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What is social inequality?

Robert M. Blackburn (Cambridge University, Social Science Research Group, Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge, UK)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 25 July 2008




The purpose of this paper is to explain the difference between social inequality and identity.


The paper presents a conceptual view.


The paper notes that the concepts are often confused, as in arguments that equality is impossible because everyone is different. It is pointed out that equality and inequality are not opposites; that equality is simply the zero point on the infinite range of inequality. The existence of inequality depends on socially recognised difference. The difference may often be simply a basis for socially imposed inequalities, as with ethnicity and gender, or it may be a real cause of inequality as with health differences. Nine important inter‐related bases of inequality are considered. Equality does not require zero inequality on all aspects but merely a balance of inequalities. However, the complexity means it is difficult to define or recognise total equality. The nearest would be that all individuals are regarded and treated as equally important. The zero point of inequality may be unattainable, but the real issue is the actual extent of inequality, which could be very substantially reduced.


This original paper is of value in correcting some misconceptions and improving understanding of an important subject.



Blackburn, R.M. (2008), "What is social inequality?", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 28 No. 7/8, pp. 250-259.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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