The first thing that bugged me about this blog post by Jay Ulfelder at Five Thirty Eight was not the most important thing. The first thing I reacted to was that Ulfelder opened by asking whether “economic inequality causes political turmoil,” and then chastising, “Just because a belief is widely held, however, does not make it true,” before offering only evidence from economics studies. So I tweeted this obnoxious thing:
.@dtchimp If you squint hard enough you may see disciplines other than economics, some of which have studied this question for decades
— Philip N. Cohen (@familyunequal) January 7, 2016
It was obnoxious, and I apologize. That response was part of my routine, defensive, complaining about how complex sociological work is neglected in favor of glib economics (e.g., here, here, here). But I do substantively object to the piece. If I had taken the time to figure out what really bugged me about it I could have sent a more constructive Tweet. Oh well, you never get a second chance to make a first snarky response.
What really bugged me is that the piece reduced this question of world-historic importance to a matter of microdata quality and measurement:
In fact, it’s still hard to establish with confidence whether and how economic inequality shapes political turmoil around the world. That’s largely because of the difficulty in measuring inequality…
Despite the slipperiness of “whether and how,”* Ulfelder’s point is definitely that we are “not there yet” on the question of “the belief that inequality causes political crises.” Still, maybe this is a case of trying to sell a narrow empirical piece as something bigger than it is — in which case it’s also a lesson in how people overreact when you do that.
I have to examine my own motives here, because this is one of those times when someone’s empirical claims threaten something that I don’t routinely subject to empirical testing. If there is an actual article of faith in my sociological worldview — and I would not really use the word faith to describe it, it’s more like a foundational understanding — it’s that inequality causes conflict, which causes social change. Ulfelder notes this is attributed partly to Marx, which is one reason why I and so many other sociologists hold it dear, but it’s also because it’s actually true. But that depends on what you mean by true, and here I think I disagree with Ulfelder, who writes:
With such incomplete and blurry information about the crucial quantities, why are so many of us so sure that economic inequality is a principal cause of political turmoil? Careful observation is one answer. Aristotle and Marx drew inferences about the destabilizing effects of inequality from their deep knowledge of the societies around them.
He never explains why this isn’t good enough, instead wandering into a critique of contemporary activist claims, based in part on an argument that “the seminal economic study” on the question is methodologically flawed (I’m sure it is).
This reducing of the question is too reductionist. I would be very interested to know whether within-country economic inequality, measured at the national level, if accurately measured, could help predict which countries would experience political turmoil, if that could be measured with a single indicator. But that’s not answering the question of whether inequality causes political turmoil — it’s one very narrow slice of that giant historical question, for which we have many sources of data and many affirmative answers.
Use a little of Marx’s “deep knowledge of societies” to consider, for example, the anti-colonial revolutions in many countries after 1945. Do you need to test a within-country economic inequality measure to know that such “turmoil” was one consequence of inequality? Of course, the timing and nature of those revolts is an interesting question to be addressed through research, but is such research asking whether inequality causes conflict?
What about slave revolts? What if someone found that harsher slavery regimes were not more likely to explode in revolt than those in which the slaves had enough food and water — would that tell you that inequality does not “cause” conflict? (Inequality causes conflict; that’s why they’re called slave revolts.)
Even, what about the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement, or Black Lives Matter?
Does inequality cause conflict? Yes. Of course the relationship is not necessarily linear or simplistically univariate, which is the subject of lots of great sociology (and probably some minor work in other disciplines). But this is the kind of complex issue that data journalism nowadays loves to turn into yes-or-no, show-me-the-scatterplot short blog posts. I’ve done some of that myself, of course — and if I do it with something that’s a vital part of your analytical worldview, feel free to send me a snarky tweet about it.
* Nothing against this expression in general, it’s just slippery in this case because it might or might not be moving the goalposts from the opening question.