Taking the inequality debate to the next level

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

When Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett’s intellectual soulmate, suggested they write a follow-up to their massively successful book on the links between inequality and social ills, the University of York Research Champion for Justice and Equality was less than enthusiastic. “I really didn’t want to do it,” said Kate, just as their follow-up work hits the book shelves.  

It wasn’t just that the authors of The Spirit Level, which has sold more than 250,000 copies in English and been translated into 24 other languages, had been subjected to a series of vitriolic attacks from a range of right-wing, free-market think tanks. They expected as much.

What concerned Kate was that their first book had been so successful in putting inequality at the heart of the debate on issues spanning obesity, teen pregnancies, violent crime, drug abuse and life expectancy, that a sequel seemed a daunting prospect. But as they developed a deeper understanding of the psychological and emotional effects of inequality there seemed little choice but to write The Inner Level.

Since the publication of the first book, all 193 countries of the United Nations have agreed to promote justice and greater equality within countries both rich and poor through their Sustainable Development Goals 2030; the World Economic Forum identified it as the number one problem facing global development. US President, Barack Obama, took up the theme of the book when he declared that income inequality was the “defining issue of our era”, while Pope Francis stated unequivocally that “inequality is the root of social ills”.

How to follow the success of The Spirit Level

In addition to its remarkable success across the world, The Spirit Level won the Political Studies Association Publication of the Year Award and has been adapted to film, theatre, music and poetry, from southern Africa to the United States. It had serious people saying it was the most important social science book for decades and Richard’s 16-minute TED talk has attracted more than three million hits. “Surely we couldn’t repeat that? I was a bit worried about the infamous ‘second album’ problem” says Kate, who had seen the success of The Spirit Level as a fitting capstone to her research partner’s career.

Two things happened to change her mind. First, The Spirit Level transformed the research agenda, creating a new climate for debate. It proved beyond doubt that inequality was a source of great social harm. But it also triggered an explosion of academic interest in the mechanisms by which this harm is made manifest that would prove a rich source of theoretical and empirical material for the themes of the second book, The Inner Level.

“It was clear with The Spirit Level that the correlations exist, they are there, they are solid, you can see them all over the world. Our belief that they are causal is based on piecing together all the research behind this complex process,” says Kate. “We’re using evidence that ranges from experimental studies in neurobiology to recent longitudinal studies on inequality and changes in health. This is how we get to the causal explanation, by piecing together all the elements of the big picture and testing them.”

The link between inequality and our emotions

For Richard, a Visiting Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at York, and Kate, the need for a second book was more immediately pressing. Even with the publication of The Spirit Level, he says “inequality is still understood at only a very superficial level”. The sequel builds on new research to show how social inequality affects not just society, but the inner emotional world of the individual.

“We show how the personal, intimate world – including people’s feelings of self-doubt and self-worth –  are linked to heightened notions of dominance and subordination, inferiority and superiority, and are affected by structural things out there in society,” says Richard. The authors cite the plethora of ‘self-help’ books as a barometer of how, even in the relatively affluent democratic West, substantial majorities feel themselves to be under overwhelming stress, many prone to self-harm and thoughts about suicide.

“The central purpose of The Inner Level is to give people insights into, and an understanding of, the structures that lie behind these feelings of insecurity and anxiety and how moving towards environmental sustainability depends less on going through some nasty belt-tightening exercise, as it does on achieving the higher social quality of life that would result from reducing inequality,” says Kate.

Such comments have prompted criticism for mixing academic research and social campaigning, but the authors have a compelling riposte. “If I was an astronomer and noticed a distant meteorite heading for Earth, then I’d have an obligation and a duty to alert people to it,” says Richard. It is the same with inequality.

But not everyone liked the message. Toby Young penned a bilious piece for The Spectator labelling the book “junk food for the brain” while, over at the Daily Telegraph, Ed West, fulminated that the authors’ “real agenda is massive government expansion.”

Making the world a better place

Facade of council housing flats in East London Facade of council housing flats in East London

Seebohm Rowntree

Seebohm Rowntree

Richard looks back on such attacks with incredulity. “It seems to me bizarre that there are people who should be horrified at the idea that we could make the world a better place, with less violence, fewer people in prison, less drug abuse, and higher standards of child wellbeing, by reducing inequality. What an awful suggestion!”

Here Kate, Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences, sees close parallels with the public health tradition of York. “Since the days of Seebohm Rowntree the collection of public health data has always had a social, campaigning purpose: it’s about changing lives and the environment for the better; it’s about finding solutions,” she said.

And the University of York, which is inextricably linked to this tradition of research-led reform, is a great place to do this kind of work. “It’s a place where the social sciences have an impact that goes far beyond the ideas of the Research Excellence Framework. The continuity with the Rowntree tradition is remarkable – we know the value of rigorous research, but we also know that we can’t just sit back and think good research will be picked up by the right people, in the right places who have the power to make the necessary changes. You have to communicate and persuade.”

Being part of this tradition also provides support and solidarity against both the intellectual and personal attacks. She recalls a book launch for The Spirit Level in York. One of the first people in the audience to ask a question was Martin Bland, Emeritus Professor of Health Statistics in the Department of Health Sciences. Few academics in the field carry the weight of Bland, so both authors knew that his comment could be critical: but they need not have feared. Had anyone, Bland asked them, thanked the authors for the work they had done in bringing this evidence together?

“It was a lovely moment for us and typical of the generosity and support we have had from colleagues and the wider university,” says Kate who adds that the University has been hugely supportive of her needing the time away from the University to engage with politicians, policymakers and the public all over the world. “Our work on The Inner Level brings together research from socio-neuro-biology, psychology, economics, environmental science and more, to present a powerful case for change. This kind of interdisciplinary work is the way forward for research – and is one the University of York is leading.”

The UK - the most unequal society in western Europe

While neither Richard nor Kate are sanguine about policymakers addressing the issue of inequality in England in the near term, they hope their new book will “re-galvanise national debate about levels of inequality in the UK – the most unequal society in western Europe.”

A co-founder of the Equality Trust, Kate was recently appointed to the Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality, a Europe-wide initiative to focus policymakers’ attention on the wider impact of inequality across the continent.

“Just as the EU is waking up to the scale of the inequality problem, the UK is walking out of the EU,” she says. All the more reason, therefore, for the University of York and its Justice and Equality Research Champion, to remain true to the city’s proud tradition of harnessing world-class research to the cause of social improvement: taking the debate to the next level.

The Inner Level, published by Allen Lane, is available from 7 June 2018

Professor Pickett will speak at York Festival of Ideas 2018 event “Connecting the Dots: Global inequality, poverty and wellbeing” on Friday 15 June.

The focus day will explore the relationship between economic and political decision-making and the impact of those decisions on the most vulnerable in our society.