The Return of Inequality and Ideological Conundrums

Inequality is a fundamental feature as well as a key problem of the contemporary societies. Every society has certain ways of ordering individuals, classes and groups in a specific structure. The structure of inequalities varies across social and political contexts. Scholars across disciplines have engaged with the question of social stratification, race, gender, caste and class inequalities. Social sciences have been exploring nature and character of structures of inequalities in different ways. While economists work primarily through the ‘mathematical dominated’ quantitative ‘equations’ and imagination of the social world, anthropologists and sociologists on the other hand, bring in both quantitative and qualitative aspects of social life. Strangely the rigid disciplinary frame has narrowed our possible explanations about the existence of inequalities. Hence, it is quite important to examine the ideological underpinnings of these disciplinary frameworks within social sciences, given the economic and political challenges to the present form of democratic life.

In the past three decades scholars have renewed their interests in examining the trends of inequality in global north as well as global south. However, if one looks at a particular genre of scholarship, it has been observed that attempts were done to map and analyse the structure of inequalities, the category of class has been pushed to the corners, even termed as defunct or dead! Can it be denounced primarily as a question of representation or empirics? If not, then one must ask the question, how to understand and analyse the contemporary forms of inequalities without concepts such as ‘class’ or ‘elite’? Scholars such as Malcolm Waters and Jan Pakulski (1995) pronounced the ‘death’ of the ‘social reality’ represented through ‘the category of class’, even though the objective reality of class inequality continued to exist and thrive even in western contexts. Recent empirical works by sociologists namely, Mike Savage, Goran Therborn, and Erik Olin Wright show the continued significance of material and social inequalities represented by social class in American, British and Swedish contexts. Thus material inequalities have continued to challenge liberal conceptions of social world. According to many postmodern scholars ‘the history was’ supposed to ‘end’ with the decline of ‘Soviet rule’. They have called this shift as ‘a new phase of capitalism’ but without ‘classes’. The recent resurgence in inequality and elite studies shows that the ‘invisibility of elites’ in academic and political discussion had its deeper roots in historical, theoretical and ideological contradictions about the nature of socio-economic transformations (Savage, & Williams, 2008; Piketty, 2020; Beri, 2020). Perhaps we need to investigate this inconsistency in the theoretical engagements around inequality too. It might highlight the ideological ‘misrecognition’ of the historical context and the hammering down of the certain categories and concepts, to eulogize some (identity) over others and rendering the articulation of certain forms of inequality impossible?

Inequality as process of classification, domination, and institutionalizing exclusion, privilege

Sociologists have struggled to make sense of disorienting transformations in the power structure effected by capitalist development. Sociological writings invariably come back to the question, ‘what is power and inequality’? A more appropriate question would be to ask what is the problem that ‘inequality’ describes? Study of inequality is properly concerned with the process of class relations, exploitation, reproduction of privilege, domination, dispossession and devaluation through classification. One is required to critically examine the social and political process of classification of individuals, identities, groups, categories, and lastly, moral and cultural discourses.

For example, it has become a common practice to make invisible the forms and mechanisms of social exclusion and exploitation. With the onset of cultural turn and postmodern discourse the material conditions are rendered ‘unintelligible’, ‘fragments’ impossible to decipher analytically, vague and abstract to fathom through sociological lens. The social outcome of this practice has been to ‘label’, ‘classify’ certain concepts, theories and perspectives as redundant and outdated. The same has been the fate of social inequalities. During the 1950s and 1960s, the modernization theory gained popular currency in the academic world as well as political domain. The evolutionary and linear ideals and explanation of the modernization theory established certain social and political concepts as given. For example, the concept of social mobility has remained stuck in the discussion of a celebratory tale of modern nation state and the related economic project of capitalist markets of creating an ‘open’ and ‘free’ social world where ‘anyone could make it to the top’. The ‘mobility narrative or discourse’ was picked up very systematically by the economic and political elites of both western and eastern world, within the context of growing markets across the globe. According to Graeber (2019), this moral discourse around production and work have forced many people to remain employed in ‘bullshit jobs’ for the sake of being within the system and though via exploitation. In a way social mobility gain currency as an academic discourse along with political one to dismiss the systemic reproduction of class inequality in the capitalist labour markets. By popularising the trend of ‘upward social mobility’ of the poor into middle class along with the middle-class aspirations to reach at the top, it very creatively lured the masses to accept the ‘open-ness’, ‘democratic’ potential of the capitalist order which actually utilized, sustained and reproduced the precapitalist social structures of inequalities i.e. racial, gender and caste social structures in particular. To challenge this aporia, some political theorists argue that in order to talk and uncover the mechanisms of inequality one has to understand its ideological constitution itself.

