Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. It is the differentiation preference of access of social goods in the society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class. The social rights include labor market, the source of income, health care, and freedom of speech, education, political representation, and participation. Social inequality linked to Economic inequality, usually described on the basis of the unequal distribution of income or wealth, is a frequently studied type of social inequality. Though the disciplines of economics and sociology generally use different theoretical approaches to examine and explain economic inequality, both fields are actively involved in researching this inequality. However, social and natural resources other than purely economic resources are also unevenly distributed in most societies and may contribute to social status. Norms of allocation can also affect the distribution of rights and privileges, social power, access to public goods such as education or the judicial system, adequate housing, transportation, credit and financial services such as banking and other social goods and services.
Many societies worldwide claim to be meritocracies—that is, that their societies exclusively distribute resources on the basis of merit. The term "meritocracy" was coined by Michael Young in his 1958 dystopian essay "The Rise of the Meritocracy" to demonstrate the social dysfunctions that he anticipated arising in societies where the elites believe that they are successful entirely on the basis of merit, so the adoption of this term into English sans negative connotations is ironic; Young was concerned that the Tripartite System of education being practiced in the United Kingdom at the time he wrote the essay considered merit to be "intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors ... identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education" and that the "obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications" it supported would create an educated middle-class elite at the expense of the education of the working class, inevitably resulting in injustice and – eventually – revolution. A modern representation of the sort of "meritocracy" Young feared may be seen in the series 3%.
Although merit matters to some degree in many societies, research shows that the distribution of resources in societies often follows hierarchical social categorizations of persons to a degree too significant to warrant calling these societies "meritocratic", since even exceptional intelligence, talent, or other forms of merit may not be compensatory for the social disadvantages people face. In many cases, social inequality is linked to racial inequality, ethnic inequality, and gender inequality, as well as other social statuses and these forms can be related to corruption.
The most common metric for comparing social inequality in different nations is the Gini coefficient, which measures the concentration of wealth and income in a nation from 0 (evenly distributed wealth and income) to 1 (one person has all wealth and income). Two nations may have identical Gini coefficients but dramatically different economic (output) and/or quality of life, so the Gini coefficient must be contextualized for meaningful comparisons to be made.
Social inequality is found in almost every society. Social inequality is shaped by a range of structural factors, such as geographical location or citizenship status, and are often underpinned by cultural discourses and identities defining, for example, whether the poor are 'deserving' or 'undeserving'. In simple societies, those that have few social roles and statuses occupied by its members, social inequality may be very low. In tribal societies, for example, a tribal head or chieftain may hold some privileges, use some tools, or wear marks of office to which others do not have access, but the daily life of the chieftain is very much like the daily life of any other tribal member. Anthropologists identify such highly egalitarian cultures as "kinship-oriented", which appear to value social harmony more than wealth or status. These cultures are contrasted with materially oriented cultures in which status and wealth are prized and competition and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures may actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing because they believe that could lead to conflict and instability. In today's world, most of our population lives in more complex than simple societies. As social complexity increases, inequality tends to increase along with a widening gap between the poorest and the most wealthy members of society.
Social inequality can be classified into egalitarian societies, ranked society, and stratified society. Egalitarian societies are those communities advocating for social equality through equal opportunities and rights hence no discrimination. People with special skills were not viewed as superior compared to the rest. The leaders do not have the power they only have influence. The norms and the beliefs the egalitarian society holds are for sharing equally and equal participation. Simply there are no classes. Ranked society mostly is agricultural communities who hierarchically grouped from the chief who is viewed to have a status in the society. In this society, people are clustered regarding status and prestige and not by access to power and resources. The chief is the most influential person followed by his family and relative, and those further related to him are less ranked. Stratified society is societies which horizontally ranked into the upper class, middle class, and lower class. The classification is regarding wealth, power, and prestige. The upper class are mostly the leaders and are the most influential in the society. It's possible for a person in the society to move from one stratum to the other. The social status is also hereditable from one generation to the next.
There are five systems/types of social inequality which include wealth inequality, treatment and responsibility inequality, political inequality, life inequality, and membership inequality. Political inequality is the difference brought about by the ability to access federal resources which therefore have no civic equality. In treatment and responsibility difference some people are more benefited and can quickly receive more privileged than others. In working stations, some are given more responsibilities and hence better compensations and more benefits than the rest even when equally qualified. Membership inequality this is the number of members in a family, nation or of faith. Life inequality is brought about by the disparity of opportunities if presented they improves a person life quality. Finally, the income and wealth inequality is the disparity due to what an individual can earn on a daily basis contributing to their total revenue either monthly or yearly.
The major examples of social inequality include income gap, gender inequality, health care, and social class. In health care, some individuals receive better and more professional care compared to others. They are also expected to pay more for these services. Social class differential comes evident during the public gathering where upper-class people given the best places to seat, the hospitality they receive and the first priorities they receive.
Status in society is of two types which are ascribed characteristics and achieved characteristics. Ascribed characteristics are those present at birth or assigned by others and over which an individual has little or no control. Examples include sex, skin colour, eye shape, place of birth, sexuality, gender identity, parentage and social status of parents. Achieved characteristics are those which we earn or choose; examples include level of education, marital status, leadership status and other measures of merit. In most societies, an individual's social status is a combination of ascribed and achieved factors. In some societies, however, only ascribed statuses are considered in determining one's social status and there exists little to no social mobility and, therefore, few paths to more social equality. This type of social inequality is generally referred to as caste inequality.
One's social location in a society's overall structure of social stratification affects and is affected by almost every aspect of social life and one's life chances. The single best predictor of an individual's future social status is the social status into which they were born. Theoretical approaches to explaining social inequality concentrate on questions about how such social differentiations arise, what types of resources are being allocated, what are the roles of human cooperation and conflict in allocating resources, and how do these differing types and forms of inequality affect the overall functioning of a society?
The variables considered most important in explaining inequality and the manner in which those variables combine to produce the inequities and their social consequences in a given society can change across time and place. In addition to interest in comparing and contrasting social inequality at local and national levels, in the wake of today's globalizing processes, the most interesting question becomes: what does inequality look like on a worldwide scale and what does such global inequality bode for the future? In effect, globalization reduces the distances of time and space, producing a global interaction of cultures and societies and social roles that can increase global inequities.
Inequality and ideology
Philosophical questions about social ethics and the desirability or inevitability of inequality in human societies have given rise to a spate of ideologies to address such questions. We can broadly classify these ideologies on the basis of whether they justify or legitimize inequality, casting it as desirable or inevitable, or whether they cast equality as desirable and inequality as a feature of society to be reduced or eliminated. One end of this ideological continuum can be called "Individualist", the other "Collectivist". In Western societies, there is a long history associated with the idea of individual ownership of property and economic liberalism, the ideological belief in organizing the economy on individualist lines such that the greatest possible number of economic decisions are made by individuals and not by collective institutions or organizations.Laissez-faire, free market ideologies—including classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and libertarianism—are formed around the idea that social inequality is a "natural" feature of societies, is therefore inevitable and, in some philosophies, even desirable. Inequality provides for differing goods and services to be offered on the open market, spurs ambition, and provides incentive for industriousness and innovation. At the other end of the continuum, collectivists place little to no trust in "free market" economic systems, noting widespread lack of access among specific groups or classes of individuals to the costs of entry to the market. Widespread inequalities often lead to conflict and dissatisfaction with the current social order. Such ideologies include Fabianism, socialism, and Marxism or communism. Inequality, in these ideologies, must be reduced, eliminated, or kept under tight control through collective regulation. Furthermore, in some views inequality is natural but shouldn't affect certain fundamental human needs, human rights and the initial chances given to individuals (e.g. by education) and is out of proportions due to various problematic systemic structures.
