April Swanson

Professor Salo

UP 260

15 September 2013

Critical Review #1

There are many divisions among various dimensions in society. Social conflict is rooted in race, class, gender, age, and countless other categories that we may find ourselves born into or in which society places us along our human journey. As our world has transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society based on reciprocity to a largely industrial and post-industrial society governed by profit and accumulation, social inequality has burrowed itself into contemporary society. The sociological approach to understanding urban inequalities acknowledges that inequality is grounded in patterns that arise from groups of people, not solely the individual. It is the social context and structural factors that shape individual choices. Despite differences among theorists, there is no doubt we live in a more globalized world as a result of differences that have historically divided us and followed us into contemporary society.

The parameters of inequality are rather arbitrary. As the repercussions of inequality have become more prevalent in society, there has been an important system created by the United Nations in the Human Development Report to measure income, wealth, and overall well-being. This approach is comprehensive in the sense that it seeks raw data in addition to income to measure inequality in multiple areas (Sernau 2014). The Human Development Index was developed to capture a more accurate snapshot of a nation’s well-being in three major areas: income, health, and education. Such an approach is important to investigate which particular sector a nation is excelling or needs improvement in. For instance, one may presume the United States has high life expectancy at birth compared to most other nations because of the seemingly available resources to its citizens. However, the Human Development Report shows that in 2011, the United States life expectancy at birth was only 78.5 years old, keeping it at the bottom of the list of nations with overall very high human development. This may not be attributed to general lifestyle trends like obesity, but more alarmingly because of unequal access to health care and preventative measures for infant and child death among minority populations. In order to pursue possible solutions to inequalities like this, an in-depth consideration for the major challenges facing development and equality are necessary to consider and the Human Development Report is a great takeoff point.

The Human Development Report not only helps to highlight significant statistics of a nation as an individual unit, but it also is a major resource to aid in comparing and contrasting between nations. Although this double divide is made visible by the raw numbers generated by the report, it fails to tell the whole story of a nation’s history of inequality and where it stems from. Historically, the colonization of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and ultimately the Americas had an immediate effect on inequality between nations. The colonizers defeated local supremacy by extinguishing indigenous rulers, controlling a middle-class by offering limited education, and enforcing a strong labor institution (Cogneau, Guenard 2003).  Generally, the Europeans created malfunctioned capitalist institutions and disrupted social patterns by laying the groundwork for a more unequal society. By embarking below the surface of modern day inequalities, we can allow ourselves to see who and what may be to blame for underdevelopment and inequality.

The other side to this double divide looks at the gap within nations rather than between them. At the local level, St. Louis, Missouri is a prime example that we can consider. In recent times, East St. Louis has been isolated from the rest of the surrounding communities due to economic and social distress, but East St. Louis once began as a thriving economic center of the nation. New railroads and infrastructure allowed East St. Louis to thrive as an industrial and commercial hub and was one of the nation’s fastest growing cities from the 1890s until roughly the 1920s (Baugher, Timlin, and Child, 1995). At this time, political corruption and labor frustrations were mounting and race riots began. Large corporations began settling outside of the limits of East St. Louis and devastated the local economy, in turn causing a wave of “white flight.” Now East St. Louis is home to some of the sickest children in America due to malfunctioning sewage disposal and emissions and spillage from nearby plants (Kozol, 1991). A strong majority of children are born to single mothers and the high crime area has allowed violence to be perpetuated throughout the generations (Kozol, 1991). Neighboring St. Louis communities of primarily non-minority population’s experience a starkly different world only miles away and do not travel to East St. Louis. This example is one of many instances of inequality within nations and local communities. Environmental factors such as the closing of local businesses reveal the inequality already cemented in society and explain why areas as devastated as East St. Louis never seem to rebound from hard times.

Several important theorists have constructed ideas concerning the questions of inequality. The modernization school of thought attacked traditionalism and attributed poverty to traditional outlooks, technologies, and institutions (Sernau, 2014). Majority in contemporary academic circles have rejected this theory. This may not be the most comprehensive approach because it does not follow the more widely accepted Kuznet Curve phenomenon illustrating that as societies have moved toward industrial production, their level of inequality has tended to increase. Many nations who have modernized by the help of outsourced jobs are still falling victim to inequality because of the low wages they acquire compared to domestic labor. Approaching inequality through the lens of modernization may not give full consideration to underdeveloped societies that have difficulty adjusting to a modern political and economic system.

