A textbook case of race, class, and gender

What is inequality and how does it influence society and the many facets of our […]


What is inequality and how does it influence society and the many facets of our lives? This excellent textbook by Lisa A. Keister and Darby E. Southgate, Inequality – A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class, and Gender, answers most of these questions and provides the reader with a comprehensive introduction to the main concepts of the current research in a comprehensive way. It also offers data-supported facts for analysis in several related areas, but avoids the trap of trying to decide what is right and what is wrong.

Inequality deserves its place for review in the Progressive Post not only because it covers the topic of inequality, but also because its range is comprehensive, making it valuable both as a textbook and for the general audience. As its title indicates, it is an extensive guide to current inequality issues in race, class, and gender.

One of the two authors of the book, Lisa A. Keister, is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Duke University in the US, whose research focuses on organisation strategy, elite households, and the processes that explain extremes in wealth and income inequality. It also focuses on group differences in the intergenerational transfer of assets. The other author is Darby E. Southgate, an associate Professor of Sociology at Los Angeles Valley College, whose primary research interests are stratification and education with an emphasis on culture.

Inequality is divided into two parts. The first deals with basic theoretical concepts, while the second is the application of these concepts to different topics. This two-part structure provides a didactic and easy-to-follow series of chapters.

The book consists of 14 chapters and is easy to use in a class for a semester. Each chapter is “filled with contemporary statistical evidence” and has a summary, detailed external references in text boxes, and a list of key concepts. The chapters also provide “questions for thought” and are equipped with exercises (p. xxi). In addition, as our digitalised world now seems to require, Inequality is linked to online resources on the publisher’s website. These resources provide illustrations of all the figures and tables in the book, slides for lectures, questions to be posed by instructors, and sample syllabi that make the life of students, teachers and interested readers easier.

The current version of Inequality is a second and updated edition, enriched by new developments. Compared to the previous edition, this enhanced version also contains a chapter on social change, “a section that considers two social structural theories, political opportunity or political process and resource mobilisation theory” (p. 484, 486). While a reference to the Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx is new in this chapter, the problem of social change certainly is not. A further update is that the chapter on women has been expanded to a chapter on gender, reflecting the general development of public discourse.

Avoiding the trap of taking sides

When it comes to textbooks, taking sides in theoretical or public debates is a sensitive issue, especially when talking about inequality – a topic that generates fierce discussion and often high emotion. Inequality tackles this point head-on, stating that the book’s content “does not advance a political agenda” but instead presents different approaches which encourage discussion and invite varied opinions” (page xxi). This approach is substantiated by the structure of each chapter concluding with questions and exercises for its readers. “Avoid trying to decide which is right and which is wrong, this type of thinking prevents you from understanding the important benefits of each approach”, the authors state (p. 31).

The part of the book that introduces the basic concepts of inequality research highlights the importance of the main topic of inequality. It starts with comparing the hourly income of Jeff Bezos to that of average workers employed by Amazon, and while this seems somehow provocative, it certainly catches the reader’s attention. The book is then able to maintain the curiosity of the reader and stimulate active thinking. For example, the first didactic question to be discussed is: “Is inequality acceptable as long as incomes continue to rise?” (p. 28).

The book starts off by introducing theories and ideas about inequality with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), which explains shifts in paradigms. “As you read about these ideas, be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each, and consider how each might address the most interesting aspects of inequality” (p. 31). The authors then go on to introduce the main thinkers and their theories by presenting these shifts. In addition, Inequality also encourages its readers to apply the different approaches to real-life topics. For instance, in a text box, the authors also question the role of unions today, pointing out that this deserves reflection. The chapter on theories is a short but powerful section of the book.

The next chapter gives a brief overview of the most common methods used to design, conduct, and evaluate social science research. The authors also highlight the usual mistakes that students and others make. In a text box section, Keister and Southgate present an example of how poor samples have led to bad conclusions, and they recall the “the most famous example of a mistaken electoral prediction”, the race between Harry Truman and Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 (p. 93).

The last chapter in the first part of the book examines social class as this is the main category for analysing inequality. “There is widespread agreement that social class is extremely important,” (p. 99) the authors state – which is why they only very briefly mention the approach to structural inequality, according to which inequality is distributed along a linear scale, and there is no real role for distinct groups that can be called ‘class’. This chapter presents the American class structure with its economic and cultural dimensions. It also raises the question of how these classes can be identified.

The second part of Inequality comprises ten chapters which apply the first part’s theoretical framework and methodological apparatus to concrete cases. The first block of three chapters sets out how social strata can be identified as the upper class and elite, the middle class and workers, and poverty. The following two chapters then discuss the movement between these layers, analysing social mobility and dedicating a separate chapter to education, as an institution that “functions as a moderator of stratification and inequality” (p. 272).

A further two chapters on gender, and race and ethnicity, complete the previous chapters mostly based on class, thus bringing the subtitle of the book to fruition. A chapter on global inequality then expands the focus beyond the US, while another chapter on public policy and social change can be linked to the active formation of social mobility that was examined in previous descriptive chapters. Here, the activities of social agents are examined, giving the reader inspiration not only to understand that the structure of inequality may be changed, but also that this approach may recall the concept of class struggle.

A novelty and missing parts

In addition to class, race, ethnicity and gender, the new edition of Inequality has a chapter on culture. This is a novelty, and indeed it seems the authors might have felt the difficulty of inserting this topic among the traditional ones that address inequality as they write: “Culture as a scientific discipline is often considered squishy” because “defining culture has proved problematic given the differing status memberships of each individual” (emphasis in original p. 390). What Social development from the first edition of Inequality in 2012 to the second edition in 2022 might justify the novel addition of this chapter? Although they dissect all facets of culture, the authors fail to explain this new addition from a historical perspective, as they do not engage in a description of long-term social currents. Perhaps they will deal with these issues in the next edition.

Reading through Inequality, there are unfortunately some authors who could be mentioned but who are missing. One of them is Branko Milanovic, the author of Global Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2018), whose famous “elephant curve” depicts the global changes in real income across different income strata between 1988 and 2008. This could have been an interesting topic for discussion in a classroom. Thomas Piketty’s Une breve histoire de l’égalité (Editions du Seuil, 2021) was probably published too late for this second edition of Inequality, but Piketty’s earlier work, such as Le Capital au XXIe siècle (Editions du Seuil, 2013), could nevertheless have been mentioned. 

All in all, Keister and Southgate’s well-written textbook deserves the attention not only of students and teachers but also of the general public thanks to its comprehensive content, didactic structure, and tailor-made design both for classroom use and individual learners. Its added value is that it examines, in separate chapters, the role of culture in connection to inequality, and also the activity of related social movements. Even if it is not read through from cover to cover, Inequality also serves as a excellent reference book.

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