- Global & U.S. inequality
- We discuss growing wealth inequalities globally and in the U.S. since the 1980’s.
- Sociological perspectives on inequality
- We discuss various sociological perspectives on inequality that help us understand causes and solutions.
- Global & U.S. inequality
- Global & U.S. inequality
- Wealth: a person or families’ assets minus debts
- Income: money received for work or investments
- Since the 1980’s, wealth inequalities have grown globally. If we look at the share of wealth that the top 1% by country, it has been steadily increasing. In the U.S. for example, the 1% now has roughly 40% of the total wealth compared to roughly 20% in 1980. In China it has grown to 30% from 10%. In Russia it has grown from 5% to 40%.
- Growing wealth inequalities globally reflect changes in income over the same time period. If we look at the U.S. specifically, we can see that the wealthiest 3rd of our country on average have seen increasing incomes over the last 40 years. The other 2/3 have seen an average decline in income, controlling for inflation.
- Sociological perspectives on inequality
- Conflict perspective
- This perspective views inequality as a byproduct of our dominant economic system, capitalism. Conflict theorists point out that conflict between workers and owners is an inherent part of capitalism. Owners will work to exploit workers as they are primarily motivated to make profits. Thus to understand growing economic inequalities, the conflict perspective would point to capitalism as the main culprit and argue a different economic system is needed for change.
- Structural-functional perspective
- The Davis-Moore hypothesis argues that there are benefits to had from a certain level of inequality. Jobs that are more valuable to society offer more pay and prestige and thus motivate skilled workers to pursue such jobs. On the flip side, there are jobs that don’t pay much and don’t carry much prestige yet are still needed for society to function. Janitors and garbage collectors would be examples. Thus, structural-functional thinking highlights the benefits of inequality as it motivates skilled workers to do valuable work and yet also provides workers for less valuable, but still necessary jobs.
- Symbolic Interaction
- Symbolic interactionists focus on social class, how it is symbolized, and how it relates to inequality. Symbolic interactionists argue that as we interact with others, we learn what social class we belong to and come to define ourselves at least in part by our class position. This in turn shapes our behavior as try to act consistent with how we view ourselves. Thus, symbolic interactionists argue that inequalities at least in part, are sustained as social class positions become internalized and drive behavior. Essentially, people from different classes act differently and are motivated by different things, and therefore some continued separation in lifestyles and resulting inequalities are expected.
- Conflict perspective
- Wealth and income inequalities have been steadily increasing globally since the 1980’s.
- Sociological perspectives offer us insights on inequality that allow us to better understand causes and potential solutions to inequality.
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Today we’re going to be talking about wealth and income inequalities both globally and in the U.S.
In today’s lesson will start off by looking at wealth inequality both globally and in the U.S. As you will see, things have been getting increasingly unequal since the 1980’s. Next, we turn to the 3 major sociological perspectives to understand causes and potential solutions to wealth inequality. We will wrap things us with some main points and takeaways.
When we are talking about global inequality, we are mostly talking about wealth and income inequality. Wealth is a term that is constantly thrown around but what exactly does it mean? For us, we will define wealth as a person or families assets minus their debts. If someone owns a house, the value of that house counts towards their wealth. If someone has taken out a loan, that loan counts against their wealth until it is paid off. Wealth usually encompasses income as well, which is money received for work or via investments.
Before we dig into the various sociological perspectives on inequality, let’s examine some data to see just how unequal things are both globally and in the U.S. in particular. Here we see the share of wealth that the top 1% has in 5 countries around the world. Looking over the past century, we see that this share was largely on the decline for the first 80 years of the 20th century. But in the 1980’s this trend has flipped. Ever since, the share of wealth for the top 1% has been steadily increasing in the U.S., UK, France, China, and Russia. As we see here, the share of wealth for the top 1% now hovers between 20-45% in these 5 countries.
