What Causes Social Inequality? from Scandinavia to the Anglosphere, It May Come Down to Choice

By Osberg, Lars | Literary Review of Canada, April 2011 | Go to article overview

What Causes Social Inequality? from Scandinavia to the Anglosphere, It May Come Down to Choice


Osberg, Lars, Literary Review of Canada


Power and Inequality: A Comparative Introduction

Gregg M. Olsen

Oxford University Press

216 pages, softcover

ISBN 9780195444001

April 2011

In Power and Inequality: A Comparative Introduction, Gregg Olsen examines three "Nordic" countries--Finland, Norway and Sweden--and three "Anglo" countries--Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States--through the lens of social inequality. Readers with an allergy to footnotes or definitions or statistics should be warned from the start: this book is not an easy, or a superficial, read. Major parts of it articulate the different dimensions of social inequality--for example, as well as inequalities of income and wealth, there are those of access to education, health care and housing. Olsen also discusses the values by which one might judge inequality and assesses the theoretical frameworks within which it can be analyzed. But although Olsen has a large agenda, in the end it is a fairly clear one. He argues that one can really only understand one's own society by comparing it with others, that the Nordic countries have substantially less social inequality than the Anglo countries and that "social inequality is created, reproduced, institutionalized, legitimated and perpetuated by the people who hold the most resources in society."

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Which all left me wondering--what is obvious and what is not so obvious about social inequality? In particular, although it may now be obvious that particular countries have ended up with differing levels of social inequality, is it obvious that this is the way the world had to turn out?

Because people who have never left home have direct experience of only one society, it is often hard for them to imagine that life can be very different from what they have always known. Forty years ago, social science research was pretty much in that situation. Until the 1970s, it was not actually so obvious that social inequality is very different in different countries--largely because there were not a lot of comparable hard data then available.

In the 1980s, however, high-quality statistical data, rigorously harmonized to similar definitions, started to enable precise comparisons across countries of social inequality and social policy. Since then, the field has exploded. Feasting on the cornucopia of data now available (often accessible online) from international agencies, national statistical offices and coordinated private surveys, a small army of economists and sociologists has written literally hundreds of academic papers on comparative social inequality. (And because it is a good gig--lots of international travel and conferences in very cool locations--the papers just keep coming.)

Scholars who contemplate the rising inequality of the U.S. and the UK commonly trace the big break back to the Reagan-Thatcher era--but was it then inevitable?

For more than 25 years, the big picture painted by all this research has supported Olsen's main point--there is much less social inequality in the Nordic nations than in the Anglo countries (1). The basic pattern is the same whether one is interested in inequality of outcome or in inequality of opportunity, the distribution of market income, or in the net benefits of government taxes, transfers and delivery of public services, child poverty, wealth distribution, or in the income share of the super-rich, health outcomes or gender wage differentials. …

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