A theory of everything? Part two.

On 6th May, the British Sociological Association and the Open University are hosting a postgraduate conference on inequality; abstracts will be accepted up until the 28th February. The main theme of the conference is on whether we need on overarching ‘theory of inequality’ – I gave the first half of my ideas last week, and in this follow-on post I argue that sociology needs a theory of everything just as much as policy research does.

The other week I wrote about my current intellectual hero; in this post I have a chance to talk about one my favourite individual papers. After all, inequality scholarship needs enthusiasm as well as scepticism. But despite all of the fantastic research on the ‘sociology of inequality’, in this post I argue that there’s something missing – an overarching theory that enables us to ask the really important questions about the nature of inequality. What this theory is, I don’t know; but we can see a rough outline of what such a theory should do.

What is a ‘theory of inequality’ for?

There are a great many things that could come under the heading ‘the sociology of inequality’.  For example, we can get beyond our methodological nationalism and look at global inequality, theorising forms of capital internationally.  Or we can burrow down to the micro-level processes of inequality in day-to-day interactions.  We can think about inequality in terms of Luhmann’s social systems, or in terms of ‘intersectionality’ and the overlapping classificatory systems of gender, race, class et al.

In this light, a project of an all-inclusive ‘grand theory of inequality’ is unhelpful (if not slightly insane) – and more likely to lead to theories that are so abstract as to be useless in making sense of the world around us.

My concern here is instead about sociology that concentrates on the mechanisms of individual-level stratification – in other words, the things that determine who gets what in a given society.  This is a classic sociological concern that we can trace back to two of the holy trinity of sociology.  In extremely crude terms (entry-level sociology undergraduates should look away now…), Marx saw the main mechanism of advantage being ‘class’, while Weber suggested that ‘status’ – that is, the honour or respect we are accorded in society – was a separate mechanism of inequality alongside that of class.

The successes of the sociology of inequality

Since then, sociologists have argued about which mechanism is more important, and whether there’s any point in separating them at all. In possibly my favourite paper of recent years (in AJS but available for free here), Tak Wing Chan and John Goldthorpe show that class and status are separate aspects of stratification.  Economic class is more important for economic security and left-right political attitudes, while status matters for cultural choices and libertarian-authoritarian political attitudes. There is value in separating inequality into two dimensions then, which cannot be simply reduced to one another.

To this we can add other forms of capital that have become staples of applied sociological (and other) research. Cultural capital is often seen as a determinant of educational success – although it’s fair to say that most educational researchers pay little attention to Bourdieu’s original ideas and instead use ‘cultural capital’ to refer to generalised cultural resources. Social capital can also be traced back to Bourdieu and others, who were interested in social ties as an unequally-distributed resource that could advantage individuals in e.g. their search for jobs.  And as I explore more below, Catherine Hakim has argued for the concept of erotic capital as another mechanism of advantage to be placed alongside the other capitals.

The alchemy of advantage

There are two problems with all of this. Firstly, if sociology is to avoid an endless proliferation of stratifying classifications, then it needs to know which social cleavages are most important. Is erotic capital more important than class? Indeed, is everything subservient to class, as some (Marxist?) thinkers claim? Such questions cannot be resolved by armchair theorising, even by the most brilliant theorists; it is a task for applied, policy-relevant research that integrates the different forms of capital into a single framework.

But the more critical problem is that this focuses on particular mechanisms of advantage: the way in which a given form of capital leads to a valued outcome such as educational success, health or income (see recent posts by me and Brendan on how to think about valued outcomes).

But to truly understand inequality, we also need to understand the mechanisms through which one form of capital can be turned into another – ‘the alchemy of advantage’.

To demonstrate this, let’s take the concept of ‘erotic capital’ – which I happen to like very much, in spite of some slightly over-excitable news coverage. Hakim talks extremely briefly and unsatisfactorily about how the different forms of capital relate to each other, and we are left wondering the extent to which other forms of capital can be transformed into erotic capital. Is erotic capital a compensation for pretty, graceful, sexual girls from otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds? Or is erotic capital something that can be bought and cultivated just as (seemingly ‘innate’) cultural capital can be?

Such issues are critical, because the ‘reproduction of inequality’ – by which I mean how more advantaged kids become more advantaged adults – can work through varied paths. It would be straightforward to build a simulation model to show that advantaged parents will invest in different forms of capital to match the (perceived) easiest way of preserving their advantage for their children. This is heavily indebted to Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that it was no longer publicly acceptable for privilege to be transmitted openly. Instead, economic capital was transformed into cultural capital, which was then institutionalized through the educational system. The reproduction of inequality then becomes invisible, the ‘natural’ consequence of a meritocratic process.

If we think in this way, then there are dozens of questions we might want to ask. Which forms of capital are most critical at different stages of the lifecourse, in order to generate other forms of capital later in life? Is erotic capital a temporary advantage that flowers in youth, or does it endure into retirement? How easily can different forms of capital be passed between generations? How has social change influenced the types of capital that are most important? (Hakim claims that erotic capital is now more important than ever). To what extent is education becoming a less important lifecourse determinant of capitals, to be replaced by early-life erotic capital, cultural capital and personality characteristics? And so on.

The need for a middle-range theory

Of course, much existing work does shed some light on this. I have already mentioned Bourdieu’s work, which is fabulous but almost entirely wrong when it comes to the details – or at least, so simplistic as to bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happens. Many of the studies of inequality above also implicitly address the transformation of forms of capital –many valued outcomes are also forms of capital too, such as income, education and health. We have Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage (aka‘the Matthew effect’). And the burgeoning field of lifecourse studies is also full of energy and ideas, such as the ESRC centre I’m connected to, or the recently formed Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies.

But too little of this work takes notice of each other and integrates this within a single theoretical framework – which not only makes it hard to draw out the implications for policy, but in a theoretical sense makes it harder for us to make sense of the world around us. This would not be a ‘grand theory’; much of the sociology of inequality would lie outside its focus. But it would instead be a kind of middle-range theory, that provides both theoretical insights and empirically testable hypotheses.

I don’t know quite what this theory would look like, and it clearly is a substantial challenge. But for both applied policy research (as I argued last week) and sociology itself (as I’ve argued here), I think it’s a challenge that needs facing.

These ideas are all works-in-progress though, mainly written quickly on a foggy Thursday morning in Leeds… So I’d particularly appreciate your views, particularly on whether I’ve missed a relevant debate within sociology. Comments can come either below this post or at the BSA postgrad inequality conference in May. Enormous thanks to Diederik Boertien for conversations and comments around all this.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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2 Responses to A theory of everything? Part two.


    Hello Ben

    I am a health professional/manager (nursing;public health;children’s health) about to embark upon a PhD as a mature student (54 years) and came across your article which seemed very relevant given that I have been reflecting for an eternity on an inappropriate theoretical framework the concept even feeling rather confusing. I have been considering using compexity theory as it almost felt like a ‘catch all’ but I have now decided to revert to my default postion i.e. health inequalities theory as this has unerpinned my practice and previous research since the late 1970’s i.e. Sir Douglas Black. I will keep an eye out for any developments

    Best wishes Ros

  2. Pingback: Why erotic capital still matters | Inequalities

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