Power Inequities

Máire A. Dugan

February 2004

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing.

Inequity is the virtually inevitable result of two powerful forces: prejudice on the level of the individual, and political imbalance on the social level. One can argue whether power imbalance and other social differences cause prejudice or the other way around. (In fact, while most of us are comforted by the notion of single variable answers to debates like this, the reality is more complex; each does enhance the other and which is the cause often reduces to a chicken and egg debate.) What is unarguable is that when prejudice produces discriminatory behavior and power imbalances reify individual behaviors into structural differences in access and treatment, gross social, political, and economic inequities result.

In common parlance, inequity and inequality may often be used interchangeably. Here, I presume a distinction: the term "inequality" being descriptive and the term "inequity" being normative. Inequality refers to a distribution of some good within in which some obtain more than others. Inequity goes beyond this: the distribution is not only unequal; it is unfair and unjust.

A simple example may help to clarify the distinction. Not long ago, there was a major ice storm that hit numerous communities in South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of people lost electric power. Many more did not. In the aftermath of the storm, people had unequal access to electrical power. The situation was not, however, inequitable. The inequality was the result of the path of the storm, a situation over which no one had control. If a power company chose, however, to restore power using a criterion of wealth or political influence or race, or some other dimension that had nothing to do with need for electricity, the response would have been inequitable. Such inequities can be structural rather than based on a single decision. Imagine a community in which power companies chose to spend extra money to bury the cables connecting White customers to the power grid, but to leave those connecting Black residents above ground. When an ice storm hits, Whites, protected from the vagaries of nature, would continue to have power. Black residents, on the other hand, would experience power outages, depending on where the storm hits. In this case, the initial situation would be structurally inequitable, regardless of how responsive the power company was to consumer complaints once the outages occurred.

Inequalities resulting from natural occurrences are, as in this situation, not of concern in this discussion, however much damage they may bring. Beyond this, the storm was a singular event. We were without power for two to five days, a great inconvenience. Once the damage was repaired, however, all of the users were once again on an equal footing.Those who had retained power no longer have an advantage over those who lost electricity.

When sources of inequity are built into the social system, however, resulting differences are neither trivial nor discrete. Such inequities persist over time and space. Often, they are blamed on the discriminated-against. Blacks were defined as less than human in much European thinking that was then used to justify colonization and the slave trade. Such thinking was imported to the New World and became a rationalization for slavery, rape, Jim Crow laws, and a variety of other atrocities. Such thinking persists in the form of allegedly scientific evidence that blacks are intellectually inferior. Sometimes, such arguments rest on analyses of behavior rather than innate capacity. The "dominant ideology" presumes that "since opportunity is there for those who seize it, individuals with inferior outcomes have brought their fate on themselves, especially by neglecting to exert the proper effort."[1]

As with any other self-serving explanation, these can be regarded with suspicion and many have been disproven. On the surface of it, blaming structural inequities on those with least power to influence the structure is counterintuitive. More powerful explanations are in order.

Additional insights into power inequities are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Sources of Inequity

Social inequity is virtually ubiquitous, existing in all human societies with sufficient economic surplus that social and economic roles can be differentiated and accorded differential status. Why is this the case? Some would point to psychological explanations such as authoritarian personalities. Others would point to the human need to belong and refer to social identity groups. Social identity theory suggests that people are more likely to accord positive social value to their own identity groups and that the resulting tension between identity groups is the source of much intractable conflict. Such theories do offer a window of understanding into social inequity.

In fact, social identity theory is broadly used by scholars in discussions of intractable conflict, much of which is classified as identity conflict. I will not focus on social identity theory. First, it is amply covered elsewhere. Second, social identity theories tend to explain in-group favoritism, a likely source of inequity, better than out-group denigration, which is not only related to inequity, but also brutality and oppression.

