Section 7.3: How Social Inequality is Created?

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

This section will explore how social inequality is created and maintained within societies. Understanding the mechanisms behind social inequality is crucial for comprehending the root causes and dynamics that contribute to the unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and power. By examining these processes, we can gain insights into the factors that perpetuate social inequality and explore potential avenues for change.

Understanding the Causes of Social Inequality

Understanding how social inequality is created is essential for developing a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by marginalized groups and for addressing systemic injustices. By delving into the mechanisms that contribute to social inequality, we can unveil the underlying structures, institutions, and practices that reinforce and reproduce these disparities. This knowledge empowers us to critically analyze societal norms, power dynamics, and policies that perpetuate inequality and work towards creating a more equitable and inclusive society.


In this section, we will explore several key topics and themes related to the creation of social inequality. We will examine how socialization and social institutions play a role in shaping individuals’ beliefs, behaviors, and opportunities. Additionally, we will explore the impact of social stratification systems, such as caste or class systems, on the distribution of resources and opportunities. 

We will also discuss the role of discrimination, prejudice, and bias in perpetuating social inequality. Furthermore, we will delve into the concept of privilege and how it contributes to the maintenance of inequality. By examining these topics, we will gain a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of social inequality and the various mechanisms that sustain it.

Historical and Structural Factors

Understanding Historical and Structural Factors

When we delve into social inequality, it’s vital to look at the historical and structural elements that have molded its presence. In this section, we’re going to unpack the historical backdrop and structural components that lead to the unequal sharing of resources, opportunities, and power in society. By understanding the roots and structure of social inequality, we can start working towards a fairer future for everyone.

Historical Context of Social Inequality

To grasp social inequality, we need to track its beginnings and evolution over time. We’ll explore significant events and processes that have shaped current social structures and led to the unequal sharing of resources, opportunities, and power. For instance, we’ll look into the impacts of colonialism and imperialism, which have left lasting marks on global inequality (Frank, 1966). These historical influences continue to affect the distribution of wealth, power, and opportunities across nations and areas.

Economic Systems and Inequality

Different economic systems significantly influence social inequality. We’ll examine how systems like capitalism, which focuses on private resource ownership and profit-making, have fueled both wealth generation and increased inequality (Macionis, 2018). We’ll also discuss socialism, which promotes collective ownership and aims to lessen economic differences (Kerbo, 2019), and neoliberalism, advocating for free markets and minimal government intervention, impacting income disparities (Harvey, 2005).

Structural Factors and Institutionalized Inequality

Key social institutions, including education, healthcare, and legal and criminal justice systems, are pivotal in perpetuating social inequality. They can either uphold or challenge existing disparities. For example, unequal access to quality education can lead to disparate opportunities and results (Keister, 2014). Healthcare systems might deepen inequality through varied access to medical services (Navarro, 2007). Moreover, discriminatory practices within legal and criminal justice systems can disproportionately affect marginalized groups (Alexander, 2012). Looking at these structural factors helps us understand how institutions can sustain or combat social inequality.

By comprehending the historical and structural underpinnings of social inequality, we get a more nuanced view of its complexities and dynamics. This critical analysis guides us toward building more inclusive and just societies that tackle systemic injustices and provide equal opportunities for all.

🔍 Reflect

Consider the historical and structural factors in your own community. How do they contribute to social inequality, and what can you do to address these systemic issues?

Intersectionality and Multiple Forms of Inequality

The Essence of Intersectionality in Understanding Inequality

In our journey through social inequality, we must recognize that people have multiple, overlapping identities that shape their experiences and contribute to various forms of inequality. Intersectionality is a vital concept here, illuminating the intricate ways race, gender, class, and other social categories intermingle to create unique challenges. This section will unravel how different identity dimensions cross paths and lead to distinct inequalities. We’ll see how systems of oppression intertwine, continually reinforcing disadvantage.

