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Theories Of Inequality Essay, Research Paper

In briefly evaluating the classical and modern explanations of social inequality, it is essential that we step outside the realm of our own lives, class position, and discard any assumptions we might have about the nature of inequality. This process of critical pedagogy allows us to view our world, not from our perspective, but from a wider, more critical analysis of inequality?s nature. Also, it should be considered within this wider perspective that all theories of inequality have a class perspective, where the theorist, based on the position their theory takes, is making claims from (or for) a particular class (whether they want to or not).

With this in mind, it seems that most of these theories come from fairly elite class perspectives and, in turn, tend to be more pessimistic about bringing change to the inequalities they are evaluating. Of the classical (elite) explanations of inequality, Max Weber?s seemed to be most accepted within the domain of sociology and other social sciences dealing with modes of inequality. Weber, who believes that we are living within a sort of ?iron cage? which cannot allow us to look beyond the rules and regulations of our capitalist system, emphasizes the importance of power relationships in society. Those who are in class positions at the top of the apex (of power distribution) are the people who, one, hold most of the power in society, and two, make the choices for the direction and reproduction of society. The majorities at the bottom of the apex, with very limited power, are unable to make choices that would bring them to their ends.

The core attributes of the economic system are alienation and the bureaucracy, which create a dehumanizing effect on the characters within the system. The bureaucracy, with its rational legal authority, clear division of labor, career systems, and impersonality, is technologically more perfect than any other system (according to Weber). Within this structure, Weber describes there being three dimensions of inequality: class (which correlates with the economy), status (which correlates with the social aspects of society), and party (which correlates with the political aspects of society).

I believe most of the modern explanations of inequality, at most, help build upon Weber?s general theories, and at least, reflect the same elitist pessimism that Weber also holds. The dual-labor market thesis contends that there are two labor markets (in terms of income), in which the higher income market is of primary importance and the lower income market is of secondary importance. This tries to justify those people within high power positions by (somehow) trying to prove that our system is objectively rewarding higher incomes to professions that have higher social importance than lower income professions.

Similarly, the functionalist theory of stratification ?views societies as social systems that have certain basic problems to solve or functions that have to be performed if the society is to survive? (243). So the reason for inequality, for functionalists, is because our system must reward (with significantly higher incomes) those individuals who are motivated enough to yield the stresses of such functionally important positions. The fact that our system reproduces classes into the same class assumes the neo-classical labor-market theory is correct, in which we have a perfect system based on an equal opportunity playing field. So, according to these elite theories, the problem of inequality is an individual problem. If an individual is not motivated enough, then someone else will be, in so that the crucial functions of society can be carried out by the most competent, talented individuals.

Clearly, I think, these theories are poor analyses of inequality. These theories, especially the functionalist theory, are based on solely subjective measurement schemes, and are in no way objective (nor does it seem that these aspects can be objectively measured). If the theory requires that society must measure class and power positions in terms of importance, then who will be the measurers? Always, it seems, the power elite will be the ones who really have the control of measuring importance?and doesn?t it seem likely, if not natural, that they would perceive themselves as being the most important people within the whole of society? Surely the underpaid educator would disagree with societies ability to rate importance through income, believing that they are among the most important, since education, it can be argued, is the most important aspect in society (especially for reproducing the system of inequality). Also, these theories assume that we are all equal in opportunity, when, in fact, there is no such thing as equality in a system which needs to reproduce itself in every aspect of the social realm. By reproducing itself as it does, it generally maintains control to be held by those who have made, and have been born into money?while those without struggle to simply survive, let alone profit.

Though few theories of inequality made by non-elitists have been acknowledged, the works of Karl Marx have sustained itself over a century in time. Marx believed that capital produces profit?which accounts for why we have inequality. Because capitalism produces both wealth and poverty, society creates the stratification of social classes. Marx believed there to be two types of classes: the bourgeoisie (the power elite) and the proletariat (the working class). Though about 90% of the people in a capitalist society are working class, most believe that they are able to become part of the class of capitalists (and are, of course, encouraged to believe this by the capitalists). This can be illustrated today by all of the people pouring their income into the stock market, which ultimately gives the capitalists much greater proportions of wealth than the working class receives.

The whole basis of class, Marx believed, is through exploitation?those who have the money, have the control to exploit those who have little or nothing. In this form, the capitalists decide what, when, & how the conditions of labor are to be performed. The working class, on the other hand, are trading their labor for capital?making them basically products for capitalists to exploit. So, in terms of surplus, the capitalist receives all surplus (and is trying to maximize his surplus) while the working class are providing the capitalist with the means for his end (profit).

In this system, Marx believes that these positions of class are maintained by the very structure of the capitalist system. This system is geared to reproduce itself, as it must, in every aspect of the life it provides?socially, ideologically, politically, and so on. Therefore, wealth and material gains become more important than moral and social improvements, and we begin to value our world in terms of efficiency, profitability, and material worth.

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