Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Inequality is a psychological - not material - problem

My post yesterday argued that one factor (and just one) behind this week's riots could be the high level of inequality we have in the UK, particularly in London (as several academic studies have shown).

A common response to theories of this kind is to hypothesise about the material lives of those guilty for the violence. Even before the looting, many poor, young people have the type of consumer goods - smartphones, HD televisions, designer clothes - which one does not usually associate with abject poverty. How can poverty and deprivation cause such anomic behaviour, when people possess the kind of goods that the poor could only dream of decades ago?

Krishnan Guru-Murthy expressed this point in his blog, arguing that: "If people riot because they can't afford the same consumer items as the rest of us then logic dictates that once they have got the trainers and televisions they crave the crime would stop".

Maybe, but only if you think inequality is a problem of material possession. On the other hand, if - as research such as this suggests - inequality is a psychosocial problem, then it will not make the blindest bit of difference what the rioters own and don't own.

The psychosocial thesis argues that the problem with inequality is the psychological and social stress caused by occupying a position of low status in society. When people are discernibly 'lower' than others in the social hierarchy, it induces all sorts of problems: ranging from stress and anxiety, to lack of trust and respect. When inequality is high - as it is in the UK - status differences are not only more visible within everyday social life, but also much wider and harder to break.

Status is a social phenomenon which is far more complex than what one owns and what one doesn't. The rioters might have plasma TVs, but they are still stuck on the bottom rung of society's ladder. And after this week, they'll be floating off into the gutter. Until we deal with our profound degree of status inequality, we will continue - to use our Prime Minister's words - to be a 'sick society'.

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