in the social sciences it’s called relative deprivation

About a year ago I read The Spirit Level and was convinced that its argument that equality is better for everyone made sense. One of my earliest posts was about this book. The authors look at what social and health problems correlate with higher income inequality in the 23 richest (OECD) economies in the world (and comparing US states with higher and lower levels of inequality  with each other as a second data source). They make convincing arguments that many of the correlations can be interpreted as income inequality causing the problems, meticulously examine alternative interpretations and criticisms and keep adding more and more data as they are becoming available  and publish further analyses here.

I recently came across this short video in which co-author Richard Wilkinson summarizes the core argument. One way to listen to this is to hear him saying: yes, all those sociologists, social psychologists and political scientists who have written about relative deprivation were right, and much more right than they ever could imagine. It’s all about one’s place in society’s status hierarchy, and when that hierarchy becomes too extreme we suffer. And it’s not only the losers who suffer but the winners are also worse off than their peers in more equal societies.

The need to contain inequality – and, as Wilkinson says, this doesn’t imply yet a particular policy choice, it can be achieved in various ways – has entered mainstream policy debate. It’s also a hot potato in the post 2015 development agenda, so Wilkinson, and some others like Joseph Stiglitz , who has basically a US focused story, have had a major impact on political agenda-setting.

But is it going to make a dent? The crisis-upon-crisis since 2008 have resulted in some action but so far nothing drastic enough to change the game. Change in established democracies with developed market economies tends to be incremental, and for good reason, and I believe that even systemic problems are not immune to a succession of incremental changes. Provided there is not a simultaneous process of system adaptation and inoculation. A provision that doesn’t seem in place, and not surprisingly given the capture of governmental decision-making by current system profiteers.

So, bad news. But heartening to realize that my profession has been on to it for many decades now.

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1 Response to in the social sciences it’s called relative deprivation

  1. Steven Serneels says:

    Txs for reminding me of these 2 extra-ordinary speakers! They both provide indeed great (and data driven!) insights in underlying reasons of societal problems. As usual, there is no silver bullet to solve it all, but ‘awareness’ is often a good starting point. The fact that (income) inequality is now also on the agenda of the new post-2015 MDG is due to this kind of people and research. Take the analogy of ‘environmental’ awareness. It also started with people like Al Gore and others, opening our minds. Still a long way (and some more ‘natural disasters’ as wake up calls) to go, but the discussion is taken serious by both policy makers, corporations and consumers.
    The same will happen with ‘social’ awareness, as the other dimension of the sustainability agenda.
    And yes, it will take 99% transpiration next to the 1% inspiration. But in my opinion: ‘social’ is the new ‘green’. Come and see in 20 years from now 🙂

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