Social inequality

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Social inequality refers to relational processes in society that have the effect of limiting or harming a group’s social status, social class, and social circle. Areas of social inequality include access to voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, the extent of property rights and access to education, health care, quality housing, traveling, transportation, vacationing and other social goods and services. Apart from that it can also be seen in the quality of family and neighbourhood life, occupation, job satisfaction, and access to credit. If these economic divisions harden, they can lead to social inequality.[1]

The reasons for social inequality can vary, but are often broad and far reaching. Social inequality can emerge through a society’s understanding of appropriate gender roles, or through the prevalence of social stereotyping. Social inequality can also be established through discriminatory legislation. Social inequalities exist between ethnic or religious groups, classes and countries making the concept of social inequality a global phenomenon. Social inequality is different from economic inequality, though the two are linked. Social inequality refers to disparities in the distribution of economic assets and income as well as between the overall quality and luxury of each person's existence within a society, while economic inequality is caused by the unequal accumulation of wealth; social inequality exists because the lack of wealth in certain areas prohibits these people from obtaining the same housing, health care, etc. as the wealthy, in societies where access to these social goods depends on wealth.

Social inequality is linked to racial inequality, gender inequality, and wealth inequality.[2] The way people behave socially, through racist or sexist practices and other forms of discrimination, tends to trickle down and affect the opportunities and wealth individuals can generate for themselves. Thomas M. Shapiro presents a hypothetical example of this in his book, The Hidden Cost of Being African American, in which he tries to demonstrate the level of inequality on the "playing field for blacks and whites". One example he presents reports how a black family was denied a bank loan to use for housing, while a white family was approved. As being a homeowner is an important method in acquiring wealth, this situation created fewer opportunities for the black family to acquire wealth, producing social inequality.[3]


Following are the major types or forms of social inequality.

Gender inequality[edit]

One of the major forms of social inequality comes in the form of gender. Gender identity refers to persons’ internal “acceptance of sex, gender, or sexual categorizations as descriptive of themselves”[4] Among other ways, transgender and gender-variant persons can express their gender through their appearance, the statements they make, or official documents they present. In this context, gender normativity, which is understood as the social expectations placed on us when we present particular bodies,[5] produces widespread cultural/institutional devaluations of trans identities, homosexuality and femininity.[6] Trans persons in particular have been defined as socially unproductive and disruptive.[7] The emphasis on gender inequality is born out of the deepening division in the roles assigned to men and women, particularly in the economic, political and educational spheres. Women are underrepresented in political activities and decision making processes in most states in both the Global North and Global South.[8] Gender discrimination - especially concerning the status of women - has been a topic of serious discussion not only within academic and activist communities, but also by governmental agencies and international bodies such as the United Nations. These discussions seek to identify and remedy widespread, institutionalized barriers to access for women in their societies. By making use of gender analysis, researchers try to understand the social expectations, responsibilities, resources and priorities of women and men within a specific context, examining the social, economic and environmental factors which influence their roles and decision-making capacity. By enforcing artificial separations between the social and economic roles of men and women, the lives of women and girls are negatively impacted, and this can have the effect of limiting social and economic development.[9]

It has been observed that global issues like HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, and poverty are experienced far more often by women than by men;[10] in many countries, women and girls face problems such as access to education, which limits their opportunities to succeed, and further limits their ability to contribute economically to their society.[11] Women are underrepresented in political activities and decision making processes throughout most of the world.[12] It is important to increase enrollment rates in school for girls and ensure they have safe, stable and good quality education.[13] Women’s participation in work has been increasing globally, but women are faced with wage discrepancies and differences compared to what men earn.[14] This is true globally even in the agricultural and rural sector in developed as well as developing countries.[15] Structural impediments to women's ability to pursue and advance in their chosen professions often result in a phenomenon known as the glass ceiling,[16] which refers to unseen - and often unacknowledged barriers that prevent minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. This effect can be seen in the corporate and bureaucratic environments of many countries, lowering the chances of women to excel. It prevents women from succeeding and making the maximum use of their potential, which is at a cost for women as well as the society’s development.[17] Ensuring that women's rights are protected and endorsed can promote a sense of belonging that motivates women to contribute to their society. Once able to work, women should be titled to the same job security and safe working environments as men.[18] Until such safeguards are in place, women and girls will continue to experience not only barriers to work and opportunities to earn, but will continue to be the primary victims of discrimination, oppression, and gender based violence.[19] Women and persons whose gender identity does not conform to patriarchal beliefs about sex (only male and female) continue to face violence on global domestic, interpersonal, institutional and administrative scales. While first-wave Liberal Feminist initiatives raised awareness about the lack of fundamental rights and freedoms that women have access to, second-wave feminism (see also Radical Feminism) highlighted the structural forces that underlie gender based violence. Masculinities are generally constructed so as to subordinate femininities and other expressions of gender that are not heterosexual, assertive and dominant.[20] Gender sociologist and author, Raewyn Connell, discusses in her 2009 book, Gender, how masculinity is dangerous, heterosexual, violent and authoritative. These structures of masculinity ultimately contribute to the vast amounts of gendered violence, marginalization and suppression that women, queer, transgender, gender variant and gender non-conforming persons face. Some scholars suggest that women's underrepresentation in political systems speaks the idea that "formal citizenship does not always imply full social membership".[21] Men, male bodies and expressions of masculinity are linked to ideas about work and citizenship. Others point out that patriarchal states tend top scale and claw back their social policies relative to the disadvantage of women.[22] This process ensures that women encounter resistance into meaningful positions of power in institutions, administrations, and political systems and communities.

