- Durable Inequality
In the mid-1970s, I attended a rally when a speaker summed up a long harangue by concluding that the most oppressed person in the USA would be a working-class, native-american, gay, woman. The young woman beside me suddenly grew wide-eyed and murmured, “Why that’s me!” Was the speaker right? Are race, gender and sexual orientation additive factors to be treated cumulatively in judging oppression? Did the young woman’s membership in four oppressed categories make her significantly more oppressed than other Native American women or working-class lesbians? Alternatively, to what degree are racial, citizenship, and gender categories more or less substitutable markers, buttresses reinforcing inequality, used to justify relegation to the lower ranks? In North American cities, African-Americans are often given the least skilled and least stable factory jobs, in Northern Ireland, Catholics occupy those positions, in France, North African Muslims. In these cases, religious and ethnic prejudice are related to class location.
The intersection and overlapping of racial, gender, and class hierarchies are now so well documented that few believe that inequality can be reduced to a single underlying principle, such as class, or that each form of inequality is generated independently. The urgent need is to understand how pre-existing forms of inequality are incorporated into new social structures. In many countries of the industrial world, over the last two centuries, small enterprise and agriculture have given way to global corporations and agro-business and suffrage has become nearly universal, yet many of the racial, gender and ethnic biases that predominated in pre-industrial societies emerge recast within newly constructed class or citizenship categories. How does this happen? This remarkable book identifies a handful of causal mechanisms that work to structure new organizations in ways that preserve existing categories of inequality while constructing new ones.
Charles Tilly argues that understanding how categories are employed and constructed is key to the analysis of social inequality. He claims that the most persistent and powerful causes of inequality are due to a concatenation of causal mechanisms that shape category formation; these mechanisms lead to the fashioning of general categories from individual transactions by the operation of organizations and networks.
Why, Tilly asks, do new organizations, even organizations devoted to economic efficiency, persistently reproduce antecedent racial, ethnic and gender divisions and so perpetuate them? Tilly focuses on four causal mechanisms, exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation and adaptation “Exploitation” refers to the unequal distribution of rewards proportionate to value added. In nineteenth-century South Africa, employers and the state worked to solve problems of labor shortage in the expanding farms and mines by dividing up the indigenous population into categories, assigning them different homelands and ethnic identities based on sometimes subtly distinguished, linguistic groupings. The creation of different categories of natives sowed the seed of divisions that made united collective action difficult while securing employers a low wage labor force. “Opportunity hoarding” indicates the members of a categorically-bonded population able to acquire monopoly of a valuable resource. It explains how distinctive [End Page 183] groups fill new categories. Opportunity hoarding perpetuates inequality when it becomes a tool of exploitation as in the case of white South Africans who obtained privileged access to skilled jobs in mining and in industry “Emulation” designates the transplanting of existing social relations from one setting to another. The transformation of pre-existing social/racial hierarchies, white, coloured, and black into similarly ranked categories of South African citizenship is an instance of how social orders emulate existing divisions in new structures in order to preserve them in the old. “Adaptation” is the elaboration of daily routines around categorically-unequal structures. In South African mining, supervisors frequently used ethnic loyalties to inspire their work team to compete with other teams and so increase production. Such work-based rivalries often resulted in friction outside work, heightening ethnic tension and strengthening ethnic identity.
Together exploitation, opportunity-hoarding, emulation and adaptation go far in explaining the perpetuation of inequality in all its forms from generation to generation. They also explain the...