The Age of Inequality – Interview with Richard Wilkinson

 One percent of our world’s population owns half of the world’s wealth. The wealth of this one percent amounts to $110 trillion which is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. Seven out of ten people in our world live in countries where economic inequality has increased, often drastically, in the last 30 years. In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked widening income inequalities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the coming 12 to 18 months because it poses a significant threat to inclusive development and pushes us closer to a social breakdown. Should this massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of the few concern us at all?


British Epidemiologists’ Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s bestselling book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ (2009) presents a battery of evidence to show that the countries with the biggest gap (inequality) between the rich and the poor also have the highest level of health and social problems. They argue that inequality has dire consequences on our health and well-being. Economic growth no longer seems to be an indicator of a better quality of life. The authors emphasize the vital importance of social relationships to human health and well-being and show that higher levels of income inequality damage the social fabric that contributes so much to healthy societies. Their key argument is that we do better when we are equal and therefore we should work towards reducing inequality and subsequently improving the psychosocial wellbeing of the whole society.




On behalf of The Essayist, Genevie Fernandes met with Richard Wilkinson to discuss the nature and significance of inequality and understand the ways in which we can create a movement towards equal societies. This is Part 1 of 2-part interview.


richardcolourhighresRichard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research on the social determinants of health and on the societal effects of income inequality. He is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, Honorary Professor at UCL and a Visiting Professor at the University of York. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics (LSE) before training in epidemiology. Richard Wilkinson is also a co-founder of The Equality Trust, a not for profit organization that provides resources and works with numerous affiliated local groups in the UK and across the world, carrying out awareness-raising and campaigning work to reduce economic inequality.



The Essayist: TE; Richard Wilkinson: RW


TE: What is Social Inequality? How would you explain this concept to someone completely unfamiliar with research in this area?


RW: People are most familiar with social inequality in terms of class or caste differences but I think that they are based on material differences, which are essentially differences in income and wealth. Social distances between people increase with bigger material differences between people, accompanied by the feelings of superiority and inferiority. There is the idea that people are born clever or born with certain traits and this helps them to climb get further up the social ladder, and this help us easily explains the social hierarchy and wide differences between people. But I think it is the other way round, I think that differences in ability are a reflection of where you were born and brought up in the class structure. All the cultural markers of class and social status are built on a material foundation or the framework for class and status, at least in the developed world, is the material difference between families and between groups. So when talking about material inequalities, I don’t think I’m talking about something different from class and social status.


If you read the sociologist Bourdieu’s work, it is quite clear the extent to which people use money to express status. The ability to send your children in private schools, to eat in expensive restaurants, to live in the smart part of town, to afford all the things from clothes to food; all of these markers of status are fundamentally built on material possession.


People often think that class is quite different from income differences. Take the case of Russia, where fall of communism has given rise to a new class structure. Huge income differences have opened up as is evident in the rise of the oligarchs. By the time the children of the new Russian oligarchs have been brought up in wonderful houses and been sent to special schools, and have travelled the world, they will have regarded themselves as superior beings, and other children will regard them as superior as well. These children would have developed the cultural features of an upper class.


Or take a different example like Britain in the nineteenth century, where people thought that class was about the blue blood, inheritance and family connections. If you gambled your money away, you could be what we call the ‘genteel poor’ for perhaps a generation, but after that your children would just be poor. But if you made your money in your lifetime, you would not be fully accepted, and would be regarded as ‘nouveau riche’. But again after a generation you would have gained all the cultural markers of an upper class and status and be accepted.


Over time material differences become overlaid by differences in education, clothes, sense of self, and all the other markers of class identity. Material differences become the key driver of social distinction, leading to social inequality.


TE: What does inequality mean in the UK, in the US and in developed countries?


RW:  Inequality essentially refers to the material differences that give rise to the status differences, the feelings of superiority and inferiority, and raises the social evaluative threat. As we become more aware, in public health, of the importance of psychosocial influences on health, working through the biology of chronic stress, the next big step was coming to realise that social relationships, at least at the population level, are the most important source of chronic stress. Losing one’s house or one’s job may be a worse threat in terms of causing acute high levels of stress, but it is not so common. We all worry about how we are seen and judged, and we worry about it every day, and often many times a day, and in many different situations, that is why inequality is so powerful.


If you want to understand the behaviour of any animal, probably the first question you should ask is, does it have a rank or a dominance hierarchy. If it does, it will tell you that the strong eat first, the dominant males try and monopolise access to the females. It tells you about the nature of relationships in the social hierarchy, that basically there are bullying relationships. It is interesting that although we don’t have internationally comparable measures of bullying amongst adults, we do for children, and you can see there are several studies now showing quite a good relationship between bullying and inequality. In more unequal societies, kids bully each other more.


Eric Uslaner has shown in his work that changes in inequality precede the changes in cohesion and trust. Robert Putman talks about how they moved together in the United States over the twentieth century, as income inequality widened measures of trust and social cohesion weakened. Though earlier on in the period where the income differences narrowed, measures of social cohesion strengthened. Putnam is very clear about that, he is less clear about which one causes which.


And you see why inequality damages social life, it is because, basically the old intuition that people have always had that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive, and that is true. Because of the social evaluative threat, which are our worries about how others see and judge us, we often find that social relationships become a bit of an ordeal (because we are constantly being evaluated by others or we are constantly evaluating others).  You can only really relax when you’re alone at home. Off course we want the social contacts, but you have to put on a good appearance, and think about how you’d come across and how you’d look.


If you look at the determinants of health or wellbeing in the rich world, what is striking is how important social relationships are in determining our health: the importance of friendship, numbers of friends, or involvement in community life. The conditions for happiness seem to be about the quality of our relationships, the number of friends we have, whether we are involved in voluntary work and such. And you know, in rich countries we don’t know our neighbours; community life is weakened with inequality. So how we can now improve the real quality of our lives is to improve the quality of the social environment, and that really is what the studies on inequality are all about. Inequality is a means of weakening the quality of community life, where people trust each other less, and there is more mental illness, more violence and more social and health problems. Addressing inequality can change that – make us healthier.


TE: What does inequality mean in the developing countries or emerging economies?


RW:  Does inequality behave in the same way in developing countries or middle income countries? I suspect it does. Certainly there are many research papers, which look at not just 20 to25 countries as my colleagues and I did in our work, but some papers look at over 100 countries including low income countries, and while you cannot compare so many outcomes, you can compare death rates and homicide rates, and the results are the same. Inequality is corrosive. Inequality has a detrimental effect on people’s health and social relationships across countries – rich or poor.


TE: One easily understands poverty and how poverty affects people at the bottom of society. They have fewer resources, more deprivation, less food, shelter and so on. However, when it comes to the topic of inequality, a common question is: How does inequality affect us all – including people who may not be directly from low income or deprived communities? Why should they care about inequalities affecting someone at the bottom of the society?


RW: In a society where some people are so important and other people seem to be worth nothing, we are all more worried about how we are seen and judged.  In our book ‘The Spirit Level’, we talk about the ‘social evaluative threat’ such as threats to self-esteem or social status, and how it is a fairly fundamental part of causation of rising anxiety and the shame of inferiority that people experience. But a problem I used to have is that when you look at the work on relative deprivation, and when people are asked about whom they compare themselves with, the answer is nearly always with people like themselves, and that seemed to be a problem for me thinking of the overall differences. And I didn’t have a solution to that until I read Sapolsky.


Robert Sapolsky, a neuroanatomist at Stanford University, has been studying baboons in the wild, in the Serengeti, for the last 30 years. He darts them and while they are unconscious, takes a blood sample and relates things like cortisol to position in the social hierarchy. His work was very important in our understanding of the importance of social status, more generally. We also learned from people working on the psychosocial effects of social status itself, such as Clyde Hertzman in Canada or Michael Marmot here in the UK.


Sapolsky writes very popular books and one of them is called ‘A Primate’s Memoir’ and in that he says, of course baboon number 7 never fights baboon numbers 1,2 and 3, because he knows that they are superior and he would lose. He never fights baboon numbers 20, 24 and 25, as they know he is superior and they would lose against him. Baboon number 7 conflicts with baboon numbers 6 and 8, because that is where his status matters more. What I have to watch is when my equals start thinking that they are better than me, and I say, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ It is these close comparisons that matter, and what it means is that inequality gets into quite personal things. We all become more touchy about social position and status. It is hard for us to imagine living in a society without any sort of social evaluation, where there are no class or status differences.


As a result of the social status competition, you are either overcome by social anxiety and you withdraw from social life, or you try and do a sort of ‘self enhancement’ or ‘self advertisement’, which is a kind of narcissism. You can either go under feeling overcome with social anxiety, worries about how you are seen and judged, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, depression, or you can respond the other way. You can say, ‘Well, actually I am rather very good. I went to one of the best universities, I was one of the youngest people promoted, and……last year we had our holidays in the Bahamas’. There are ways of showing you’re a significant person and that you are doing rather well, and you are rather successful.


An international team measured this concept of ‘self-enhancement’ or ‘self-aggrandisement’, by getting people in different countries to say how they compared themselves to the average. If they thought they were clever than most people in their country, more generous, or more attractive? In more unequal societies, people rated themselves as higher than the other people in their country. And you know there is an old joke that 80% to 90% of the survey respondents said that they are better drivers than the average. There is really an impressive relationship between how people rate themselves and levels of inequality existing in their society. We found some data on narcissism in the Unites States at the time, which showed that people become more narcissistic as inequality rises. One of the costs of greater inequality is that people cease to be modest about their achievements and abilities. While this argument was more of an intuitive estimate based on rather little data, now the evidence is there and we can actually see that.


The reason why violence is more common in unequal societies is not that the poor start attacking the rich; it is because people become very sensitive to being disrespected, and looked down upon. Shame and humiliation become more sensitive issues in more hierarchical societies and status becomes more important. As status competition increases, more people are deprived of access to markers of status and social success. So I take an offence at any little sign that you’re not treating me with respect.


You can see the same process in how inequality drives consumerism. Because consumerism is about expressing social status and so people in unequal societies work longer hours, save less, get into debt more, and that’s because expressing status is more important, and because they live in a social environment where people judge each other more by status.


There is now research showing more status anxiety in more unequal societies, right across the social hierarchies, not only at the bottom, but all the way across. If you read economists like Robert Frank at Cornell University, in his works ‘Luxury Fever’ or ‘Falling Behind’, he shows how these worries about status sore right to the top. I remember reading a journalist who interviewed bankers, who would get these huge bonuses, and he asked a banker, ‘you surely can’t spend all this money?’ And the banker said, ‘No, but they show me that I’m better than the next man.’


There is a really important situation that the rich countries are in today. Although economic growth transformed the quality of lives of people in the economically advanced countries, it isn’t sufficient anymore to get healthier or happier.


Simply put, it means that if you put life expectancy against GNP per capita, you get rapid rises in life expectancy in the early stages of economic growth and then it levels out. No more is there a direct relationship between economic growth and life expectancy in the developed world. The same is true of happiness or other measures of wellbeing. And what this means is now economic growth in the rich world is largely driven by status competition and consumerism, which is a zero sum game, because although I can improve my status over you, we can’t improve our status over each other.


So to understand the impact of inequality across the society, we have to seriously think about our sensitivity to issues around social status. How this notion of social status affects our health, well-being, our identity. If we continue to live in this kind of a society where there is constant social evaluation, then inequality driven status competition becomes part of our social, physical environment. This constant inequality driven status competition becomes a toxic factor in our environment.  And as we all know this has harmful effects for all of us. This does not mean that we have to always live in this kind of a society. We can change it.


TE: How does caste, race, or ethnicity interact with inequalities?


RW: Material differences get solidified into caste or racial explanations for differences. The relationship between social mobility and inequality is important. In more unequal societies there is lower social mobility. We first published this when there was rather little comparable data on social mobility in different countries and more evidence has become available. More recently Alan Kruger, the Chair of President Obama’s Economic Advisory Committee, has produced exactly the same relationships as ours using quite independent data. So there are now several datasets showing that where there is bigger income differences there is less social mobility and I can imagine that would lead over time to the whole thing becoming completely ossified more like a caste system. Research shows that health of ethnic minority groups who live in areas with more people like themselves is sometimes better than that of their more affluent counterparts who live in areas with the more dominant ethnic group.


But of course, the rich have always seen themselves as biologically superior beings and that’s part of caste isn’t it. And I think a lot of poor people think of themselves, they actually believe that the reason they are poor is because they are less intelligent or less capable than those who are well-off. There are a lot of poor people who think that they haven’t got what it takes. I remember a neighbour of mine when I used to live in Brighton, who was an unskilled building worker. He used to discuss all sorts of things but he would preface slight shyness and he would say, ‘you know Richard, I’ve only got one brain cell but I was wondering if’.…he was worried that what he wanted to talk about might sound stupid and he regarded himself as being an unskilled worker because he hadn’t been any good at school. I wasn’t any good at school either but I had opportunities later in life and he didn’t realise that I had twice as many years of education than he had.


