legitimacy status of inequality change or become contested?

V. What is the critical distinction between positional inequality and status inequality?

To put it simply, positional inequality refers to inequalities between "positions" such as the different levels in an organizational hierarchy (e.g., president, divisional manager, supervisor, clerk).  These locations give their advantages and disadvantages to the people who circulate through them.  Status inequality refers to social advantages and disadvantages that adhere to categories of people without regard to the positions they hold (such as race).  Grasping the differences between these two "types" of inequality and the relationships between them is crucial for analytic clarity.  (This distinction has some similarity to the common contrast between achieved status and ascribed status, but it is analytically different.  Our distinction stresses the way inequality is socially organized while the achieved/ascribed concepts refer to the ways people acquire a characteristic.)

VI. How do we understand "honor" status hierarchies, that lack apparent material bases?

Academia is one good example of a well-developed system (or systems) of honorific inequality.  High school peer groups are often good examples of short-lived patterns of reputational inequality.  The idea of celebrity is usually associated with unequal prestige.  The key to honorific inequalities is that people compete for recognition and deference, rather than material goods, power, or opportunities.  Purely honorific inequality structures are rare, as the pursuit of prestige is commonly intermingled with materialistic inequities. The study of honor and prestige systems (other than in the specialized form of occupational prestige) is underdeveloped in sociology.  Theoretical works recognize its significance, but most treat honorific inequality as both causally derivative and of marginal importance when compared to economic and political inequalities.  While prestige and honor are elusively intangible, we are likely to misunderstand any type of inequality if they are ignored. 
   The reverse of celebrity is stigma, the reputational status that produces avoidance and shame rather than attraction and pride.  While honor and stigma can be the opposite ends of a continuum, more often each is contrasted with normality, as the absence of either high prestige or stigma is perceived and experienced as the ordinary.  Inequality focused on honor involves competition to gain status recognition, while inequality focused on stigma involves involves efforts to avoid being identified as flawed.

VII. How do people experience inequality and why do these experiences matter?

Research on inequalities commonly treats experience as a simple effect of inequality; interesting but secondary to theory and explanation.  Here we want to think of experience not only as a result, but also as a potential ingredient to the explanation of inequalities.  The experiences of inequalities can serve as strong motivating forces at all levels.  The experiences also encompass not only the outcomes of inequality, but all the processes that sustain or challenge it.

VIII. How should we conceive interests in the analysis of inequality?

Almost everyone analyzing any system of inequality refers to "interests" sooner or later, even authors who emphasize cultural or normative explanations.  Yet, interests usually receive casual, unsystematic treatment.  This casual reliance on interests builds on two simple assumptions: (1) a range of relevant potential actions and events will have differential consequences for people depending on their location in a system of inequality and (2) anticipation or past experiences of these consequences will influence peoples' actions.  From this starting point the considerations of interests take many routes, considering objective and subjective interests, individual versus collective interests, realistic compared to misconceived interests, consistent versus inconsistent interests, contradictory and ambiguous interests, and so on.  Simply put, every theory of inequality relies on a theory of interests (even if a negative theory).

IX. What determines the allocation of people (or other relevant unit) within a positional system of inequality?

This issue includes questions commonly addressed in the literatures on social mobility and status attainment (and on placement within organizations).  More or less independent of its occupants, a system of positional inequality has a static "structure" characterized by the direct relationships of authority and dependence between positions; the ranking of positions according to the rewards, authority, opportunities, and statuses attached to them; and the demographic profile defined by the number of positions of each type.  A positional inequality system also has a dynamic structure defined by the movement of people through it, both within careers and between generations.  These two components of structure – the static and the dynamic – are linked by the selection processes controlling access to positions.  We can usefully conceive positional inequality as the juxtaposition of two parallel systems that are often confused or conflated: first, the structure of relationships among the positions constituting the system of inequality (e.g., the enduring authority relationship between a managerial position and a line-worker position), and, second, the relations between the people who occupy these positions (e.g., the interactions between managers and workers).  The patterns of people's movement between positions both reflects and influences the relationships among positions, but it also shows the impact of impinging status inequalities. To understand the inequalities among people, we obviously need to understand what decides which people occupy which positions.

X. What are the bases of actions that secure dominance over time?

From those enjoying the most privileged positions to those suffering the most disadvantages, people may believe that the system of inequality that divides them reflects the elusively differential favor of the gods, the cruel fate of nature's uneven treatment, or unavoidable results of people's differential efforts and capacities.  In truth, systems of inequality require work to keep them going, particularly the efforts of those in superior positions to preserve the shape of the system and their positions within it.  We cannot hope to grasp the logic of a system of inequality until we understand what this work is and how it gets done.