Racial inequality[edit]

Racial inequality is the result of hierarchical social distinctions between ethnic groups within a society and often established based on characteristics such as skin color and other physical characteristics or an individual's place of origin or culture. Unequal treatment and opportunities between racial groups is usually the result of some ethnic groups being considered superior to others.This inequality can manifest through discriminatory hiring practices on job sites; in some cases, employers have been shown to prefer hiring potential employees based on the perceived ethnicity of a candidate’s given name - even if all they have to go by in their decision are resumes featuring identical qualifications.[23] Part of these sorts of discriminatory practices stem from Stereotyping which is when people form assumptions about the tendencies and characteristics of certain social groups, often including ethnic groups, and typically rooted in assumptions about biology, cognitive capabilities, or even inherent, moral failings.[24] These negative attributions are then disseminated through a society through a number of different mediums, including television, newspapers and the internet, all of which play a role in promoting preconceived notions of race that disadvantage and marginalize groups of people. This along with xenophobia and other forms of discrimination continue to occur in societies with the rise of globalization.[25]

Racial inequality can also result in diminished opportunities for members of marginalized groups, which in turn can lead to cycles of poverty and political marginalization. For example, during the run-up to the 2012 federal elections in the United States, legislation in certain “battleground states” that claimed to target voter fraud had the effect of disenfranchising tens of thousands of primarily African American voters.[26] These types of institutional barriers to full and equal social participation have far-reaching effects within marginalized communities, including reduced economic opportunity and output, reduced educational outcomes and opportunities and reduced levels of overall health.[27]

Research completed by NYU Professor Angela Davis, Norwegian scholar Nils Christie, University of Chicago Professor Loic Wacquant, and Rutgers Dean Todd Clear demonstrates how mass incarceration has been a modern tool of the state to impose inequality, repression, and discrimination upon African American and Latino persons.[28] In Canada, Aboriginal, First Nations and Indigenous persons represent over a quarter of the federal prison population, even though they only represent 3% of the country’s population. The War on Drugs has been an important campaign in ensuring the constant incarceration of poor, vulnerable, and marginalized populations in North America. Over a million African Americans are incarcerated in the US, many of whom have been convicted of a drug possession charge. With the States of Colorado and Washington having legalized the possession of marijuana, drug reformists and anti-war on drugs lobbyists are hopeful that drug issues will be interpreted and dealt with from a healthcare perspective, instead of a matter of criminal law.

Caste inequality[edit]

The caste system is a type of social inequality that exists primarily in India, as well as Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Japan and Korea.[29] Caste may be dependent on one’s occupation (functional) or based on origin or by birth (hereditary).[30][31] There are often a number of restrictions assigned to people of lower castes, such as restrictions on sharing food and drink with members of other castes, restrictions on going to certain places, the enforcement of endogamy, and the use of caste-based dress and food habits.[32] These restrictions can be enforced through physical violence or exploitation.[33] Lower castes are more likely to live in slums and have low status jobs and income.[34]

Age inequality[edit]

Age discrimination is defined as the unfair treatment of people with regard to promotions, recruitment, resources, or privileges because of their age. It is also known as ageism: the stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups based upon their age. It is a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify age-based prejudice, discrimination, and subordination.[35] One form of ageism is adultism, which is the discrimination against children and people under the legal adult age.[36] An example of an act of adultism might be the policy of a certain establishment, restaurant, or place of business to not allow those under the legal adult age to enter their premises after a certain time or at all. While some people may benefit or enjoy these practices, some find them offensive and discriminatory.

