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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 11: Inequality and Conflict: A Review of an Age-Old Concern

17 Nov 2005

  • Author(s): Christopher Cramer

The links between inequality and violent conflict are among the oldest concerns in political economy. It is almost a universal assumption that an inequitable distribution of resources and wealth will provoke violent rebellion. And yet it is just as obvious and historically established that sharply skewed income and wealth distribution does not always - or even usually - lead to rebellion. Usually, this is taken to mean that the inequality is legitimized in one way or another; that the inequality comes with a degree of power and repression that are simply too great to overcome, or that there are various obstacles preventing collective action.

This paper by Christopher Cramer reviews the main currents of thinking about the inequality-conflict debate, with a focus on the link from inequality to conflict. The author says that, in spite of the fact that inequality and violence are a constant in human society, organized violent political conflict only takes place from time to time and is interspersed with periods of peace. He says that this could be due to three possible reasons: (i) inequality might not be a cause of conflict, or it is perhaps neither necessary nor sufficient for violent conflict; (ii) rather than the mere fact of inequality, particular characteristics of inequality might be more relevant; and (iii) perhaps something in the intensity of inequality, measured in various ways, may be relevant to the outbreak of violent conflict (implying a threshold that itself may vary with social, political and cultural conditions as well as with the average level of income).

The study of inequality usually involves the study of symptoms and outcomes. This is especially true of large sample quantitative studies of the links between inequality and political conflict. However, Cramer says that to understand the links from inequality to conflict - rather than just trying to identify statistical patterns of event regularity - it is important to study the factors that produce and underpin inequality and how this might relate to conflict.

Cramer says that the long history of interest in the links between inequality and violent conflict has not been matched by an evolving progression in theory or empirical certainty. There remains huge indeterminacy in the discussion of linkages between economic inequality and violent political conflict. The paper highlights the empirical weaknesses of the vast majority of claims made in this field. Cramer argues that future research should develop comparative case studies that have historical depth and look at specific problems in varying contexts, using smaller samples of comparison.

Christopher Cramer is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and Programme Convenor for the Master’s degree course in Violence, Conflict and Development in the Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, United Kingdom.

Order ICC PP 11 from UNRISD, 23 pages, 2005; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.