Though the above discussion is limited to specific Western ideologies, it should be noted that similar thinking can be found, historically, in differing societies throughout the world. While, in general, eastern societies tend toward collectivism, elements of individualism and free market organization can be found in certain regions and historical eras. Classic Chinese society in the Han and Tang dynasties, for example, while highly organized into tight hierarchies of horizontal inequality with a distinct power elite also had many elements of free trade among its various regions and subcultures.
Social mobility is the movement along social strata or hierarchies by individuals, ethnic group, or nations. There is a change in literacy, income distribution, education and health status. The movement can be vertical or horizontal. Vertical is the upward or downward movement along social strata which occurs due to change of jobs or marriage. Horizontal movement along levels that are equally ranked. Intra-generational mobility is a social status change in a generation (single lifetime). For example, a person moves from a junior staff in an organization to the senior management. The absolute management movement is where a person gains better social status than their parents, and this can be due to improved security, economic development, and better education system. Relative mobility is where some individual are expected to have higher social ranks than their parents.
Today, there is belief held by some that social inequality often creates political conflict and growing consensus that political structures determine the solution for such conflicts. Under this line of thinking, adequately designed social and political institutions are seen as ensuring the smooth functioning of economic markets such that there is political stability, which improves the long-term outlook, enhances labour and capital productivity and so stimulates economic growth. With higher economic growth, net gains are positive across all levels and political reforms are easier to sustain. This may explain why, over time, in more egalitarian societies fiscal performance is better, stimulating greater accumulation of capital and higher growth.
Inequality and social class
Main article: Social class
Socioeconomic status (SES) is a combined total measure of a person's work experience and of an individual's or family's economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation. It is often used as synonymous with social class, a set of hierarchical social categories that indicate an individual's or household's relative position in a stratified matrix of social relationships. Social class is delineated by a number of variables, some of which change across time and place. For Karl Marx, there exist two major social classes with significant inequality between the two. The two are delineated by their relationship to the means of production in a given society. Those two classes are defined as the owners of the means of production and those who sell their labour to the owners of the means of production. In capitalistic societies, the two classifications represent the opposing social interests of its members, capital gain for the capitalists and good wages for the labourers, creating social conflict.
Max Weber uses social classes to examine wealth and status. For him, social class is strongly associated with prestige and privileges. It may explain social reproduction, the tendency of social classes to remain stable across generations maintaining most of their inequalities as well. Such inequalities include differences in income, wealth, access to education, pension levels, social status, socioeconomic safety-net. In general, social class can be defined as a large category of similarly ranked people located in a hierarchy and distinguished from other large categories in the hierarchy by such traits as occupation, education, income, and wealth.
In modern Western societies, inequalities are often broadly classified into three major divisions of social class: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each of these classes can be further subdivided into smaller classes (e.g. "upper middle"). Members of different classes have varied access to financial resources, which affects their placement in the social stratification system.
Class, race, and gender are forms of stratification that bring inequality and determines the difference in allocation of societal rewards. Occupation is the primary determinant of a person class since it affects their lifestyle, opportunities, culture, and kind of people one associates with. Class based families include the lower class who are the poor in the society. They have limited opportunities. Working class are those people in blue-collar jobs and usually, affects the economic level of a nation. The Middle classes are those who rely mostly on wives' employment and depends on credits from the bank and medical coverage. The upper middle class are professionals who are strong because of economic resources and supportive institutions. Additionally, the upper class usually are the wealthy families who have economic power due to accumulative wealth from families but not and not hard earned income.
Social stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of society about social class, wealth, political influence. A society can be politically stratified based on authority and power, economically stratified based on income level and wealth, occupational stratification about one's occupation. Some roles for examples doctors, engineers, lawyers are highly ranked, and thus they give orders while the rest receive the orders. There are three systems of social stratification which are the caste system, estates system, and class system. Castes system usually ascribed to children during birth whereby one receives the same stratification as of that of their parents. The caste system has been linked to religion and thus permanent. The stratification may be superior or inferior and thus influences the occupation and the social roles assigned to a person. Estate system is a state or society where people in this state were required to work on their land to receive some services like military protection. Communities ranked according to the nobility of their lords. The class system is about income inequality and socio-political status. People can move the classes when they increase their level of income or if they have authority. People are expected to maximize their innate abilities and possessions. Social stratification characteristics include its universal, social, ancient, it’s in diverse forms and also consequential.
The quantitative variables most often used as an indicator of social inequality are income and wealth. In a given society, the distribution of individual or household accumulation of wealth tells us more about variation in well-being than does income, alone.Gross Domestic Product (GDP), especially per capita GDP, is sometimes used to describe economic inequality at the international or global level. A better measure at that level, however, is the Gini coefficient, a measure of statistical dispersion used to represent the distribution of a specific quantity, such as income or wealth, at a global level, among a nation's residents, or even within a metropolitan area. Other widely used measures of economic inequality are the percentage of people living with under US$1.25 or $2 a day and the share of national income held by the wealthiest 10% of the population, sometimes called "the Palma" measure.
Patterns of inequality
There are a number of socially defined characteristics of individuals that contribute to social status and, therefore, equality or inequality within a society. When researchers use quantitative variables such as income or wealth to measure inequality, on an examination of the data, patterns are found that indicate these other social variables contribute to income or wealth as intervening variables. Significant inequalities in income and wealth are found when specific socially defined categories of people are compared. Among the most pervasive of these variables are sex/gender, race, and ethnicity. This is not to say, in societies wherein merit is considered to be the primary factor determining one's place or rank in the social order, that merit has no effect on variations in income or wealth. It is to say that these other socially defined characteristics can, and often do, intervene in the valuation of merit.
Gender as a social inequality is whereby women and men are treated differently due to masculinity and femininity by dividing labor, assigning roles, and responsibilities and allocating social rewards. Sex- and gender-based prejudice and discrimination, called sexism, are major contributing factors to social inequality. Most societies, even agricultural ones, have some sexual division of labour and gender-based division of labour tends to increase during industrialization. The emphasis on gender inequality is born out of the deepening division in the roles assigned to men and women, particularly in the economic, political and educational spheres. Women are underrepresented in political activities and decision making processes in most states in both the Global North and Global South.
Gender discrimination, especially concerning the lower social status of women, has been a topic of serious discussion not only within academic and activist communities but also by governmental agencies and international bodies such as the United Nations. These discussions seek to identify and remedy widespread, institutionalized barriers to access for women in their societies. By making use of gender analysis, researchers try to understand the social expectations, responsibilities, resources and priorities of women and men within a specific context, examining the social, economic and environmental factors which influence their roles and decision-making capacity. By enforcing artificial separations between the social and economic roles of men and women, the lives of women and girls are negatively impacted and this can have the effect of limiting social and economic development.
Cultural ideals about women's work can also affect men whose outward gender expression is considered "feminine" within a given society. Transgender and gender-variant persons may express their gender through their appearance, the statements they make, or official documents they present. In this context, gender normativity, which is understood as the social expectations placed on us when we present particular bodies, produces widespread cultural/institutional devaluations of trans identities, homosexuality and femininity. Trans persons, in particular, have been defined as socially unproductive and disruptive.
A variety of global issues like HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, and poverty are often seen as "women's issues" since women are disproportionately affected. In many countries, women and girls face problems such as lack of access to education, which limit their opportunities to succeed, and further limits their ability to contribute economically to their society. Women are underrepresented in political activities and decision making processes throughout most of the world. As of 2007, around 20 percent of women were below the $1.25/day international poverty line and 40 percent below the $2/day mark. More than one-quarter of females under the age of 25 were below the $1.25/day international poverty line and about half on less than $2/day.
