Figure 2 Labour relations, durable inequality, and social inequality
Durable inequality and the valuation of work
Within a given social division of labour different specializations are almost always valued and rewarded differently, no matter what part of the world or which period we study. For instance, Jean Barbot writes of the Senegalese around 1700: “they occupy themselves either in tilling the fields or sowing them, because this occupation is the most honoured after that of soldiering. Those who make fishing-nets, and the potters, the fishermen, the weavers and the weapon-makers, are considered mere mechanics”. While, today, wage labour is preferred by many to other available forms of work, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England it was regarded as very lowly, because it was associated with a precarious existence and entailed no rights. The status of the work itself depends on a great many factors. Labour supply and demand may play a role in the valuation of occupations. Scarcity of a certain specialization, leading to skill premiums, may lead to a higher status. Occupations performed mainly by women, for example, are more likely to be labelled as unskilled and to carry less prestige than occupations performed mainly by men. The opposite is also true: when men dominate an occupation, its prestige rises, and the skill level is upgraded. Similarly, work performed mainly by people of colour is often viewed as less prestigious than work performed by whites.
The above-mentioned social inequalities related to labour relations and the valuation of work are often reinforced and reproduced via the mechanism behind durable inequality, as analysed by Charles Tilly. First, people try to appropriate certain resources through exploitation or opportunity-hoarding. If they succeed, the resulting societal inequality needs to be consolidated; this requires distinguishing insiders from outsiders, monopolizing knowledge and power, and ensuring loyalty and succession. All this may be achieved by establishing categorical boundaries. In addition, inequality may be promoted by what Gunnar Myrdal has called circular cumulative causation: positive and negative feedback mechanisms consolidate and strengthen separate social groups’ differential access to resources.
When we link this to the labour relations typology, it is clear that certain (coerced) labour relations, especially slavery and caste-determined occupations, often create long-term intergenerational durable equalities that continue long after the original labour relation has disappeared, with the position of African Americans in the United States and the Dalit in India as extreme examples. Finally, underlining the importance of an intersectional approach, within these groups, women often experience the greatest disadvantage.
Figure 3: Labour relations, individual and collective action, and social inequality
Individual and Collective Action
The IISH research also takes into account how changes in labour relations affected the daily lives of workers, how they perceived inequality and precarity, and how individual and collective actions could improve labour conditions and reduce social inequalities. “Micro” sources, as mentioned earlier, are needed to find out what strategies workers developed to improve their situation. These strategies can help us understand how people perceived their work, inequality, and precarity. For a more systematic analysis, we can analyse people’s behaviour by studying their life courses, as is done by researchers using HSN data or comparative data on other parts of the world. Life course data can inform us which factors hindered or pushed people to attain better jobs, and if and how people gained access to societal resources such as education and healthcare. In addition to social mobility strategies, these data can also be used to analyse migration strategies. Not only the strategies, but also their outcomes can give us insight into the success or failure of individual or household attempts to improve their position and – via individual or collective action – reduce social inequality for themselves or society as a whole. At the same time, the data collected on gender and religion may also provide evidence that can be used to study the effects of durable inequality.
Studying patterns of social protests can inform us about the perception of work, labour relations, and social inequality. Moreover, it may answer vital questions such as: how do groups of people, organized or in informal gatherings, try to improve their situation and change their unequal access to resources? Though we have excellent overviews of strikes worldwide, and locally in the Netherlands, much work is still to be done since there are various other ways of organizing change and measuring the impact of agency. Finally, to link up to the consequences of social inequality, more particularly the political consequences: both Piketty and Milanović have examined the rise of populism and nativism or the tendency to protect the interests of “native-born” or established inhabitants over those of immigrants. These considerations form part of a new book project by Leo Lucassen, which analyses the relationship between various forms of labour relations and xenophobia at a global scale in the last millennium. This will also address how perceived social inequality leads to xenophobia, exclusion, and (political) actions against people in the same or lower social position as the protesters.