By Natalia Vargas Escobar
What is the meaning of talking about social differentiations such as inequality if we are indeed all different and particular? What is the relevance of discerning and analyzing these variations, which are in themselves common and undeniable? The point here is not about the distinctions themselves, but about the meaning attributed to them. The crucial thing, then, is the way in which differences are transformed into inequalities. In fact, when we talk about social inequalities as an expression of natural variations, a fiction is being created and given the status of truth. On the construction of these fictions, I invite you to think along these lines.
So how can we distinguish an inequality from a difference? The answer implies the way in which social problems of distinction and social stratification can be addressed: inequality is a difference that is considered unfair. To address this issue, we start by identifying, admitting and overcoming the situations that characterize the social order, and especially the place given to the subjects – groups and communities – in that environment. The notion of justice as a criterion to distinguish a difference from an inequality implies that the question of why there are inequalities in the world is answered first through Ethics – as a philosophical field – and then addressed through Sociology. In short, inequality in the world exists because many have been denied the opportunity to live their lives with dignity.
Admitting this condition and its complexity is a prerequisite for more fair societies. “Inequalities are created by men and to this extent, they can be altered”. This argument is of no minor importance, it is the starting point of sociological and philosophical studies on human inequality. This is the question of its artificiality, that is, of its created or constructed, unnatural or given condition.
At this point, the recognition of the historical conditions that sustain the structure of social inequalities given in a specific context is the key to activating a process for the collective construction of decent environments and fair relationships.
Natural variations & social inequality
A relevant critical thought on regarding social inequalities must start from an inclusive position that explains how, for example, socially unfair distinctions made on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and class operate and deepen simultaneously.
These three axes have usually been examined individually, so it would be ideal to have an approach that recognizes them as dynamic and interrelated categories, mainly because people do not experience class, ethnicity or gender as fixed categories. We know that it is not possible to understand the logic of any form of social stratification, of any practice of cultural marginalization, or of any kind of inequality, without appreciating the deep, complex and intertwined interpenetration of ethnicity, class, and gender.
The historical development of the social class as a matrix of inequality can be traced in two phases: a structuralist and a culturalist. In the structuralist phase it is assumed that the classes are equivalent to: schemes of endowments (educational levels), working conditions (autonomy) and remuneration models (income). These categories tend to be presented together, and from them it is possible to distinguish, for example, a peasant working class, from a class of factory workers.
In the culturalist phase it is argued that classes are not only sets of structural conditions, but also socially closed groups in which distinctive cultures emerge and influence attitudes, behaviors and even preferences of their members. This implies that class-specific cultures are a defining characteristic of inequality systems. The main forms of closure, which serve to generate specific class cultures, are: residential segregation, educational segregation, and labor segregation.
The forms of affiliation associated with gender owe their prominence to roles related to family life. The division of labor in families facilitates representations in which women are specially prepared for upbringing and emotional support. Gender is such a familiar definition that it usually requires an obvious interruption of one’s expectations about the behavior expected of a man or woman in order to perceive the way in which it is constructed and operated.
Social organization and the division of labor have a strong gender load, and in turn, the most relevant social institutions – family, religion, laws, education – reinforce and legitimize these gender distinctions that govern community life. In this sense, gender is a process that creates a distinguishable social status for the assignment of rights and duties. This inequality is legitimized as if it were a fair result of social action. This dynamic ends up maintaining assumptions about the merit and competitiveness of certain groups over others (at this point it is possible to think about the differences that exist in the labor market between men and women, especially in high-level occupations and senior positions).
|Women in Public Administration Management Positions|
|Source: Inmujeres, “Mujeres en puestos directivos de la administración pública”, in Datos Abiertos, Inmujeres. Recovered from https://datos.gob.mx/busca/dataset/estadisticas-de-mujeres/resource/573ddefd-8eb9-4509-b42b-0fdea6067a0c|
Ethnicity, when understood as an objective category, is equated with racial differentiations conceived as essence. Ethnicity is not something rooted in nature, it is not real in a biological sense, but as a social category with definite social consequences. Thus, although the concept invokes seemingly biological human characteristics – the so-called phenotypes – the selection of these human characteristics and the sense conferred on them is always and necessarily a social and historical process..