We just saw that the top 1% of wealth earners globally have been increasing their share of total wealth since the 1980s. Let’s take a closer look at wealth and income inequality by examining inequality in the United States. Here we are looking at how the median wealth for U.S. citizens has changed for the top ⅓, middle ⅓, and bottom ⅓. On the left we see the raw numbers on how median wealth has changed from 1983 until 2016. But the graph on the right is an easier way to get the story that the data is telling. On the right we can clearly see that while the aggregate wealth of the top ⅓ income earners has been on the rise, while total wealth share has been on the decline for everyone else since 1983. This data is telling us then that income and wealth inequalities have been growing in the U.S. for the last 40 years. But data is one thing; understanding the causes and solutions if we are inclined to change inequality is another. Let’s turn to the 3 big sociological perspectives to offer us some insight.
Each of the 3 major sociological perspectives can help us understand the causes and potential solutions to inequality. Our first perspective, the conflict perspective views inequality as the byproduct of capitalism, the dominant economic model throughout the world. Conflict theorists argue that conflict between owners and workers is an inherent part of capitalism as corporations work to boost profits. Owners and their representatives work to maximize profits above all else, exploiting workers by paying them as little as possible, shifting jobs overseas when it benefits them, and lobbying the government to put policies in place that are business friendly. All told, conflict theorists view inequality as direct product of the tenets of capitalism. In their view, for widespread changes to come to inequality, capitalism must be removed as the dominant economic mode of production and at the very least carefully managed by world governments.
The structural-functional perspective offers a very different understanding of inequality. Remember, the structural-functional perspective views the world as a system of interconnected parts that work together to make society operate cohesively. Each part of society performs a function, meanings it is in place because it helps society operate smoothly. With this logic in mind, the Davis-Moore hypothesis stems from this perspective. This hypothesis argues that there are benefits to inequality that society needs in order to function properly. On the one hand, it is useful to pay some people more than others as that will motivate skilled workers to achieve and occupy really valuable occupations such as physicians. I for sure want to know that before I go to the doctor or go in for surgery that the people taking care of me have spent a lot of time going to medical school and honing their craft. On the other hand though, there are jobs in society which aren’t paid as well and don’t come with much prestige and respect. Yet, we still need people to do those jobs in order for society to operate. What would we do without janitors, trash collectors, or cashiers? These jobs aren’t paid much yet we still need people to do them. Thus, the Davis-Moore hypothesis argues that some level of inequality is useful for society as it motivates skilled people to take valuable jobs, and fills jobs that aren’t as valued, yet are still necessary for society to operate.
Our last perspective, symbolic interactionism has a fairly unique take on inequality. Recall that symbolic interactionists focus on symbols, their meanings, and how those meanings are generated and maintained via interaction. When it comes to inequality, symbolic interactionists focus on social class, how it is symbolized, and how it relates to behavioral differences. Think back to when you were in high school. I bet you knew among all of your classmates who was rich, who was poor, and who was in between. And how did you know? You learned via interactions, you learned via what type of car they drove, where people lived, how people spoke, what people ate for lunch, and many other ways. In other words, you picked up on all of the symbols that were connected to certain people that carried social class significance. A critical aspect of this process for symbolic interactionists is what this means for “the self”. Remember, for symbolic interactionists the self, or how you define yourself is a symbol, and is something you learn through socialization and interaction. Just as you picked on the social class positions of others, you also did for yourself. Ultimately, symbolic interactionists argue that as we continually interact with others, we continually reinforce our understanding of what social class we belong, and this eventually becomes a part of how we define ourselves. Once we define ourselves this way, it shapes our behavior as we are motivated to behave consistently with how we view ourselves. Thus for symbolic interactionists, inequality is something that is generated and maintained via face-to-face interaction. We learn what social class we belong to and we are motivated to behave in a manner that is consistent with that social class.
Alright, let’s wrap things up. Wealth inequality has been increasing globally since the 1980’s. In the United States alone, the top 1% of wealth earners now own around 40% of total U.S. wealth. The 3 sociological perspectives offer us insights that help us understand inequality. The conflict perspective views inequality as a byproduct of capitalism and conflict between owners and workers. Structural-functionalism tells us that there may be some benefits that inequality grants to society. Lastly, symbolic interactionism argues that inequality is developed and maintained as social classes become a part of how we see ourselves.