Social Inequality Exam Review
~LEC 1 ~
Introduction to Social Inequality
Max Weber: introduced term ‘life chances’ recognizes the chancy, somewhat
uncontrollable nature of real life.
Life chances: depend most importantly on our social and economic background. Socio
economic starting point depends on our parents’ class and status.
• Economic capital
• Cultural capital
• Social capital
Rags to Riches: Some people in industrial societies overcome the odds against them,
rising from rags to riches, poverty and powerlessness to wealth and power.
Social inequality: receiving more or less of life’s rewards.
Sociologists & inequality:
• How people dramatize or perform inequalities
• How people view inequalities
• How people explain inequalities
• How people justify inequalities, and
• How people invent or construct inequalities.
Multiplicative effects: people with two or more disadvantageous qualities are more than
twice worse off than people with only one.
Intersectionality: Disadvantageous qualities can interact with one another
Conditionality: The conditions under which particular traits or characteristics (e.g.,
gender, race) produce a significant social disadvantage.
Theory of Intersectionality: proposes that various biological and social categories such
as gender, race, class, ability, and sexual orientation interact on multiple levels to produce
systematic social inequality.
Gerhard Lenski: Introduced class consistency, which confirmed the importance of
Class consistency: the majority of people will be consistent in their class status (ex.
Lower class stay lower class, high class stay high class, and middle class sometimes shifts)
Class inconsistency: ex. High education, low income feel uncomfortable about their
situation and often act on this in rebellious ways
Lives are complex, not unique: Sociologists cannot readily predict a person’s life
chances by merely averaging individual advantages and disadvantages.
People’s beliefs: Sociologists not only study objective social problems, where the harm
done is clearly evident we also study people’s beliefs and the social consequences of
Claims making: A process by which people try to capture public attention and mobilize
opinion around particular problems and their possible solutions (seen in social
Social inequality: A social problem characterized by visible, measurable features that
threaten people’s wellbeing; and strong beliefs in inequality as a social problem that
warrants collective, remedial action.
JeanJacques Rousseau: French philosopher who offered the first theory about social
inequality over two hundred years ago.
Social inequality involves privilege: a right, advantage, favour, or immunity specially
granted to…a certain individual, group, or class, and withheld from certain others or all
others (according to JJR^)
Inequality: The unequal (and usually unjustifiable) privileges, rewards, or opportunities
that different people receive within a given society./unfairness
Inherited disadvantage: The disadvantage stemming from social inequality is usually
inherited. Those who inherit this disadvantaged status have little hope of escaping, and
will likely live their entire lives in this condition.
Capitalism: The global spread of capitalism, besides encouraging economic growth,
disperses and preserves social inequality to a previously unknown degree.
Ms. Jones: Imagine you are an elementary school teacher like Ms. Jones, who must
decide how to divide her time in helping her fourth grade students learn to read.
Christopher Jencks: Suggests 5 approaches to dividing equality 1) democratic equality,
2) moralistic justice, 3) weak humane justice, 4) strong humane justice, 4) utilitarianism
John Rawls: Always benefit the disadvantaged. The unequal distribution of scarce goods
—like power, money, healthcare, and so on—is justifiable only when it increases the
advantage of the least advantaged groups in society. This principle of fairness is different
from the one put forward by Rousseau, because it makes need the criterion for all
decisions. If we all imagine ourselves in the position of the least advantaged person in
society, we will act (rationally) in the most just and equitable ways. This is not because
we are benevolent saints, but because we do not want to make our own position any
worse than it is already.
“Merit” is problematic: Far more familiar in our society is the notion of equality as
rewarding people according to their merit. But, do we deserve praise and rewards for
results we did not achieve by ourselves (e.g., through inheritance).
The functional theory of stratification (Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore): In all
human societies, some positions have more functional importance than others, and
deserve more rewards as a consequence. Because people who can hold these important
jobs are rare, society will have to persuade those with the necessary aptitude to learn
these special skills.
