Social Inequality: Multi-dimensional and multi-causal

Social Inequality: Multi-dimensional and multi-causal

Social inequality manifests at different levels and can be measured and studied with the help of different indicators. Economists and economic historians prefer to focus on the dimension of income and wealth.[i] Both Piketty, in his Capital in the Twenty First Century, and Branco Milanović, in his Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, study long-term developments in social inequality based on impressive empirical research and large datasets, including household surveys that look at the position of individuals within countries, while mixing them with developments in inequality between countries globally. Although these two scholars look at the political consequences of social inequality, their analysis of social inequality is focused specifically on income and wealth indicators.[ii]

However, there are more dimensions to social inequality, as shown in How Was Life? Global Well-Being since 1820, edited by Jan Luiten van Zanden. In this volume, GDP per capita data is presented at a macro level alongside – and in correlation with – data on education, life expectancy, human heights, and real wages.[iii] In the follow-up to this OECD report, two further indicators of social and economic inequality are taken into account: gender and the development of biodiversity.[iv]

In their ground-breaking work on the development of India, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen provide an excellent case study of this multiple dimension approach. They showed that, in 2011, India’s six per cent economic growth led to a GDP per capita that put the country at number one, i.e. the “richest” in a world ranking of the sixteen poorest countries outside sub-Saharan Africa. However, if you take life expectancy at birth and infant mortality into account, the country drops to ninth and tenth place, respectively.[v] This is an indicator of what sociologist Göran Therborn calls vital inequality in his typology of social inequalities.[vi]  Drèze and Sen also refer to the unequal access to education, paid jobs, safe drinking water, and technology. In brief, this unequal access to social and material resources is what Therborn calls resource inequality, which could also be termed societal inequality. A third type of social inequality is what Therborn defined as existential. This is a form of inequality that discriminates and restricts a person’s freedom based on individual or group categories, such as gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and class. Charles Tilly described and analysed the mechanisms (discussed below) behind this form of social inequality, more aptly called durable inequality as it tends to be reproduced from one social interaction to the next, over whole careers, lifetimes, and organisational histories.[vii]  The focus of our research is the effect of labour relations on societal and durable inequality.

Social inequality is also a multi-causal phenomenon. The number of factors that have been explored as co-determining inequality is enormous. They include, among many others, economic growth,[viii] changes in family structures,[ix] exchange rate fluctuations,[x] foreign direct investment,[xi] parliamentary democracy,[xii] and agricultural density.[xiii] Attempts at synthesis have thus far remained rudimentary and a large number of theories exist.[xiv] One problem is that the term is analytically all-encompassing and can only be meaningfully studied when it is unpacked, which we will try to do below. Another major impediment is, of course, that every single variable should always be considered in conjunction with a least some of the other variables. As causal factors, the integration of labour-related aspects, from both a national and a global perspective, may ultimately help us to arrive at a multi-causal understanding of social inequalities.


[i] B. van Bavel, The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[ii] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Branco Milanović, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[iii] Jan Luiten van Zanden et al. (eds), How Was Life? Global Well-Being since 1820 (Paris: OECD  Publishing,  2014).

[iv] OECD, How Was Life? Volume II: New Perspectives on Well-being and Global Inequality since 1820 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2021),

[v] Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory. India and Its Contradictions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 49.

[vi] G. Therborn, “Dynamics of Inequality”, New Left Review 103 (Jan–Feb 2017), pp. 1–19.

[vii] Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), p. 6.

[viii] Simon Kuznets, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality”, American Economic Review, 45, 1 (1955), pp. 1–28; P. Conceicao and J.K. Galbraith, “Toward a New Kuznets Hypothesis: Theory and Evidence on Growth and Inequality,” in J.K. Galbraith and M. Berner (eds), Inequality and Industrial Change: A Global View (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 139–160.

[ix] Sara McLanahan and Christine Percheski, “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequalities,” Annual Review of Sociology 34 (2008), pp. 257–276; D. Bloome, “Racial Inequality Trends and the Intergenerational Persistence of Income and Family Structure”, American Sociological Review 79 (2014) 6, pp. 1196–1225.

[x] M. Bahmani-Oskooee, “Effects of Devaluation on Income Distribution”, Applied Economics Letters 4: 5 (1997): 321–323.

[xi] Nathan M. Jensen and Guillermo Rosas, “Foreign Direct Investment and Income Inequality in Mexico, 1990–2000”, International Organization 61: 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 467–487.

[xii] Larry Sirowy and Alex Inkeles. 1990. “The Effects of Democracy on Economic Growth and Inequality: A Review”, Studies in Comparative International Development 25 (1990), pp. 126–157; T. Piketty, “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948–2017)”, World Inequality Database (March 2018).

[xiii] Edward Crenshaw, “Cross-National Determinants of Income Inequality: A Replication and Extension Using Ecological-Evolutionary Theory”, Social Forces 71: 2 (December 1992), pp. 339–363.

[xiv] Murray Milner Jr., “Theories of Inequality: An Overview and a Strategy for Synthesis”, Social Forces 65: 4 (June 1987), pp. 1053–1089. See e.g. Charles E. Hurst, Heather M. Fitz Gibbon, and Anne M. Nurse, Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences (New York and London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 242–264.