As implied in the definitions above, treating people differently based upon their age is not necessarily discrimination. Virtually every society has age-stratification, meaning that there are different allocated social roles for people of different ages to perform. Every society manages people’s aging by allocating certain roles for different age groups. Age discrimination primarily occurs when age is used as an unfair criterion for allocating more or less rewarding roles and resources. Scholars of age inequality have suggested that certain social organizations favor particular age inequalities. For instance, because of their emphasis on training and maintaining productive citizens, modern capitalist societies may dedicate disproportionate resources to training the young and maintaining the middle-aged worker to the detriment of the elderly and the retired (especially those already disadvantaged by income/wealth inequality).[37]

In modern, technologically advanced societies, there is a tendency for both the young and the old to be relatively disadvantaged. However, more recently, in the United States the tendency is for the young to be most disadvantaged. For example, Foner reports with regard to the US, “poverty levels in the first decade of the 21st Century were only slightly higher among people aged 65 and older than for people in the middle years, whereas children under 18 had the highest levels of poverty.” One possible reason for this may be that whereas the elderly have had the opportunity to build their wealth throughout their lives, younger people have the disadvantage of recently entering into or having not yet entered into the economic sphere.[38]

Although this does not exhaust the scope of age discrimination, in modern societies it is often discussed primarily with regards to the work environment. Indeed, nonparticipation in the labor force and the unequal access to rewarding jobs means that the elderly and the young are often subject to unfair disadvantages because of their age. On the one hand, the elderly are less likely to be involved in the workforce: “in 2003, less than 20% of people aged 65 and older in the United States were in the labor force....”[39] At the same time, old age may or may not put one at a disadvantage in accessing positions of prestige. Old age may benefit one in such positions, but it may also disadvantage one because of negative ageist stereotypes of old people. On the other hand, young people are often disadvantaged from accessing prestigious or relatively rewarding jobs, because of their recent entry to the work force or because they are still completing their education. Typically, once they enter the labor force or take a part-time job while in school, they start at entry level positions with low level wages. Furthermore, because of their lack of prior work experience, they can also often be forced to take marginal jobs, where they can be taken advantage of by their employers.

Class inequality[edit]

Illustration from a 1916 advertisement for a vocational school in the back of a US magazine. This advertisement appealed to Americans' belief in the possibility of social mobility, as well as threatening the consequences of ending up in the underclass in the great income inequality existing during the Industrial Revolution.

The measure of inequality between social classes depends on the definition used. For Karl Marx, two major social classes with significant inequalities existed: the working class (proletariat) and the capitalists (bourgeoisie). This simple division represents opposing social interests of its members, capital gain for the capitalists and survival for the laborers, creating inequality and social conflict. Marx associates oppression and exploitation with it. Max Weber, on the other hand, uses social classes as a stratification tool based on wealth and status. For him social class is strongly associated with prestige and privileges. It may explain social reproduction, the tendency of social classes to remain stable across generations maintaining most of their inequalities as well. Such inequalities include differences in income, wealth, access to education, pension levels, social status, socio-economic safety-net.[40] In general, social class can be defined as a large category of similarly ranked people located in a hierarchy and distinguished from other large categories in the hierarchy by such traits as occupation, education, income, and wealth.[41] A common understanding of social classes today includes upper class, middle class, and lower class. Members of different classes have varied access to capital resources, affecting their placement in the social-stratification system.[42] In terms of education, middle-class families have more money to spend on schooling, using it for such costs as private schooling, tutoring, or college payments.[43]

Social class in the United States is controversial because of the belief in individual choices and equal opportunities. Under the assumption that social mobility exist in the United States, individuals are responsible for their own social attainments.[44] This notion is not shared by most sociologists because the ideology of equal opportunity is unrealistic.[45] Opportunities are determined by individual’s financial and social means which are related to wealth, status, and availability of public support for low income groups. Their unequal distribution[46] provides more opportunities to the ones that already have a higher socioeconomic status (SES). In other words, income inequality in the United States is relatively high (see list of countries by income equality) and increasing. Because the American system of public school funding depends heavily on property tax, children in more affluent residential districts have better schools, smaller class sizes, better paid teachers, and higher quality supplies.[47][48][49] A family's cultural capital can affect children's schooling in different ways. Cultural Capital is a set of broadly shared outlooks, knowledge, skills, and behavior passed from one generation to the next.[43] While cultural capital, social capital, and human capital influence many aspects of ones life, it also influences peoples access to jobs and thus financial capital.

