The Importance of Visibility for Social Inequality Research

By Western, John Stuart; Dwan, Kathryn et al. | Australian Journal of Social Issues, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Visibility for Social Inequality Research


Western, John Stuart, Dwan, Kathryn, Kebonang, Zein, Australian Journal of Social Issues


Introduction

The nature and extent of social inequality has been of interest to us for over 20 years (Dwan & Western 2003, Western 1983, Western et al. 1998, Western & Turrell 1993, Western & Western 1988), so when invited to contribute to the 40th edition of Australian Journal of Social Inequality we resolved to take the concept of inequality, as we understand it, and apply it to the Journal's publications over the past 40 years. This seems appropriate and feasible since the inaugural editorial asserted that the AJSI was broadly interested in "social problems as that term is usually understood." Of interest to us, and hopefully to you, were the following two questions: What issues pertaining to social inequality were of most interest to the readers and editors of AJSI? How were these issues perceived and empirically understood?

Our analysis of journal contributions identifies various dimensions of social inequality, that is, factors affecting quality of life and human wellbeing, and their determinants or the bases of social inequality, namely factors that give rise to inequality. In addition, we highlight the structurally patterned nature of relationships among the dimensions and bases. This framework is then used to classify some 240 AJSI contributions, and we propose some reasons why certain dimensions and bases are more visible in the Journal than others. Before we begin, however, it is important to distinguish between the terms poverty and inequality, and define what we mean by social inequality.

Poverty

Inequality and poverty are often conflated in the minds of the general public, but also by service providers and scholars in the field. The term poverty carries a lot of emotional weight and should be used judiciously (Greenwell et al. 2001: 25), for any definition of poverty clearly reflects one's "value judgements" (Saunders 2002b: 2). Much Australian research tends to use "poverty lines" that is, some proportion (usually one-half) of the average income (Greenwell et al. 2001: 19), with those below the poverty line being "in poverty". Debate abounds about whether it is more accurate and/or appropriate to use the mean or the median income as the discriminator. However, like much in the area the debates and the choices being discussed appear to be driven by the individual's normative position, more so than by their methodological arguments. Further muddying the waters is the distinction between absolute and relative poverty. Some authors, commentators and policy makers choose to equate absolute poverty with some sort of objective measurement of the phenomenon in question--as if that were possible--while others insist that the standard of living and the values of the community must be taken into consideration in determining what constitutes poverty, and therefore they believe that poverty should be understood in comparison with the living standards of the majority of the community (Saunders 2002a: 2,4).

The recent Australian Senate report on poverty and financial hardship, entitled A hand up not a hand out (Australian Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2004) helpfully published the definitions of poverty provided by many of the key stakeholders, including the government department responsible for families and community services, the peak body representing social service delivery agencies in Australia, several religious organisations and a couple of research institutions (1). All these definitions emphasise different but equally important aspects of social inequality and poverty. For instance, submissions from both the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Brotherhood of St Lawrence refer to a lack of "opportunity", and while the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS)focuses on the "material resources" lacked by disadvantaged people, Mission Australia and Uniting Care urge one not to forget the "social elements". As Peter Saunders of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) rightly pointed out to the Senate Committee, definitions of inequality usually "embody community perceptions" (Australian Senate Community Affairs References Committee 2004: 8), and it was indeed the differing normative views of poverty and inequality that recently led to the academic equivalent of fisticuffs. …

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