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“Inequalities of the World: New Theoretical Frameworks, Multiple Empirical Approaches” Therborn (Ed) 2006

Summary: This important book provides an introduction to the ‘meaning, mechanisms, patterns and forces’ of inequality in the contemporary global world. All those frustrated by the way narrow debates about income inequality that have come to dominate academic concern about globalization can find new understanding in the varied and illuminating essays of this book. They include five thematic essays on health inequalities, social exclusion, social mobility, part-time work, and knowledge, and four case studies on Brazil, China, Russia and France.

This book is packed full of insight, but its most outstanding utility is its breadth. The book is intended to ‘contribute to global knowledge and to global research on inequalities.’ (42) This it does partly through a magisterial theoretical and empirical introductory overview by Therborn. But the sophisticated and empirically-informed chapters on particular inequalities (health, exclusion, mobility, part-time work, knowledge) and on specific countries (Brazil, China, Russia, France) provide the interdisciplinary breadth of the book.

Introduction: Therborn provides a substantive, 60-page, overview that establishes the book as a significant contribution to debates about inequality. ‘Inequalities,’ he argues, ‘are differences that we consider unjust,’(4) and he distinguishes three forms of inequality: vital (life and health), existential (freedom and respect) and resource (material and symbolic capabilities) inequalities. He then describes interactions among these three, characterizes factors behind inequality and identifies four processes of change: distantiation (running ahead), hierarchization (institutionalized status), exclusion (racism, discrimination) and exploitation. He goes on to look at trajectories of the three forms of inequality on a global scale. Therborn ends with an attempt to build an analytical framework of global and sub-global determinants of global inequalities which synthesizes global history (colonialism), global entanglements (transnational movements and organizations) and global flows (people, capital, trade and information). Therborn recognizes the framework is provisional. It appears, nonetheless, to provide an unrivaled starting point for research.

Below, we highlight points from three thematic, and one case study, chapters:

Health Inequalities: This chapter by Denny Vagero (medical sociology, Stockholm) summarizes global health trends and their determinants, the effects of global economic growth (with a long term convergence of life expectancies, followed by a recent divergence), and examines the East-West health divide in Europe. The chapter brings together some excellent figures on health trends. One, on page 87, disaggregates mortality by cause of death and suggests that those causes of death which exhibit large mortality differences by social class (eg TB) are also those for which there are large mortality differences between Western and Eastern Europe.

Exclusion: Michele Lamont (Sociology, Harvard) provides an illuminating comparison of the ways social exclusions are generated by the moral and cultural evaluation of immigrants by French and American workers. In France, Muslim immigrants are excluded because their culture is viewed as incompatible with a universalistic French culture. In the US, moral boundaries exclude the poor and African Americans ‘on the basis of responsibility and work ethic’. (105) She urges that more research be undertaken into how lines of moral and cultural exclusion come to be drawn.

Economic Change and Social Mobility: Michael Hout (Sociology, UC Berkeley), in a model of exposition and brevity, summarizes research on mobility: ‘while it is true that mobility does occur, it is far from perfect, even in the most open societies of Western Europe. On average, a persons place in society retains a strong, positive correlation with social origins.’ (119). The chapter examines four case studies: American mobility 1962-1973, African American mobility, Irish mobility 1973-97, Russian mobility 1988-2001, and concludes ‘nations can take a number of actions to affect the extent to which opportunities are openly distributed or restricted on the basis of class origins.’ (133)

Globalization and Inequality in Rural China: Huang Ping (Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) provides an overview of changes in inequality in China, focusing particularly on rural-urban inequalities. Ping concludes that China’s contemporary inequalities arise primarily from problems of rural development: ‘in the past it was the problem of the relationship between farmers and the land, and now it turns into one of how to solve the issue of transferring the rural population into non-agricultural communities and how to maintain sustainable agricultural growth and a humane rural livelihood.’ (243)


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