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Research agenda

Why are inequalities escalating in numerous arenas across the world?

The question of inequality has moved decisively to the top of the intellectual agenda in recent years. Prompted in significant part by the work of leading economists such as Tony Atkinson, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, and underlined most spectacularly by the reception of Thomas Piketty’s important Capital in the Twenty-First Century, increasing inequalities of various kinds, and their impact on social, political and economic life now present themselves as one of the most urgent issues facing contemporary social scientists. 

The III has been set up to build on LSE’s longstanding tradition of leadership in the study of social and economy inequality, bringing together scholars from across the School to coordinate our efforts to further understanding of the genesis and nature of inequalities; of the structural, institutional and cultural factors which shape them; of their socio-economic and political significance, including through the lived experience of inequality; and of how inequalities may best be countered in different contexts.

The research agenda of the III is rooted in the LSE’s commitment to an international perspective, and seeks to analyse different forms, sources and dimensions of inequality. We bring methodological expertise from across the social sciences, including cutting edge quantitative and qualitative methods; and we are committed to asking fundamental questions about the causes, nature, and political challenges of inequality.

Our research agenda focuses on three areas:

What causes inequality?
Towards a social and political economy of inequality: understanding the mechanisms underlying the production and reproduction of inequalities

We see a fundamental issue as lying in the nature of changing economic inequalities: how and why is the share of value added going to labour falling in many countries across the world? Why should the relationship between productivity and earnings have changed? How are these economic inequalities shaped by both social and political systems? Our aspiration, therefore, is to build up an integrated social and political economy of inequality through the pursuit of interlinked research projects.

The mechanisms involved in producing inequality have fundamental implications for social and political systems. There has been a profound reconfiguration of the ‘advanced’ societies over the last quarter century, radically changing the nature of and interrelations between economic, social and political systems. While this has taken different forms in different countries (in say Sweden or Denmark compared with the UK or the US), there have been similar basic changes. Rising economic and social inequality is affecting the configuration of classes; fragmenting the ‘old’ pattern of political involvement via stable parties with high trust in politicians, and participation through voting and party membership, as well as civic culture; and leading to low participation, low party membership, as well as populist (‘radical right’ and ‘radical left’) parties, and low trust in political systems. These developments have been prompted in large part by technological change which has caused the collapse of stable employment in key sectors and which has brought with it a generation of winners and losers, shaped by differential access to higher education and other avenues towards skill-acquisition as well as by broader vectors of power and social norms. The polarisation between winners and losers has in turn prompted a reconfiguration of class affiliations and a realignment of political preferences, leading to a reconfiguration in many countries of party politics and new forms of democratic organisation and participation.

Our work will advance the existing scholarship on advanced countries, while also asking what the advanced democracies can learn from scholarship on developing countries of the global South. Here, analogous changes have been felt in economies such as Brazil, South Africa and Taiwan, while global geo-political and technological forces underlying the growth in inequalities in the advanced democracies have been shaped by distinctive institutional and political dynamics, with consequences for inequalities both within and between countries. Our work will also examine the role that new inequalities in the resources, skills and connections related to fast-changing media and information infrastructures play in reproducing or potentially challenging deep-seated inequalities.

In what ways does inequality matter?
The social impact of inequality: understanding how we live with inequalities

Economic inequalities and their production also have to be understood in terms of the experience of both winners and losers; how do material inequalities affect status inequalities, and vice versa? People’s lived experiences of inequality – whether socio-economic, gender, ethnicity or other forms of inequality – have implications for their experiences, incentives, motivations and sense of self. And these implications have far-reaching effects upon social, political and economic life. Our research agenda will encompass ethnographic and other studies which seek to understand the changing impact of inequalities on lived experience in different parts of the world. Current projects include the impact of time inequalities in India and the impact of economic, ethnic and spatial inequalities on levels of violence and social disorganisation/fragmentation in both the US and South America.

What can be done about inequalities?

Our final question is whether inequality is inevitable, and what might mitigate or curtail it? We pose this question mindful of the significance of the kind of wealth and inheritance effects which Thomas Piketty has emphasised will generate increasing levels of inequality as those with most wealth will tend to disproportionately accumulate more in the future. We are also mindful of the way that cultural and social capital can re-inforce the inheritance of economic inequalities, possibly reinforced by new forms of social and economic differentiation based on automated data collection and data processing. Information technologies with zero marginal costs and huge returns to scale, along with robotisation, is likely to drive trends into the future, with possible implications in rewards to different kinds of skills, and the generation of huge geographical differences between economies in different parts of the globe. We see geographical reinforcement processes also tending towards the reproduction of inequality.

Our research in this area will have a strong comparative and international focus, examining why it is that some systems appear to produce higher levels of inequality; asking why high levels of inequality appear to be so readily tolerated in many areas; and analysing the implications of this understanding for the possibilities for countering inequality in particular contexts, through coalition-building of various kinds and the development of policy instruments such as taxation, wage regulation and the instantiation of rights.