Persistent Social and Rising Economic Inequalities: Evidence and Challenges

Olaf Groh-Samberg

In recent years, inequality has made an eminent comeback on the social sciences research agenda. This is mainly because economic inequality has been rising in almost all OECD countries after a long period of decline—the ‘great U-turn’ in economic inequalities in the OECD world (Alderson and Nielsen 2002). Interestingly, the debates on economic inequality have been led mainly by economists who have rediscovered inequality as a field of empirical research, policy relevance and public attention. Sociological research on inequality, however, has a much longer tradition that has mainly focused on inequalities of life chances (Ultee 2007). ‘Life chances’ refer not only to income but also to a broader range of outcomes (for example, occupation, education, prestige, health, cultural and political participation), thus embracing a multi-dimensional understanding of inequality.

O. Groh-Samberg (*)

BIGSSS, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2016 41

M. Wulfgramm et al. (eds.), Welfare State Transformations and Inequality in OECD Countries, Transformations of the State,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51184-3_3

While modern societies have experienced a tremendous increase in absolute life chances since the take-off of industrial capitalism, sociological research has established broad evidence that inequalities of life chances between social groups have remained largely stable. The critical focus on the persistence of relative social inequality despite continuous economic growth, educational expansion and sectoral shifts of the economy is probably the most significant contribution of sociological inequality research. At its core is the question of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘equality of opportunity’, that is, the idea that modernization will make welfare societies more just and equal in terms of increasing equality of educational opportunities and merit-based selection into occupations. A large body of empirical studies on inequalities of educational attainment and on social mobility has consistently shown that modern welfare societies are not moving towards a more meritocratic society, or at least are moving to a much lesser extent than one would usually expect based on liberal theory and beliefs about modernization (Hout and DiPrete 2006).

In recent decades, with the increase in economic inequalities, the overall situation seems to have changed quite drastically. The dominant trend, at least in the most advanced OECD countries, is no longer collective improvement of life chances for all, a trend that masks the persistence of relative inequalities of life chances between social groups. Rather, the overall trend is characterized by the stagnation of life chances for most, while life chance inequalities are increasing in the form of economic polarization. However, economic inequality—as one important dimension of inequality—has played a minor role in the sociological strand of research. This situation poses new challenges for inequality research.

In this chapter, we provide an overview of the concepts, debates and challenges of research on social and economic inequality. We start with a brief discussion of conceptual issues. Subsequent sections are devoted to the dominant strands of sociological research on relative inequalities of life chances as a critical perspective on the myth of meritocracy and educational inequalities over the life course. We then give a brief overview of rising economic inequalities. Against the rich body of empirical inequality research, we highlight broader theoretical approaches to inequality, mainly contrasting conflictual and competitive understandings of inequality. In the concluding section we highlight the challenges for sociological inequality research.

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