A fuller understanding, however, is offered by the Social Dominance Theory, whose main purpose is to explain differential status among groups. Jim Sidaneus and Felicia Pratto[2] discuss three forms of social dominance: differentiation based on age, on gender, and on "arbitrary set" membership. Social dominance theory rests on three assumptions:

  1. While age-and gender-based hierarchies will tend to exist within all social systems, arbitrary-set systems of social hierarchy will invariably emerge within social systems producing sustainable economic surplus.
  2. Most forms of group conflict and oppression (e.g., racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, nationalism, classism, regionalism) can be regarded as different manifestations of the same basic human predisposition to form group-based social hierarchies.
  3. Human social systems are subject to the counterbalancing influences of hierarchy-enhancing (HE) forces, producing and maintaining ever higher levels of group-based social inequality, and hierarchy-attenuating (HA) forces, producing greater levels of group-based social equality.[3]

While it is true that adults, particularly those in middle age, control young people, each individual (if s/he lives long enough) tends to pass through the various stages in the age hierarchy within her/his own life. Thus, this is not a fixed situation, and I will not focus on this form of hierarchy in the remainder of the article.

Gender hierarchies, on the other hand, are fixed. One's position is determined at birth and, with the exception of the possibility of a sex-change operation, remains the same throughout the life cycle. Gender hierarchy can also be called patriarchy since, in all known societies, it takes the form of men possessing greater social and economic power than women.

"An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." -- Plutarch

It is arbitrary-set hierarchy that will form the focus of much of the rest of this article. There are several reasons for this. First, it is the most inclusive. Second, it interacts with the other hierarchies, particularly the gender hierarchy, to institutionalize inequity. Third, and most importantly, it is the form of hierarchy most associated with extremes of injustice in their most brutal and oppressive forms. It is, thus, most associated with the range of conditions attendant to intractable conflict.

An arbitrary-set hierarchy is one that revolves around human differences that are themselves creations of the human mind (like race).

The arbitrary-set system is filled with socially constructed and highly salient groups based on characteristics such as clan, ethnicity, estate, nation, race, caste, social class, religious sect, regional grouping, or any other socially relevant group distinction that the human imagination is capable of constructing. In such systems, one group is materially and/or politically dominant over the other.[4]

Sidaneus and Pratto list a number of particularly brutal 20th century conflicts emanating from arbitrary-set hierarchies:

  • The Holocaust
  • Massacres of the Kurds by Turkey in 1924, Iran in 1929 and Iraq in 1988
  • Massacres of East Timorese in the late 1990s
  • Stalin's slaughter of the Kulaks in 1929
  • The Khmer Rouge terror of the late 1970s
  • Ethnic cleansing of Moslems in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s
  • Widespread killing of Kasaians in Zaire
  • Massacres of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda in the late 1990s

Sidanius and Pratto argue that group-based hierarchies are driven and maintained by three processes:

  1. aggregated individual discrimination,
  2. aggregated institutional discrimination, and
  3. behavioral asymmetry.

Aggregated individual discrimination refers to "the simple, daily, and sometimes quite inconspicuous individual acts of discrimination by one individual against another."[5] If a manager passes over an able colleague for a promotion because he is uncomfortable with having a woman in a leadership position, that individual is damaged. By itself, however, the incident is unlikely to have deleterious social effects. When thousands of such acts are operating in the same direction, to the disadvantage of women or other individuals as members of a group, however, the impact is broader: "they contribute to the clear and salient differences in the power between social groups."[6]

Aggregated institutional discrimination can be identified "by whether institutional decisions result in the disproportionate allocation of positive and negative social value across the social status hierarchy, all other factors being equal."[7] In its more extreme forms, institutional discrimination takes the form of different types of terror. Official terror "is the public and legally sanctioned violence and threat of violence perpetrated by organs of the state and disproportionately directed toward members of subordinate groups." Slavery is an example of official terror. More recent examples would include the greater use of the death penalty when the convicted perpetrator is a member of an ethnic minority, apartheid in South Africa, and acts of collective punishment against Palestinian communities by the Israeli government. In semi-official terror, the perpetrators are governmental officials but the act is not officially sanctioned by the state. The rampant use of death squads in Latin America is one example. Finally, in the case of unofficial terror, the perpetrator is not a state agent, but simply a member of a dominant group. Oftentimes, the act is not investigated or punished by the authorities, as in the case of lynchings of blacks by whites in the Jim Crow American South.

