Social Inequality and Difference

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1. Defining Inequality

We are aware that British society is unequal. Some people have a great deal of money, influence and power whereas others do not. Taken as a whole, in British society there are entire social groups who seem to have access to better living standards of living and material goods than others.

However inequality is a difficult concept to measure in sociological terms because there are various dimensions of inequality. The famous German sociologist, Max Weber identified status, power and wealth as being elements of inequality. He recognised that inequality was not just a matter of having or not having money, but that other socially desirable characteristics were also not equally spread throughout society e.g. status.

Marxists and feminists claim that inequality matters very much. They say that society does not work well if people do not have equal access to wealth and power. On the other hand, functionalists suggest that not only is inequality inevitable for all society, it is actually a good and useful because it means that the most powerful people have an incentive to work hard to reach the top.

Inequality is a relative concept. To be unequal, some people must have more of whatever it is that is desirable or necessary and others must have less. Inequality is also an abstract concept in the sense that it is almost impossible to make a direct measurement of inequality. Nevertheless it does have a very real impact on the lives of those who experience inequality. In practical terms, those who experience inequality may feel oppressed and not part of the social system. This experience of being unable to participate in the social system is known as social exclusion and it is an important part of inequality debates.

1.2 Inequality in relation to Britain

Wealth refers to the amount of property that a person owns. This can be in the form of objects that can be sold for money, or in the form of savings, investments or pensions. Income from wages or salaries is not necessarily the same as wealth because income can stop at any point for example, by being made redundant. All the economic evidence suggests that the UK is an unequal society and that wealth inequality is increasing. Research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggests that 23 per cent of wealth is owned by 1 per cent of the population. The wealthiest 10 per cent own more than half the wealth in the UK; the wealthiest 50 per cent own 94 per cent of wealth. Statistics show that the wealthy have got wealthier over the last ten years. In fact, this is probably an underestimate of how wealthy some people are, as wealth can be hidden by tax lawyers in off-shore investments as a way of avoiding paying taxes.

In 2004, nearly 200 men in the UK were earning more than £1,000,000 each year in salary. This figure may well have gone up. The average Chief Executive earns more than…

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