Social Inequality

Why do some have more than others? How are advantages passed from one generation to the next, or how do disadvantages accumulate across the life course?  Those are fundamental questions in the study of Inequality – the uneven distribution of some good (e.g. income) or bad (e.g. incarceration) across individuals or groups.  A core area of sociology, research in social inequality questions the patterns of inequality and the processes that reproduce or disrupt the hierarchies of advantage.  Penn State faculty and graduate students study the poverty rates of neighborhoods; how race, ethnicity, and gender  where whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians live in the United States to racial differences in life expectancy in the U.S. and elsewhere to trends in global income inequality.  Spatial analysis, data visualization, and methods of decomposition are important tools in understanding changing patterns of social inequality.  

Faculty Research

What are the causes of growing economic inequality?

  • How does income and wealth inequality change across the life course? (Hardy)
  • Has mass incarceration boosted economic inequality? (Steffensmeier)
  • What determines differences in academic achievement among individuals, and how much does that matter for economic inequality? (Daw, Gaddis)
  • How has the disarticulation between social movements and the partisan political system increased economic inequality? (McCarthy)
  • Are social origins becoming more important for sustained economic security? (Hardy)

What are the consequences of growing economic inequality?

  • What are the long-term impacts of growing income inequality and the recessions of the 21st century? (Staff)
  • How are economic changes and growing inequalities creating challenges for families? (Verdery)
  • How, and to what extent, are economic and social inequalities linked to inequalities in health?  (Daw, Gaddis, Haas, Hardy, Ramey, Staff, Steffensmeier, Verdery)
  • How, and to what extent, are inequalities in family resources leading to inequalities across children? (Daw, Gaddis, Luke, Ramey, Verdery)

What explains current patterns of racial, ethnic, and gender inequality in the United States and globally?

  • How are immigrants and their children faring in the United States? (Iceland, Verdery)
  • What are the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic inequalities in criminal punishment?  (Ulmer, Steffensmeier)
  • How are poverty and homelessness changing in America, and why? (Lee)
  • How is gender inequality changing in India? In particular, how and why does discrimination against girls and lower-caste women persist? (Luke)
  • Do racial differences in childhood punishment and use of therapy contribute to racial disparities later in life? (Ramey)
  • In what ways is gender inequality socially constructed, beginning in childhood, and in what manner is it a function of the structure of societal institutions? (Felmlee, Luke)
  • In what contexts and for what groups does discrimination occur today? (Gaddis)

How is neighborhood segregation changing in the United States, and why?

  • Why is neighborhood segregation declining in America? What groups have experienced the greatest decline? (Firebaugh, Iceland, Lee)
  • Is income replacing race as the primary mechanism for sorting households into neighborhoods? (Firebaugh, Iceland)

Why has education become the leading determinant of life chances?

  • What accounts for the rising role of formal education in social stratification and intergenerational mobility in the United States and throughout the world? (Baker, Gaddis, Luo)
  • How much does formal education influence cognition? What accounts for this effect? (Baker, Luo)
  • What role does “education fever” (extreme spending and focus on child education) play in fertility choices and a preference for sons in India? (Luke)