Intersectionality and its Relevance to Inequality

Intersectionality isn’t just a term; it’s a crucial lens for viewing the complexities of social inequality. It acknowledges that our identities — like race, gender, class, and sexuality — don’t exist in isolation but interact in ways that shape our experiences uniquely. By focusing on these intersecting identities, we uncover how specific inequality forms come into being. Intersectionality reveals the layers of privilege and oppression that crisscross, crafting individual experiences (Crenshaw, 1991). It’s about seeing the whole picture and addressing the overlapping disadvantages people face.

Interlocking Systems of Oppression

Imagine different forms of discrimination and disadvantage as gears in a machine, each turning and affecting the others. That’s the idea behind interlocking systems of oppression. Here, we’ll examine how racism, sexism, classism, and other isms mesh together, reinforcing one another. For instance, the experiences of women of color might diverge significantly from those of white women or men of color due to the combined effects of race and gender (Collins, 2000). Grasping these interlocking systems is key to understanding the full spectrum of inequality and the myriad ways privilege and disadvantage can manifest.

Cumulative Disadvantage and the Cycle of Inequality

Inequality isn’t just a one-off; it often spirals into cumulative disadvantage, creating a tough cycle to break. As disadvantages stack up over time, they amplify the challenges faced by individuals and communities. For instance, marginalized groups might consistently encounter barriers to education, employment, and healthcare, further entrenching inequality (Darity & Hamilton, 2020). This cycle is fueled by feedback loops, where existing barriers reinforce and perpetuate further disadvantages.

Tackling this cycle calls for thoughtful policy interventions and societal shifts. By enacting policies that ensure equal opportunities, support marginalized groups, and confront systemic discrimination, we aim to disrupt this cycle. Social movements and advocacy are also pivotal, spotlighting injustices, challenging unfair practices, and pushing for a society where equity and opportunity are realities for all.

Through understanding intersectionality, acknowledging interlocking systems of oppression, and striving to break the cycle of cumulative disadvantage, we deepen our comprehension of inequality’s complexities. This insight is vital for crafting inclusive strategies that foster social justice and build a world that cherishes diversity, fairness, and equal chances for everyone.

🔍  Reflect

Reflect on the various identities you hold and how they might intersect to shape your experiences. How can recognizing and understanding intersectionality in your own life and others’ help in the fight against inequality?

Individual and Structural Agency

The Interplay of Individual and Structural Agency

As we delve into social inequality, understanding the roles of individual agency and structural factors is key. This section explores how personal choices and broader social structures interact to shape society. We’ll discuss individual agency, the power people have to make decisions and act in ways that impact their lives and society. At the same time, we’ll consider structural factors like social institutions, policies, and biases that can either support or limit personal agency. Understanding this complex interplay helps us see how collective actions and social movements become powerful forces for social justice.

Individual Agency and Social Mobility

Individual agency is all about the ability to make choices and take actions that affect one’s life. In terms of social inequality, it plays a role in how people navigate the challenges and opportunities of their social environment. Decisions about education, careers, and personal lives can influence one’s social mobility—the ability to move up or down the social hierarchy.

However, it’s crucial to note that individual agency operates within a larger context. Social class, race, and gender, among other factors, can affect the degree to which people can exercise their agency and achieve upward mobility. Structural barriers like unequal access to education or biased hiring practices can limit opportunities, especially for those from marginalized groups (Lareau, 2011). So, while individual agency is significant, it’s also essential to consider the broader structural context.

Collective Action and Social Movements

History shows us that collective action and social movements are critical in challenging social inequality and advocating for change. These movements unite individuals with a shared goal of addressing specific inequalities or injustices. Through raising awareness, garnering support, and advocating for systemic change, social movements strive for equality and justice.

Consider the civil rights movement in the United States, which fought against racial segregation and discrimination, leading to significant legislative changes and social progress. Social movements employ various strategies, including protests, advocacy, and community organizing, to confront power structures and demand change (Tarrow, 2011).

Policy and Structural Change

Tackling systemic inequality isn’t just about individual actions and social movements; it also involves policy interventions and structural changes. Policies are instrumental in creating a more equitable society by addressing inequality’s root causes. They can ensure access to education, healthcare, housing, and employment for everyone, regardless of their background.

