Unit 1: Introduction: What is Social Inequality and How do we Start to Study It?
One way to thinking about social inequality, and structured inequality is to consider your
participation in SY210 OC. Access to this course is not available to everyone, or even to all
Canadians. To enroll, you have to be accepted as a student at WLU, and, unless you’re awarded
a full scholarship, you have to pay a tuition fee. Given the pattern of rising student fees, at WLU
and across North America, how many North Americans can afford to be full-time students
today? Are you are simply paying your fees (or having your parents pay your fees) and studying?
Are you are working full-time or part-time to finance your studies? Do you know people who
have had to drop out of university because they could no longer afford to study? Or people who,
for financial reasons, never applied to a university? This is only one example of social
inequality, or the differences among individuals or groups that affect their access to
opportunities and privileges (Grabb, p. 1). A related concept which will also be at the centre of
our work in this course is structured inequality which refers to the way in which these
differences are built into the way people interact with each other, on a recurring basis (Grabb, p.
2). Social inequality takes one or more of a number of forms. It can be economic, relating to
income and living standards: it can be political, allotting, for example, voting and/or
representation rights to some groups and not to others: or it can be in the realm of respect or
prestige. It is based on socially defined characteristics such as class, race/ethnicity, age,
sexuality, dis/ability, gender, and religion. The importance of each of these characteristics varies
over time and among cultures.
Although some societies consider themselves egalitarian, and many societies have developed
policies to promote social equality, in fact, researchers have yet to find a society in which
everyone is equal. Inequality and conflicts around inequality are central facts of social life and
major concerns in social research. That being said, societies vary greatly with regard to the
degrees and forms of social inequality among their populations. Some countries, like the US and
many third world states, have extremely wealthy elites and large numbers of people who live in
abject poverty. In areas like Scandinavia, though, the difference between the wealthier and
poorer inhabitants is much narrower.
In this unit, we will work chronologically, beginning with two of the founding fathers of
Sociology, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920). After reviewing some of the
most basic ideas of Marx and Weber regarding social inequality, we will consider the more
recent, feminist perspective of Trina Grillo regarding social inequality in North America today,
and how her ideas extend and update classical social theory. Finally, we will shift our gaze to
Canada specifically, and view Sylvia Hamilton’s film The Little Black School House (2007).
This film addresses Canada’s history of black slavery and racial segregation in the school
systems in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Theories of Social Inequality: An Introduction
These pages, which are the introduction to Theories of Social Inequality, Edward Grabb’s
textbook on social inequality, provide the most basic questions and definitions you’ll need to
make your way through this course, including some of the major concepts developed by Karl
Marx and Max Weber. Let’s review them quickly.
Karl Marx, one of the founding fathers of sociology, wrote that capitalist societies are
based on the struggles of two major classes which are defined by their relations to each
other, and to the productive process. The bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class owns the
means of production, which is productive property, or the tools and materials we need to
do our work. The proletariat, or the workers, don’t own productive property. They sell
their labor power to the bourgeoisie for a wage. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie
enriches itself by exploiting the proletariat, specifically through paying them less than the
value produced by their work. Marx saw the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat over ownership of the means of production as the central dynamic that shapes
the history of capitalist societies. He expected that, eventually the proletariat would
overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a new egalitarian society.
Max Weber saw classes, not as groups that have the same relation to the means of
production, but rather as groups that have common situations in the market, common
interests and life chances. Weber built on Marx’s ideas, adding that, to understand
inequality we have to think also about power, the ability of individuals or groups to have
their way in the face of opposition. He noted specifically that inequality involves not only
differences in property, but also differences in power, and status, or prestige of
individuals and groups. And he pointed out that inequality results from the activities and
conflicts among classes and also among parties which are voluntary associations
organized around the collective pursuit of interests (Grabb, ch. 3). A final concept of
Weber’s which will be important for our work in this course is Verstehende sociology.
‘Verstehen’ means ‘to understand’ in German. Weber drew our attention to the different
ways in which groups and individuals understand the world around them, and the
importance of how we understand things in determining our behaviour.
Grabb’s discussion contrasts relational and distributive understandings of class.
Marx’s definition is relational because it refers to the ways in which class inequality is
articulated in our interactions-
o for example, the interactions of employers and employees at work.
Weber’s definition is distributive in that it signifies the different access that classes have
to social resources.
Regarding power, Grabb starts with Weber’s definition, but he adds more recent discussions of
its repressive and liberating dimensions. In other words, power can be used to repress or
subjugate individuals or groups, but it can also serve to liberate people by enabling them to
expand their opportunities. In the units to come, we will be analyzing how organizations which
represent disadvantaged minorities are strategizing to achieve power to promote their own self
actualization and social justice, rather than to repress other groups. One arena of power that Grabb mentions and that will appear in almost every unit of this course
is the state, in this course, most often the Canadian government, which is active in creating,
increasing, maintaining, shaping or diminishing social inequality.
Globalization, the role of the state, and the future of social inequality
A major development which frames social inequality today, within Canada and worldwide, is the
current tension between the role of the state in shaping inequality and the ongoing process of
globalization, which Grabb defines (in a later part of his book) as our current economy of global
production and consumption organized by international corporations and conglomerates and
dependent on instantaneous global communications and converging global lifestyles and
cultures. The pressures on the state resulting from globalization are visible in the readings we
will examine later in the course by Sharma, and by Pitts.
One of Grabb’s major concerns is the possibility for reducing social inequality in the future, and
this concern is echoed in almost all of our course readings.
Grabb’s pages provide us with some of the basic questions about social inequality. These
include; the respective roles of classes, parties and states in shaping social inequality and the
prospects for reducing inequality i