Cornell scholars examine structures of inequality

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Melissa Osgood

Inequality is one of the central challenges of our time, and with historic increases in income and wealth inequality in recent years, public and scholarly interest in the topic has skyrocketed. The College of Arts and Sciences is a leading center of scholarship on inequality, drawing from its many departments and collaborations across the university.

Inequality in the United States takes numerous forms, says Richard Miller, director of the Program on Ethics and Public Life (EPL): unequal political influence, unequal opportunity, the concentration of income and wealth at the top, the persistence of stark racial inequalities, and inequalities in education. These factors reinforce each other, challenging those who seek policies to meet pressing needs and reduce burdens of poverty.

“The social scientific approach to studying inequality dovetails really nicely with the humanities,” says Kim Weeden, director of the Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI), the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor in the Social Sciences, and chair of sociology. “Understanding the sources of inequality, how it affects different groups of people, our political institutions, our economy, is very much in line with Cornell’s value of doing research that matters. It ties in with the public engagement mission.”

Adds Weeden: “All human societies have been characterized by some sort of inequality. Even many hunter-gatherers had nearly complete gender segregation and resource scarcity. Inequality has always been with us, as much a part of the human experience as love and death.”

Humanists are well-equipped to tackle the moral questions of what should be done about inequality. They include the importance of reducing inequality of political influence and the extent to which the best-off should be taxed to help others, says Miller, the Wyn and William Y. Hutchinson Professor in Philosophy.

The facts – such as the stagnation of median income and the dramatic increase in CEO salaries, from 30 times the wages of the average worker in the mid-1980s to 300 times now – have people alarmed, says Miller.

“But why are these inequalities important?” he asked. “Reflection on why we should care helps people reach across political divides in discussing what should be done. We have a moral responsibility to seek shared moral convictions that yield yardsticks for judging proposals for change.”

This semester, the Ethics and Public Life program brought six leading inequality scholars to Cornell for the “Inequalities: How Deep? Why? What Should Be Done?” lecture series, working with Cornell sociologists, political scientists and economists throughout in planning the series, with the special help of CSI.

“Our work in EPL is a good example of how the humanities can provide context and depth for broader conversations,” Miller said. He is at work on a series of essays for a book, “Ethics of Social Democracy.”

Cornell offers a minor in inequality studies, housed in CSI and the Department of Sociology. The minor gives students a firm grounding in the literature on inequality and requires students to take courses from multiple social science disciplines. The minor also offers electives in the humanities and allows students to focus on different aspects of inequality, such as a track on ethics and social justice.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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