Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)
Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)
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:

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. 

8 thoughts on “Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry)

  1. Thanks Phil for 5this thoughtful post — these are very complex issues that can not be reduced to yes or no etc. I also I appreciate you taking ownership of, and apologizing for, your snark tweet. Although I did really like it (oooops)


  2. Hmmmm, maybe this response to your response is also too glib, but it sounds like you are unaware that there is an entire subfield of sociology that can be understood as addressing exactly this issue (i.e. the field of collective behavior and social movements). The short version of forty decades of research is that inequality (grievances) matter, but so do resources for mobilization, the level of repression, and cultural/discursive processes that lead people to see inequality as unjust and to believe there is something they can do about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Inequality causes conflict. To test it empirically, find two nine-year-old children. Offer each of them a drink. Give them identical cups, one of which is filled to the brim and one that is half-empty. Measure how many seconds it takes the second child to say “Why does he get more? That’s not fair!”

    The complexities of what happens on a social scale are powerful, fascinating, and immense, but the complexities do not negate the process that is their foundation.


    1. This is essentially NOT the definition of inequality. Nobody is talking about what the populations are given. Nobody is giving anyone anything.

      Two topics are being discussed: economic growth (or the lack of) causing incomes to be stably stratified between the various economic segments; and inequality causing (1) national conflict or (2) international conflict.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What if you put the question the other way: Does an increase in economic and social equality reduce political turmoil or conflict? Either way, we should distinguish between the cross-sectional question (Do more unequal societies have more conflict?) and the longitudinal (Does an increase in inequality lead to more conflict?)
    I also like Vicky Elias’s suggestion that we should test this proposition in social systems of varying sizes and types.

    Liked by 1 person

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