Behavioral asymmetry refers to the fact that dominant and subordinate group members tend to act differently in a wide variety of situations. The notion of "keeping in one's place" is a popularized term for this phenomenon. An important consequence of the difference in behavioral repertoires is that "subordinates actively participate in and contribute to their own subordination." While Sidanius and Pratto do not suggest that subordinates do not, in many cases, resist their oppression and oppressors, they do suggest

that it its subordinates' high level of both passive and active cooperation with their own oppression that provides systems of group-based social hierarchy with their remarkable degrees of resiliency, robustness and stability.[8]

Forms of Inequity

Three primary types of inequity currently characterize the global system: those of power, wealth, and knowledge.[9] The West wields its influence in international relations "to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance, protect Western interests and promote Western political and economic values.[10] Economic inequality has now reached "grotesque proportions" according to the Human Development Report issued by the United Nations in 1999. Amazingly, the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow: "While thirty years ago, the gap between the richest one-fifth of the world's population and the rest stood at 30-to-1, by 1990 it had widened to 60-to-1 and today stands at 74-to-1."[11] Gaps in knowledge are also growing and help to keep Western hegemony in place. "[R]oughly four-fifths of the world's total scientific and technological output is generated in Western societies, with a concomitant concentration of scientists and technological experts in the same part of the world,"[12] "expertocracy is compounded by the near-monopoly wielded by Western (or Western-trained) elites -- an aspect that links expert knowledge with the broader issue of cultural hegemony or supremacy."[13] These disparities are mirrored in individual nation-states.

Inequity seems to act like a social cancer, extending its tentacles into virtually every area of social life, negatively impacting both the discriminated-against group, and its individual members, in an impressively wide variety of ways. Documentation of a few examples only hints at the scope.

Gross differences in income and wealth are strong indicators of inequity. Both globally, and in individual nations, income disparity not only exists, but is on the rise. In the United States, for example, "between 1973 and 2000 the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers actually fell by 7 percent. Meanwhile the income of the top 1 percent rose by 148 percent, the income of the top 0.1 percent rose by 343 percent and the income of the top 0.01 percent rose 599 percent."[14] For many, large inequities in income distribution translate into hunger and homelessness. "Food insecurity is the direct result of the prevailing socio-economic inequity characterized by the breaking and loss of cultural diversity and traditional forms of food production, massive poverty and unequal access to land and food."[15]

The likely connection between poverty and ill health is no surprise. What may be a surprise, however, is that global income inequity is positively associated with poor health. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health compared national Gini Indices from countries around the world. (a Gini Index is a measure of inequality; it is a calculation of the difference between egalitarian and actual distribution of any good, in this case, income). "Controlling for the individual effects of age, sex, race, marital status, education, income, health insurance coverage, and employment status, we found a significant effect of state income inequality on poor self-rated health. For every 0.05 increase in the Gini coefficient, the odds ratio (OR) of reporting poor health increased by 1.39.[16]

A particularly devastating form of inequity, in terms of its impact on the members of the discriminated-against group, occurs in the realm of criminal justice systems:

Compared to members of the dominant group, subordinate-group members are more likely to be stopped, questioned, and searched by the police than are members of dominant arbitrary-sets, everything else being equal. Once arrested, subordinates are more likely to be beaten by the police while in custody and more likely to be held in custody awaiting trial rather than released on bail. Once tried, they are more likely to be found guilty, less likely to be sentenced to alternatives to prison (e.g., community service), more likely to be sentenced to longer prison terms, less likely to be granted parole, and when convicted of capital offenses, they are more likely to be executed -- especially for capital offenses against dominants.[17]

