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Reviewed by:
  • The New Geography of Global Income Inequality
  • Bryan R. Higgins
The New Geography of Global Income Inequality. By Glenn Firebaugh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. 257 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

This book weaves together several years of work by Glenn Firebaugh, professor of sociology and demography, on a topic that remains contested among global experts. It offers an empirical analysis of recent trends in global income patterns and seeks to claim a higher ground in the current debate on global income inequality. The core argument of the book is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, global income inequality between countries is now decreasing compared to income inequality within nations. To support this position, Firebaugh provides an in-depth discussion of global data sources as well as technical [End Page 515] discussion of how he believes it is best to measure and synthesize key demographic indicators. If you thrive on technical and empirical discussions that are based upon complex demographic abstractions and quantitative evidence, you will likely be interested in this thoughtful analysis. If your global interest is focused on interpretive frameworks or the implicit social, historical, and geographical questions embedded within assessments of inequality, you will likely be less impressed with this book.

As a thoughtful and seasoned demographer, Firebaugh approaches this question as an empirical enterprise that will set the facts straight about trends in global income inequality. He starts his global analysis by setting up what he terms the "new geography" hypothesis. His very brief global overview highlights the key features in the rise of income disparities over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to Firebaugh, global income disparities were fueled by the industrial revolution and resulted in the increasing income inequality between nations during the past two centuries that has been widely discussed in the literature. Firebaugh argues that what is pivotal about the world today is the shift in this global trend whereby the rising importance of within-nation income inequality and declining importance of between-nation income inequality has resulted in a historic shift in tide of global income and thus has produced what he calls a new geography.

Most of the text in this book and the weight of the overall argument are focused on the two central sections of the book, one titled "Measurement" and the other "Evidence." In the chapter on measurement Firebaugh discusses data sources, definitions, and appropriate means to analyze global income data. The first step in this discussion is a consideration of how national income is measured, the reliability of data, and measurement over time. Next, the term "inequality" is defined and discussed, and five inequality indexes are examined. The section on evidence is the longest and the heart of Firebaugh's story. This section is broken down into five chapters with attention to weighted versus unweighted measures, regional growth rates in different world regions, between-nation income inequality, and within-nation income inequality. These chapters provide a very detailed and critical examination of different data sources as well as the positivist issues involved with measurement, reliability, and uncertainty in the distinct components of Firebaugh's statistical model of world income distribution.

The final section of the book, titled "Explanations and Predictions," considers select theories of world stratification, distinct causes of the inequality transition, and the future of global income inequality. [End Page 516] The scope of consideration is broadened here to address a number of alternative frameworks to interpret the causes of global income inequality. Although Firebaugh sketches a diverse spectrum of theories of world stratification, this section is more problematic. As a professional geographer, it is puzzling why he does not even mention how the geography literature relates to this topic. In fact, when the term "geography" is highlighted in the book, the individual referenced is never a geographer. For example, when the term "new physical geography" (p. 176) is introduced, the sole reference is the work of Jared Diamond, a biologist. When the term "new economic geography" (p.177) is introduced, the primary reference is Paul Krugman, an economist, and none of the related authors cited in this school of thought is a geographer. While the experts cited have clearly made their mark in...


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pp. 515-518
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