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Inequality - Multiple Bases Of Inequality: Conceptual Issues

age aging social age class gender life

Research on the relationship between inequality and class, gender, age, ethnicity, and race has often addressed the question of whether the disadvantages associated with class, gender, ethnicity, and race increase in older age (multiple-jeopardy hypotheses), stay the same, or whether the gap between these groups diminishes in later life (leveling hypotheses). Multiple-jeopardy hypotheses argue that class, racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities carry on in later life and that groups who are disadvantaged by these dimensions of inequality in midlife (e.g., women or people of color) face increasing disadvantage in older age. Alternatively, the leveling hypothesis suggests that people who are privileged in early life have more to lose in later life, and that a leveling out of resources takes place. Furthermore, social security policies serve to enhance the resources of those who are disadvantaged earlier in life, which further reduces the gap between the haves and the have-nots among older people. There has been mixed support for both types of hypotheses, depending on what dimensions of inequality are considered and the particular inequality outcome that is of concern. However, after reviewing many diverse studies that consider either the combination of class and age, gender and age, or race and ethnicity and age, Fred Pampel (1998) concluded that there is more support for the multiple-jeopardy hypothesis than for the leveling approach.

Related to multiple-jeopardy arguments are life-course discussions of heterogeneity and cumulative advantage/disadvantage. The key distinction between these two perspectives is the latter's emphasis on time. According to the cumulative advantage/disadvantage hypothesis, the heterogeneity between groups of people increases over time. This hypothesis suggests that individuals have specific class, gender, and racial/ethnic characteristics that provide them with a certain amount of advantage or disadvantage. Initially, there is little separation between the haves and the have-nots on the basis of these distinctions. However, as time passes, the separation between the advantaged and disadvantaged grows and age cohorts become increasingly heterogeneous. The reason that this occurs is because the economic and social value that is attached to productive work in most Western societies differs depending on one's gender, race/ethnicity, class, and age. For the most part, research on cumulative advantage/disadvantage has found support for the hypothesis, but most of the research has focused on income inequality rather than on status, power, housing, or health.

Recent theoretical work on aging and inequality has also considered the issue of diversity. Although the terms heterogeneity and diversity have been used interchangeably, the distinction between them is an important one. Both of these concepts are about difference, but the theoretical emphasis on power relations varies between the two. While heterogeneity can refer to any meaningful group or individual difference, diversity is about "examining groups in relation to interlocking structural positions within a society" (Calasanti, 1996, p. 148). This requires that class, age, gender, and ethnicity/race be conceptualized as "sets of social relations, characterized by power, that are fundamental structures or organizing features of social life" (McMullin, 2000, p. 525), and not as individual attributes. Furthermore, social class, age, gender, and ethnicity/race must be viewed as interlocking sets of power relations. This emphasis on power relations in diversity research prompts a consideration of what is meant by power, and by the related concept status.

Inequality - Status And Power [next]

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