Inequality as analytical lens

Around October 2018, I began to say no to further speaking invitations. I needed to get back to fieldwork and writing. In addition, to think/write, I need some quiet in my mind. When I spend too much time giving talks or in meetings, for days, sometimes weeks after, I continue to think about people’s questions and comments. These conversations are important for generating ideas, but by late 2018, they were threatening to overwhelm and I could not hear myself think.
I still said yes to a few things, such as the “Singaporean Researchers Global Summit” organized by the National University of Singapore (6-7 August 2019). I wanted to meet the early-career scholars, many still in graduate school, who would attend.
About two weeks beforehand, I read the program to get a sense of the overall shape of the event. I was given ten minutes to speak. Those two constraints were my starting points. Moreover, this ‘summer’, I had been thinking and writing about knowledge-production—public sociology, legibility and legitimacy, and collective action. At the center of these is the question of why be an academic at all. I ended up using my ten minutes to arrive at this question.
Ten minutes is not a lot, so the following should be read as work in progress. Despite the limited time, we—the session (a panel on “Social Inequality”) was chaired by Tan Tai Yong, and I spoke alongside Joseph Liow and Thang Leng Leng—heard excellent comments and questions. We couldn’t do justice to them; I include them at the end of this post, still unanswered. It seems to me these are not the sorts of questions I should be answering, alone, while sitting at my desk. Perhaps next time we meet then.

Inequality as analytical lens

Illustration by Jolene Tan

If you attend a major Sociology conference, you’d be hard put to find a panel titled “Social Inequality,” as this panel is titled.

This is not because sociologists aren’t interested in inequality, but because we are so invested in it, it is so central to our discipline, that “social inequality” would not be sufficiently descriptive for participants to figure out which specific theoretical or empirical subject the panel is about and how it fits in with their own interests. In other words, if you call a panel “social inequality” at a sociology conference, you’ll attract either everyone or no one at all. So instead, you have panels with titles like “Race, Racism, and Health” or “Economic Sociology and New Mechanisms for the Production of Inequality” or “Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity” or “Macro-micro intersections of gender inequality” (all real titles from last year’s American Sociological Association annual conference).

Each of the sessions embed within them questions about how inequality manifests in society, how inequalities of various types are reproduced, and what implications inequalities have on human society—on health outcomes, on social trust, on economic wellbeing, et cetera.

Inequality as a central empirical concern, and a starting theoretical lens for interrogating the social world, is not limited of course to sociologists. Many of you are probably from the humanities and social sciences—philosophy, literature, geography, history, anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, et cetera—and your disciplines also embed within them certain traditions of analyzing inequality.

At its core, attention to inequality contains two questions: first, what is the field of power and politics in which any given case lies? Second, what are the differential consequences for people and groups when the field of power and politics is not flat?

Both of these questions translate into empirical attention to context—that is, to looking at any given issue or set of events within the context of larger historical phenomenon; paying attention to the social relations that exist within an empirical site and to various social actors within a certain field. It also means, then, that although the social, the economic, and the political are often discussed separately, centering inequality forces recognition of the ways in which these are analytical separations and that the social, the economic, and the political are not in fact separate in the real world.

Ideas may be divisible but empirical realities are not.

We can see some contemporary examples that remind us of the urgency of forefronting inequality and not separating analysis of the social, the economic, and the political. Two sets of news we are bombarded by daily: the rise of the populist right; second, the climate crisis. Scholars working on these specific areas have pointed to inequality as both cause and effect. The huge inequalities in income and wealth that have opened up over the past few decades have seeded conditions for the breakdown of social solidarity and trust, and enhanced opportunities for opportunists and demagogues. The effects of the failures of capitalist systems, including the failures toward sustainable development and conservation of natural resources, are not borne equally, and it is the most marginalized in the world who are at the frontline of having their lives and livelihoods deeply and negatively affected by the climate crisis.

These two examples remind us that ideas may be divisible but empirical realities are not: the social, the political, the economic—these are interconnected phenomena. Inequality as a lens forces the analysis on all at one point or another. Importantly, too, questions about science and technology on the one hand, and questions about humans and humanity on the other, really cannot be addressed as if the first set are primary and the second set an afterthought, the first set core and the second periphery.

I think this critical lens offered us by the tradition in our disciplines of asking questions about inequality is more important and urgent than ever in the world we live in. Questions about inequalities, whether along lines of class, or race, or gender, or sexuality, should be asked in every endeavor in knowledge production. And I mean this broadly—not just in the humanities and social sciences, but also in the sciences and engineering.

If we look at the parallel sessions happening concurrently to this one, for example—titled “Drug development” and “Smart nation”—I can think of lots of questions that need to be asked which consider existing inequalities if researchers on these subjects are trying to solve problems in the world. Which diseases are prioritized in research? Whose bodies are taken to be the norms? Who gets centered as smart in a smart nation, whose needs and intelligences get relegated to the margins? These should not be afterthought questions if the overall orientation of knowledge production is to improve human wellbeing for all and not just for those whose wellbeing is already better than everyone else’s.

