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ag. 30 2014

Piketty and social class

Posted in Desigualtats |

Thomas Piketty‘s analysis of the wealth and income of the richest 10% has provided very relevant insights on the history of economic inequality in the twentieth century. Furthermore, the author also suggests a couple of very interesting implications for sociological analyses of social stratification.

On the one hand, his book significantly contributes to the debate on the accuracy of class typologies (e.g. Wright, Goldthorpe, Bourdieu) and socio-economic scales (Treiman’s income-occupation scale, Cambridge Scale, OECD’s socio-economic status scale and many others). For some years sociologists have debated on the advantage of either focusing on the discrete position of each class (e.g. concerning political alliances, the effects of deindustrialisation, the impact of fiscal austerity, mobility through education) or focusing on the distances estimated by scales (e.g. prestige and influence, income gaps, distributions of skills, social networks). However, mixed approaches looking at the advantage of both types of analytic tools certainly have a point. Piketty illustrates one of these mixed approaches by closely scrutinising the richest 10% whose wealth comes from specific sources (like class typologies) but whose income can be ranked with regard to the whole of the population (like scales of social stratification).

On the other hand, sociologists have convincingly proved that the school system reproduces the class structure to the extent that lower-class students feel strangers in schools. In this vein, the trend to a more influential inheritance, as identified by Piketty, is also showing the force of class reproduction despite widespread wishful thinking on the potential egalitarian effects of educational reforms targeted to the most vulnerable students. Unless policy-makers align these reforms with wider progressive, social and fiscal reforms, these policies face a severe risk to be ineffective.

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