Another effect is limited access to quality health care[50] compared to the middle and upper class. Members of the lower class are exposed to more health hazards.[51] Disadvantaged people are more likely to live in areas where they are exposed to harm such as air-pollution and damp housing. Lower-status socioeconomic groups generally having poorer health[52][53][54] and higher rates of chronic illness including obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. The same applies to people of lower occupational classes

Inequalities in health[edit]

Health inequalities can be defined as differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups.[55] Health inequalities are in many cases related to access to health care. In industrialized nations, health inequalities are most prevalent in countries that have not implemented a universal health care system, such as the United States. Because the US health care system is heavily privatized, access to health care is dependent upon one’s economic capital; Health care is not a right, it is a commodity that can be purchased through private insurance companies (or that is sometimes provided through an employer). The way health care is organized in the U.S. contributes to health inequalities based on gender, socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity.[56] As Wright and Perry assert, “social status differences in health care are a primary mechanism of health inequalities”. In the United States, over 48 million people are without medical care coverage.[57] This means that almost one sixth of the population is without health insurance, mostly people belonging to the lower classes of society.

While universal access to health care may not completely eliminate health inequalities, it has been shown that it greatly reduces them.[58] In this context, privatization gives individuals the ‘power’ to purchase their own health care (through private health insurance companies), but this leads to social inequality by only allowing people who have economic resources to access health care. Citizens are seen as consumers who have a ‘choice’ to buy the best health care they can afford; in alignment with neoliberal ideology, this puts the burden on the individual rather than the government or the community.[59]

In countries that have a universal health care system, health inequalities have been reduced. In Canada, for example, equity in the availability of health services has been improved dramatically through Medicare. People don’t have to worry about how they will pay health care, or rely on emergency rooms for care, since health care is provided for the entire population. However, inequality issues still remain. For example, not everyone has the same level of access to services.[60] Inequalities in health are not, however, only related to access to health care. Even if everyone had the same level of access, inequalities may still remain. This is because health status is a product of more than just how much medical care people have available to them. While Medicare has equalized access to health care by removing the need for direct payments at the time of services, which improved the health of low status people, inequities in health are still prevalent in Canada[61] This may be due to the state of the current social system, which bear other types of inequalities such as economic, racial and gender inequality.

A lack of health equity is also evident in the developing world, where the importance of equitable access to healthcare has been cited as crucial to achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals. Health inequalities can vary greatly depending on the country one is looking at. Inequalities in health are often associated with socioeconomic status and access to health care. Health inequities can occur when the distribution of public health services is unequal. For example, in Indonesia in 1990, only 12% of government spending for health was for services consumed by the poorest 20% of households, while the wealthiest 20% consumed 29% of the government subsidy in the health sector.[62] Access to health care is heavily influenced by socioeconomic status as well, as wealthier population groups have a higher probability of obtaining care when they need it. A study by Makinen et al. (2000) found that in the majority of developing countries they looked at, there was an upward trend by quintile in health care use for those reporting illness. Wealthier groups are also more likely to be seen by doctors and to receive medicine.[63]

See also[edit]


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  38. ^ Ibid.
  39. ^ Ibid.
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  56. ^ Wright, Eric R.; Perry, Brea L. (2010). "Medical Sociology and Health Services Research: Past Accomplishments and Future Policy Challenges". Journal of Health and Social Behaviour: 107–119. 
  57. ^ "US Census". 
  58. ^ Veugeulers, P; Yip, A. (2003). "Socioeconomic Disparities in Health Care Use: Does Universal Coverage Reduce Inequalities in Health?". Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57 (6): 107–119. 
  59. ^ Hacker, Jacob S. (2006). The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement - and How You Can Fight Back. Oxford University Press. 
  60. ^ Grant, Karen R. (1994). Health and Health Care in Essentials of Contemporary Sociology. Toronto: Copp Clark Longman. p. 275. 
  61. ^ Grant, K.R. (1998). The Inverse Care Law in Canada: Differential Access Under Universal Free Health Insurance. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 118–134. 
  62. ^ World Bank (1993). World Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  63. ^ Mankinen et al. "Inequalities in Health Care Use and Expenditures: Empirical Data from Eight Developing Countries and Countries in Transition". 

Further reading[edit]

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