XI. What induces reducing or overcoming inequalities?

Inequality systems do not only have causes that bring them into existence and causes that preserve them, they also have causes that potentially reduce or eliminate them.   Systems of inequality may decline because they are pushed out of the way by new systems of inequality, because they simply become increasingly ineffective or irrelevant, because the disadvantaged are increasingly able to overcome their circumstances as individuals, or because the system is dramatically overturned by collective actions from below or intrusion from invaders.  How and why these processes dilute, undermine, or eliminate inequalities is theoretically underdeveloped.

XII. What are the theoretical and empirical relationships between different forms of inequality?

Multiple systems of inequality coexist in societies, with crosscutting categories and with individuals simultaneously located in each.  An older tradition in sociology suggested that the degree of overlap between different forms of inequality was one condition influencing the likelihood of class formation.  A more recent interest has been the "intersection" between race, gender, and class as experienced by individuals, with the central (largely atheoretical) premise that the implications of one's status in one system depends on one's statuses in the others.  Our concern here is more at the level of inequality's organization, asking in what ways different systems of inequality interact with each other.

XIII. What causes inequality?

Perhaps the most fundamental question about inequalities, and sometimes seeming the most illusive to answer, is the misleadingly simple question, what causes inequality?  While no general, all embracing answer is possible (at this time), progress in understanding inequality demands that we continually try to improve our analyses of the causes.  Any effort to do this must consider different forms of causation that are possible. 

XIV. What makes some forms of inequality more important than others to the organization of social structure and the patterns of human action?

Some have argued that class dominates in particular societies or all societies.  Others have suggested that gender inequality is the most fundamental inequality.  Putting aside grand claims, most would agree that some kinds of inequality have greater influence over the organization of a society (or other social entity) and the history of that organization.  How we can systematically assess the relative importance of different kinds of inequality and what decides their differential importance are not clear.

Topics in Waiting
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XV. How does resistance by subordinate groups work?


People do not enjoy the lower status, fewer rewards, subjection to authority, and other disadvantages attached to being at the lower end of a system of inequality.  This may result in anything between a mild, occasional resentment and a continuous, burning hatred with their fate.  Fear, identification with the system, search for praise from those above, or hope for personal advancement may induce some to conform as much as possible with the expectations of the advantaged.  Still, wherever inequality exists, resistance exists. 

  • Analytical Task
    • Analytical task:  Resistance
    • Select two examples of inequality. In each case, how do the disadvantaged resist?
    • While identifying resistance, consider <
      • everyday, commonly repeated actions of the disadvantaged
      • unusual, more extreme individual actions by some disadvantaged
      • collective or organized forms of resistance
    • What conditions, rules, processes, and actions limit resistance? To recognize these obstacles, consider why the identified forms of resistance are not more common, more extreme, or more effective?
  • Common Readings
    • [to be added]
  • Recommended Readings
    • ...
    • ...
  • Related Readings
    • ...
    • ...

VIII. How can we understand the logic of structures of unequal positions?

A system of inequality is a "system."  From a functionalist perspective, its persistence requires mechanisms to ensure conformity to its rules and expectations, to recruit adequate personnel to sustain operation, to preserve commitment of those in advantaged statuses and limit rebellion from others, and so forth.  From a structuralist perspective, it will induce latent conflicts that must be contained, it will require legitimating ideology, it must enforce unequal effort and unequal rewards, and so forth.  A system of inequality has structure, it has processes that occur over time, it has mechanisms to sustain itself.  Are there ways we can conceive these elements that allow us to talk with a common language about the structural logics of diverse systems of inequality?

  • Analytical Task
    • Analytical task.
    • Select and list five or more distinctive systems of inequality.  From each of the past weeks in this class, select one system of inequality from the weekly papers .  The possibilities from which to choose includes any system of inequality that appears in any of the papers for a given week. 
    • As usual, briefly describe each system of inequality.  Who are included, what is unequally distributed, who are advantaged or disadvantaged, and the like.  If you are going to consider a subset of a larger system of inequality, be clear about what you are doing and why.

  • Common Readings
    •  Review readings of past weeks
  • Recommended Readings
    • ...
    • ...
  • Related Readings
    • ...
    • ...

*. What are general dimensions of inequality systems, by which we can characterize, compare, and categorize them?

Generally, researchers and theorists treat different kinds of inequalities as if they existed in  distinct and unrelated conceptual worlds, although they might empirically overlap in concrete historical settings.  Various empirical instances of racial inequality are compared, as are different instances of income inequality or organizational hierarchies, but divergent kinds of inequality each get their own, independent analytic turf.  The divisions between "kinds" of inequality are not the result of any systematic logic, but treated as self-evident, natural distinctions. 

*. What might be general principles of systems of inequality? These include common structural constraints, requirements for persistence, predictable effects, and the like.

IX-2. {Optional – If Needed} How should we conceive interests in the analysis of inequality?  [part 2]

Continuing the analysis of interests.