Women's participation in work has been increasing globally, but women are still faced with wage discrepancies and differences compared to what men earn. This is true globally even in the agricultural and rural sector in developed as well as developing countries. Structural impediments to women's ability to pursue and advance in their chosen professions often result in a phenomenon known as the glass ceiling, which refers to unseen - and often unacknowledged barriers that prevent minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. This effect can be seen in the corporate and bureaucratic environments of many countries, lowering the chances of women to excel. It prevents women from succeeding and making the maximum use of their potential, which is at a cost for women as well as the society's development. Ensuring that women's rights are protected and endorsed can promote a sense of belonging that motivates women to contribute to their society. Once able to work, women should be titled to the same job security and safe working environments as men. Until such safeguards are in place, women and girls will continue to experience not only barriers to work and opportunities to earn, but will continue to be the primary victims of discrimination, oppression, and gender-based violence.
Women and persons whose gender identity does not conform to patriarchal beliefs about sex (only male and female) continue to face violence on global domestic, interpersonal, institutional and administrative scales. While first-wave Liberal Feminist initiatives raised awareness about the lack of fundamental rights and freedoms that women have access to, second-wave feminism (see also Radical Feminism) highlighted the structural forces that underlie gender-based violence. Masculinities are generally constructed so as to subordinate femininities and other expressions of gender that are not heterosexual, assertive and dominant. Gender sociologist and author, Raewyn Connell, discusses in her 2009 book, Gender, how masculinity is dangerous, heterosexual, violent and authoritative. These structures of masculinity ultimately contribute to the vast amounts of gendered violence, marginalization and suppression that women, queer, transgender, gender variant and gender non-conforming persons face. Some scholars suggest that women's underrepresentation in political systems speaks the idea that "formal citizenship does not always imply full social membership". Men, male bodies and expressions of masculinity are linked to ideas about work and citizenship. Others point out that patriarchal states tend top scale and claw back their social policies relative to the disadvantage of women. This process ensures that women encounter resistance into meaningful positions of power in institutions, administrations, and political systems and communities.
Racial and ethnic inequality
Racial or ethnic inequality is the result of hierarchical social distinctions between racial and ethnic categories within a society and often established based on characteristics such as skin color and other physical characteristics or an individual's place of origin or culture. Racism is whereby some races are more privileged and are allowed to venture into the labor market and are better compensated than others. Ethnicity is the privilege one enjoys for belonging to a particular ethnic group. Even though race has no biological connection, it has become a socially constructed category capable of restricting or enabling social status.
Racial inequality can also result in diminished opportunities for members of marginalized groups, which in turn can lead to cycles of poverty and political marginalization. Racial and ethnic categories become a minority category in a society. Minority members in such a society are often subjected to discriminatory actions resulting from majority policies, including assimilation, exclusion, oppression, expulsion, and extermination. For example, during the run-up to the 2012 federal elections in the United States, legislation in certain "battleground states" that claimed to target voter fraud had the effect of disenfranchising tens of thousands of primarily African American voters. These types of institutional barriers to full and equal social participation have far-reaching effects within marginalized communities, including reduced economic opportunity and output, reduced educational outcomes and opportunities and reduced levels of overall health.
In the United States, Angela Davis argues that mass incarceration has been a modern tool of the state to impose inequality, repression, and discrimination upon African American and Hispanics. The War on Drugs has been a campaign with disparate effects, ensuring the constant incarceration of poor, vulnerable, and marginalized populations in North America. Over a million African Americans are incarcerated in the US, 15% of whom have been convicted of a non-violent drug possession charge.[better source needed] With the States of Colorado and Washington having legalized the possession of marijuana, drug reformists and anti-war on drugs lobbyists are hopeful that drug issues will be interpreted and dealt with from a healthcare perspective instead of a matter of criminal law. In Canada, Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous persons represent over a quarter of the federal prison population, even though they only represent 3% of the country's population.
Age discrimination is defined as the unfair treatment of people with regard to promotions, recruitment, resources, or privileges because of their age. It is also known as ageism: the stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups based upon their age. It is a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify age-based prejudice, discrimination, and subordination. One form of ageism is adultism, which is the discrimination against children and people under the legal adult age. An example of an act of adultism might be the policy of a certain establishment, restaurant, or place of business to not allow those under the legal adult age to enter their premises after a certain time or at all. While some people may benefit or enjoy these practices, some find them offensive and discriminatory. Discrimination against those under the age of 40 however is not illegal under the current U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
As implied in the definitions above, treating people differently based upon their age is not necessarily discrimination. Virtually every society has age-stratification, meaning that the age structure in a society changes as people begin to live longer and the population becomes older. In most cultures, there are different social role expectations for people of different ages to perform. Every society manages people's ageing by allocating certain roles for different age groups. Age discrimination primarily occurs when age is used as an unfair criterion for allocating more or less resources. Scholars of age inequality have suggested that certain social organizations favor particular age inequalities. For instance, because of their emphasis on training and maintaining productive citizens, modern capitalist societies may dedicate disproportionate resources to training the young and maintaining the middle-aged worker to the detriment of the elderly and the retired (especially those already disadvantaged by income/wealth inequality).
In modern, technologically advanced societies, there is a tendency for both the young and the old to be relatively disadvantaged. However, more recently, in the United States the tendency is for the young to be most disadvantaged. For example, poverty levels in the U.S. have been decreasing among people aged 65 and older since the early 1970s whereas the number children under 18 in poverty has steadily risen. Sometimes, the elderly have had the opportunity to build their wealth throughout their lives, younger people have the disadvantage of recently entering into or having not yet entered into the economic sphere. The larger contributor to this, however is the increase in the number of people over 65 receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits in the U.S.
When we compare income distribution among youth across the globe, we find that about half (48.5 percent) of the world's young people are confined to the bottom two income brackets as of 2007. This means that, out of the three billion persons under the age of 24 in the world as of 2007, approximately 1.5 billion were living in situations in which they and their families had access to just nine percent of global income. Moving up the income distribution ladder, children and youth do not fare much better: more than two-thirds of the world's youth have access to less than 20 percent of global wealth, with 86 percent of all young people living on about one-third of world income. For the just over 400 million youth who are fortunate enough to rank among families or situations at the top of the income distribution, however, opportunities improve greatly with more than 60 percent of global income within their reach.
Although this does not exhaust the scope of age discrimination, in modern societies it is often discussed primarily with regards to the work environment. Indeed, non-participation in the labour force and the unequal access to rewarding jobs means that the elderly and the young are often subject to unfair disadvantages because of their age. On the one hand, the elderly are less likely to be involved in the workforce: At the same time, old age may or may not put one at a disadvantage in accessing positions of prestige. Old age may benefit one in such positions, but it may also disadvantage one because of negative ageist stereotyping of old people. On the other hand, young people are often disadvantaged from accessing prestigious or relatively rewarding jobs, because of their recent entry to the work force or because they are still completing their education. Typically, once they enter the labour force or take a part-time job while in school, they start at entry level positions with low level wages. Furthermore, because of their lack of prior work experience, they can also often be forced to take marginal jobs, where they can be taken advantage of by their employers. As a result, many older people have to face obstacles in their lives.
Inequalities in health
Further information: Health equity, Inequality in disease, Social determinants of health in poverty, and Diseases of poverty
Health inequalities can be defined as differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups.
Health inequalities are in many cases related to access to health care. In industrialized nations, health inequalities are most prevalent in countries that have not implemented a universal health care system, such as the United States. Because the US health care system is heavily privatized, access to health care is dependent upon one's economic capital; Health care is not a right, it is a commodity that can be purchased through private insurance companies (or that is sometimes provided through an employer). The way health care is organized in the U.S. contributes to health inequalities based on gender, socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity. As Wright and Perry assert, "social status differences in health care are a primary mechanism of health inequalities". In the United States, over 48 million people are without medical care coverage. This means that almost one sixth of the population is without health insurance, mostly people belonging to the lower classes of society.
While universal access to health care may not completely eliminate health inequalities, it has been shown that it greatly reduces them. In this context, privatization gives individuals the 'power' to purchase their own health care (through private health insurance companies), but this leads to social inequality by only allowing people who have economic resources to access health care. Citizens are seen as consumers who have a 'choice' to buy the best health care they can afford; in alignment with neoliberal ideology, this puts the burden on the individual rather than the government or the community.
