Friday, January 21, 2011

Supposing they're right...

To finish my observations of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level, I'm going to explore an alternative way to look at their data.

Supposing Pickett and Wilkinson are completely correct about their claims that high levels of inequality in society create pressures on individuals that cause a great number of social ills. The Spirit Level seems to consider inequalities in wealth as being interchangeable with inequalities in status, i.e. that rich people are high status and poor people are low status. In some historical cases this is obviously relevant, as wealthy aristocrats, for example, held far higher status than peasants or serfs.

Yet exceptions were common. Catholic priests in Ireland were until a few decades ago high-status but not particularly rich. In Edo period Japan the ruling samurai class included some rather poor samurai who, nonetheless, had status and priviliges greater than the rising wealthy merchant class.

I use these examples only to show that wealth and status are not interchangable, that Catholic priests and poor samurai could punch far above their economic weight in status. One could be influential, admired and poor.

Pickett and Wilkinson argue that the insecurity caused by lower social status causes people to engage in drug abuse, comfort eating, violent crime and so on. The presumption is that erasing income inequalities would reverse these trends - but perhaps that would not really erase the status inequalities.

Class consciousness
I was inspired to think of this difference by my own experience growing up in rural Ireland. Until I left for university in Dublin, I had no sense of belonging to a specific socioeconomic class. The majority of students simply attended the local school because it was the only school in the town. We wore uniforms in school, and outside there were no class markers in how people dressed. My impression was that we were all normal, average, medium - in status and wealth. Peer pressure in school revolved around the behaviour of individuals, not around the income of their parents. We had a crude meritocracy, albeit a dysfuncational one where the most cruel and ignorant students were at the top of the social ladder!

There were, of course, differences of income in this region, and even I noticed that several of the more troubled boys came from "the estate" - the town's small council estate - but those boys had no lower status in school than the rest of us and outside school I noticed no clear upper, middle or lower classes.

Moving to Dublin I found a completely different situation, where whole communities identified themselves by socioeconomic class. Dublin's underclass were immediately obvious by their accents and clothing, Dublin friends talked about 'rough' schools and people joked about "skangers" and "knackers" (something like Britain's "chavs" - widely despised youth subcultures associated with the underclass). There were also references to wealthy "D4" (Dublin 4, the postal district associated with the high-income class) people and influential schools like Blackrock College. I was even astonished to see left-wing activisits calling for greater "class consciousness".

Class divisions carved up Dublin in a way I had never experienced before. However I suspect that class had more to do with identity than income. During the boom years of the early 2000s I noticed that formerly "working class" occupations related to construction were now earning very high incomes.

This brought me back to wonder if the social problems Pickett and Wilkinson observe are caused, not by income inequality, but by differences in status, differences which might even resist an equalisation of wealth. (I think of the contempt with which the nouveau riche are sometimes regarded - wealthy but still ignorant of the social norms of the upperclass.)

How does this cultural acceptance of the stratification of society into socioeconomic classes affect an individual's sense of wellbeing? I'm not sure, but two consequences seem plausible:

- a less stressful society, as individuals compete only with members of their own social strata and feel content even when they fail to rise to a higher class, since expectations are low.

- a more stressful society, where individuals distrust other social groups, high-status classes fear the lower classes and low-status classes enjoy no social mobility: the cultural divisions between classes make promotion more difficult.

The earlier mention of high-status, low-income Catholic priests brings me to another point about the relationship between status and wellbeing: many of the world's religions urge the abandonment of wealth as a route to salvation. With that perspective, the status and respect afforded to the wealthy could be undermined.

The Spirit Level argues that low status individuals feel so bad about their inferior position that they develop poor health and harmful behavioural traits. Yet, without redistributing wealth or altering the differences in income, a simple shift in attitudes might change radically how people feel about their place in society. If a very low income individual can feel himself to be as valuable as the wealthy elite, must he still suffer from the social problems described in the book? Note that this shift in attitudes need not be religious, any world view that dismisses wealth as an indicator of an individual's worth could work.

Awareness of one's oppression must matter too. People who are raised into a very strict caste system and view it as being natural and inevitable, could be fairly comfortable within it. If one accepts unequal casteism as a natural or divine order, it seems logical that the obsessive desire to appear high-status would lessen.

The American Dream
Perhaps this gives us an idea of why the US scores so poorly in many of The Spirit Level's indicators. The US simultaneously has high inequality, low social mobility and a culture based on the idea that any individual can succeed - the American Dream. In such a society, failure must be difficult to deal with; low status an indication of personal defeat.

By contrast an unequal culture with a more conservative stratification might actually be less stressful. There, a miserably poor farmer, for example, can still feel proud of his very humble successes since expectations are already extremely low. Irish writer Dervla Murphy observed during her cycle across Europe and Asia in 1963 that some young Muslim women in South Asia had none of the insecurities and fears of their Western equivalents, since their expectations of life were so much simpler: an arranged marriage followed by domestic work and child-rearing for the rest of their lives.

Without necessarily embracing a new casteism, perhaps a cultural shift away from judging individual status by their income is possible, removing some of the stress of low income individuals.

That's a bit vague, of course, and manipulating culture is extremely difficult. But it is worth questioning The Spirit Level's assumption that income and status are one, that the end of income inequality will end status inequality. There could be much cheaper solutions - no change in money necessary.


  1. Another thought: if low wealth and status are the causes of drug abuse and violent crime, why is it that those are common, even stereotypical, afflictions of people who suddenly become rich and famous -- pro athletes, actors and musicians, lottery winners, etc.? Isn't the actual problem one of not knowing how to live one's life, so to speak?

  2. Good point Confanity! More food for thought.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.