Anthropology and Sociology
11 February 2020

How to Deal with Global Inequalities

One of the promises of globalisation was to create a more egalitarian world. And, according to some measures, it did. Numerous studies have shown that global income inequality – measured by the gap of individual incomes across the world – has been in decline since the 1990s, driven by the Global South’s rising middle and upper classes. Nevertheless, it is not “a rising tide that lifts all boats”. The decline of global inequality has been largely accompanied by the concentration of wealth at the top and the increase of domestic inequalities, not only in the growing economies of the low and mid-income countries but also in high-income countries.

These contradictory trends may explain why inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a problem, evidenced in the growing numbers of publications (both in the media and in academia) about it.

Studies also show that ordinary people are progressively more aware of it, even if they underplay the level of inequality in their own countries and in the world. 

Although the research agenda on inequality seems to have been successful in raising awareness about the problem, its root causes (e.g. unfair taxation, finacialisation) and potential consequences (e.g. populism, xenophobia), the public debate remains largely silent on other important issues.

First, studies on perceptions about inequality have shown that people want less inequality, but there are important variations across countries and regions depending on the type of inequality being discussed. 

On average, more unequal countries seem to accept more inequality but the growth of inequality in countries like China and the US have had different consequences: people accept inequality more in the former and are more critical to it in the latter.

In addition, the recent wave of protests across historically unequal regions like Latin America indicate that people do not naturalise inequality as much as previously assumed. Understanding what makes people accept (or reject) inequality is a key research agenda, linking directly to the need to mobilise people to vote against it. 

Second, beyond debates at the national level, debates about global inequalities remain dominated by measurements. These are certainly necessary but tell us little about how transnational processes, from economic re-structuration to environmental racism, are shaping and reproducing these patterns.

Moreover, we know nearly nothing about how ordinary people understand the links between global and local inequalities and what types of engagements are necessary to create transnational debates and policies to address them.

Finally, there has been much discussion on how global elites have benefited from recent trends in inequality; according to some measures, they hold about 50% of the world’s wealth. However, we know much less about what they think about these inequalities and their role in redistribution. Understanding why, when and how elites agree to redistribute is key to making them part of this debate. 

The fact that inequality has become a trending research and public debate topic is good news but it may be time to find a way to engage people – those on the bottom and those on the top – in a public debate about on how to deal with it.

Keywords: anthropology and sociology, disciplinary masters