In countries that have a universal health care system, health inequalities have been reduced. In Canada, for example, equity in the availability of health services has been improved dramatically through Medicare. People don't have to worry about how they will pay health care, or rely on emergency rooms for care, since health care is provided for the entire population. However, inequality issues still remain. For example, not everyone has the same level of access to services. Inequalities in health are not, however, only related to access to health care. Even if everyone had the same level of access, inequalities may still remain. This is because health status is a product of more than just how much medical care people have available to them. While Medicare has equalized access to health care by removing the need for direct payments at the time of services, which improved the health of low status people, inequities in health are still prevalent in Canada. This may be due to the state of the current social system, which bear other types of inequalities such as economic, racial and gender inequality.
A lack of health equity is also evident in the developing world, where the importance of equitable access to healthcare has been cited as crucial to achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals. Health inequalities can vary greatly depending on the country one is looking at. Health equity is needed in order to live a healthier and more sufficient life within society. Inequalities in health lead to substantial effects, that is burdensome or the entire society. Inequalities in health are often associated with socioeconomic status and access to health care. Health inequities can occur when the distribution of public health services is unequal. For example, in Indonesia in 1990, only 12% of government spending for health was for services consumed by the poorest 20% of households, while the wealthiest 20% consumed 29% of the government subsidy in the health sector. Access to health care is heavily influenced by socioeconomic status as well, as wealthier population groups have a higher probability of obtaining care when they need it. A study by Makinen et al. (2000) found that in the majority of developing countries they looked at, there was an upward trend by quintile in health care use for those reporting illness. Wealthier groups are also more likely to be seen by doctors and to receive medicine.
There has been considerable research in recent years regarding a phenomenon known as food deserts, in which low access to fresh, healthy food in a neighborhood leads to poor consumer choices and options regarding diet. It is widely thought that food deserts are significant contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States and many other countries.  This may have significant impacts on the local level as well as in broader contexts, such as in Greece, where the childhood obesity rate has skyrocketed in recent years heavily as a result of the rampant poverty and the resultant lack of access to fresh foods.
See also: International inequality
The economies of the world have developed unevenly, historically, such that entire geographical regions were left mired in poverty and disease while others began to reduce poverty and disease on a wholesale basis. This was represented by a type of North–South divide that existed after World War II between First world, more developed, industrialized, wealthy countries and Third world countries, primarily as measured by GDP. From around 1980, however, through at least 2011, the GDP gap, while still wide, appeared to be closing and, in some more rapidly developing countries, life expectancies began to rise. However, there are numerous limitations of GDP as an economic indicator of social "well-being."
If we look at the Gini coefficient for world income, over time, after World War II the global Gini coefficient sat at just under .45. Between around 1959 to 1966, the global Gini increased sharply, to a peak of around .48 in 1966. After falling and leveling off a couple of times during a period from around 1967 to 1984, the Gini began to climb again in the mid-eighties until reaching a high or around .54 in 2000 then jumped again to around .70 in 2002. Since the late 1980s, the gap between some regions has markedly narrowed— between Asia and the advanced economies of the West, for example—but huge gaps remain globally. Overall equality across humanity, considered as individuals, has improved very little. Within the decade between 2003 and 2013, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions—France, Japan, Spain—the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind. By 2013, a tiny elite of multibillionaires, 85 to be exact, had amassed wealth equivalent to all the wealth owned by the poorest half (3.5 billion) of the world's total population of 7 billion. Country of citizenship (an ascribed status characteristic) explains 60% of variability in global income; citizenship and parental income class (both ascribed status characteristics) combined explain more than 80% of income variability.
Inequality and economic growth
The concept of economic growth is fundamental in capitalist economies. Productivity must grow as population grows and capital must grow to feed into increased productivity. Investment of capital leads to returns on investment (ROI) and increased capital accumulation. The hypothesis that economic inequality is a necessary precondition for economic growth has been a mainstay of liberal economic theory. Recent research, particularly over the first two decades of the 21st century, has called this basic assumption into question. While growing inequality does have a positive correlation with economic growth under specific sets of conditions, inequality in general is not positively correlated with economic growth and, under some conditions, shows a negative correlation with economic growth.
Milanovic (2011) points out that overall, global inequality between countries is more important to growth of the world economy than inequality within countries. While global economic growth may be a policy priority, recent evidence about regional and national inequalities cannot be dismissed when more local economic growth is a policy objective. The recent financial crisis and global recession hit countries and shook financial systems all over the world. This led to the implementation of large-scale fiscal expansionary interventions and, as a result, to massive public debt issuance in some countries. Governmental bailouts of the banking system further burdened fiscal balances and raises considerable concern about the fiscal solvency of some countries. Most governments want to keep deficits under control but rolling back the expansionary measures or cutting spending and raising taxes implies an enormous wealth transfer from tax payers to the private financial sector. Expansionary fiscal policies shift resources and causes worries about growing inequality within countries. Moreover, recent data confirm an ongoing trend of increasing income inequality since the early nineties. Increasing inequality within countries has been accompanied by a redistribution of economic resources between developed economies and emerging markets. Davtyn, et al. (2014) studied the interaction of these fiscal conditions and changes in fiscal and economic policies with income inequality in the UK, Canada, and the US. They find income inequality has negative effect on economic growth in the case of the UK but a positive effect in the cases of the US and Canada. Income inequality generally reduces government net lending/borrowing for all the countries. Economic growth, they find, leads to an increase of income inequality in the case of the UK and to the decline of inequality in the cases of the US and Canada. At the same time, economic growth improves government net lending/borrowing in all the countries. Government spending leads to the decline in inequality in the UK but to its increase in the US and Canada.
Following the results of Alesina and Rodrick (1994), Bourguignon (2004), and Birdsall (2005) show that developing countries with high inequality tend to grow more slowly, Ortiz and Cummings (2011) show that developing countries with high inequality tend to grow more slowly. For 131 countries for which they could estimate the change in Gini index values between 1990 and 2008, they find that those countries that increased levels of inequality experienced slower annual per capita GDP growth over the same time period. Noting a lack of data for national wealth, they build an index using Forbes list of billionaires by country normalized by GDP and validated through correlation with a Gini coefficient for wealth and the share of wealth going to the top decile. They find that many countries generating low rates of economic growth are also characterized by a high level of wealth inequality with wealth concentration among a class of entrenched elites. They conclude that extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth globally, regionally and nationally, coupled with the negative effects of higher levels of income disparities, should make us question current economic development approaches and examine the need to place equity at the center of the development agenda.
Ostry, et al. (2014) reject the hypothesis that there is a major trade-off between a reduction of income inequality (through income redistribution) and economic growth. If that were the case, they hold, then redistribution that reduces income inequality would on average be bad for growth, taking into account both the direct effect of higher redistribution and the effect of the resulting lower inequality. Their research shows rather the opposite: increasing income inequality always has a significant and, in most cases, negative effect on economic growth while redistribution has an overall pro-growth effect (in one sample) or no growth effect. Their conclusion is that increasing inequality, particularly when inequality is already high, results in low growth, if any, and such growth may be unsustainable over long periods.
Piketty and Saez (2014) note that there are important differences between income and wealth inequality dynamics. First, wealth concentration is always much higher than income concentration. The top 10 percent of wealth share typically falls in the 60 to 90 percent range of all wealth, whereas the top 10 percent income share is in the 30 to 50 percent range. The bottom 50 percent wealth share is always less than 5 percent, whereas the bottom 50 percent income share generally falls in the 20 to 30 percent range. The bottom half of the population hardly owns any wealth, but it does earn appreciable income:The inequality of labor income can be high, but it is usually much less extreme. On average, members of the bottom half of the population, in terms of wealth, own less than one-tenth of the average wealth. The inequality of labor income can be high, but it is usually much less extreme. Members of the bottom half of the population in income earn about half the average income. In sum, the concentration of capital ownership is always extreme, so that the very notion of capital is fairly abstract for large segments—if not the majority—of the population. Piketty (2014) finds that wealth-income ratios, today, seem to be returning to very high levels in low economic growth countries, similar to what he calls the "classic patrimonial" wealth-based societies of the 19th century wherein a minority lives off its wealth while the rest of the population works for subsistence living. He surmises that wealth accumulation is high because growth is low.