Discrimination can lead to unexpected and pernicious forms of inequity. The Harvard Civil Rights project, for example, has documented higher rates of classification of U.S. students as needing special education among Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans as compared to whites. The problem is compounded by significantly inferior services provided to these students. While one might be attempted to attribute at least the former differences simply to deleterious impacts of poverty, this does not prove to be the case. Rather,

[t]he research suggests that the observed racial, ethnic, and gender disparities are the result of many complex and interacting factors including: unconscious racial bias on the part of school authorities; large resource inequalities (such as the lack of high quality teachers) that run along lines of race and class; unjustifiable reliance on IQ and other evaluation tools; educators' inappropriate responses to the pressures of high-stakes testing; and power differentials between minority parents and school officials. [18] http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/specialed/IDEA-paper02.php

Impacts of Inequity

Social inequity has profound implications for understanding and resolving social conflict.

The unjust suffering attendant to inequity in all of its manifestations is obvious. People who are oppressed and targets of discrimination have their life chances curtailed and, in some cases, cut off. But they are not the only ones who are hurt. Whole communities and nations are hurt economically through loss of productivity and misallocation of resources. The World Bank has found that the more equal the distribution of assets such as land, the more economic growth occurs in the society.[19] The global annual loss of productive, disability-free life caused by malnutrition is a hard-to-imagine 46 million years.[20]

Of obvious concern to the study of intractable conflict, the world is a more violence-ridden and dangerous place because of inequity. Ted Robert Gurr, for example, found positive correlations between both economic and political deprivation and the magnitude of conspiracy (organized political violence involving a small number of participants, e.g., political assassinations and small-scale terrorism), the magnitude of internal war (organized political violence on a large scale such as guerilla wars and large-scale revolts), the magnitude of turmoil (spontaneous mass strife such as riots and localized rebellions), and the total magnitude of strife.[21] After reviewing a number of studies on the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and political protest, Ekkert Zimmerman concluded that overall they "suggest a linear positive relationship between socioeconomic inequality and political violence."[22] Barbara Harff reports that she and her colleagues in the State Failure Project tested several variables and identified both discrimination ("ruling elite represents only some ethnics") and exclusionary ideology ("elite committed to an exclusionary ideology") as indicators of genocide and politicide.[23]

In fact, many theorists hypothesize the connection between variables congruent with inequity and political instability and violence. Ted Robert Gurr, for example, contends that "the potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity."[24] Relative deprivation occurs when the actual value a group receives, or expects to receive, is less than that which it feels it deserves. Here, the term value can refer to anything which is valued, whether it be economic prosperity, political influence, or social status. Relative deprivation is much more likely to occur in inequitable situations, since if goods are relatively evenly distributed, deprivation is likely a result of everyone being worse off, which would tend to reduce expectations.

Undoing Inequity    

If Sidanius and Pratto are correct in their assumption that social dominance based on arbitrary-set hierarchies exists in all societies in which there is economic surplus (i.e., all societies except for hunter-gatherer societies), the situation may appear hopeless. Inequity, like the poor according to the Bible, will always be with us.

But even if there is a pervasive orientation toward social hierarchy, a substantial difference in degree may approximate a difference in kind. One suggestion of this comes from the work on the connection between income inequality and health. Subramanian and his colleagues have found no relationship between the two in more egalitarian societies such as Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark. Finding such a relationship in less egalitarian societies such as Chile and the United States, they discuss the possibility of a threshold above which inequity is related to poor health and below which it is not. Perhaps this is also true of other consequences of inequity.

"There are only two families in the world, as my grandmother used to say: the haves and the have-nots." -- Sancho Panza in Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha

Seeking greater equity is a large and important task and deserves the attention both of those who benefit from the system as it currently exists and those who suffer because of it. Their tasks, however, are different.

