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Understanding Inequality In The Modern World:What Is Inequality Anyway?

Responding to the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and the austerity policies that followed, the Occupy movement focussed attention on social inequality with the slogan 'We are the 99%'. This implied a clash between the wealth and interests of a tiny elite and the experiences of the average member of society. But is this 99:1 split a useful or appropriate measure of inequality? And can we give a precise meaning to the notion of the 'average' person? This course explores a variety of ways in which social scientists have tried to answer these questions through numerical measures of the size and extent of inequality. As will be shown, these proposed answers are not solely neutral technicalities but have potential political and social implications.
  • Who is it for?

    Given the subject matter, the ability to tolerate a modest diet of numbers, graphs and simple algebra will be essential in following the discussion, which will include demonstration of relevant computer software. Otherwise there are no prerequisites for this course except a desire to learn and understand. In particular, no previous knowledge of economics or statistics is required. Also, although by no means necessary, experience of the previous course 'Understanding Inequality In the Modern World: A Question of Justice?' may help motivate participation

  • What does it cover?

    We begin by reviewing how protests in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis have refocused attention on social and economic equality. Next we explore statistics: ways in which we might offer numerical answers to such questions as 'how big is inequality' and thus tell whether it is rising or falling. We then show how such measures can provide clues to the processes that generate inequality. Finally, we look at the political and philosophical commitments that informed the work of the pioneers of modern statistics.

    o Piketty and the 'one per cent'
    o How big is inequality? (absolute inequality)
    o The 'one per cent' versus the 'average person'
    o Measures of central tendency and dispersion
    o How much inequality? (comparing different times and societies)
    o Pen's Parade; Gini co-efficient
    o The 'normal' distribution and actual distributions of wealth and income
    o Statistics methods are political
    o Quetelet and the average man
    o Galton, Pearson, and eugenics
    o Application: Inequality ancient and modern (Branko Milanovic)

    What students should be able to do by the end of the course?

    Students will be able to use both general-purpose statistics (for example, central tendency and dispersion) and specialist measures such as the Gini co-efficient to discuss differences in inequality in time and between societies, with a particular emphasis on current data. They will also be able to discuss the social and political contexts in which these statistical techniques were developed.

    Students will understand the construction of both standard statistical measures and specialist measures of inequality, appreciate their strengths and limitations in use, and know how to use standard software to calculate them. They will be aware of the ideological background to the development and use of statistical techniques.

  • What will it be like?

    Each session will combine lecture material with student discussion, in proportions appropriate to whether it is technical or more conceptual topics that are under consideration. Students will be encouraged to use their own portable devices (laptops, tablets, or smartphones) for hands-on experimentation with statistical calculation.

  • What else do I need to buy or do?

    It is anticipated that many potential students will have access to portable computing devices, and use of these for practical engagement with the techniques will be facilitated in relevant sessions. However, teaching methods and materials will ensure that the core ideas of the course can be grasped entirely by way of lectures, class discussion and further reading.

    Students will get the maximum value from the course if they are able to practice using the statistical techniques at their own speed in their own time, and similarly, if they are able to read ahead to inform contributions to class discussion. A reading list and other resources will be provided, both to support in-class work and for further reading following the end of the course. Readings for classes will be available via the Moodle page for the course

  • What could it lead to?

    Further courses in Economics, Politics, Philosophy, History, Literature, Psychology at the Mary Ward Centre and elsewhere

Available Courses

Understanding Inequality In The Modern World:What Is Inequality Anyway?

Responding to the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and the austerity policies that followed, the Occupy movement focussed attention on social inequality with the slogan 'We are the 99%'. This implied a clash between the wealth and interests of a tiny elite and the experiences of the average member of society. But is this 99:1 split a useful or appropriate measure of inequality? And can we give a precise meaning to the notion of the 'average' person? This course explores a variety of ways in which social scientists have tried to answer these questions through numerical measures of the size and extent of inequality. As will be shown, these proposed answers are not solely neutral technicalities but have potential political and social implications.

04 June 2024 – 09 July 2024
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:434
£76 / £27
6 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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All The Questions About The Economy You Ever Wanted To Ask

Do free markets generate prosperity, and what could the alternatives be? What is money, and where does it come from? Why poverty, and how to fight it? Should we worry about government debt? How much inflation, if any, sustains economic growth? How are interest rates set? What causes wealth inequality, and how detrimental is it to society? What are the competing economic theories that inform governments around the world today? And we'll discuss more issues, as you come up with them. Oh, let's not ignore this one: How much can economies grow on a finite planet?

26 September 2023 – 12 December 2023
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:430
£152 / £53
12 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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Understanding The Modern World: The Rise Of China

China has changed in scarcely three decades from a poor and overwhelmingly agricultural country to what may already be the largest industrial economy in the world, with the geopolitical significance that that entails. To Western observers this is liable to seem like a sudden rise from backwardness and obscurity. But China's citizens have a different perspective: that their country is on the brink of recovering a status that it held for millenia - that of the world's most technically and culturally sophisticated society, only eclipsed for a few brief centuries following Europe's industrial revolution. But how should these events be explained? To do this we will look at the variety of ways in which economists have accounted for the transition from agriculture to industry, and thus for the fact that China has achieved what countries in Africa and South America have found so much more difficult.

20 February 2024 – 26 March 2024
Tuesday, 18:30 to 20:30
Course Code:432
£76 / £27
6 Meetings
High Street, Stratford
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