Key policy measures for reducing inequality might include progressive taxation, wealth redistribution, anti-discrimination laws, and affirmative action (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). However, enacting structural changes is often challenging due to political resistance, entrenched interests, and complex societal factors. It demands ongoing effort, collaboration, and a steadfast commitment to social justice.

By acknowledging the interaction between individual agency, collective action, and policy interventions, we can strive to dismantle systemic inequality and foster a society that’s fair, inclusive, and just for all.

🔍 Reflect

Reflect on your own experiences and community. How do individual actions and structural factors influence social mobility and inequality where you live? What changes do you think could help promote a more equitable society?


In this section, we have explored how social inequality is created and perpetuated within societies. We have examined various factors and mechanisms that contribute to the unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and power. As we conclude, let’s recap the key points covered and reflect on the multifaceted nature of social inequality creation.

Key Points

Throughout this section, we have discussed the significance of understanding the mechanisms behind social inequality. We delved into historical and structural factors that have shaped contemporary social structures, including the impact of colonialism and imperialism on global inequality. We explored how economic systems, such as capitalism and socialism, influence wealth distribution. Furthermore, we examined the role of social institutions in perpetuating inequality and discussed discriminatory practices within legal and criminal justice systems. Additionally, we discussed the importance of intersectionality in understanding the complex dynamics of inequality and the cumulative disadvantages faced by marginalized groups.

Emphasis on the Multifaceted Nature

One key takeaway from this section is that social inequality is not a result of a single factor or a simple cause. It is a complex interplay of historical, economic, social, and cultural factors. Understanding social inequality requires a holistic approach that takes into account various dimensions, such as race, gender, class, and intersecting identities. It is essential to recognize that social inequality operates on multiple levels and affects individuals, communities, and societies as a whole.

As we move forward, the next section will focus on the impact of social inequality. We will explore how social inequality affects different aspects of people’s lives, such as health, education, and well-being. By understanding the consequences and effects of social inequality, we can gain insights into the urgency and importance of addressing these issues in our society. The connection between the creation and impact of social inequality will provide a comprehensive understanding of the broader implications and challenges associated with inequality.

In conclusion, social inequality is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires careful examination of historical, structural, and individual factors. By recognizing the mechanisms of social inequality creation, we can better comprehend its complexities and work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.


In Section 7.3, we explored the mechanisms behind the creation of social inequality. By understanding how social inequality is formed, we can gain insights into the complex dynamics and factors that contribute to its existence. This section emphasized the multifaceted nature of social inequality creation, highlighting historical, economic, and structural factors as key drivers.

We began by examining the historical context of social inequality, tracing its origins and development throughout time. The impacts of colonialism and imperialism were explored, revealing their enduring consequences on global inequality. We then delved into economic systems and their relationship to inequality. Capitalism, socialism, and neoliberalism were discussed, shedding light on their implications for wealth distribution and income disparities.

Furthermore, we explored the role of social institutions in perpetuating social inequality. Educational and healthcare systems were identified as contributors to inequality, while discriminatory practices within legal and criminal justice systems were analyzed.

Another important concept introduced in this section was intersectionality—the recognition of how multiple dimensions of identity intersect to create unique forms of inequality. We explored how race, gender, class, and other social categories interact to shape inequality, highlighting the need for an intersectional lens in understanding complex social dynamics.

Additionally, we addressed the concept of cumulative disadvantage, which refers to the long-term consequences of social inequality. We discussed feedback loops and self-reinforcing mechanisms that perpetuate inequality, as well as efforts to break the cycle through policy interventions and social change.

Overall, this section provided a comprehensive understanding of how social inequality is created. It underscored the interconnectedness of historical, economic, and structural factors and the significance of intersectionality and cumulative disadvantage in shaping inequality. By recognizing the multifaceted nature of social inequality creation, we can work towards developing strategies and policies that address its root causes and strive for a more equitable society.

Word Count: 2512

Key Terms

historical context, colonialism, imperialism, economic systems, capitalism, socialism, neoliberalism, social institutions, cumulative disadvantage, discriminatory practices, intersectionality, interlocking systems of oppression, feedback loops, policy interventions, individual agency, social mobility, collective action, social movements, structural changes, systemic inequality

References and Further Reading 

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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  01/05/2024

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