Monday, 5 November 2012

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone


The Spirit Level was something of a sensation when it was published in 2009. Written by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, both of the University of York, it swiftly joined the pantheon of popular science tracts such as Tipping Point and Freakonomics, becoming a prestigious member of an elite group of psych-socio-economic books which are widely discussed if perhaps less widely read. The Spirit Level climbed still further when its messages sashayed their way off the shelves and into the speeches of politicians. But are such mentions sincerely meant or cynical attempts to jump on the buzzword band-wagon?

The central tenet of the book is that unequal societies do worse than more equal societies for almost every marker of social problem you can imagine, from teenage pregnancy, to imprisonment rates, from obesity to measures of trust. The writers acknowledge an intuitive tendency to agree with such statements, however, they go further than making mere statements that refer to levels of absolute poverty. For example, their claim that unequal societies do worse does not simply refer to the lowest socio-economic levels in society, rather they argue that at every level on society’s ladder, groups will be doing worse than corresponding demographic groups in more equal societies.

Unequal societies produce steep social gradients of social problems, so while you may enjoy better health than those on the rungs below you – you can be assured that those on the rung just above are enjoying better health than you.

This is perhaps the most revolutionary element of The Spirit Level, the idea that inequality is bad for all, even those of us who are living comfortably, far-removed from poverty-lines. It takes acknowledged drivers for social problems, such as relative deprivation, and effectively scales awareness of the problem up utilising an impressive array of cross-disciplinary research and theories.

It is this grand theory which has drawn ire down on the authors.  There are few books which have attracted such vociferous or sustained criticism, to the extent that books have been published which set out solely to disprove the work. Complaints centre on methodological issues and fire off accusations of cherry-picking data, the position of outliers and exaggerating correlations. The debate became so significant that it provoked a welcome level of engagement from the authors Pickett and Wilkinson, who have released an updated version of the book responding to their critics and have also participated in debates with their detractors. This is truly public academia – to an extent that can only be wistfully dreamed of by those criminologists who attempt to attain the same level of public awareness.

Clearly in any such grand theory, it is always possible to target flaws and problems. Achieving a level of nuance in a book that works in generalisations and persuasion is out of the question, and to some extent this book does function as a manifesto for change. It has become another evangelising work which seeks to determine exactly what has gone wrong in the final decades of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. The DA wondered how this theory of everything which focuses on inequality would relate to criminological texts dealing with the same consequences but working at the problem from a different discipline. In criminology, a variety of theories have been proposed to explain our criminological and political cultures, with terminologies ranging from late modernism, postmodernism, risk society, neo-liberalism. Perhaps The Spirit Level has something to add to these theories.

The authors’ statements that we are first generation to struggle for new answers to the question of how to improve our quality of life, sometimes seem peculiarly devoid of historical context. There is a danger, which Lucia Zedner elegantly elaborates, of seeing our present as a dystopia. We are being spectacularly solipsistic when we consider our own time as the apex or climax of history. However, refreshingly, Pickett and Wilkinson are positive in their view of how we bring about change. They use the examples of Japan and the US to illustrate just how quickly inequality can creep into a society, and how over the same period the gap can be effectively closed.

Their final chapters on environmental concerns and suggestions on how to close the inequality gap, are decidedly less compelling than previous chapters showing the correlations between social problems and inequality. These closing chapters are perhaps a pre-emptive strike against criticism that they have merely uncovered a problem without providing any solutions. While these chapters do not detract from the book, they are less confidently and expertly written, being, as they are, clearly beyond the authors’ areas of expertise. However, they do provide interesting examples and anecdotes, such as the individual carbon quota scheme being piloted in Manchester.

The Spirit Levels provides an excellent summary of hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, and effectively brings a considerable quantity of research together to form its argument. And that argument is persuasive. There are issues with causality, for example arguments in one section of the book were often reinforced by reference to earlier correlations, a method which seemed somewhat circular and lacking in internal validity. However, despite some issues which were raised within the group, and despite the above mentioned criticism from other academics, The Spirit Level remains a convincing hypothesis. Certainly the work will continue, the authors' work with The Equality Trust is just one sign that this is a idea which has more to give.

This months blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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