Skip to content

Inequality as a Multidimensional Process

Launch of the Summer 2019 Daedalus Issue

Executive Summary

CIFAR, in partnership with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, held a launch event on November 1, 2019 to celebrate the release of a special issue of Daedalus, Inequality as a Multidimensional Process. This collective volume, featuring essays authored by fellows from CIFAR’s Successful Societies program and co-edited by program co-directors Michèle Lamont and Paul Pierson, examines the cultural and social frameworks that can put societies on a path towards greater and more equitable prosperity in the face of increasingly persistent inequality. Through an interactive panel discussion, the launch event explored the implications of this work for our current and future research agendas and its relevance to public policy. This report highlights key insights from the conversation. A recording of the panel discussion can be viewed here.

Key Insights

  • Inequality is a complex, dynamic process with feedback loops that unfolds over time, so the factors that initially triggered inequality may not be the same as those that sustain it and as such may not be the best sites for intervention. Adopting a simplified vision of the nature and cause of inequality risks addressing the wrong problem or even generating new inequalities. Studying inequality through the lenses of multiple disciplines — from sociology, political science and economics, to social psychology and political philosophy — can bring in important perspectives and different ways of asking questions about complex social problems.
  • In the past few decades, strong societal norms have been established in many Western countries against discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, ethnicity, etc. But at the same time, there has also been growing exclusion of the poor based on judgements of “deservingness”. This might have been partly due to a growing acceptance that society is meritocratic, such that people are already “getting what they deserve”. This narrative has led to a degree of legitimization of socioeconomic disparities and a rejection of redistributive policies.
  • Good policy analysis requires good political analysis, because policymakers need to determine what is appealing to the public and how this appeal can be sustained or built up over time. Insights from social psychology and cultural sociology can contribute to answering questions about how people will react to policy proposals, by looking at whether they will feel that deserving people are being treated in deserving ways.
  • Growing economic inequality is intersecting with other social changes that make inequality harder to tackle, as unequal access to economic resources become more consequential for life chances. For example, as economic rewards are increasingly tied to educational achievements, “opportunity markets” are being created where one can buy access to an elite education — in other words, using economic resources to increase the appearance of merit. At the same time, costs of living and housing prices are rising dramatically in the most dynamic “superstar” cities (those that are most attractive for social, human, cultural and financial capital). Education and urban living both provide opportunities to get on the “escalators” of social mobility, but those without financial resources are increasingly being shut out of such opportunities, “fossilizing” inequality across generations.
  • Rather than immediately tackling the root causes of persistent inequality, which is politically difficult, interventions may begin by first convincing a small number of elite institutions or stakeholders to buy in and change their practices, which may then trigger a “norm cascade” that brings about changes in the wider society.
  • Political inequality, including issues of felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the curtailing of voting rights, and campaign finance inequity, can serve to reinforce political and economic marginalization. The United States may be an unusual case among wealthy economies in that economic inequality translates particularly easily into political inequality. Regardless, all democractic societies face the dilemma of deciding how much they are willing to pay to address inequality.
  • Inequality does not result in a simple, deterministic way from economic globalization or new technological advances. Societies that make different choices in their politics and governance attain different levels of inequality. More trans-national comparisons can be instructive and bring in different perspectives about causes and possible interventions.
  • To bridge research and public policy, academics need to continue to engage with civil society groups, and they also need to be able to write for a wider audience about broad societal problems that the public is concerned with. Even if research does not provide immediately actionable policies, it can contribute by helping to change the political dialogue, which is crucial for gathering the political support to move the levers of policy.


Chuck Collins, Director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good, Institute for Policy Studies

Jennifer Hochschild, Professor, Harvard University (moderator)

Michèle Lamont, Professor, Harvard University / Co-director, Successful Societies program, CIFAR

Katherine Newman, Interim Chancellor, University of Massachusetts Boston

Paul Pierson, Professor, UC Berkeley / Co-director, Successful Societies program, CIFAR

Further Reading

CIFAR resources:

Perceptions of Deservingness & Persistent Social Inequalities (event brief)

Theorizing the Power of Citizenship as Claims-making (research brief)

2018 David Dodge Lecture: Boundaries of Inclusion (event brief)

New Models for Thriving (event brief)

For more information, contact: Amy Cook, Senior Director, Knowledge Mobilization, CIFAR

Support Us

CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.

MaRS Centre, West Tower
661 University Ave., Suite 505
Toronto, ON M5G 1M1 Canada