Equality : Collaboration

3.2. Two Pictures of Structural Inequality

How, then, are we to understand the paradigm of equality of social relations, which is meant to replace the distributive one? Young ties the development of such an alternative to two additional concepts: structural inequality and oppression. In this section we wish to extend Young’s discussion by sharpening the definition of structural inequality, and the nature of the egalitarian view it entails. In the next section we shall focus on one type of oppression mentioned by Young, namely on the concept of exploitation.

The main distinguishing feature between a structural and what might be termed a personal notion of inequality is that the latter directs the egalitarian view towards gaps in the condition or position of different individuals and groups, whereas the first directs it towards the fact that these gaps are the product of certain social relations. In other words, the structural notion of inequality regards certain differences between people—whether in capabilities, resources, accessibility, political power, or any other “good” in the extended sense of the term—first, as a matter that tends to reproduce itself, and second, as the product of various social arrangements, institutions, norms, laws, and accumulated historical advantages. To these one might add a third feature, often lacking from liberal conceptions of structural inequality, namely a non-individualistic social ontology (an ontology of groups, classes, etc).

To be precise, the problem we wish to focus on has to do not so much with theories that completely lack these features and hence have no notion of the structural nature of inequality (at least in its more severe and persistent forms). Our concern is rather with those theories that, while they do recognize the existence of inequalities whose nature is structural (that is, inequalities that are the reproduced result of ongoing social relations), and while they do find these to be the more severe and persistent forms of inequality, nonetheless go on to criticize such inequalities in a manner that we shall argue is insufficient.

While such theories do adopt the structural view of certain inequalities, the egalitarian view they direct at them itself remains individualistic rather than structural. The issue is thus the incongruence between the structural nature of the social diagnosis and the individualistic nature of the egalitarian view applied to it.

In order to illustrate this problem, we would like to introduce a distinction between two notions of structural inequality: a situational notion, which we regard as problematic, versus a systemic notion of structural inequality. The situational understanding of structural inequality points to the fact that the ongoing existence of certain structural, social conditions is responsible for the fact that inequalities between certain groups tend to reproduce themselves; in other words, for these groups remaining in the same relative position vis-à-vis each other, with no possibility of changing that position. A systemic interpretation of structural inequality, on the other hand, focuses on the problematization of the social interaction between these groups as coercive, violent, offensive relations of dependency.

The difference between these two interpretations can be highlighted by looking at the answers they give to the following two questions: what exactly is the wrong they identify in structural inequality, and what kind of measures could redress it. We begin with the answers given by the situational interpretation of structural inequality. With respect to the first question—what turns mere differences into scandalous inequalities—different theories that subscribe to situational inequality provide somewhat different answers.

Some see the root of the problem in the fact that such gaps preclude certain groups from assuming an equally active part in shaping public life, namely that there exists a clear distinction between those who determine “the rules of the game” and those who are forced to abide by them. Others see the root of the problem in the fact that such inequalities close off any chance of social mobility. Still other approaches argue that a situation in which different groups enjoy different opening conditions is inherently unfair. What is common to all these different approaches, and the reason we regard them as varieties of the situational notion of structural inequality, is that they locate the scandal of these structural gaps in the fact that it causally reproduces itself (as opposed to merely happening to sustain itself).

With respect to the second question—what kind of redress should be demanded with respect to structural inequality—the situational approach suggests several answers: a demand to transfer resources from advantaged to disadvantaged groups, affirmative action, the removal of mobility barriers, or some form of empowerment of the disadvantaged group (usually through investment in infrastructure or education).

What these answers have in common is that they call for a change in the relative position of the different groups (most commonly by improving the chances of the disadvantaged). From the situational perspective, a structural inequality is regarded as less scandalous insofar as, at least in principle, one can struggle to narrow the gap it results in, or to grant more groups better chances of improving their relative position with respect to these gaps (higher mobility). The gaps thereby assume a character that is less static and more transitory: less a case of persistent inequalities and more a case of differences that are somewhat contingent and remediable, hence less scandalous.

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