As its principal test case, CHIA has adopted the issue of historical social inequality. Our objective is to theorize inequality and document it historically — what causes it, what forms it takes, and what effects it has on the functioning of society. Inequality, while described and quantified in the fields of economics, sociology, politics, and coupled human-natural systems, is not strongly theorized. It is treated as a misfortune or as an inevitable concomitant; it is analyzed rarely as an independent or dependent variable but more commonly as a collateral outcome (whether positive or negative) of social or natural processes.
Matt Drwenski, a graduate student in History and a member of the CHIA project staff, has completed a recent Master’s thesis that proposes expanded methods of analyzing social inequality, especially methods of linking interval and ordinal data on inequality. To implement these methods, he has begun two empirical studies: one a long-term analysis of Caribbean territories from 1750 to the present; the other a cross-sectional, global analysis of inequality in the present day.
Matt Drwenski, Scales of Inequality: Strategies for Researching Global Disparities from 1750 to the Present (MA thesis, Univ. of Pittsburgh, 2015)
More generally, to open an approach to theorizing inequality, the CHIA is focusing on three principal research themes, each a major aspect of the problem of inequality.
• Partitioning sources of inequality. How much of inequality results from the natural setting, from institutions, or from social processes? Interdisciplinary analysis should indicate the proportion of inequality attributable to these causal influences, and whether these proportions change at different time scales. This research calls for cross-sectional correlations including numerous variables. (etc.)
• Scaling up and scaling down. To what degree is inequality an emergent property of society resulting from the steadily greater scale of institutions? To what degree do individual agency and social movements influence inequality? The vision of emergent properties implies that social hierarchy arises out of the individual actions of members of society. Hierarchy thus reflects social advances; such emergence enables those governing hierarchical institutions to extract additional wealth—as seen in the “intersectionality” of race, religion, and social class. Social historical studies, in contrast, assemble a picture of bottom-up social pressures. Such research emphasizes the agency of individuals and communities in challenging hierarchical power, though inequalities remain in family life, as through gender relations.
• Scaling to the global level. What are the worldwide characteristics of inequality? In what ways does the closed system of global society impose conditions on its open and interacting subsystems? Global constraints on resources may mean that, while some effects of inequality can be exported from one region to another, at a global level the effects accumulate—notably through the experience of colonialism. Poverty and inequality in some areas of the world may have been imposed, not just inherited as is often argued. This research is to be conducted through overlapping analyses at multiple scales, leading up to the global level.
These research themes, pursued in sufficient detail, will yield theory and testable hypotheses on inequalities of varying sorts and at different scales of social aggregation. In addition, once sufficient data have been assembled, it will be possible to seek out representations of additional causal relationships and feedback loops in the data through application of complex system analysis. Historical datasets, however, are often non-existent until they are created by specialists reading materials such as government documents or personal diaries; the work may require expert judgment about centuries-old details of census regulations, archaic terminology, or currency conversions. Such datasets, which generally draw upon multiple sources of mixed reliability as well as expert interpretation, point to the numerous challenges of data and metadata format and data aggregation.
One of the most challenging but also most important aspects of this work is the commitment to a systematically global approach over a four-century time frame. This scope is necessary to understand the global interactions driving these social structures and will require estimation of missing data through simulation and agent-based modeling, extensions of the top-down analysis of the institutional approach, and incorporation of bottom-up case studies from social history into a broad framework.