May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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Interrogating Inequality:
Plans for ASA in New York

Cecilia L. Ridgeway, ASA President, Stanford University

No set of questions is more fundamental to sociology than those about inequality—what is it, why is it, how does it come about, and what can we do to change it? Indeed, my own sense of our discipline is that it has two foundational problems—the problem of social order and the problem of inequality—and we can rarely talk about one without talking about the other. As sociologists, we study social inequality not just to chart patterns of resource inequality but to understand the deeper problem of how inequality is made and, therefore, could potentially be unmade. What are the mechanisms? How do we uncover them? These questions take us to the heart of how social order in contemporary societies is made in a way that results in inequality and how we could make it differently.

What does it take to answer these questions that we all care so much about? I argue that we need to open up the traditional study of inequality in three key ways. First, let’s not assume that we really know what inequality is in the contemporary United States. As social scientists, we need to more thoroughly interrogate the nature of contemporary inequality in order to take into account its full, multidimensional complexity. That is, we need to incorporate group difference-based inequality, such as race, gender, and sexuality along with class and socioeconomic inequality. We need to incorporate sociopolitical processes such as incarceration and understand their connections to other forms of inequality. And above all, we need to ask, how do these different types of as well as ways of, making inequality interpenetrate and affect one another to shape the organization of society and life chances within it? Second, in order to understand the multiple processes by which inequality is actually made on an everyday basis we need to look at the mutual effects of cultural and structural processes rather than just focusing on one or the other.

Finally, we need to look across levels of analysis from the individual and interpersonal to the organizational to the macro-structural and cultural in order to discover the ways that inequitable processes at each of these levels interpenetrate one another to create and sustain patterns of resource inequality. In my view, the most important and powerful mechanisms, the ones that have the most obdurate power to sustain broad patterns of inequality, often emerge from the systematic interaction of diverse processes at multiple levels. If we constrain our analyses to processes at one level of inequality at a time, these multi-level mechanisms will continually elude our grasp. Instead, our goal should be to locate the key junctures among these multi-level processes that provide the levers by which different sorts of inequalities among people and groups are systematically made or unmade in the contemporary context.

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The American Sociological Association (@ASAnews) will be tweeting using the hashtag #asa13 about activities and research presented at the 2013 ASA Annual Meeting. Meeting attendees are encouraged to tweet from the
meeting as well to highlight noteworthy presentations or to share and discuss ideas.

How the Theme Plays Out

This was the thinking that motivated me and the 2013 Program committee as we put together the plenaries, presidential sessions, and thematic sessions for our Annual Meeting August 10–13 in New York. There will be three plenaries to set a broad frame on the problem of “Interrogating Inequality: Linking Micro and Macro.” The Opening Plenary, which takes place on Friday, will focus on “Inequality and Contemporary Protest.” The idea is to begin our collective conversation with analyses of dramatic examples of the social tensions surrounding current inequality such as the Occupy and Tea Party movements. Barbara Ehrenreich, a close observer of inequality and collective action, will join distinguished political sociologist Theda Skocpol, author of a recent book on the Tea Party, in a panel facilitated by prominent social movements scholar Douglas McAdam.

The second plenary, “Micro Processes as Mechanisms of Inequality,” is designed to highlight the importance of incorporating processes at the individual and interpersonal levels into our understandings of how inflexible patterns of inequality are actually made. Each of the speakers will look for key levers of inequality that occur at the micro level. Lawrence Bobo will discuss the production of racial inequality, Shelley Correll will take on micro mechanisms in gender inequality, and Annette Lareau will discuss class-based inequality. Then, Jane McLeod will look across the micro processes that operate in these diverse forms of inequality to give us a general analysis of the nature and significance of micro processes in the organization of society on unequal terms.

The final plenary, “How Is Inequality in the U.S. Changing?,” will take on the task of understanding exactly how broad patterns of inequality based on class, gender, and race are changing right now and discerning what is driving these changes. In what way are these changes related to one another? This session goes to the heart of our concerns to understand what contemporary inequality really is right now and what the implications of it are for the future of our society. David Grusky will discuss the issues with regard to socioeconomic and class inequality, Paula England will address changing gender inequality, and Tomás Jiménez will look at the shifting terrain of racial inequality. The last speaker, Robert Mare, will ask whether there are common patterns of change across different types of inequalities and, if so, how we should understand them.

Presidential Panels and Thematics

I am really looking forward to these plenaries myself and I hope you are too. But that is not all we have planned. There also are six Presidential Panels and a wide range of Thematic Sessions that delve more deeply and specifically into the issues I outline above. A Presidential Panel I organized is “Interrogating Inequality: Structural and Cultural Dimensions.” I invited four prominent scholars who will draw upon their own research to examine how material, structural, and cultural factors work together, and sometimes against one another, in the making and unmaking of inequality. I asked these scholars to discuss substantive considerations of these issues in the context of actual research than in abstract “culture vs. structure” theoretical debates. I’m pleased to say that Ann Swidler, Mario Small, Min Zhao, and Paul DiMaggio will share their insights into what it takes to understand and change durable inequalities like class, race, and gender, both structural and cultural aspects.

Another Presidential Panel, organized by Program Committee member Devah Pager, is “Grappling with Inequality: What Economics, Psychology, Political Science, and Sociology Have to Say about Rising Inequality in the U.S.” It addresses the serious need for multi-level perspectives to understand the problem of growing inequality. Her distinguished panelists include Susan Fiske of psychology, economist Lawrence Katz, political scientist Barry Bartels, and sociology’s Erik Olin Wright. In addition, we have Presidential Panels on “Immigration and the Changing Racial Terrain, organized by Douglas Massey, one on “Organizational Dynamics and Inequality,” organized by Emilio Castilla, another on “Cultural Meanings of Gender and Inequality,” put together by Shelley Correll: and lastly, “Changing Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Mobility,” organized by Sandra Smith. I think you can see that these sessions were all motivated by our goals of looking at multidimensional inequality, taking into account cultural as well as structural mechanisms, and looking across levels of analysis to find mechanism of inequality.

There also are many enticing Thematic Sessions on a range of topics like crime and incarceration, status and exchange processes, statistical models for studying inequality, racial disparities in health, the micro politics of domination, changing work structures, changing families and households, sex and sexuality, “who are the one percent?,” legal rights and inequality, and so on. I want to point out two highlights. Bernice Pescosolido has put together a provocative and timely session on “When Sociological Research Matters: Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and the Sociological Voice in Understanding and Preventing Mass Shootings.” And we also have a session reflecting on Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, 25 years later. I hope you will come to New York and participate in our broad-ranging conversation about contemporary inequality—how to understand it and what to do about it. 

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