... to Race and Gender, Everyone? Some Thoughts on the Future of Research on Social Inequality

Article excerpt

It is good to see a discussion of economic inequality return to the pages of the CJS (John Myles: "Where have all the sociologists gone?" Touraine (2003) and Hamel (2004) raise related issues). Myles is right. The diminished sociological interest in the subject stands in stark contrast to growing national and international disparities in the distribution of wealth. The changes are nothing short of stunning. Recent US Congressional Budget Office figures show that from 1979 to 2000, after-tax incomes for the bottom four quintiles of US households rose from between 9% to 24%, while that of the top fifth increased by a staggering 201%. Corporate tax rates are at their lowest levels since the 1930s, while working hours in many Ontario businesses are back to what they were in the 19th century--as much as 60 hours per week. Tax cuts and tax evasion, especially through international asset movements, have significantly reduced public revenue and public services. Mobility has decreased, too. More people remain in their income brackets, both at the top and the bottom, than a decade ago.

Sociologists barely seem to notice. Once considered a rebellious discipline, sociology has fallen in with a mix of neo-conservative liberalism and what a recent report of the British Civitas Institute calls conspicuous compassion: once progressive agendas which have been coopted by powerful institutions and vested interests. The study of social inequality has withdrawn to politically less risky and intellectually less contested terrain. Even the few theoretical contributions to the field, such as Tilly (1998), focus on "categorical," i.e. clearly polarized, differences of gender and race. The Funding agencies and university research administrations rephrase questions about the causes and the justification of inequality as practical problems of equity and diversity, thereby reducing their scope and relieving them of their more "controversial" aspects.

But Myles' plea for better ways to fill the categorical "empty spaces"--class, occupations, status etc.--with empirical data goes only part of the way towards reviving research on economic inequality. Our problems are not just empirical, but theoretical: they lie with the categories themselves. Like so much else in our field, they are a legacy of the rise of sociology in the 19th century, a politically and socially unstable, turbulent and insecure time when making sense of the new industrial social order was at the top of the agenda of the social sciences. Clear categorical distinctions suited that purpose. Marx used them to highlight class divisions. Comte, Spencer, Sumner, and Durkheim used them to show that stratification was a natural or rational layering of society by ability or function, an antidote to "revolutionary periods when authority is weakened through the loss of traditional discipline," and "a spirit of anarchy" seemed to prevail. Categorical views of inequality arose thus from ideological priorities rather than empirical ones. By the end of the 19th century, if not earlier, the "empty spaces" were already unable to accommodate the full complexity of industrial societies. Weber's warning that subjective association and identity were as variable as structural positions, and that the two often drastically diverged, was mostly lost on sociologists who took it to mean that more categories--"status" and "power"--should be added to "class." Changes in the composition and characteristics of aggregate categories, and movements of individuals within and between them, became the mainstay of sociological research on social inequality and mobility, in part because they created convenient receptacles for empirical data, in part because of the ideological appeal of the homey image of society as a lasagna with clearly distinguishable layers, topped off by the Big Cheese. When postmodernism made such structural images unfashionable, categorical analysis, largely unencumbered by theory, proved eminently suitable for a more decentralized view of inequality. …