- ^ abWade, Robert H. (2014). "The Piketty phenomenon and the future of inequality"(PDF). Real World Economics Review (69-7): 2–17. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
- ^Young, Michael (2001-06-28). "Down with meritocracy". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-02-01.
- ^Todd, D. D. (1984-12-01). "The Fontana Dictionary of Modern ThoughtBullockAllan and StallybrassOliver, editors London: Fontana/Collins, 1978. Pp. xix, 684. $12.95 C.F."Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie. 23 (4): 738–740. doi:10.1017/S0012217300046461. ISSN 1759-0949.
- ^ abRugaber, Christopher S.; Boak, Josh (January 27, 2014). "Wealth gap: A guide to what it is, why it matters". AP News. Retrieved January 27, 2014.
- ^"Reports | Human Development Reports". hdr.undp.org. Retrieved 2017-02-01.
- ^Walker, Dr. Charles. "New Dimensions of Social Inequality". www.ceelbas.ac.uk. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
- ^Deji, Olanike F. (2011). Gender and Rural Development. London: LIT Verlag Münster. p. 93. ISBN 978-3643901033.
- ^ abcOsberg, L. (2015). Economic inequality in the United States. Routledge.
- ^ abSernau, Scott (2013). Social Inequality in a Global Age (4th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. ISBN 978-1452205403.
- ^Neckerman, Kathryn M. & Florencia Torche (2007). "Inequality: Causes and Consequences". Annual Review of Sociology. 33: 335–357. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.33.040406.131755. JSTOR 29737766.
Yuk-Lin Renita Wong, Ph.D
School of Social Work
Critical social work education has largely focused on engaging students in the conceptual and cognitive processes of learning and reflection. Other forms of knowing and transformation through the body, emotions, and spirit have been submerged under the “discursive rationality” paradigm. Proposing an integrated mind-body-spirit pedagogy in critical social work education, this paper introduces the practice of mindfulness and discusses its transformative potential for critical social work education. In particular, the author discusses how the practice of mindfulness was integrated in a course on identity and diversity in critical social work practice to facilitate students to learn through their feeling of discomfort.
Out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
– Rumi –
Critical social work practice, from its classical Marxist tradition to its recent postmodern orientation, has predominantly privileged conceptual knowing. Critical social work education, therefore, has largely focused on engaging students in the conceptual and cognitive processes of learning and reflection. Other forms of knowing and transformation through the body, emotions, and spirit have been submerged under the “discursive rationality” paradigm that privileges the mind in categorizing and normalizing the world, an epistemic bias of the Enlightenment in European history.
This paper discusses the problems which will emerge for critical social work education if it continues to neglect bodily, emotive and spiritual knowing. It proposes an integrated mind-body-emotion-spirit engagement in critical social work education. More specifically, the transformative potential of the pedagogy of mindfulness for critical social work education will be discussed.
Restoring “Listening” in Critical Social Work
Core to the mission of critical social work is the pursuit of social justice. Critical theories, including Marxist, feminist, anti-racist and anti-oppressive theories, and structural analysis have been the cornerstone of critical social work. The analysis of power, privilege, inequity, discrimination and domination along identities of race, gender, class, sexual orientations, religion, age, and dis/ability underlies its practice. Students are taught the concepts and histories of domination and oppression, the skills of structural analysis, and the attitude of critical reflectivity on their social locations in terms of power (Fooks, 1999; Garcia & Melendez, 1997; Mullaly, 2002; Razack, 1999; Rossiter, 1995). Postmodern and post-structural theories provide further insights into the construction of multiple subjectivities and truths through language. The classroom becomes a pedagogical site of engagement with students in creating an equitable communicative space for dialogues and respectful negotiations among multiple subjectivities and truths (Healy & Leonard, 2002; Leonard, 1994; Nagda et al., 1999; Rossiter, 1996).
Indeed, in a time when diversity of worldviews has increasingly gained legitimacy, how we facilitate meaningful dialogues between people located in both intersecting and conflicting discursive frames becomes more important for the co-construction of a just society for all. Paulo Freire’s popular education method, experiential and participatory learning model, border pedagogy, critical classroom events, contracting, and coalition building through group project, to name a few examples, are suggested as some pedagogical methods to facilitate dialogues and understanding across differences in the classroom (Coates & McKay, 1995; Garcia & Melendez, 1997; Garcia & Soest, 1999; Giroux, 1997; Kanpol, 1995; Leonard, 1994; Razack, 1999). Underlying most of these methods is the belief that reflection in the mind will lead to action for change.
The preponderance of multiple voices and discourses in critical social work, however, may have drawn our attention away from “the other side of language” (Fiumara, 1990), that is, the significance of listening in any meaningful dialogue. “To have something to say is to be a person,” Carol Gilligan (1993) writes in her early influential feminist work, “But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act” (p. xvi). How can we possibly listen to and understand each other if we are all preoccupied with speaking?
In a review of the Western tradition of analytic philosophy and hermeneutics, Gemma Fiumara (1990) uses the work of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, and Ricoeur to restore the “listening rationality” inherent in the semantic of the Greek term “ logo ," which is said to be “pivotal” in western thought. “[T]here could be no saying without hearing, no speaking which is not also an integral part of listening, no speech which is not somehow received” (p.1). Nevertheless, this integrated concept of language or logo , with its semantic roots encompassing both listening and speaking, was gradually “reduced-by-half” in the course of Western history to primarily represent “vocalisation,” and “sound and voice,” which comes to shape all the rational pursuits.
According to Fiumara, in a culture where language is associated only with vocalization and speech, we fall within a “discursive rationality” which makes the world amenable to linguistic and discursive ordering, molding, and systematisation. Any speech act is “potentially normative,” Fiumara argues, as “the speech act selects an aspect of reality simply by speaking about it, and whatever is said is then transformed into the statutory basis of a discourse” which “can ultimately result in constraint and epistemic control” (p.24, emphasis in original). In a culture of “discursive rationality,” the dominant form of knowledge is one that objectifies, organises, conceptualises, normalizes, and dictates. To “know” the world, we categorize what we see and experience in the world – things, people – into concepts and ideas. Instead of being open to the rich moment-to-moment experiences in our encounters with people and things, we “know” and relate to them primarily through our presumed concepts about them. Such orientation produces a sense of cognitive order and control in our relations to the world. A well-known example is the European empires’ extensive categorizing and detailed mapping of the geography, fauna, flora, habitat, and people of their colonies in their effort to rule and control them (Anderson, 1995).
“Listening rationality,” on the other hand, functions in the context of “silence.” It quiets our mind, takes away our (illusory) sense of security and control, and opens us to the untidiness, contradictions, and richness of being which cannot be bound by conceptual ordering. It invites us to the openness of not knowing and the “risk” of growth. Silence can be “a very fertile way of relating,” Fiumara suggests, as it “might indicate a healthy desire to set aside certain automatic defenses that are only intended to fill emotional vacuums” and “a desire to abandon automatic verbal sequences that fill our games [of social interactions]” (p.103). “The highest function of silence,” therefore, “is revealed in the creation of a co-existential space which permits dialogue to come along” (p.99). Listening in the context of silence involves “the renunciation of a predominantly molding and ordering activity” (p.123) and represents “the readiness to tear away ideologizing modes of reflection which define and constrict the ways of coexistence” (p.165). It can be “a support to the hermeneutic effort whereby we seek to establish a relationship between our world and a different ‘world,’ between our own attitude and a different attitude” (p.168).
