Social inequality is “the condition where people have unequal access to valued resources, services and positions in society” (Kerbo, 2003, p. 11).
It is broader than just wealth inequality because it also includes factors like discrimination and access to government support.
When social inequality occurs, there is an uneven distribution of resources between individuals or groups, and this happens in almost all societies. These resources and rights go from education, to power, status and so on.
Social inequality is the result of social hierarchy or stratification, with class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality being part of the experience of social inequality. According to theories like the Davis-Moore thesis, it’s also an inevitable feature of society.
In the field of sociology, unlike economics, social inequality is taken to include differences on many levels: income, resources, power, status, social capital, as well as in levels of social inclusion and exclusion (Warwick-Booth, 2018).
When social inequality occurs, there is an unequal distribution of and unequal access to material and non-material goods:
- Material goods could be income, but also things like housing.
- Non-material social goods refer to intangible things such as access to social networks or social status.
In this sense, social inequality is a multi-faceted approach to uneven differences in access to resources for different social positions or statuses within a group or society.
Thus, dimensions like gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class all impact on being able to access, or not, social goods and resources as well as opportunities.
Social inequality is important because it has an impact on people’s life chances, in their living conditions, their work opportunities and the overall life outcomes of both individuals and groups (Suter, 2014).
Social Inequality Examples
- Wealth inequality: Wealth plays a major role in social perpetuating inequality. People with higher net worth have greater access to resources, can out-bid poorer people for access to limited resources, and can buy access to people in power.
- Income inequality: Income inequality functions in a similar way to wealth inequality, but refers to unequal distribution of money in the workforce. For example, the wage differential between CEOs and workers has spiked in recent decades, which has exacerbated social inequalities.
- Access to basic education: Access to basic education is unequal when wealthier neighborhoods have better primary schools, or when lack of public transit to schooling acts as a substantial barrier for poorer people.
- Access to higher education: Inequal access to education can be a result of factors such as geographical barriers and financial barriers. Without higher education, it is harder to achieve social mobility.
- Age inequality: Also known as ageism, this refers to discrimination against people based on their age. For example, it occurs in relation to access to employment for those over the age of 50.
- Deprived neighborhoods: Deprived neighborhoods are an example of how it is not only individuals who suffer inequality. Sometimes, whole areas can be affected by the unequal distribution of rights and resources. This happens, for example, when some neighborhoods have restricted access to hospitals and transport.
- Housing inequality: Having access to a house, or living in sufficient accommodation, is both a cause and a consequence of social inequality. Living in a social housing, for example, is related to being at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
- Racial inequality: Inequality based on race can be a result of systemic and intergenerational racism, a discriminatory attitude by which access to rights has not been distributed equally across people of different races, and which has been passed down through generations of deprivation.
- Gender inequality: Inequality based on gender is called sexism, a discriminatory attitude by which women are more likely to be worse off in the equality scales. For example, they tend to earn less than men for the same jobs.
- Health access inequality: Inequal access to healthcare is most starkly shown by the rural-urban divide (where rural people often need to travel to cities to receive care) and the class divide, where working-class people often find funding to be a barrier to access to quality care (see more social determinants of health here).
- Caste systems: Traditional caste societies deny access to jobs based on your ascribed status at birth. Furthermore, they may deny people from marrying one another across castes.
- Geographical inequality: Geographical inequality can be within a nation (e.g. the rural-urban divide) as well as globally (e.g. developing vs developed nations).
- Citizenship status: People may face limited protections based upon their citizenship. While it’s generally accepted that a tourist in a country shouldn’t access some public services covered by taxation, when non-citizens are denied human rights like access to a lawyer, we might start to consider citizenship status as a dimension of inequality in a society.
- Child poverty: Child poverty is a key driver of social inequality. People born into poverty can experience malnutrition, poorer educational results, and lower overall lifetime earnings on average.
- Power and status inequality: Access to powerful people is unequally distributed. People who are privileged on the social hierarchy have higher social status and consequently have more access to people in powerful political and corporate positions. There is also inequal power distribution between men and women, as demonstrated by the glass ceiling phenomenon.