The counterargument to modernization approaches inequality from its conflict issues. The dependency theory claims poor countries rely on wealthier countries and as a result face exploitation, domination, and economic malfunctions (Sernau 2014). This theory explains that the system under which poor countries fail to work is because these areas have not been able to resist domination. Poor countries have acted as puppets for generations because of the history of the relationship between them and their colonizers.

Another approach, neoliberalism, has taken the reins as the most accepted, particularly in the United States. This approach also promotes more modern ideas but specifically holds a strong emphasis on a free-market economy to attain prosperity. The key neoliberalism ideal of the free-market economy can be used as a framework to reverse inequality. However, many people contend that when neoliberalism is put in practice, it often times favors the elite. Tax cuts for the rich and opposition to government welfare programs are common because neoliberalism favors minimal governmental interference with the free-market (Sernau, 2014). Brazil in the 1990s is an example of a case where neoliberalism ideals prevailed and inequality grew deeper. Although investments were stimulated, privatization skyrocketed and Brazil ultimately saw itself as a capitalist nation (Smith, 2012). Although many neoliberalists pride themselves on advocating for equal opportunity, it is important to consider who has access to this opportunity. The neoliberalism approach helps us to consider that economic structure is a vital part of equality.  However, there is more for us to understand about those in society that cannot attain this far-fetched opportunity. To successfully establish the free-market system, it may be necessary to improve on neoliberalism ideals by providing the practical groundwork for the impoverished to become incorporated into economic society.

The modern global economy is also no stranger to inequality generated by globalization. Although the world economy has grown more integrated, there are extensive implications for the overall well-being of citizens among various statuses. Largely through the outsourcing of jobs due to the attractiveness of cheap labor to wealthy consumer countries, many nations have seen a wave of prosperity they have never seen before. However, this wealth of cheap labor is incomparable to the accumulation of the companies for which they work for. In nations such as India and Mexico, which have been great players in this global field, there have been several important advantages of globalization such as an increasing middle-class. However, this has come at the price of much economic exploitation and domination. Large corporations have been allowed to thrive on their profits, while many over-seas families are now surprisingly content with their meager daily earnings. The issue raised here is whether or not globalization is socially sustainable. The future of these patterns relies heavily on support from nations like India and Mexico. As the wealth gap increases, it will be left up to these nations if this limiting prosperity is worth the social repercussions.

Contemporary inequalities have been heavily influenced by the history that has been imprinted in modern society. As social inequality is continually dissected and understood, it is important to look at the ideals and theories behind the divide in society and decide in which areas they are helpful and in which they are not. Since inequality is rather arbitrary, constructing methods to measure well-being is important. Delving into the history both between and within societies aids in constructing a more comprehensive background than raw numbers of income and wealth. By understanding the traditional relationships between nations, it is easier to consider their contemporary ties within a globalized future.  


Works Cited

Baugher, Barb., Diane, Timlin., Child, Mark. A Timeline of the East St. Louis Area. East St.

Louis Action Research Project. 29 Oct. 1995. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.


Cogneau, Denis and Guenard, Charlotte. Colonization, Institutions, and Inequality: A Note on

Some Suggestive Evidence. May. 2003. PDF. 14 Sept. 2013.

Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities, Life on the Mississippi: East St. Louis, Illinois. Third    

World Traveler. 1991. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.            <http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Third_World_US/SI_Kozol_StLouis.html>

Sernau, Scott. Social Inequality in a Global Age. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2014. Print.

Smith, Candace. Neoliberalism and Inequality: A Recipe for Interpersonal Violence? The

Society Pages. 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2013. <http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2012/11/06/neoliberalism-and-inequality-a-recipe-for-interpersonal-violence/>



Discussion Questions

  1. What do dependency theorists offer as a feasible way to attain wealth?
  2. Is outsourcing increasing reliance of underdeveloped nations to wealthier ones?