Mis-recognition[i] as Ideologically constituted process

To return back to the question of ideology, one can understand the organic link between inequality regimes and ideological frames by asking the question, why and how inequality is ‘tolerated’ and not ‘resisted’ or ‘challenged’. One needs to probe how unequal positions and locations become or termed as questions of ‘difference’ and not hierarchy or exclusion. For many decades’ sociologists have been demonstrating the relevance of the ideological justification of unequal relations among different sections of the society. For example, think of the discourse of meritocracy, and social mobility. Michael Young (1958) in his classic work, The Rise of Meritocracy argued quite authoritatively that individuals are sorted into different occupational positions based on their skills, self-worth, merit and talent, where the later are considered as given and ‘natural’. It has become a very well-organized way of hereditary transfers of privileges, power and resources across generations. Merit and talent have today become the leading social ideals. In Indian context it also gels very well with Brahminical caste and gendered form of hierarchy and exclusion. The discourse has been a medium through which politics of inequality is concealed. It blocks social and economic opportunities for the marginalized via the very category of ‘mobility’ and ‘openness’. In other words, the discourse of meritocracy and entrepreneurship strengthens the production and reproduction of inequality regimes by providing ideological legitimation, justification and rendering it as natural. It ends up blaming the deprived of lacking merit, talent and skills.

Thomas Piketty in his latest work on Capital and Ideology (2020) systematically challenges many of the theoretical assumptions of economists on the question of inequality. In his comprehensive investigation of how inequalities are maintained by different ideologies in different societies, he argues that one needs a new universal egalitarian narrative without which can counter the ideology of inequality. According to Piketty ‘inequalities are not merely economic or technical but fundamentally ideological and political’ (Piketty, 2020: 7-8). Ideologies provide necessary justifications to make inequality bearable. This naturalization of inequality has been the central object of sociological inquiry. In other words, sociology uncovers how certain forms of power relations and unequal relations are termed as ‘natural’, as if there is no ideological constitution behind this ‘naturalness’. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept, ‘misrecognition’ helps us to understand how one form of asset or capital is utilized for gains in different domain without recognizing it as such. Explained through the category of ‘symbolic capital’, Bourdieu points that this process makes inequalities appear natural/just for everyone while the doxic world of neoliberal economy continues its triumphant march across the globe. Thus, it becomes relevant to make sense of how ideology and misrecognition about inequality structures displace our analytical focus of a problem and blocks any politicization of inequality. In recent times it has been observed that many of our social problems portrayed as the problems of ‘intolerance’ and not as issues of power, domination, exclusion, inequality and injustice and the remedy is proposed via the language of ‘tolerance’, and not political struggle, social movement or resistance (Zizek, 2001). Slavoj Zizek succinctly captures this ideological formulation of the problem. According to him, social inequalities, class relations of exploitation resulting from capitalist mode of production, are neutralized and termed as ‘different ways of living’ which cannot be overcome but be adjusted with (Zizek, 2001).

In other words, we need to be reflexive about how do we understand and examine mechanisms of inequality and power without questioning of the ideological framework that permeates beneath and hides the mechanisms of inequality itself? Only a creative sociological imagination can help us in formulating relevant questions to probe into the production of the ‘stability’ and ‘invisibility’ of an unequal socio-economic order. The task of demystification of the ideological frameworks is necessary to lay bare the structures of inequality and to throw critical reflection on what has become invisible and almost a taboo/crime to talk about.


Beri, Suraj. 2020. ‘Sociology of Privilege: Inequality Studies and the curious ‘Invisibility of Elites’, Doing Sociology Blog, 4th June 2020.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Oxford: Polity Press.

Graeber, David. 2019. Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It. London: Penguin.

Pakulski, Jan & Waters, Malcolm. 1995. The Death of Class. London: Sage.

Piketty, Thomas. 2020. Capital and Ideology. Cambridge: Belknap Press - Harvard University Press.

Savage, M. & Williams, Karol. 2009. Remembering Elites. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Young, Michael. 1958. The Rise of Meritocracy. London: Hudson Press.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2001. Did Somebody say Totalitarianism. London: Verso Books

[i] Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual tool to analyse how our everyday routine anything, action, thought, is not recognized for what because it was imagined within the range of habits of the person dealing with it. Thus, the action is attributed to some other level while inequalities or power relations embedded in it are maintained though in a concealed manner.

Dr. Suraj Beri

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

Indraprastha College for Women

University of Delhi

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