- LGBT discrimination: Historically, LGBT people have faced discrimination that has affected their ability to do many things heterosexual people can access, including starting and raising a family, and accessing healthcare as spouses.
- Intergenerational inequality: This occurs when one generation in society has had greater access to resources than others at similar points in their lives. For example, in the UK and Australia, baby boomers had free higher education, which was denied to future generations who had to pay for it. This affected future generations’ prospects in a way that did not affect baby bookers.
- Incarceration rates: Taking a look at incarceration rates versus rates in which different racial groups commit crimes can demonstrate how people of color are more likely to be imprisoned if they are caught committing a crime.
- Service inequality: Unequal access to services can be seen across many vectors of society, including the rural-urban divide and rich-poor divide.
- Discriminatory laws: Laws that entrench discrimination, such as segregation laws, can be a source of social inequality.
- Indigenous inequality: Fist nations groups have long suffered from inequal access to resources in society. One demonstration of this is the lack of clean drinking water in many first nations communities in Canada.
1. Social inequality and gender
Gender is a key dimension of social inequality, as for a variety of reasons, the unfair treatment of people based on their gender still happens in contemporary society.
There are three main areas in which gender inequality can be found: health, education, and the workplace.
For example, in relation to health, although women live longer than men, they have more ill health throughout their lives.
In terms of education, there is still segregation in certain subjects, for example, computing or engineering are still dominated by men. Finally, in the workplace, we find that is called the glass ceiling, which stops women from progressing in their careers.
2. Social inequality and ethnicity
Racism is the expression of social inequality based on a person’s, or a group, race or ethnicity.
It has been shown that people of ethnic minority backgrounds experience higher rates of unemployment, they are more likely to be prosecuted by the criminal justice, and also be victims of crime, live in inadequate housing, have bad mental and physical health or be excluded from education. These are examples of institutional racism.
All of these cause social inequality in the middle and longer term and slims down ethnic minorities’ life chances.
3. Social inequality and health
There is a clear relation between social inequality and health, for multiple reasons.
For example, income determines being able to afford things like gym membership or fresh fruit, which keeps people healthier..
Occupation also has a role in health inequality a life expectancy, for example, teachers live longer than plumbers.
Finally, in countries in which there is no universal health coverage those with higher incomes will have greater access to services, from health promotion, to prevention or treatment.
4. Social inequality and age
Ageism refers to stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.
While ageism can be directed towards younger or older people, in terms of inequality, it is in older groups that the focus will be put on. People who are older may experience discrimination in the workplace, for example, in terms of accessing jobs which can lead to higher rates of unemployment.
Furthermore, older people with small pensions have less spending power and thus less access to certain resources, for example, paying for leisure and cultural activities, thus putting them at a disadvantage.
5. Social inequality and income or wealth
While social inequality is not solely based on income or wealth, money, whether from the job one does or from access to family wealth, plays a role in accessing resources.
This greater access to resources mean that some people at a greater advantage than others, for example, in relation to good health and educations. As has been explained, this difference in access to resources is at the heart of social inequality and it impacts on people’s life changes, hence its importance.
Social inequality is a complex subject due to its transversal nature: as it has been pointed out, it is more than just having more or less money. In social inequality there are many factors at play, such as gender, age or ethnicity as well as other aspects like class or neighborhood.
The importance of fighting off social inequality lies in its cumulative nature and in how it determines people’s life chances, sometimes for generations.
Doob, C. B. (2019). Social inequality and social stratification in US society. London: Routledge.
Hurst, C.; Fitz Gibon, H. & Nurse, A. (2016) Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. New York: Routledge
Kerbo, H. R. (2003). Social stratification and inequality. Class conflict in historical, comparative, and global perspective. Boston: McGrawHill.
Thompson, R. (2019). Education, Inequality and Social Class. Expansion and Stratification in Educational Opportunity. New York: Routledge.
Warwick-Booth, L. (2018). Social Inequality. New York: Sage
Wisdom, S., Leavitt, L., & Bice, C. (Eds.). (2019). Handbook of research on social inequality and education. London: IGI Global.