The Spirit Level – A Summary

The-Spirit-LevelThe Spirit Level – Why more equal societies almost always do better – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

This book is relevant to both the module on Crime and Deviance and Theory Methods

Based on thirty years of research – Its findings are that almost every modern social and environmental problem is moire likely to occur in a less equal society (where the difference between rich and poor is greater). This is one of the most important areas of social and political research – the issue of inequality goes to the heart of the political divide between left and right.

Wilkinson and Pickett use a wealth of statistical data to compare inequality in several European countries (the research mainly focuses on Europe with a few other countries thrown in too) and the reserachers use different measurements of inequality to increase valdity. The main section of the book outlines the ‘costs of inequality’ in which the authors show that greater levels of inequality are positively correlated with higher rates of ill- health, lack of community life, violence, drug problems, obesity, mental health problems, long working hours and big prison populations. The final section, which I haven’t read yet, goes on to suggest some policy solutions.

Check out this video for a humorous overview of the book –

The book has its supporters -see – where you can download slides of the book as an education tool to help spread the word about the ills that inequality ’causes’

Also see for an interesting supportive blog and interesting discussion thread about the virtues and otherwise of equal/ unequal societies.

Have a look at this video where Wilkinson discusses some of the details of the book –

However, the book has come under some heavy criticism – see which refers to a recent book called ‘The Spirit Level delusion’ – with ’20 questions for the Wilkinson and Picket’ – to which they respond.

If you click on this link, it takes you to a criticism of the Spirit Level by a guy called Peter Saunders (a right wing sociologists, a rare breed!) –

To give you a gist of the criticisms – one arguement is that the relationship between inequality and some factors such as homicide is skewed dramatically by a few exceptional countries – such as the USA in the case of Homicide. You can listen to a debate between the authors of these two studies at the link above. A second similar arguement is that some countries have been left out of the cross national comparisons.

This debate shows you an interesting example of how even ‘scientific’ quantitative sociology – in the form of cross national comparisons struggles to be objective – because when you are dealing with cross national comparisons, there are so many variables to choose from, one has to be selective – and these selections are open to bias (in this case which countries to include and exlude.

One interesting thing worth thinking about  is that although the debate is all about whether the relationship between inequality and social problems can be scientifically proven – one can also make a moral arguement against inequality -perhaps it is fair to say that wealth inequalities like we have in modern Britain are wrong just because no one human being is so talented or so productive that they can legitimately end up being thousands of times wealthier than the average person.

At the end of my ‘brief review’ I’ve realised that I don’t really know whether to believe the spirit level’s data or not – it seams to me that those on the left, commited to fighting inequaility, are likely to believe it, while those on the right are more likely to criticise it.

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2 Responses to The Spirit Level – A Summary

  1. Graham White says:

    Suggest you focus on the flawed statistics rather than the politics. If the data for the 2 outliers (Japan and the USA) are removed from the scattergrams then the correlations become very modest indeed except for the case of infant deaths.

  2. Pingback: Company Bosses really don’t deserve their high incomes | ReviseSociology

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