Social inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. It comprises structured and recurrent patterns of unequal distributions of goods, wealth, opportunities, rewards, and punishments.
Racism, for example, a phenomenon whereby access to rights and resources is unfairly distributed across racial lines. In the context of the United States, people of color typically experience racism, which benefits white people by conferring on them white privilege, which allows them greater access to rights and resources than other Americans.
There are 2 main ways to scale social inequality:
Inequality of conditions
Inequality of opportunities
Inequality of prohibitions refers to the unequal distribution of income, wealth, and material goods. Housing, for example, is inequality of situations with the displaced and those residing in housing projects sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy while those living in multi-million dollar mansions sit at the top.
Another example is at the level of whole communities, where some are poor, unstable, and trouble by violence, while others invest in by businesses and government so that they thrive and provide safe, secure, and happy conditions for their inhabitants.
Inequality of opportunities leads to the unequal distribution of life chances across individuals. This exhibited in measures such as level of education, health status, and treatment by the criminal justice system.
For example, studies have shown that college and university professors are extra likely to ignore emails from women and people of color than they are to ignore those from white men,1 which privileges the educational outcomes of white men by channeling a biased amount of mentoring and educational resources to them.
Discrimination of an individual, community, and institutional levels is a major part of the process of reproducing social inequalities of race, class, gender, and sexuality. For example, women are systematically less than men for doing the same work.
2 Main Theories
There are 2 main views of social inequality within sociology. One view joins with the functionalist theory, and the other aligns with conflict theory.
Functionalist theorists believe that inequality is unavoidable and desirable and plays an important function in society. Prominent positions in society require more training and thus should receive more rewards. Social inequality and social stratification, according to this view, lead to a meritocracy based on skill.
Conflict theorists, on the other hand, view inequality as emerging from groups with power dominating less powerful groups. They believe that social inequality blocks and hinders societal progress as those in power repress the powerless people to preserve the status quo. In today’s world, this work of domination is achieved primarily through the power of ideology, our thoughts, values, beliefs, worldviews, norms, and expectations, through a process known as cultural administration.
How It’s Studied
Sociologically, social inequality can be studied as a social problem that includes three dimensions: structural conditions, ideological supports, and social reforms.
Structural circumstances cover things that can be objectively measured and that contribute to social inequality. Sociologists study how things like educational attainment, wealth, poverty, occupations, and power drive to social inequality between people and groups of people.
Ideological supports include ideas and postulates that support the social inequality present in society. Sociologists examine how things such as formal laws, public policies, and dominant values both lead to social inequality, and help sustain it. For instance, consider this discussion of the role that words and the ideas attached to them play in this process.
Social reforms are things such as coordinated resistance, protest groups, and social movements. Sociologists study how these social reforms help shape or improve social inequality that exists in a society, as well as their origins, impact, and long-term effects.
Today, social media plays a large role in social reform campaigns and harnessed in 2014 by British actress Emma Watson, on behalf of the United Nations, to launch a campaign for gender equality called #HeForShe.