Changing Forms of Inequalities

The title refers to an article by Charles Tilly, "Changing Forms of Inequality", Sociological Theory, 21:1, March 2003, pp. 31- 36.

The starting point of the article is the critique of the usual individualist premises that tend to dominate discussions of inequalities, congealed into a model with the following properties, as listed by Tilly:

  1. A set of positions
  2. A set of unequal rewards attached to those positions
  3. A sorting mechanism that channels people into different positions
  4. Individuals who vary in characteristics the sorting mechanisms detects

This model is very reminiscent of the Davis/Moore model and it is usually defended by people who argue innate differences in individuals in terms of abilities, motivation, skills and intelligence (however those are defined and measured… when they are, rather than taken for granted as unexamined categories). Critiques of this model usually point out that this supposed individually-tuned sorting mechanism just happens to place people by categories: gender, race / ethnicity, age, physical attractiveness, etc.

As Tilly states, attempts are reducing inequalities usually involve tinkering with one of the four elements of the model, for instance through equalization of rewards across positions (comparable worth), modify the sorting mechanisms through blind hiring or improve individual characteristics (through education, or training for instance).

For Tilly, this is a short-sighted view:

"Sorting systems do not evolve naturally. Like competitive markets and athletic leagues, they rest on extensive social structure and easily deviate from their ideal forms when participants collude or the underlying institutional structure changes. Competitive electoral systems, for instance, depend on extensive institutional underpinnings: widespread schooling, easy travel to polling places, relatively free communications media, barriers to flagrant patronage, coercion or vote-buying." (32)

For instance, in the many cases of reversion from democracy to non-democratic rule that Tilly cites, the structure of electoral processes was left in place but all the aspects listed above were subverted to favor certain results. In other words, to focus exclusively on individual-sorting mechanisms ignore all these social and historical aspects of the social structure that gave rise to the sorting mechanisms in the first place and take them for granted, as accurate detectors of individual skills. It also ignores that individuals are not born and socialized in a social vacuum but in specific locations in the social structure. Differences then, are not individual but categorical, which is actually how the sorting system really works:

"Closely observed, furthermore, assignment of persons to positions commonly does not result from individual-by-individual scrutiny of all possible candidates but from categorical assignments and mutual recruitment within categories. Indeed, organizations often sustain inequality by building categories directly into their structures: women’s jobs, religious ghettos, property qualifications for office, ethnic or linguistic criteria for membership in associations." (33)

So, as Tilly states, categories (defined as "negotiated collective boundaries with interpersonal networks " (33)) matter and are central to the pervasiveness of inequalities (although categories, while always creating difference,do not always create inequalities). [Actually, here, Tilly seems to be discussing in-group / out-group distinctions as well as  categories in the sense of collection of people sharing an attribute without interaction or sense of identity necessarily. Indeed, for Tilly, the most significant categories, when it comes to inequalities are those that do fit into in-group / out-group distinctions where "we" know who "we" are and "we" know who "they" are and vice versa.]

For Tilly, categories emerge and evolve as a result of four processes:

  • Encounter: when two previously unconnected categories come into contact and react establishing categorical norms, understanding and practices that distinguish them from the newly-encountered category (think migration or gentrification).

  • Imposition: when individuals from powerful categories create categorical labels and understandings that are then imposed upon previously not-so categorized individuals ("enemy combatants") along with specific practices to deal with this newly imposed category (detainment at Guantanamo Bay). So-labeled individuals are deprived of another possible categorical identification (POW, for instance), therefore removing them from the norms, understanding and practices attached to it (here, codified by the Geneva Conventions).

  • Negotiation: when individuals in categories work out specific norms, understanding and practices with other categories or the surrounding population, such as gangs negotiating over territories and turfs.

  • Transfer : when boundaries, norms, practices and understanding are moved from one setting to another, as in the case of immigrant networks reproducing their sub-social structure in the destination country.

Additionally, categories produce inequalities under two conditions: (1) when interactions between categories consistently benefit one side over the other, and (2) when such interaction reinforce the boundaries between categories. This happens when one category has access to a scarce and valuable resource whose benefit  are partially distributed to its members and used to strengthen the boundaries. This happens according to two scenarios:

  • Exploitation: the resource-holding category uses members of the other category but gives them less than the value of their work. For instance, in South Africa, whites used Africans in diamond mines but would pay them less than the actual value of extracting diamonds. This acquired wealth would benefit mostly whites who could then sustain a segregated social structure.

  • Opportunity hoarding: when the resource-holding category simply excludes the other categories and keeps all the returns to reinforce the boundaries, such as ethnic-based trades.

Tilly gives a rather long list of the kind of resources that categories can use to establish and maintain durable inequalities and boundaries, from land to scientific or technical knowledge. Whatever is valuable depends, of course, of the time and place: the digital divide has only existence as resource and value in the Information Age although land still matters.

For Tilly, these considerations on inequalities have predicting power:

"To explain and predict the future of categorical inequality across the world, it follows that we must specify changes in (1) cliques that control value-producing resources, (2) prevailing combinations of resources, (3) categories incorporated into relations of exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (4) extent of conjunction between exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (5) relative prominence of exploitation and  opportunity hoarding, and (6) causes of (1) through (5). Proper specification of changes in all these items will produce explanations and predictions of change in the worldwide distribution of well-being. Over the 21st century, for example, the organization of exploitation and opportunity hoarding in the production, distribution, and comsumption of health care will fundamentally affect worldwide differentials in sickness and life expectancy." (36)

These are necessary to understand how inequalities really work and how their harmful effect can be reduced.