Listening is also “the attitude which can unblock the creative resources immobilized by the rigidity of traditional ‘logical’ education” (p.165). It requires considerable “dialogic patience” to give space to the “inexpressible,” so that “the inner experience which is less suited to being ‘spoken’ can be expressed in some way” (p.98). In “listening rationality,” the person who knows is someone who transforms him/herself in order to know, rather than objectifies the world in order to recognize her/himself in his/her cognitive conceptual immobility (p.125).
To reach the “highest function of listening silence” for coexistence to be possible, therefore, it is important that we are not confined by the conceptual mind and dominant discourses which categorize, normalize, and exclude. bell hooks (1994) proposes education as “the practice of freedom.” I suggest that is also what critical social work education is about: the practice of freedom from the predominant order of things, that is, “to transgress” the mode of “discursive rationality” which privileges the mind and has been governing our production of knowledge and our relations to the world. Like bell hooks, I consider the reunion of mind, body, spirit in our critical social work education an important transgression. It is an attempt to disrupt dominant forms of knowledge premised on the body-mind split, including critical knowledges (Ng, 1998). A few critical social work authors also recognize the limit of the conceptual mind and the significance of bodily and emotive knowledge for critical social work (Piele, 1998; Tangenberg & Kemp, 2002). According to Tangenberg & Kemp (2002), the commitment of social work to social justice demands our recognition that understanding of diversity and social equity must include the experience of difference in its most fundamental form. This inevitably requires attention to the body and bodily knowing, because difference and hence both privilege and marginality are fundamentally inscribed and experienced through the body. Colin Piele (1998) argues that missing in critical theories of change is the importance of bodily and emotive knowledge in governing our actions. Roxana Ng (1998) contends that “the contradiction between what we think and how we act goes beyond a simple theory-practice split” (p.3). It has to do with the fundamental way in which knowledge is organized. Our inability to translate what we know about social and environmental problems into appropriate actions, Heesoon Bai (2001) suggests, is related to the disembodiment of knowledge which replaces our multiple and fluid experiences of the world with restrictive concepts. Both Bai and Ng propose that a re-embodied pedagogy – that is, the reunion of our mind with our body, emotions, and spirit in teaching and learning – is essential to the integration of what one learns and knows with how one acts.
My journey to a mindfulness-based pedagogy for critical social work began with my experience of the limit of traditional critical pedagogical methods which primarily rely on the discursive-conceptual mind in facilitating students’ critical reflections. As well, I find problems with the dualistic framing of oppression and anti-oppression in critical social work because it imposes an erroneous conceptual division between oppression and anti-oppression which is usually simplistically associated with the moral categories of bad and good. Such dichotomous conceptual frame allows those who self-identify as anti-oppressive (and hence morally “good”) to find comfort in their sense of innocence and to avoid examining their implication in domination and oppression.
In the following pages, I will discuss my first experience of teaching a course on identity and diversity in which I was confronted with the problems I mentioned above. I will then introduce the practice of mindfulness, which I later integrated into the course to support students to befriend their discomfort and internal resistance and look into their participation in systems of oppression, as well as to foster their commitment to social justice.
The Risk of Knowing
Teaching critical and anti-oppressive social work can be a “risky” endeavour. For the most part, neither the teacher nor the students feel safe in the classroom. The teacher, however, is expected to take the full responsibility for creating a safe space for everyone. The image of this safe space provided by the teacher ignores the multiple relations of power operating in the classroom. In a critical reflection on her teaching experience as a minority faculty, Ng (1998) identifies three power axes in the classroom: that between the classroom and the larger academic institution; that between the teacher and the students; and that among the students. Hence, despite the formal authority of the teacher, a minority woman faculty may be challenged more than her white male colleagues because of her minority status in both the academic institution and the larger society. More importantly, anti-oppressive work is inevitably unsafe and uncomfortable because it challenges existing modes of thinking and working (Ng, 1993). What needs to be cultivated in teaching critical and anti-oppressive social work, therefore, is not so much a sense of safety, but more an openness to the feeling of discomfort. The teacher’s role is not to promise and guarantee a safe space, but to support and provide a means for students to embrace and learn from their discomfort.
In the winter of 2000, I taught for the first time a course on Identity and Diversity, a core course in my social work program committed to social justice. In this course, students learned to examine how identities and cultures are both socially constructed and personally negotiated in the historical and systemic context of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, dis/ability and power relations. Students were encouraged to deconstruct the duality thinking of “us” versus “them,” “self” versus “other,” and to see how we are all implicated and interconnected in each other’s histories of domination and oppression. “Their” history is thus also “our” history, and vice versa. Underlying the design of this course is the belief that understanding the systemic contexts of identities and culture and critically examining one’s own social locations in the web of these power relations is of paramount significance for social workers to engage meaningfully with people of different and multiple identifications.
Like some critical social work educators, I consider students’ critical reflectivity on their social locations in the web of systemic power relations crucial. Students in this course were asked to keep a journal reflecting on their identities and social locations in light of the course readings and class discussions of the week. To provide students with a (relatively “safe”) space to engage in their reflective process, the journals were not graded. Students received marks as long as they handed in the journals. Students were also asked to build learning communities through working together in group projects to learn with and from each other about a particular identity and diversity issue which they were unfamiliar with. In the last three classes of the course, students presented in group to other class members the historical, political, social, economic, and global contexts of the identity and diversity issue they chose to learn about. Each group member also conducted an interview with one individual who self-identified him/herself with the selected identity issue. For their individual final paper, students were asked to reflect on how working on the group project had changed their views on their selected identity issue and how their analysis of the issue was shaped by their own social locations.
The course is inevitably contentious and uncomfortable for many students who are brought to confront their privileges and experiences of oppression. Most of us, especially social workers, are invested in a sense of innocence (Jeffery, 2002; Rossiter, 2001) and sometimes victimhood, as well as the noble vision of social work to help and to do good. We are led to think in the dualistic conceptual frame of oppression versus anti-oppression, and bad versus good. When we are challenged to recognise our participation in systemic domination and oppression despite our best intention, it is not surprising that this state of cognitive dissonance may result in some students’ denial, resistance and even hostility towards the teacher. Minority teachers, as discussed earlier, are more likely to be undermined in the classroom (Ng, 1993).
In this course, a minority student wrote in one of her reflective journals about her observation of the classroom power dynamics as well as conversations among students after class. She felt indignant at some white as well as a couple of minority students’ blatant discrimination against and intolerance of a minority teacher. She questioned how students could learn and grow to become a critical social worker if they were prejudiced against someone – the teacher – who “looks different.” Two white students respectively expressed in their journals their discomfort with the course and criticized it as “white-bashing,” despite the emphasis in most of the course readings and class discussions on multiple and interlocking systems of oppression of race, gender, class, and sexual orientations. After reading one of the course readings on the appropriation of Native culture in the white dominant Canadian society, a white student defended fiercely and repeatedly in her journals one of her family member’s Native art business as supporting Native artists. A second-generation Chinese-Canadian student could only see Chinese women as submissive and oppressed by “traditional” Chinese culture in both her journals and final paper. At the end of the course, a group of white students who were unhappy about their grade – ranging between “B” and “B+” – organized to meet with the School Director, challenging my authority in grading as well as discrediting the course content and my teaching.
My first experience of teaching this course was unpleasant and anxiety provoking, to say the least. I felt powerless in dissolving the tensions that emerged from the course. I questioned why my experiential-participatory critical pedagogy did not seem to facilitate students’ reflections on their social locations. Rather, it invited some students to ride on the dominant racial and gender relations to discredit me as a minority teacher, and to evade from facing the challenges the course had brought them.