Given the urgency of contemporary problems, and given that inequality as analytical lens has the potential to shape both our collective understanding of problems and our imaginations of solutions, if we as academics are not afraid to embrace the questions of inequality, humanities and social science research and knowledge have central, not peripheral roles to play in the contemporary world.

How are we to do this?

I think the first thing to do is to realize and acknowledge that knowledge production too exists within a field of power. We do our work as humanities or social science scholars in a context where we have to constantly prove we deserve to exist, that we are useful within relatively narrow parameters of what use-value is. In such a field, what are we to do? We can keep folding ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces, contort ourselves into the kind of academics we are supposed to be to be legible in this country, trying to make ourselves worthy. Or we can band together better, as scholars, and thinkers, and creators of knowledge, to create stronger ties of solidarity and trust. I also think that we should try to create alternative modes of legibility for our collective worth. What would that look like?

Part of it is, I think, about building more genuine connections and links in our scholarship with each other, so that there are more opportunities for us to speak as collectives, articulating certain shared concerns as scholars, people with particular expertise about human societies. Fostering this will require changes to the way individual academics are rewarded or not, the kind of impact that is recognized as impact. It will also require the cultivation of a stronger sense that being a professor, particularly a tenured professor in a public university, is a privilege that should also come with certain sense of duty toward the greater good.

The dream embedded in liberal education: that knowledge has the capacity to shape people to behave better, and that actions ought to be considered and evidence-based and encompass diverse viewpoints.

Second, I think we should build alternate sources of legibility and legitimacy for our work. What I mean here is that we must make our work—not just our findings, but the logic embedded in our methodologies, and the ethical concerns implied by our research—part of the knowledge that society has access to. Audiences that understand and appreciate our modes of inquiry is what we need in order to naturalize the sense that all kinds of research questions being asked today—about medicine, about AI, about climate change—must prioritize questions of where human societies are at and where we as humans are trying to go.

What are the channels to make our work legible in society? I am personally interested in public writings and working with artists and activists outside academia but I recognize that not everyone is keen on doing this type of work and not every research area lends itself well to this sort of translation. So I’d like to suggest, as other scholars who’ve written about public sociology have suggested, that teaching is an area of work that most academics also do. This is a very important space to build a public that appreciates the importance of humanities and social science thinking, and to equip people with some of the critical tools our disciplines offer. In the quest to become world-class universities, we have tended to underthink our role as teachers. If we can think of teaching not merely as preparing individual students for the job market, but also about equipping a generation of young people with skills for thinking critically about the world, with the tools and courage to ask uncomfortable questions, with a sense that to be human in the world should entail asking ethical questions, I think we can ourselves better appreciate the connections between the different components of our work as scholars. We should insist on taking teaching more seriously as an important site for generating legibility for our forms of knowledge. Our students, when they go out into the work world, should be bringing certain lenses and tools with them. In the ideal scenario, they should be insisting, in whatever jobs they are in, that empirical evidence matters, that diverse viewpoints matter, that questions about power and inequality matter. This is the dream embedded in liberal education: that knowledge has the capacity to shape people to behave better, and that actions ought to be considered and evidence-based and encompass diverse viewpoints. This is not an easy dream to maintain in the contemporary context, but if university professors don’t do it, don’t defend this worldview, I don’t know who will.

 I’ll end by saying that when I look at the upheavals we are seeing around the world, and some of the tensions within Singapore society, I see that we as academics, as knowledge producers are very much at risk. The rage at elites, and the reactions against knowledge and rationality, are threats to our society as well as to our enterprise, even if we don’t identify as or with elites. If we want our knowledge to be useful to society, to the world we live in, we have to work harder to create public understanding and appreciation for it. As you do your research, finish up your dissertations, secure jobs, jump through hoops to earn tenure, the pull you will feel will primarily be toward trying to be legible to the university, legible to state funding agencies, legible to external reviewers in places like the U.S. Being legible in these ways will not make you legible to the larger society. I understand this pull well, and I am urging you to not be sucked in by it. Play your game but keep your eye on the larger field, on your larger purpose and roles as a scholar. Collectively, maybe we can begin to move the lens of inequality from the periphery into the center.

Questions from the audience

  1. How do we manage the many different tasks (you outline) as academics?
  2. What can we do as teachers? How should we think about our roles as teachers in university?
  3. What can researchers in other (e.g. STEM) disciplines do when it comes to inequalities?
  4. What are questions about inequality that should be asked but have not been asked by researchers?
  5. How do we build audiences for academic work and in particular how do we reach audiences who may not want to be reached?
  6. How can academics band together to demand better, more transparent, data from the state?
  7. How do we speak truth to power?