chapter  8
7 Pages

Renewing an academic interest in structural inequalities

ByDavid Machin, John E. Richardson

Class and class divisions remain central forces in shaping the ways we live. Indeed, arguably, in

neo-liberal capitalist societies, class remains the primary division of structured social inequality.

Official reports still speak of the vast inequalities in access to wealth, power and resources that

characterise Western developed countries (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2007; Institute for Public

Policy Research, 2004; UNICEF, 2000). Massive sections of our populations experience

inadequate access to employment, housing, education, nutrition and healthcare. These inequal-

ities cut across ethnic, ‘racial’ and gender groups and seem, on one level, to create a shared set of

life experiences and responses. In many of our cities we find whole areas where those formerly

engaged in industrial production, including those who once arrived from overseas to offer

cheaper labour, now find themselves marginalised from the current needs of neo-capitalism,

creating new kinds of social classes. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report (2005) on (in)equal-

ity in Britain recently described the continuing correlations between wealth and educational

success, between wealth and access to good healthcare. It also commented on the fact that the

areas where many second homes remain vacant most of the year are also areas where local

people struggle to find accommodation. About 3 million homes in the UK have more than

three cars and the same number have none. It also showed that in families where there were

no adults in employment children were more likely to be found as full-time carers. The report

concludes that perversely it is the poorest people who have the most need but also least

access to resources. However, to many, the study of social class, or ‘social stratification’ as it

became known in sociology, has been long out of date. Once it formed the heart of sociology,

but as the traditional working classes seemed to disappear with the demise of manufacturing,

academics that had wanted to champion class in the Marxist tradition drifted to other causes.

Yet, meanwhile, it is clear that we live in societies where who you are, who you can become,

are to a significant extent shaped by your socio-economic – or class – position in society.