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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Inequality and Conflict: A Review of an Age-Old Concern



The links between inequality and violent conflict are among the oldest concerns in political economy. It is almost a universal assumption that an inequitable distribution of resources and wealth will provoke violent rebellion. And yet it is just as obvious and historically established that sharply skewed income and wealth distribution does not always or even usually lead to rebellion. Usually, this is taken to mean that the inequality is legitimized in one way or another; that the inequality comes with a degree of power and repression that are simply too great to overcome; or that there are various obstacles preventing collective action.

This paper by Christopher Cramer develops an overview of the main currents of thinking about the inequality-conflict debate, with a focus on the link from inequality to conflict. The author says that, in spite of the fact that inequality and violence are a constant in human society, organized violent political conflict only takes place from time to time and is interspersed with periods of peace. He says that this could be due to three possible reasons: (i) inequality might not be a cause of conflict, or it is perhaps neither necessary nor sufficient for violent conflict; (ii) rather than the mere fact of inequality, particular characteristics of inequality might be more relevant; and (iii) perhaps something in the intensity of inequality, measured in various ways, may be relevant to the outbreak of violent conflict (implying a threshold that itself may vary with social, political and cultural conditions as well as with the average level of income).

The study of inequality usually involves the study of symptoms and outcomes. This is especially true of large sample quantitative studies of the links between inequality and political conflict. However, Cramer says that to understand the links from inequality to conflict—rather than just trying to identify statistical patterns of event regularity—it is important to study the factors that produce and underpin inequality and how this might relate to conflict. This is all the more necessary if large sample quantitative studies do not generate unequivocal results.

The paper argues for a relational analysis of inequality and conflict, discussing alternative conceptions of such an analysis. Section one examines whether different claims about inequality fit neatly into distinct theories of conflict; and section two assesses the various social science claims about the links between (chiefly income) inequality and violent political conflict.

Cramer says that the long history of interest in the links between inequality and violent conflict has not been matched by an evolving progression in theory or empirical certainty. There remains huge indeterminacy in the discussion of linkages between economic inequality and violent political conflict. The paper highlights the empirical weaknesses of the vast majority of claims made in this field.

Cramer maintains that in terms of research that generates a growing body of knowledge, much of the literature, when viewed in these terms of conflicting claims based on large samples of countries, has been fruitless. Two main reasons for this are lack of clarity in categorization systems and definitions, and poverty of data (including on inequality, political violence and civil war). The latter is due to the shortcomings and lack of comparability in much of the data from developing countries and the fact that the consequences of violent political conflict make it difficult to collect reliable data.

While universal claims about the inequality-conflict link are not wholly convincing, there has nonetheless been some fruitful theoretical thinking on inequality that might generate new empirical research into its role in the origins and spread of violent political conflict. Cramer feels that future research should be encouraged to develop comparative case studies that have historical depth and look at specific problems in varying contexts, using smaller samples of comparison.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 9 Oct 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD