Monday, March 17, 2008

Does inequality lead to violence?

I was intrigued by an article in Business Day (Violence becoming a way of life in post 1994 South Africa) linking increasing violence, at least in part, to high levels of inequality. Addressing inequality would therefore be part of a strategy to reduce violence. 

According to the article: 

“Inequality means relative deprivation. People feel deprived. It’s not just the feelings of deprivation, it’s the feelings of inadequacy that are evoked. South African society is still structured in a way that gives recognition to the wealthy and affluent and dismisses poor people. People are brought in quite a direct way face to face with their own kind of meaninglessness.”

“It seems that inequality reinforces dynamics in South African society which feed into feelings of inadequacy and feed into greed and all things like that.

“So one can make the simple statement that attacking inequality is part of what needs to be done if the country is going to tackle the endemic violence.”

A similar claim was made in a recent article by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. In an earlier post on this blog the link between inequality, poverty and violence was also made. It was suggested that there can be violent social feedback from those who are left behind in a country's development.

Is there compelling evidence that links violence to inequality? Research results are mixed. 

Erich Weede in a 20 year old seminal article in European Sociological Review concluded that there is no evidence linking violence to inequality, but some weak support for rational actions or political power explanations. Another article in Social Forces focussed on FBI crime reports find that inequality effects white and blacks very differently: Inequality strongly affects white violence rates - high inequality is associated with high white arrest rates for the violent crimes. However, inequality has a weak effect on black violence rates.  

In another study Muller in the American Sociological Review concluded that political violence is mostly linked to regime oppressiveness, at least for the period 1968-1977. 

A more recent book on the topic is Violence, Inequality and Human Freedom. Had no chance to order and read it yet. 

What does this casual glance at the literature reveal? The literature is quite old to start with. Relationships may be different today. What these articles do reveal at least is that an argument that inequality causes violence is simplistic. There are different drivers of violence, of which inequality is one.  Different groups may also respond to inequality differently. 

Addressing inequality as a crime prevention strategy does acknowledge some key relationships in this complex problem, but it seems as if more focussed work is needed on where the high leverage points in such a, South African specific, system are.  


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