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Does Inequality Cause Conflict?

C Cramer  (2003)
16 pages (145KB)

What is the role of economic inequality in civil conflict? This paper from London University assesses the shortcomings of recent research and suggests that economic inequality is hugely important to explaining civil conflict, but only insofar as the economic is viewed as inseparable from the social, political, cultural and historical.

The role of economic inequality in economic growth and in the political economy of violent conflict has remained elusive for various reasons. One problem is the weak empirical foundation for any argument or finding based on inter-country comparisons. Another is that there are common problems in the way in which we define and analyse inequality. There are also shortcomings in our ability to measure it. Some treatments of the inequality/conflict relationship suggest the presence of trans-historical consequences of given degrees of income or asset inequality.

However, there is an alternative perspective on inequality that may offer greater insights for the understanding of violence. This alternative is determinedly relational and historical: it starts not from some superficial outward signs of inequality, for example the Gini coefficient, but from the historically conditioned social relations that, despite their infinitely open set of specificities, sometimes produce similar outward signs. This perspective also stresses that it is not so much the extent of inequality as the kind of inequality that is likely to matter. This approach allows for greater explanatory depth but for less claim to predictive power or generalisation across context. It also allows for the significance of varying kinds of inequality to become clearer.

  • 'Horizontal inequality' or 'categorical inequality' may be important causes of conflict, but 'vertical inequality', as captured traditionally in the Gini coefficient, is less likely in general to be so.
  • Whether or not an objectively unequal situation translates into conflict depends on factors including the strength of the state and the particularities of ideological conditions in a society.
  • Less horizontal inequality reduces the scope for violent conflict.

It is important to focus on the variety of ways in which inequalities are managed and the ways in which some progressive changes can be achieved within structures of enduring categorical difference. It is also important to understand:

  • The significance of varying kinds of inequality
  • The transmission mechanisms that enable a relatively peaceable durable inequality to turn into a violent conflict
  • How conflict can arise from: changes in the nature of the relationship between groups; external interventions; ideological shifts whereby injustices come to be regarded as grounds for conflict and new possibilities of equality through, for example, the departure of dictators
  • The dangers of ascribing a strong predictive power to measures of inequality based on cross-country empirical studies into the causes of conflict.

Source: Cramer, C., 2003, ‘Does Inequality Cause Conflict ?’, Journal of International Development, vol.15, pp. 397-412.

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