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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 mora