Durable Inequality

Mike O’Brien (Massey University, New Zealand)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




O’Brien, M. (2000), "Durable Inequality", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 308-314. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijse.2000.27.4.308.2



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Widening income inequality in recent years has been a source of focus and interest for a range of scholars interested in its nature, causes, implications and the possible and desirable policy responses. Statistics New Zealand’s recent report (Statistics New Zealand, 1999) charts some of those changes in this country, while other local authors such as Easton (1997) and Podder and Chatterjee (1998) have highlighted aspects of this growth, its roots and its consequences. Others again have given attention to non‐income aspects, particularly inequalities based on ethnicity and gender.

In this work, described on the back cover as “a highly sophisticated yet extremely accessible reconstruction of a core sociological problem”, Tilly sets out to explain the causes and nature of one of the central features of societies, namely the persistence of inequality. In doing so, he sweeps widely, both historically and geographically, in his exploration of the roots of that inequality, and, more importantly, the reasons for its durability. The core of the argument lies in approaching inequality as a relational issue, based around unequal paired categories in which one part of the pair (male/female, owner/worker, white/non‐white etc.) is dominant and exercises that dominance in relation to the other part. Inequality is sustained and maintained through four core processes – hoarding of opportunities, exploitation, emulation and adaptation.

One chapter is devoted to developing his discussion of each of these processes and their role in and contribution to “durable inequality”. The other four chapters build the base of his argument around the contribution of these processes to the persistence and perpetuation of inequality and to the political processes (using political in the widest sense to refer to the structural operation of power) involved in that persistence and perpetuation.

This extremely brief summary fails to do justice to the sophistication of his argument and to the wide range of evidence carefully drawn upon to illustrate and develop that argument. The commentator referred to above is certainly accurate in her description of the work as “sophisticated”. Her description of it as “extremely accessible”, however, is not so easily upheld. There is no doubt that the argument is carefully developed, well integrated and regularly summarised and rehearsed. Nevertheless, it does require some familiarity with both core sociological notions and with history to grasp the argument.

The argument is both persuasive and thorough, and warrants careful reading. Among its important contributions is a reminder and restatement of the central importance of understanding the role of social structures (categorical pairs in Tilly’s language) in both creating and sustaining inequality. Contemporary arguments and current political and social practices have constituted each of us in the neo‐liberal guise as freely choosing individuals, living aloof and apart from our social context. One of Tilly’s important contributions in this book is to demonstrate clearly the folly and dangers of that neo‐liberal construction and the fundamental role of categorical pairs and relational inequalities in shaping life experiences and opportunities. Although not an explicit intention of the study, the inadequacies, inaccuracies and false assumptions of neo‐liberalism are exposed and systematically demolished through a careful attention to the forces and processes that sustain power and privilege. Central to the development of his argument about these forces and processes is the role of the organisation, whether understood at the nation state or multinational level or at the level of the household. Organisations (used in this wide sense rather than the narrow description more commonly employed) provide the formal and informal framework through which durable inequality occurs.

One of the significant developments in much of the recent poverty literature has been in approaching poverty as a dynamic rather than static phenomenon (Walker, 1994; Leisering and Walker, 1998). Much would be gained by linking the insights from that research with Tilly’s work here (and indeed with much of the literature on inequality). Such a linkage would enable us to begin to reach useful answers to questions about the processes of change at a structural level (as distinct from individualised case answers which are not particularly productive at either the explanatory or policy level). Moreover, such answers would enable us to develop policy responses that would reduce the extent and impact of both durable inequality and persistent poverty. Tilly’s very interesting work makes it clear that, of course, there are very powerful forces and interests which neither want to examine the questions nor pursue the appropriate policies. Social science disciplines such as economics and sociology have a critical role to play in contributing to such changes – but then again they may be intimately linked with preserving durable inequality.

There is one central issue in much of the current debate on inequality which Tilly’s work does not take up at any length, namely what is referred to in those debates as the “equality(sameness)/difference” debate. Tilly focuses his discussion of this question around the “new social movements”, concentrating especially on the ways in which those movements provide a basis of political organisation and challenge to political inequality through organised resistance. His emphasis is on the political nature of the identity associated with these movements.

There is, however, a much wider discussion to be entered into here – a discussion in which Tilly only partially engages. Missing is a more comprehensive examination of the relationship between the sameness often associated (frequently falsely) with equality and the pursuit and sustenance of difference. It is this relationship that currently engages both academic debate around issues of the contemporary context of durable inequality and the associated key policy dimensions in areas such as health care, education access, treaty policy and legislation surrounding sexual identity, to use four examples. There is a real danger that the academic and policy pursuit of the politics of difference will blind us to the strength and salience of durable inequality.

Tilly’s work provides a very important reminder of the critical importance of attending to a careful analysis of the nature of durable inequality and of the forces sustaining it. The intellectual and policy task is to explore how best to facilitate both removal of the features that allow and support durable inequality while simultaneously also ensuring that difference flourishes. We are clearly reminded in this book that pursuit of neoliberalism is hostile to both these goals.

The arguments advanced here, and the range of evidence adduced in developing, supporting and illuminating those arguments, make this book a very useful contribution to the literature on one of the major contemporary questions, namely the preservation of durable inequality. Anybody with an interest in this and related fields should read it. All those teaching in the areas such as income distribution and inequality should use it widely and expose their students to the arguments. If nothing else, we may at least then get a more informed, better and wider debate and analysis.


Easton, B. (1997), The Commercialisation of New Zealand, Auckland University Press, Auckland.

Leisering, L. and Walker, R. (Eds) (1998), The Dynamics of Modern Society, The Policy Press, Bristol.

Podder, S. and Chatterjee, S. (1998), “Sharing the national cake in post reform New Zealand: income inequality trends in terms of income sources”, Social Policy Research Centre, Palmerston North.

Statistics New Zealand (1999), New Zealand Now – Incomes, Statistics New Zealand, Wellington.

Walker, R. (1994), Poverty Dynamics: Issues and Examples, Aldershot, Avebury (in association with Karl Ashworth).

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