On 6th May, the British Sociological Association and the Open University are hosting a postgraduate conference on inequality. If you’re a UK-based postgrad inequalities researcher then you should come; abstracts will be accepted for a little while longer until the 28th Feb. I’m hoping to attend, and this post has my (very) first thoughts on the main conference theme: do we need an overarching ‘theory of inequality?’
Oil and water. Grape and grain. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (this last one may be slightly confusing to US readers…). Some things are simply not made to go together; foolhardy attempts to mix them will variously lead to failure, headaches, and punitive social security policy.
For inequality research, it often seems that ‘theory’ and ‘policy’ fall into this motley group. Sociologists are often disdainful of applied research that sacrifices deep understanding for ‘relevance’. Social policy researchers in turn are frustrated by opaque and irrelevant theorising, which seems to revel in its inapplicability to the real world. The net result is that UK Sociology and Social Policy research on inequality proceed in blissful ignorance of one another, happy to stay on isolated but familiar ground.
But this convenient separation causes problems for both theory and policy. I can’t resist rehashing Kurt Lewin’s famous quote here: “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” Yet without a passing concern for relevance, I also argue that theories of inequality will also fail in the key sociological task of illuminating the deeper processes that underlie our social lives.
The problem of atheoretical policy research
For policy research, there are clear difficulties caused by a lack of theory. I’ve touched on this in a couple of earlier posts, on compendiums of inequality statistics, and exploring John Goldthorpe’s recent critique of policy research – and these correspond to the two main flaws of atheoretical work.
Firstly, a key task of policy research is to chronicle the various inequalities in society (something stressed in the interview with Ruth Lupton of LSE). This leads to encyclopaedias of inequality like ‘How fair is Britain?’ and the National Equality Panel (NEP) – but finding your way through the maze of statistics here is almost impossible. (Much as the NEP summary makes an admirable attempt). These statistics are crying out to be integrated into a coherent framework, and an overarching theory of inequality offers one path to this.
Secondly, policy research is often concerned with the effect of policy on inequality. A particularly strong example of this is my own centre’s ‘More Equal Society’ series, which looks at the effect of each recent parliamentary term on the spectrum of inequality. Again, this research is vitally important, and is widely-used in UK policy and politics. But as Goldthorpe argues, we lose something by looking at each inequality piecemail (health, education, income, work…), as if it was a world unto itself unconnected to the other domains of inequality. What we’re really interested is the Government’s record on inequality-generating mechanisms, rather than the micro-level ‘evidence-based policy’ that I’ve argued against before.
Different levels of theory
It’s perhaps slightly unfair to characterise policy research as entirely ‘atheoretical’. Tania Burchardt and Polly Vizard’s work – again within my centre at LSE (and in collaboration with Holly Holder and Tiffany Tsang, two friends of mine) – has used Sen’s theory of capabilities to underpin a coherent framework for inequality in the UK. This includes a central list of the inequalities that matter, which includes 10 ‘central and valuable capabilities’
to be alive, live in physical security, be healthy, participate in society, enjoy a comfortable standard of living, engage in productive activities, enjoy family life, participate in decision-making, express yourself, and be protected under the law.
This is enormously interesting work, but it is what I would describe as ‘descriptive theory’ rather than ‘analytical theory’ – that is, much of it aimed to create a measurement framework across the full range of inequalities, but it still doesn’t tell us how these inequalities relate to one another.
In short, I think policy research is crying out for a theory of inequality that enables us to piece together the innumerable individual inequalities we see before us. But this doesn’t mean we should import wholesale the current sociological theories of inequality, which have their own flaws – as I describe in my second post next week.