Yale convenes multidisciplinary symposium on inequality

The current economic situation, the recent Occupy movement, and the upcoming presidential election have increased awareness of socioeconomic inequalities in the United States, and raised the question, again, of their relationship to global inequality and political responses to it. Recognizing the urgent need to develop effective public policy on the basis of expert analyses of the problem, Elijah Anderson, the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale, organized a symposium of leading scholars in the field of inequality on Sept. 7.

Over the course a single day, key figures in economics, sociology, urban studies, and political science illuminated the multilayered phenomena of inequality. Among the speakers were Yale’s Jacob Hacker, whose work specializes in economic opportunity, social welfare and income inequality; William Julius Wilson of Harvard University, author of the seminal work “The Truly Disadvantaged: the Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy” (1987); Richard Breen of Yale, a comparative causal analyst of social stratification; Randall Collins of the University of Pennsylvania, whose work ranges from micro-studies of violence to macro-analyses of the future of capitalist economies; and Ann Shola Orloff of Northwestern University, who is currently examining gender and  the limits and possibilities of welfare state policies in capitalist democracies.

Over 80 people from Yale, New Haven, and beyond attended the invited symposium. The day’s events were bookended by remarks from Provost Peter Salovey and Deputy Provost Frances Rosenbluth, who underlined the importance of a concerted multimethod approach to the contemporary problem of social inequality, informed by the kind of interdisciplinary conversation and debate launched at the symposium. The diversity of speakers and participants also reflected the complexity of contemporary socioeconomic divides.

“Inequality was deliberated on by men and women; blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos; and scholars who use qualitative and quantitative methods,” said Anderson. “ Yale’s Greenberg Conference Center encouraged active and vibrant discussion, as each seat is equipped with a microphone to make sure that everyone’s voice can be heard.”

In his opening remarks, Anderson emphasized the pressing need for a sustained conversation about inequality. Voicing a theme that was reiterated throughout the symposium, he pointed to the large-scale, structural changes in the American economy that have culminated in the present crisis. As manufacturing declines, he noted, the available jobs in high technology and the service sector are highly stratified, undermining the foundation for a skilled and stable working class. Globalization, he said, enables the swift movement of jobs to countries in which workers can be paid a small fraction of what Americans would require. In effect, Anderson argued, poor communities in the United States are placed in competition with those in developing countries. The jobs that have been leaving American cities will not return until the cities’ standard of living and wage levels have fallen enough for the corporations that have exported jobs to make greater profits here than abroad, he said.

After these scene-setting remarks, the first half of the day ranged from Hacker’s quantitative examination of patterns of income inequality past, present, and future to the analysis of social micro-inequalities in Anderson’s recent ethnographic study of urban “cosmopolitan canopies” and “iconic ghettos.” Commenting on Hacker’s analysis, Dorian Warren of Columbia, and Yale’s Chris Wildeman and Marcus Hunter elaborated on the social implications of the inequalities that exist between those at the top and at the bottom of the social hierarchy, particularly the historical and contemporary consequences for those located at the margins of society.

At the session on “Cultural Patterns of Inequality,” Anderson and his Yale-based research team — Vani Kulkarni, Duke Austin, and Craig Holloway — gave a presentation on their ongoing study of the legacy of racial caste in the United States. This exploratory research has brought to the fore the dynamic and relational nature of the working conceptions of race that are held by white and black Americans today. The cultural patterns of inequality were also examined by Fred Wherry of Columbia, who explored the social meaning and use of money among the poor. Rounding out the first half of the symposium was a lunchtime presentation, by Yale’s Immanuel Wallerstein, on inequality across the world, examining the connections between different countries and how the development and spread of capitalism in the West resulted in unequal development in the world; he was followed by Yale’s Ian Shapiro, who commented and expanded on Wallerstein’s themes.

At the core of the afternoon sessions was William Julius Wilson’s “Reflections on America’s Great and Growing Disparity.” Critically reviewing recent contributions to the study of inequality, Wilson underscored the importance of “equalizing institutions,” including public education and the regulation of international trade. In discussing Wilson’s remarks, Yale’s Richard Breen pointed to the divergence between inequality levels in the United States and in the countries to which it has traditionally been compared, especially the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as Western and Northern Europe. He suggested that, in terms of inequality, it may now be more accurate to think of the United States as growing more akin to China, South Africa, Russia, and Brazil. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Lawrence Bobo emphasized that the absence of growth in certain measures of inequality must not be taken to mean that inequality is diminishing or that addressing it is any less urgent. In this regard, Margaret Weir of Berkeley underscored the differential vulnerabilities of population groups to different aspects of inequality.

The symposium culminated with a look at urban poverty, widely considered one of the most critical issues of American public policy and social sciences. The closing panel brought together a trio of prominent young sociologists to discuss contemporary urban ethnographic research. Waverly Duck of the University of Pittsburgh spoke of neighborhood-level demographic change and the entrenchment of drug trade in Chester, Pennsylvania; Alice Goffman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented her ethnographic and survey research on hunger among the poor in Detroit, Michigan; and Matthew Desmond of Harvard University discussed the “relational ethnography of the eviction process” he recently examined in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These ethnographers underscored the urgency of intimately understanding, and effectively responding to, the diverse vulnerabilities that stem from inequality. Their contributions combined conceptual innovation with insights into the lived experiences of the urban poor. Thus, Desmond’s critique of inequality studies’ traditional focus on “lack” and “need,” rather than the resources for which the poor are exploited, was coupled with Goffman’s and Duck’s graphic descriptions and compelling documentary material.

Over the closing dinner, Ann Shola Orloff delivered the symposium’s keynote presentation, “Toward Gender Equality in a Context of Complex Inequalities.” Tracing the shifting emphases of government policies intended to promote gender equality in the United States and other democratic nations, she called for greater openness to variations in gender relations, both within families and in the development of public policy. Orloff’s presentation reinforced several panelists’ and participants’ emphasis on gender and the intersectionality of different forms of inequality throughout the symposium.

Orloff’s commentators, Yale’s Deborah Davis and Gerald Jaynes, underscored the importance of developing intellectual blueprints by means of which scholars of diverse disciplinary and methodological approaches could collaborate in thinking analytically about inequality. Together with the urgency of effectively intervening in the face of inequality-induced vulnerabilities, this continued engagement is made imperative by the mutually reinforcing effects of deindustrialization and globalization, legacies of historical patterns of racial discrimination, and changing gender relations.

Story by Elijah Anderson with the assistance of Vani Kulkarni and Annikki Herranen