"For any oppressed group, the primary task is to overcome the moral authority of the sources of their suffering and to create a politically effective identity."[25] Moore discusses the need "to reverse the kinds of solidarity among the oppressed that aids the oppressor." This dovetails well with Sidaneus and Pratto's identification of behavioral asymmetry as a hierarchy-enhancing agent. A more popular take on the concern is captured in the focus on "internalized racism" or internalized oppression" in efforts to undo racism in the United States. The flip side -- efforts to make members of the dominant group more aware of "white privilege" and how to overcome it -- is also beginning to receive substantial attention.

Those already in decision making positions might benefit from the following caution:

[A]ttempting to benefit the underclass by piecemeal social legislation is likely to be both ineffective and dangerous, so long as structural conditions remain that effectively isolate the underclass from power and decision making. This implies that the underclass cannot be dealt with as mere victims but must actively participate in their own empowerment.[26]

It may be an overly utopian dream to seek a society in which there is no inequity, this does not mean, however, that much greater levels of egalitarianism can not be achieved. In particular, we can certainly make substantial headway in reversing current trends toward increased inequity.

[1] Taylor, Marylee C. "Social Contextual Strategies for Reducing Racial Discrimination," in Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination, Stuart Oskamp, (ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2000, pp. 71-89.

[2] Sidaneus, Jim and Felicia Pratto. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[3] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 38

[4] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 33

[5] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 39

[6] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 41

[7] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 41

[8] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 44

[9] Dallmayer, Fred R. "Globalization and Inequality: A Plea for Global Justice," International Studies Review, 4/2 Summer 2002, p.138-56.

[10] Huntington, Samuel P, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993), pp. 22-50.

[11] Dallmayer, p. 144

[12] Dallymayer, p. 148-49

[13] Dallymayer, p.152

[14] Krugman, Paul, "The Death of Horatio Alger: Our Political Leaders Are Doing Everything They Can to Forify Class Inequality. Economic Factors in Social Mobility." The Nation. Jan. 5, 2004, v. 278, p. 16.

[15] Venkataramani, G. The Hindu. Online edition of India 's National Newspaper, May 15, 2002.

[16] Subramanian, S. and I. Kawachi. "The Association between State Income Inequality and Worse Health Is Not Confounded by Race," International Journal of Expidemiology. December 2003, v. 32, i. 6, pp. 1022-1029.

[17] Sidaneus, Jim and Rosemary C. Veniegas. "Gender and Race Discrimination: The Interactive Nature of Disadvantage," in Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination, Stuart Oskamp, (ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2000, pp. 47-69. A review of the evidence is in Sidanius and Pratto, 1999.

[18] http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/specialed/IDEA-paper0...

[19] The World Bank Group, "Inequality, Poverty, and Socio-economic Performance," http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/inequal/intro.htm.

[20] Struble, Marie Boyle and Laurie Lindsey Aomari. "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Addressing World Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Insecurity." Journal of the American Dietetic Association, August 2003, v. 103, i. 8, pp. 1046-1057.

[21] Gurr, Ted Robert. "Model building and a test of Theory," in When Men Revolt and Why: A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution, ed. James Chowning Davies. New York: The Free Press, 1971, pp. 293-313.

[22] Zimmermann, Ekkert. "Macro-Comparative Research on Political Protest," in Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research. Ted Robert Gurr, ed. New York: The Free Press, 1980, pp. 167-237.

[23] Harff, Barbara. "Could Humanitarian Crises Have Been Anticipated?" in Journey through Conflict: Narratives and Lessons. Howard R. Alker, Ted Robert Gurr, and Kumar Rupesinghe, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, pp. 81-102.

[24] Gurr, p. 24

[25] Moore, Barrington, Jr. Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. White Plains, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1978, p. 87.

[26] Shephered, George W., Jr. and David Penna, "Discrimination, the Underclass, and State Policy: An Assessment," in Racism and the Underclass: State Policy and Discrimination against Minorities. Ed. George W. Shepherd, Jr. and David Penna. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 161-166.

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Power Inequities." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: February 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/power-inequities>.

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