Flaw of “the functional theory of stratification”:
1) Ignores the (unearned) inheritance of wealth and status.
2) Ignores class conflict, gender conflict, and other disagreements about
society’s most important roles.
3) Fails to explain a wide range of anomalies: for example, why leading
figures in organized crime, sports, and entertainment are rewarded with high
wages and social prominence.
4) A select few members of society are rewarded far too much, while the
majority are rewarded far too little.
The role of education: Education is the single best resource you can use to improve your
status if you are poor or middleclass. But the social class into which we were born
predicts educational attainment.
Social development and social mobility: Social mobility based on equal opportunity
may not be able to solve the problems stemming from social inequality.
Hayek: Proposes that the poor are better off with this unequal distribution of rewards
than they would be under any other circumstances. The politics of theorizing: Liberals endorse the value of equal opportunity and deem
inequalities of outcome legitimate if they reflect genuine differences in “merit” – i.e.,
talent, hard work
Liberty versus equality: Some hold an extreme libertarian position, (i.e. people are
entitled to do whatever they choose, with whatever resources they have acquired
legitimately). This freedom is more important than equal opportunity, they believe.
Conservatives and equality: Conservatives regard inequality as being good for societies
(i.e., stimulates effort, encourages conformity)
The Just World Hypothesis (M.J Lerner): Why people accept inequalitywe all need to
believe that we live in a fair world. This belief is the result of normal childhood
development, when we learn to conform for rewards
Victimization: When people encounter an innocent victim, they acknowledge that his or
her suffering is undeserved, and react with compassion. When they come to expect that
his or her suffering cannot be alleviated, people use a variety of techniques to make the
victim’s condition seem deserved (e.g., they blame the victim for his unemployment, her
rape, their mental illness or addiction)
Classes and Exploitation
Learning inequality (Bernd Baldus and Verna Tribe): In 1978, Canadian sociologists
interviewed 108 local school children ages eleven and under to learn about their ideas on
inequality. They already knew plenty about inequality. They also had prejudices about
poverty and wealth, and ideas about fairness
Economic inequality: Economic differences are often turned into economic inequalities
by powerful, wealthy classes who exploit less powerful, less wealthy classes. For this
exploitation to occur, economic differences need to be framed in terms of class
differences (socially constructed): the rich need to define themselves as the upper class,
while simultaneously naming the poor as the lower class
Karl Marx: The first serious student of social class. He was born in 1818 to wealthy
parents in Prussia.
Friedrich Engels: Also born to wealthy Prussian parents, in 1820. Engels’s father
became concerned about the radical crowd with whom Engels spent his time. To separate
him from this group, he sent Friedrich to work in a branch of the family factory in
Manchester, England. Friedrich Engels & The Ripe for Revolution: Soon after his arrival, and against his
father’s wishes, Engels began to study how workingclass families in Manchester lived
and were treated. He noted that English industrial workers were deprived, even destitute;
Yet Engels saw an upside: all of this misery would provide fertile soil for revolution and,
thereby, the path to a better society.
The Communist Manifesto: Engels’s writings on the working class formed the basis for
what later became known as Marxism. The Communist Manifesto by Engels & Marx
would become one of the most influential publications of all time.
1848 revolution and reaction: timing of the pamphlet’s publication links it to
revolution upheavals across Europe, from England in the west to Russia in the east. Next
decade saw a fierce counterrevolutionary backlash that forced Marx and Engels to move
to London, which was safer and more politically stable at the time.
Bourgeoisie: “By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the
means of social production and employers of wage labour.”
Proletariat: “By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means
of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.”
Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction: To survive, capitalism always
has to expand, but by expanding, it creates an increasingly larger, and ever more destitute
working class that will eventually revolt.
The effect of communism on capitalism:
1) It pressured capitalists in other countries to accept a variety of forms of
2) Communism was like a beacon for the working classes, giving them
confidence in their historic mission, and legitimating their goals of
improved wages and working conditions.
A class: A group of people who have the same relation to the means of production.
