Where Have All the Sociologists Gone? Explaining Economic Inequality

By Myles, John | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Sociologists Gone? Explaining Economic Inequality


Myles, John, Canadian Journal of Sociology


[T]he distribution of income [has] grown markedly more unequal over the past three decades....sociologists have been strangely and remarkably silent on these issues.

(Morris and Western 1999: 623)

Martina Morris and Mark Western's judgement of the contribution made by sociologists to the study of the changing structure of income inequality in recent years is both accurate and disturbing. Their point is not that sociologists have failed to take note of the changes in the distribution of worker's earnings or family incomes. Rather, the point is that the contribution of sociology to accounting for these trends has been so modest. With a few notable exceptions (e.g., Bernhardt et al, 2001), we have left most of the heavy lifting--both theoretical and empirical--on this topic to the economists (see Text Box).

Box 1 : Wage and Earnings Inequality in Canada:
A Primer

1. Overview

Andrew Heisz,, Andrew Jackson, and Garnett Picot. 2001.
"Distributional outcomes in Canada in the 1990s." Pp. 247-272 in The
Longest Decade: Canada in the 1990s, edited by K. Banting, A. Sharpe,
and F. St-Hilaire. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Peter Kuhn "Labor Market Polarization: Canada in International
Perspective," The Bell Canada Papers on Economic and Social Policy 4
(1995): 283-322.

Craig Riddell, "Canadian Labour Market Performance in International
Perspective." Canadian Journal of Economics 32 (November 1999):
1097-1134.

2. Why unions matter

Thomas Lemieux, "Unions and Wage Inequality in Canada and the United
States." Pp. 69-108 in David Card and Richard Freeman (eds.), Small
Differences That Matter. University of Chicago Press 1993.

David Card, Thomas Lemieux and W Craig Riddell, "Unionization and Wage
Inequality: A Comparative Study of the U.S., the U.K., and Canada."
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper #9473, January
2003

3. Gender differences

Baker, Michael and Nicole Fortin, "Women's Wages in Women's Work: A
US/Canada Comparison of the Roles of Unions and Public Goods Sector
Jobs," American Economic Review, 89, May 1999, 198-203.

Denise Doiron and Garry Barrett, "Inequality in male and female
earnings: the role of hours and wages" Review of Economics and
Statistics 78 (1996) 410-20.

4. Education, skills and technological change: two views

Paul Beaudry and David Green "Cohort patterns in Canadian earnings:
assessing the role of skill premia in inequality trends" Canadian
Journal of Economics 33 (Nov 2000) 907-36.

Kevin M. Murphy, W. Craig Riddell and Paul M. Romer, "Wages, Skills
and Technology in the United States and Canada." Pp. 283-309 in
General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth edited by Elhanan
Helpman. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 283-309.

Until the late 80s, economists were not much interested in the study of trends in economic inequality in large measure because of the remarkable stability of the income distribution from the 50s to the 70s. As Henry Aaron once put it, until the 1980s, studying trends in income inequality was like watching the grass grow. (1) All this changed in the 1980s when the secular trend of rising inequality that began in the 1970s became apparent. Since then the study of inequality has become a major growth industry in economics. In contrast, sociologists have been mostly on the sidelines, keeping track of the score perhaps but not contributing much to the game in process. Sociologists continue to study point-in-time differences in earnings and income--between men and women or between races--but even here, the most important work has been done by economists. In recent years the economists have even begun, albeit tentatively, to make headway in an area that was once a sociological monopoly, the study of intergenerational class inheritance (see Bowles and Gintis 2002; Erikson and Goldthorpe, 2002).

There are two facts to be explained here--the economists' advance and the sociologists' retreat. …

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