Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Spirit Level, inequality and social hierarchy

Christopher Snowdon, arch-critic of The Spirit Level and author of The Spirit Level Delusion, has written a lengthy post here about what he perceives as Wilkinson and Pickett's flawed reasoning about the relationship between inequality, social hierarchy and anxiety.  

In short, the chain of reasoning in this relationship is as follows.  Higher levels of inequality lead to greater social hierarchies.  In societies where there are greater social hierarchies, people are more concerned about their social status and their relationships with other people.  This makes people anxious and stressed which, in turn, affects mental and physical health. 

As Snowdon rightly points out, this theory 'is crucial to everything that follows in The Spirit Level'.  If inequality does not lead to stress- and anxiety-inducing social differences which damage people's health, then the theoretical basis of The Spirit Level falls down.  Snowdon goes into great detail about the empirical weaknesses to the theory, yet one particular, popular argument is used.

What about Japan?

Snowdon, like other critics, looks to the seemingly paradoxical example of Japan; both equal and highly socially-stratified, 'It would be hard to find a more hierarchical and status-driven society than Japan'.  The same point is made by John Goldthorpe in this 2009 article, where it is argued that Wilkinson and Pickett misconstrue the relationship between status and inequality.

But does the fact that Japan has both high income equality and wide social hierarchies disprove Wilkinson and Pickett's theory?  I don't think it does.  If it does disprove their theory, we are effectively saying that wide social hierarchies - whether in Japan or the US - are of qualitatively the same nature as each other.  It is an argument that gives no room to the idea that two deeply hierarchical societies can have fundamentally different types of hierarchy.

The idea that hierarchies can be varied and, thus, have different consequences should not surprise us.  In our everyday lives we exist in and confront hierarchies that are different all the time.  The family, for example, is an extremely hierarchical institution, yet not one that particularly induces stress or anxiety because of its hierarchical nature.

It's not just hierarchy, but the type of hierarchy

This raises the prospect that Japan and the US, despite both being highly hierarchical, have qualitatively different types of hierarchy.  In particular, I think there might be something about the more US-oriented meritocratic structure of status difference which makes it more prone to higher levels of stress or anxiety than other forms of hierarchical difference. Meritocracy, by virtue of its meaning, tells us that we are where we are because of who we are.  In other words, the poor deserve their lot, just as the rich deserve their wealth.  If we find ourselves at a low ebb, meritocracy tells us to look at ourselves and our own purported failings and weaknesses.

Now I don't know much about Japanese society, but there is surely the prospect that its form of status-differentiation is different to America's: less stigmatising and less competitive.  In other words, it might be less shameful to be who you are.

1 comment:

  1. It's a worthwhile distinction to make, but it's not one made in The Spirit Level and I think they would struggle to tally it with their other theories.
    W & P's argument is that hierarchical societies are a Bad Thing, full stop.

    Q: Why does greater income inequality lead to social problems?
    RW: In hierarchical societies the quality of social relationships becomes strained, and that can be stressful.


    You argument suggests that it would be better to live in a rigid caste system than in a meritocratic free market. That is questionable to say the least (W & P use evidence from the Indian caste system to show that the people at the bottom have lower self-esteem - p. 113-4), but it introduces another contradiction. W & P emphasise the importance of social mobility (rightly, IMO), but social mobility is, by definition, worse in more rigid hierarchies. Japan isn't included in their graph showing social mobility and inequality and I don't know how mobile it is. According to your argument, probably not much, but how can that be healthy?

    You cannot have a society which is both a fair meritocracy which rewards hard work and a settled hierarchy in which the poor know their place but do not blame themselves. I think W & P would agree that the optimum society would be a genuine meritocracy which is not particularly hierarchical (and with lower income differentials, natch). They would say Sweden comes closer to this society than the USA, but they cannot say the same of Japan. They cite the work of Pierre Bourdieu to say that "social mobility becomes more limited within more hierarchical societies", but surely it is more limited in a meritocratic hierarchy than in a class-based hierarchy. Indeed, the latter is surely more "deeply hierarchical" than the former by virtue of it being inescapable.

    There is an important difference between class- and wealth-based social structures. Any reasonably free market is going to have wealth differences which you could call a hierarchy, but it seems clear to me that W & P are talking about class when they discuss hierarchies (eg. p. 163) and it is equally clear that the USA is both a more classless society than Japan and a less hierarchical one.