Taking the insight from my own spiritual practice of mindfulness, I tried, not without struggles, to stay in touch with my feelings of discomfort and vulnerability and recognised how I also wanted to run away. I began to see that for me to continue teaching anti-oppressive and critical social work while keeping myself hopeful and healthy, I must learn and support my students to learn how to engage and work with my/their discomfort. The key lies in “relaxing into” (Chödrön, 1997) and befriending discomfort (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000) as an opportunity for openness, learning, and growth. In the following pages, I will introduce the practice of mindfulness and then discuss how I later developed a mindfulness-based pedagogy for the course.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the core teaching of Guatama Buddha. Thich Nhat Hanh (1996), a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk in exile, a peace activist who was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, tells a story which best illustrates the meaning of mindfulness. Once Guatama Buddha was asked, “What do you and your students practice?” He replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.” The questioner continued, ‘But everyone sits, walks, and eats.” The Buddha then said, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”
While originating in the teachings of Guatama Buddha, mindfulness has little to do with religion. In recent years, many practitioners in the health and mental health field have adopted the practice of mindfulness in working with clients with chronic pain, stress, depression, and other psychological distress (Deatherage, 1996; Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Linehan, 1995; Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002). Mindfulness is about being here, fully present with all our activities and thoughts, with body and mind united, and not in a state of dispersion (Chödrön, 1997; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000). It means paying attention in a particular way: in the present moment and non-judgementally . This kind of attention nurtures awareness, clarity, and openness to present-moment experience. When we are fully present in the here-and-now, we begin to see how we are often caught in our past, or carried away by our thoughts about the future. We are awakened to the fullness of our moment-to-moment experience, and brought to question our presumed view of the world and our concept of who we are. When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without being trapped in our likes and dislikes, good and bad, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, we have a chance to free ourselves from the constraints of the conceptual mind and predominant discourses. We see new possibilities. Our relation to each other and to the world also opens up. Mindfulness, therefore, is a practice which helps us arrive at the place of listening silence. All in all, it is a practice, not an abstract concept or ideology, of being fully in touch with life.
Going hand in hand with mindfulness is insight: looking deeply into cause and effect and the interconnectedness of all things. For insights to arise, the practice of “resting” and “stopping” is crucial (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000): stopping our auto piloting, reacting, and ongoing running. In other words, mindfulness facilitates us to quiet our mind from predominant discourses which keep us busy with categorizing and discriminating – our “discursive rationality.” Instead, we stay fully present with what is unfolding in the moment. Mindfulness, therefore, is the cultivation of listening silence opening us to dialogic communication and relations.
Mindfulness of Discomfort:
Leaving the Comfort Zone for Personal Growth and Social Transformation
Having experienced the quality of openness in mindfulness practice, I decided to develop a mindfulness-based pedagogy when I taught the same course for the second time in the summer of 2000. In the first class, I prepared the students for the discomfort the course might bring up for them. I told the students that this course would probably be very uncomfortable for many of them because it would unsettle many of their old beliefs and conceptions about themselves and the world. Integrating the practice of mindfulness, I asked the students to stay in touch with and embrace their feeling of discomfort, not to judge it wrong and push it away. To encourage the students to relax into and befriend their discomfort, I invited them to take their feeling of discomfort as a teacher and a friend – as a precious opportunity for learning and growth – by greeting their discomfort with a gentle smile and a friendly hello. I encouraged students to “stop” and “rest” when they felt uncomfortable, to listen to what their feeling of discomfort may tell them, instead of busying themselves with reacting, defending or hiding: “What is my feeling of discomfort trying to tell me, about myself, about my social locations in the society?” I also suggested the students to see the place of discomfort as a place where change begins. Only when we feel uncomfortable would we begin to feel the need for change. Social work is fundamentally about change and the possibility of change, individually and collectively. Throughout the course, I introduced simple breathing exercises to facilitate students to pause and go back to their body after some intense class discussions or disturbing videos about systemic oppressions, to allow room for their feelings and for insights to unfold in the moment of “listening silence.” Asking student s to stay fully in touch with their thoughts and feelings as they arise in a gentle and non-judgmental way, and to look deeply into what the feelings reveal to them is in fact mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, as Pema Chödrön (1996) puts it succinctly, is about “diving into your real issues and fearlessly befriending the difficult and blocked areas and deep-seated habitual patterns that keep us stuck in ignorance and confusion” (p.301).
In this course, a number of students expressed in their reflective journals how they engaged with their discomfort and noticed their emotional and mental reactivity to the course materials, lectures, and discussions. A student talked about her growing awareness of how she had always tried to run away from her discomfort, rather than facing the challenge of looking into what made her reacted in certain ways. Another student recounted her “uncomfortable” feeling and even “resentment” at “having to rethink her notions” after watching a video which intensely deconstructed the stereotypes of Muslim women in North America. Learning to befriend and engage with her feelings, this student was gradually able to appreciate the experience as “an excellent learning opportunity.” Another student took her uncomfortable feeling as “a good thing” when she was confronted with the relations of oppression between the aboriginal people and the dominant (white) Canadians. One student began to recognise how her failing to critically examine the policies and institutions of the society had allowed her “to find comfort in ignorance.” For this student, the teachings in the course “have removed the security of ignorance and have illustrated that ignorance is not bliss.” Another student recognised how her saying to herself that she had no culture when she felt uncomfortable with class discussions and activities related to culture and race was “just an easy way to escape feeling uneasy with racism.” Instead of pushing away her feeling of discomfort, she took it up as “a good place to be in” and opened herself to the questions about her social locations. Her discomfort thus became a “learning opportunity” for her to move out of her “protective cocoon” towards “taking personal responsibility” for her growth as a person and a social worker by inviting her to examine the power and privilege which she “pretend[ed]” she did not have.
In the following year when I taught this course again using the pedagogy of mindfulness, many students similarly identified the moment of discomfort as one of their most important moments in the course which brought about new realisation and change in them. A student commented on how the class not only challenged her “on an intellectual level,” but also “on a profound introspective level that often arouses feelings of discomfort.” Taking the suggestion of “go[ing] with the feeling” despite having “a hard time” doing so, this student was not only able to recognize her privilege, but also realise how she wanted to “deny” that she “contributed to maintaining that privilege through subscribing to the process of making assumptions and generalisations.” Being in touch with her feeling, therefore, this student was able to gain insights into how she participated in perpetuated oppression when she let her mind prevail in making assumptions and generalisations.
Through mindfulness of their feeling of discomfort, these students become conscious of their habitual mental reactivity to issues of domination and oppression. The practice of stopping and non-judging in mindfulness creates room for these students to observe their thoughts and feelings as they arise. In the process, they become aware of how their mind are constantly categorizing and labelling everything they experience, reacting to the experience in terms of what they like and dislike, or judging people and themselves as good or bad.
If we all care to stop and observe the rise and fall of our thoughts and feelings, we will notice how our mind, like the students’, is also dominated by the habit of categorizing and judging which often leads us to mechanical reactions. The practice of mindfulness, however, enables us to be a witness to our judging mind. The stance of a witness makes it more possible for us to break away from our habitual mental activities of labelling and judging, as well as the normative dualistic ordering of good and bad, right and wrong. Mindfulness, therefore, is a practice which helps us cultivate “listening silence” – a space where the automatic mental activities of molding, ordering and ideologizing is set aside to make room for our hermeneutic effort to engage in genuine dialogues (Fiumara 1990).
Being fully present with the here-and-now through the practice of mindfulness, we discover the richness and untidiness of the present-moment experience, and notice the limit of the concepts, categories and ideologies we have lived by. When we are not stuck in our categorizing and judging mind, we are more likely to see clearly the flow of our thoughts and emotions: where they came from and where they go. We begin to recognize how our self-identifications are related to the dominant discourses and systemic relations that determine what is good and bad, what is desirable and undesirable in the world we live in. Attending to the source of our thoughts and emotions, we are also brought to touch our deep-seated vulnerability – shame, guilt, fear, despair, and wound – in being part of and caught by these systemic relations. Touching our vulnerability with a gentle and non-judging attention of mindfulness is an important embracing and caring act for ourselves, others, and the world. It helps release us from the grip of our vulnerabilities and supports us to confront our implication in the interlocking systems of power relations, without judging ourselves or others as inherently bad or unworthy, or denying our responsibility in the world.