The capitalists & the workers: There is still an oppositional relationship between
capitalists and workers. The wages are often low, sometimes even at the subsistence
level, meaning that they are only enough to keep the worker alive and productive. The
means of production mediates this dynamic between the capitalists and the proletariat.
Class conflict: Class conflict is an inescapable feature of any society beyond the smallest
and least developed, such as huntergatherer societies. People often remain divided along
class lines for generations.
Two types of class awareness (Karl Marx): a class that is aware in itself and one that is
aware fo i . lf Classconsciousness & modern capitalism: Our modern version of capitalism has
introduced factors designed to appease the working class; welfare measures,
consumerism, and promises of upward mobility for the lucky few have recently started to
placate workers. Since the midtwentieth century, Western workers (especially in the US
and Canada) have lost their classconsciousness and shifted their focus to identity
Why working class won’t revolt: Worker unionization, organization, and mobilization
are weak today/ Working class lack the necessary classconsciousness.
Protest and revolution: Need tight organization and loyal membership: everyone must
share the risks and dangers.
Class mobilization: Forces people to blindly trust union and party leaders; to value
equality over liberty; and to work towards longterm, instead of short–term, goals.
Exploitation: The control and use of an economic resource—be it capital, property, or
technology—to profit at the expense of the workers. In Marxian theory, that enemy is
exploitation. From the workers’ standpoint, this exploitation is unfair and dehumanizing;
it makes life unsatisfying by making work unsatisfying. Among modern sociologists,
exploitation means profiting unjustly from the labour of others.
Adam Smith: Proposed that if workers owned their own means of production, goods
would be priced in proportion to the labour needed to produce them.
3 principles or criteria of exploitation:
1) Inverse interdependence
The Problem of Alienation: a souldestroying consequence of capitalism/the destruction
of social bonds. For Marx, there were four types of alienation a worker experiences under
1) The worker becomes alienated from the product of his or her labour. 2) Since the product of the worker’s labour is taken away, capitalism
makes the work itself meaningless—an activity over which the worker
has no control and no autonomy
3) Capitalism alienates workers from their own sense of humanity—from
the very feeling of being human.
4) The worker also comes to feel alienated from other workers, especially
because they are often treated like replaceable commodities rather than
Harry Braverman: published Labour and Monopoly Capital, published in 1974 (neo
Marxist work evolution of capitalism and alienation in the last 2 centuries). His book
shows the exploitative nature of international capitalism: a race to the bottom
Headwork v.s handwork: Capitalism’s separation of skill from knowledge, or handwork
from headwork, degrades the meaning of work – therefore it alienates
It creates two different types of workers.
Headwork: A few highly skilled, highly trained people, whose time is infinitely
valuable, do the brainwork.
Handwork: A mass of indistinct workers, whose time is judged to be worthless, tend the
Melvin Seeman: Resurrected the idea of alienation in 1959 by combining the insights of
Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud.
• The six dimensions of alienation
4. Cultural Estrangement
6. Social Isolation
Where Marx is wrong: Marx’s economic theory seems too simplistic for today’s world,
and even perhaps even for his own. Marx downplays the role of ideas and beliefs in
social and cultural life.
Weber v.s Marx: Unlike Marx, Weber considered ideas—whether they were political,
economic, or religious—to be just as important as economic relations. This belief formed
the basis of Weber’s most influential work on the topic, The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s definition of “class”: A group of people with similar economic interests,
opportunities, and conditions, whose material wellbeing is significantly affected by their
education and skills. In the Weberian sense, class is determined by people’s market
position in the economy (that is, by how much money and status they gain from their
occupation—Not merely by their relation to the means of production – e.g., professors)
Weber’s definition of “status groups”: Status groups can be made up of professionals
in the same field, who regulate entry into their profession and protect their authority to
train, certify, and manage practitioners (e.g., MDs).
Annette Lareau: Sociologist that carried out an intriguing study on parenting practices
in the 1990s…She wanted to know why parents have different parenting philosophies—
that is, w