Discrimination has a central role in perpetuating the disadvantages associated with the ethnic matrix. Consider as an example a case close to our region: in Latin America, one of the primary axes of the construction of perennial inequalities refers to the pre-eminent colonial condition, before the conformation of the National States. This condition marked a path for types and stereotypes with which most of our societies were organized. Particularly, contempt for the indigenous root, with its subsidiary role in the official and foundational history of our nations and, therefore, the relegation of its present condition. The Conquest and subsequent colonial order in our region were the seeds of this historical discrimination of the Native American population.
These conventions, through which the colonial society, its groups, and subjects were classified, were subsequently perpetuated by the elites – commonly Creole and masculine – who led the independence of our countries. The primary institutions and dissemination devices of the official history tend to praise the values of the national subjects, personified in the Creole elite, the cradle of heroes and prominent patriots . The recognition of other types of agency – especially the work and diversity of actions of indigenous peoples in the historical circumstances of independence and the first republics – were not included in the historical record of our nations, and have since been relegated for their alleged passivity and have continually been made invisible in a recurring exercise of discrimination which remains to this day.
Recognition as a condition for overcoming inequalities
From the line of research that I work, -in our School of Humanities and Education of the Tecnológico de Monterrey, and particularly thanks to the support of the Research Group with a Strategic Approach in Ethics and Peace Studies and especially to the UNESCO Chair in Ethics, Culture of Peace and Human Rights -, we propose that the possible overcoming of inequalities, and of the social injustice schemes that sustain them, should start by recognizing them. Recognition, as a prerequisite for the shared projection of dignified horizons of coexistence, requires admitting ways in which they reinforce – and through it the possibility of dismantlement – the inequality matrices. If we remember the examples with which we illustrate these dynamics, we will see that stratification systems have a strong racial load, generated, and determined by classism. The way in which discriminatory systems overlap ensures their strength, their complexity, and endurance over time, but simultaneously, the awareness of these processes implies alternatives that recognize that the path towards a redistribution of social justice is feasible.
 André Beteille, “The Idea of Natural Inequality”, in The Idea of Natural Inequality and Other Essays. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 7-32.
 Therbon Göran, “Meaning, Mechanisms Patterns and Forces: An Introduction”, in Inequalities of the World. (London: Vers, 2006), 1-59.
 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation in the United States”, in D. B. Grusky y J. Hill, Inequality in the 21st Century: A Reader (Boulder: Westview Press, 2017). 276-282.
 Vivian Natalia Vargas. La imagen de Nación que se construye y refuerza en la sala “Emancipación y República 1810-1830” del Museo Nacional de Colombia (Bogotá: Uniandes, 2004).
 More details about our research group in: https://tec.mx/es/investigacion/donde-se-realiza-la-investigacion/etica-y-estudios-de-la-paz
Author’s expertise data:
Natalia Vargas Escobar (email@example.com) is the Research Coordinator of the School of Humanities and Education of the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus. Member of the National Research System. She specializes in historical sociology of development; injustice and inequality schemes in Latin America; State formation and Nation building. She is a design research professor of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Ph.D. degree in Humanistic Studies of Tecnológico de Monterrey; and professor of XX Century Historiography of the Master’s Degree in Humanistic Studies of Tecnológico de Monterrey. Member of the Strategic Focus Research Group (GIEE- Spanish acronym) in Ethics and Peace Studies. Member of the Unesco Chair in Ethics, Culture of Peace and Human Rights
To know more:
Vargas Escobar, N. (2018). “Desigualdades múltiples y construcción de paz: de la injusticia al reconocimiento” In: García González, D.E. Matrices de Paz. Bonilla and Artigas. Mexico. 211-223… The link where the complete book can be found – and therefore the aforementioned chapter of my authorship – is: https://www.cecupa.org/matrices-de-paz