Mindfulness practice thus enables students to build a new relationship with their discomfort – a feeling they would usually push away – and possibly with others whom they find different and feel uncomfortable with. Being mindful of their mental and emotional reactivity, students learn to realize, not just conceptually, but also emotionally, bodily and spiritually, how their existence and experiences are structured by their location in the larger web of life and relations. Discomfort, therefore, becomes a transformative resource enhancing students’ learning and growth, personally and professionally. How students would carry their classroom mindfulness experience into their field practice and actions for systemic change would be a meaningful topic for further study.
Implications for Critical Social Work Education
How we know and what is privileged as legitimate knowing constitute our knowledge about and relation to the world. For critical social work education to challenge the status quo and unsettle the dominant power relations, therefore, it is critical that we problematize and inquire into the very fundamental way of how we know. The commitment of critical social work to social justice demands us to recognize the experience of difference and diversity in its most fundamental form – the many different ways we know, through our mind-intellect as well as through our bodily, emotive and spiritual experiences. It must be made clear, however, that what is proposed in this paper is not about renouncing the conceptualizing mind and privileging other forms of knowing, but more about a reunion of the mind with the body, emotion, and spirit of our being, knowing, and doing.
Acknowledging different ways of knowing means that we provide room for students to explore, discover and nurture their unique creative capacity and resources for learning. Creative classroom pedagogies such as mindfulness exercises and popular theatre that engage students in their bodily, emotive, cognitive, and spiritual knowing and reflection can become significant sites of transgression and decolonization (Smith, 1999). In an advanced course specifically on critical perspectives in social work, I encourage students to “go outside the box,” to honour marginalized knowledges, and to bring together their mind, body, emotion, and spirit in presenting and expressing what they have learned and what they aspire to in their assignments. Openness to alternative knowledges is an important attitude for students to cultivate as critical social work practitioners working with people of diverse backgrounds. Over the years, I have had increasing number of students who responded with enthusiasm and excitement in exploring different forms of learning and in expanding their repertoire of knowing. Alongside their analytical writing and presentation, many students also produced video, tapestry, painting, sculpture, mosaic, play script, and poetry for their assignments.
A mindfulness-based critical social work pedagogy also means that we honour listening silence as much as vocalization in our teaching. Fostering students’ capacity to listen to others and themselves is therefore as important as encouraging them to speak. Engaging students in breathing and listening exercises as well as in mindfully observing their internal activities and chatters can facilitate students’ awareness of the richness of silence and the fluidity of themselves and of others.
A mindfulness-based pedagogy also requires us as teacher to practise what we teach. Only if we actively practise daily mindfulness can we see the limit of “discursive rationality” and understand the struggles students wrestle with, and be effective in cultivating a meaningful dialogic communicative space for the co-creation of a just world for all.
To learn that things and life are more complex than we think is more difficult than staying in the comfort and security of the idea that there is a good or bad, a right or wrong, anti-oppression and oppression, and that we simply need to decide which side we are on. To create a dialogic communicative space, however, it is crucial that we are not preoccupied with categorizing people into good or bad, right or wrong – “us” or “them” – but rather we learn to appreciate the fluidity of being and engage with each other in the openness of “listening silence.” Concepts, categories and theories formulated in our discursive-analytical mind may be useful tools and conceptual maps to help us understand our experience and the world around us. But it is important to remember that they are not the experience itself, nor can they fully represent the experience or the world we live in. We must, therefore, not be dictated to by the predominantly ordering and discriminating activities of our mind, but be mindfully open to our bodily, emotive and spiritual knowing in our relation to each other and the world.
Anderson, Benedict. 1995. Imagined communities. London: Verso.
Bai, H. (2001) ‘Beyond the educated mind: Towards a pedagogy of mindfulness’, in B. Hocking & J. Haskell & W. Linds (eds.), Unfolding Bodymind: Exploring possibility through education , Brandon, VT, Foundation for Educational Renewal.
Chödrön, P. (1996) ‘No right, no wrong’, in M. Dresser (ed.), Buddhist women on the edge: Contemporary perspectives from the western frontier , Berkeley, North Atlantic Books.
Chödrön, P. (1997) When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times , Boston, Shambhala.
Coates, J., & McKay, M. (1995), ‘Toward a new pedagogy for social transformation’, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 6(1), pp.27-43.
Fiumara, G. C. (1990), The other side of language: A philosophy of listening (C. Lambert, Trans.), London, Routledge.
Fook, J. (1999) ‘Critical reflectivity in education and practice’, in B. Pease & J. Fook (eds.), Transforming social work practice: Postmodern critical perspectives , London, Routledge.
Garcia, B., & Melendez, M. P. (1997) ‘Concepts and methods in teaching oppression courses’, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 8(1), pp.23-40.
Garcia, B., & Soest, D. V. (1999) ‘Teaching about diversity and oppression: Learning from the analysis of critical classroom events’, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 18(1/2), pp.149-167.
Giroux, H. A. (1997) Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling , Boulder, Westview Press.
Healy, K., & Leonard, P. (2000) ‘Responding to uncertainty: Critical social work education in the postmodern habitat’, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 11(1), pp.23-48.
Hooks, B. (1994) Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom , New York, Routledge.
Jeffery, D. (2002) A terrain of struggle: Reading race in social work education , Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, OISE / University of Toronto, Toronto.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness , New York, A Delta Book.
Kanpol, B. (1995) ‘Multiculturalism and empathy: A border pedagogy of solidarity’, in B. Kanpol & P. McLaren (eds.), Critical multiculturalism: Uncommon voices in a common struggle , Westport, Connecticut, Bergin & Garvey.
Linehan, M. (1995) Treating borderline personality disorder: The dialectical approach [videorecording]. New York: Guilford Publications.
Mullaly, B. (2002) Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach , Toronto, Oxford University Press.
Nagda, B. A., Spearmon, M. L., Holley, L. C., Harding, S., Balassone, M. L., Moise-Swanson, D., & de Mello, S. (1999) ‘Intergroup dialogues: An innovative approach to teaching about diversity and justice in social work programs’, Journal of Social Work Education, 35(3), pp.433-449.
Ng, R. (1993) ‘ “A woman out of control”: Deconstructing sexism and racism in the university’, Canadian Journal of Education, 18(3), pp.189-205.
Ng, R. (1998, April 13-17) ‘Is embodied teaching and learning critical pedagogy? Some remarks on teaching health and the body from an Eastern perspective’, Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, San Diego.
Peile, C. (1998) ‘Emotional and embodied knowledge: Implications for critical practice’, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 25(4), pp.39-59.
Razack, N. (1999) ‘Anti-discriminatory practice: Pedagogical struggles and challenges’, British Journal of Social Work, 29(2), pp.231-250.
Rossiter, A. (2001) ‘Innocence lost and suspicion found: Do we educate for or against social work?’ Critical Social Work, 2(1).
Rossiter, A. B. (1995) ‘Teaching social work skills from a critical perspective’, Canadian Social Work Review, 12(1), pp.9-27.
Rossiter, A. B. (1996) ‘A perspective on critical social work’, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 7(2), pp.23-41.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse , New York, Guilford Press.
Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples . London: Zed Books Ltd.
Tangenberg, K. M., & Kemp, S. (2002) ‘Embodied practice: Claiming the body’s experience, agency and knowledge for social work’, Social Work, 47(1), pp.9-18.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1996) The long road turns to joy: A guide to walking meditation , Berkeley, Parallax Press.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2000) The path of emancipation , Berkeley, Parallax Press.
Renita Wong, Ph.D can be contacted via e-mail at:
[Return to top]