  • Analytical Task
    • Analytical Task 2 on Interests 
    • Taking into account the insights and concerns developed in the Common Readings listed below, write a critical review of Jackson's effort to use interests as a theoretical device and analytical tool in the studies of class and gender inequality listed above.
  • How to write a critical review
    • Although scholars spend much time and effort writing critiques of published work, and graduate students spend even more, systematic treatments of the criteria for, and strategies toward, good critiques are rare. Here are just a few points to consider.
    •   A critique can never be better than its author's understanding of the work being criticized.  And a reader cannot appreciate the intent of the critique beyond their grasp of the critic's reading of the original work.  This means that to write a good critical review, we must first be sure we understand what we are criticizing and, second, we must present a clear summary of that understanding as part of our critique.
    • Although there are important exceptions, most critical reviews really are elaborations of the answer to a simple question.  After reading the piece, do I, the critic, find the argument worthwhile or not?  However elaborate or simple, with whatever style of presentation, the review is largely an effort to present a sustained defense of that evaluation.
    • A good review is always fair.  We should never shy from identifying a flaw or calling a mistake what it is.  But we should always try to use the language and tone that we hope reviewers will use when they reveal the similar failings in our work.
      • We review manuscripts, articles, and books.  We do not review people.  Brilliant scholars write dim papers – they are not dim as a result.  A wise reviewer avoids referring to the author, and concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses of the work being reviewed.  For example, saying that "the arguments in the last and first sections contradict each other" is preferable to saying "in the last section, the author contradicts what she said in the first section".  Attributing thoughts and intentions to an author is worse.  Sitting in judgment of the author's intellect, effort, or morality is worst. 
      • As reviewers, we commonly want to be clear about two interpretations of what has been accomplished in the work being reviewed: that of the author and that of the reviewer.  Sometimes these will be the same; often not.  A critic has no obligation to share the author's view of the what has been done in the work.  But the scholarly critic does have an obligation to grasp and accurately present the author's aims and orientation as they are conveyed in the work. 
      • When an author sees a review, the author should not feel (1) the reviewer has said or implied I said something that I never said or implied or (2) the reviewer has said or implied that I failed to consider something that is explicitly part of my presentation. 
      • Good scholars do not mind critical reviews, even highly critical ones, that are accurate and fair.  Good scholars despise reviews that are inaccurate or unfair, even if they are positive.
    • What a review covers depends on the review's purpose, the audience, and the content and quality of the work being reviewed.  No possible recipe of ingredients will apply to all or even most reviews.  The closest we can come to this is to list common elements of reviews, understanding that the reviewer must judge what weight, if any, each merits in a particular review.  Some of these common elements to consider in reviews include:
      • Does the work have a central thesis, argument or claim that is clear, relatively unambiguous, fully presented, logically consistent, and not inherently flawed?
      • Does the work adequately consider alternative arguments?
      • Does the work provide evidence that effectively supports the advocated claim over alternative claims?
        • Is the evidence well chosen, properly gathered, and effectively analyzed (or is the work methodologically sound)?
        • How compelling is the evidence?
      • Does the work neglect or misconstrue some relevant research or theory in ways that raise questions and significantly diminish confidence in its claims?
      • Are there serious logical flaws or gaps in the analysis?
      • Overall, is the argument compelling?
      • Overall, is the analysis a valuable contribution?  Or, does it have something to say that is worth saying?
  • Common Readings
  • Recommended Readings
  • Related Readings
    • ...
    • ...

*. What is the theoretical natural state: is it inequality or equality that should be explained?

Sometimes a seemingly tangential question has the potential to gain us unexpected insights.  At least since Rousseau wrote the on the origins of inequality we have been able to conceive that either equality or inequality may be considered the problem to explain.  While modern sociology attributes little explanatory value to ideas about the natural state of humankind, we may still hope to enhance our understanding by juxtaposing efforts to identify the social mechanisms responsible for inequality with those aimed at specifying the mechanisms that induce equality.

VIII. How do people experience inequality and why do these experiences matter – part 2?

This is a continuation of the previous week's topic

  • Analytical Task
    • Analytical task.  Rewrite analytical task of last week.
    • While rewriting, pay particular attention to the clear identification of the systems of inequality.  The examples used may be a subset of a system, a particular context in a system, or a location that is the intersection of two systems.  Try to clarify this as much as possible.  Try to think about what is unequal, and who are all the people or all the positions that are related to those in the example (and each other) by the inequality in the example. 
    • Recall that some examples of inequality amongst people are more appropriately understood as the effects of a system of inequality.  If people have different quality housing as a result of income inequality, we usually want to conceive of this as an effect of income inequality, rather than analyzing housing inequality as a system of inequality.  The "system" of inequality is where the causal dynamics between the advantaged and disadvantaged are centered.  There is no hard and fast rule about the proper way to define a system of inequality, because the optimal way of understanding an inequality will depend on our analytical goals
  • Common Readings
    •  Review readings of past weeks
  • Recommended Readings
    • Review readings of past weeks
    • ...
  • Related Readings
    • Review readings of past weeks
    • ...

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