It seems like our society has this unshakeable belief that differences in ability explain our positions in social hierarchy whereas the more important relationship is the other way around, going from our original position in the hierarchy to our differences in ability.  Those who are in a higher position in the hierarchy get more resources and opportunities, and have better social networks, and obviously do better.


TE: Has social inequality always been there? How has it developed historically?


RW: No, the evidence is increasingly strong that most hunting and gathering societies were not hierarchical, and the expert on this, is ‘Christopher Boehm’ from the University of South Carolina. He has compiled an electronically searchable database, putting together all the records of hunting and gathering societies, from early explorers, missionaries, colonial administrators, anthropologists, and I think, has evidence on 200 hunting and gathering societies. And it’s not that we have had a change in human nature, it’s that in those societies there was what he calls ‘counter dominance strategies’. So if someone starts to be bossy, selfish and so on, first the others tease that bossy person and if that person still goes on, then the others ostracise him or her. There are quite a number of records, of people from these societies who were particularly difficult, being killed not in a fit of temper, but if a man is endlessly selfish and domineering and so on, and does not take heed to any of the sort of warnings, then someone in his family would be delegated to kill him. And apparently death rates from that source put the rate of homicide as high as that in modern-day Chicago.


Equality comes in with big game hunting. There are two reasons for this: one is that individual strength is no longer enough to be dominant. Because as soon we have the weapons to kill large animals and the knowledge and intelligence and so on, it means that a stronger individual can no longer rule the roost. Secondly, big game hunting meant that when someone did kill an animal suddenly there was more food than that one person could actually eat, and so food sharing became common. Typically, the food hunter would not divide up the catch himself, it would be divided up by some others in the community, because often there was a sort of evaluation of modesty.


Inequality seems to rise with the beginning of agriculture, for reasons I am not so clear about. But it was obviously a breakdown of the counter dominance strategies, which were ways of dealing with people who are domineering. So it does not mean that people did not have a desire for dominance in hunting and gathering societies, but it’s more that these tendencies were kept in check.


If you look more recently at the income distribution in the 20th century in many of the developed countries, you find that there are inequalities in the early part of the 20th century, and then sometime in the 1930’s they start to decline. They go on declining till the 1960’s and bottoms out in the 1970’s. From 1980 onwards you get the modern rise of inequality.  The 20th century had a U shaped distribution of inequality, and the strength of the trade unions in terms of proportion of the labour force members of the trade unions, had the exactly opposite shape. Well, I don’t mean that unions necessarily do wonderful things for their members, but they were an indication of the strength of what I call the countervailing voices in society. These voices talk about issues of social justice.


But now, in many countries, we are back to where we were in the 1920’s; back to that level of inequality. This transition towards an increase in inequality has to be seen as the strengthening and the subsequent weakening of the labour movement coupled with the fear of communism. In the 1960’s we thought that the Eastern European countries and Russia had a planned economy that was probably more efficient and they seemed to be growing faster than western countries, but all of that disappeared from the late 1970’s. And so politicians like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in USA could come along and very easily say that: There is no alternative. So I think we have to recreate a movement, not simply the same socialist movement, but a movement towards sustainability, and a higher real quality of  life which means, not only greater equality that improves the quality of social relations, but also reduces consumerism which is the biggest threat to reduce carbon emissions and save the environment.

to be continued…




We thank Prof Richard Wilkinson for giving his time so freely.


equality trust



If you want to take action to help address inequality then please visit The Equality Trust website at


Watch Richard Wilkinson talk about how economic inequality harms societies in a TED Global Conference filmed in 2011.


If after reading this article you would like to learn more about social inequality and its impact on health and human development, click here for a further reading list.




Inequality Statistics: Accessed from  Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva and Nick Galasso (2014). WORKING FOR THE FEW: Political capture and economic inequality. Oxford: Oxfam.

Cover Image of Prof. Richard Wilkinson: Accessed from

The Spirit Level Book Image: Accessed from

Image of Prof. Richard Wilkinson: Accessed from The Equality Trust Website at:



Open Access Article

© Genevie Fernandes (2014). The Age of Inequality: Interview with Richard Wilkinson. The Essayist, July 2014.


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