20 October 2010

Inequality: Advanced Seminar


Fall 2010

Robert Max Jackson

<The following is a syllabus in progress; further changes will be coming.>


    In this seminar we will investigate how to analyze inequality.  In sociology, our scholarship, our textbooks, and our discussions have long given center stage to various kinds of inequality: by class, race, gender, income, age, region, religion, education, and more.  Inequality is a focus of much sociological work and it is a framing consideration for most of the rest.  So, we write about it a lot and read about it a lot.  Most of this work concerns one type of inequality, such as gender or class, rather than general dynamics of inequality.  While this makes sense in the context of most specific studies, it has limited the growth  in our capacity for theoretical insights and accurate analyses.  Consider an example.  Efforts to explain male violence toward women often refer to sex differences in strength or in tendencies toward violence.  In contrast, no one worries about physical or inherent differences when trying to make sense of plantation owners' violence toward slaves.  Yet, in both cases we are trying to understand why and how dominant groups practice violence against subordinate groups. 

    In this class we will pursue a series of topics about the general dynamics of inequalities.  Examples of these topics include: what are the roles of interests in various kinds of inequalities, how is inequality sustained across generations, what are the mechanisms that prevent rebellion against the expectations of inequalities, and what decides the intensity of inequalities. 

    Our goal is gain an analytical understanding of social inequality.  This means that we want to understand the crucial dynamics that characterize all kinds of social inequality, than we know what kinds of questions we need to ask to discover how a specific kind of social inequality works.

    Each student will choose one kind of social inequality on which to concentrate during the semester.  Each week, students will try to figure out how the week's topic applies to the inequality they are investigating.  For example, if we are considering how legitimacy processes influence inequality, then a student concentrating on gender inequality will examine the legitimacy's role in women's subordination while a student concentrating on inequality within organizations will investigate legitimacy processes in organizational hierarchies. 


    By the third week, each student will select some kind of inequality on which to concentrate for the semester.  The goal is to prepare a term paper that investigates the chosen type of inequality, using the analytic questions and tools we develop through our weekly topics.  Each week, students will write brief papers (perhaps 2 pages), examining the relevance of that week's topic to their selected inequality concentrations.  These brief papers will serve each week as a mechanism to fuel and guide our discussions.  Simultaneously, they will serve as the building blocks from which each student will begin to construct the term paper. 
    Students should read all papers each week before class.  Students will have responsibility to come with prepared comments to make on two papers each week.  Click here for discussant assignments.

  The readings below that are not attributed to another source are in David Grusky, Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective.  Whenever possible, all other readings will be articles available for download.  The links will appear in the  on-line version of the course syllabus.
    Each sections of the syllabus includes--beside the common readings--subsections for an analytical task, recommended readings, and related readings.  To simplify navigating through the syllabus, the items in these subsections are hidden until the viewer clicks on the subsection heading, then they will appear.  Some of these subsections, particularly those for  recommended and related readings will be developed  considerably further as the course progresses.

The Weekly 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 blinkered perspective is nicely 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 status inequality.  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.

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

Research on inequalities often 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. 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).  Positional inequality can be conceived as the juxtaposition of two systems: first, the structure of relationships between the positions constituting the system and, second, the relations between the people who occupy these positions.  The patterns of people's movement among positions both reflects and influences the relationships among positions, but it also shows the impact of impinging status inequalities.  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.  Positional inequality systems also have dynamic structures defined by the movement of people through them, both within careers and between generations.  These two components of structure are linked by the selection processes controlling access to positions.

IX. 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).

X. 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. 

XI. 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 a simple reflection of people's efforts.  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.

XII. 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. 

XIV. 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.