Social Consequences of Inequality

“Inequality is a feature of my country, (the UK), however, it is of little social consequence”. Discuss.


Inequality in society means that some people are at a disadvantage compared to others. In the UK inequalities are featured in a number of different contexts. Women for example are socially disadvantaged in comparison to men and ethnic minorities are often disadvantaged in comparison to the dominant white community because they may not have the same opportunities. There are also class inequalities in Britain where those from a working class background are often disadvantaged compared to people from a middle-class background (Giddens, 2001). This assignment will discuss the statement that inequality is a feature of the UK and assess the view that it is of little social consequence, this will be done with reference to class and gender inequalities in health.

Class Inequalities

Those who belong to the higher capitalist classes and to the middle classes tend to be better educated than people from a working class background. This often means that the higher classes have greater material resources than those from a lower class. Having more money means that people also have greater access to other resources. They tend to fare better when it comes to education and to health because they live in better areas which tend to have less crowded and better performing schools (Giddens, 2001). The working classes tend to have more stressful, or more physically demanding jobs that pay less money than, for example, teaching or being the manager of a successful business. This means that they often cannot afford the same kind of diet as those who earn more money and live in a better area. This puts them at a disadvantage in terms of how healthy they are and how long they might expect to live (Walsh et al, 2000). Such inequalities do not simply occur as a result of class inequalities but in areas where people do not have the same equality of opportunity. Since the late nineteen sixties feminists such as Walby (1990) have pointed to the fact that in a capitalist society women do not have the same access to material or other social resources and that this is due to the gender inequalities which exist in a patriarchal society.

Gender Inequalities

Britain is a patriarchal society. In patriarchal societies women are seen as the subordinate sex. Patriarchy is bound up with traditional notions of the family where the father was seen as the head of the family unit. This, feminists say, can be seen in all the structures of patriarchal societies where laws and social structures operate in such a way as to benefit men at the expense of women (Walby, 1990). Since the nineteenth century the traditional family has been one where the man goes to work and the woman stays at home and looks after the house and any children in the family. Walby (1990) argues that this arrangement made women invisible and their labour in the home, which allowed men to have a public life, has not been taken into account. With the rise of feminism and the struggle for equal opportunities for women the situation has changed somewhat and many women now work outside the home. Work does not readjust the gender imbalances that exist in British society because in most jobs women still earn less than men.

Walby (1990) has argued that gender is a primary category when it comes to inequaltity and the oppression of women. State policies may no longer aim to keep women in the home but have done little to alleviate the inequalities between women and men in the public sphere. Certain occupations such as teaching, nursing, shop or clerical work are still regarded as women’s work. Although women may now be involved in the public sphere and can be found in the labour market in increasing numbers, Walby states that they still remain segregated from wealth, power and status.

Doyal (1995) has said that research shows that while paid work brings benefits to a family it can also bring extra stresses and responsibilities. These may then affect women’s health. The increasing number of roles that women are called upon to play in contemporary society affects their emotional, mental and physical well being.

Class, Gender, and Health

For some time there has been concern over the fact that there appear to be inequalities in health provision and the ways in which this impacts on people’s lives. As a result of this sociologists look the body, or aspects of the body and the ways in which factors such as class, race and gender affect a person’s experience of health (Giddens, 2001).The Acheson Report (1998) pointed out that health inequalities are complex, certainly more than people had previously believed. Material deprivation alone is not the cause of inequalities in health, rather there are wider cultural and economic factors which interact with personal choices based on psychological and biological influences. Acheson recommended that a wider range of intervention and policy initiatives would be needed to address health inequalities. Many commentators believe that class inequalities in health have worsened over the last twenty five years with the introduction of market forces into healthcare i.e. operating the health system as though it were a business (Giddens, 2001). This particularly affects those people at the lower end of the class scale because facilities in poorer areas are often over stretched and therefore people may have to wait longer for the care they need.

Women in Britain tend to use the health services a lot more than their male counterparts. This is explained in terms of women generally living longer than men, having more chronic illnesses and generally being the main care giver and child rearer in the family (Provincial Health Officer’s Report, 1995). Feminists such as Abbott and Wallace (1997) point out that what is often missed is that women will also visit the doctor on behalf of another family member. Feminists also point out that because there is no specific health care policy for women the processes of menstruation, childbirth and the menopause are over medicalised.

Are These Inequalities of Social Consequence?

Clearly there are class and gender inequalities which are endemic to society in the United Kingdom and this results in inequalities in other areas of social life such as health. It might be argued that these inequalities do have social consequences. Class inequalities in health for example can result in working class members of society suffering from greater ill health and dying prematurely. The results of this could mean a shortage of workers in jobs that are not usually held by people from other classes it could also mean that the working class are more of a burden on the health system than their middle class counterparts. These things could have much wider social consequences, a shortage of services, in the construction industry for example, and a shortage of hospital beds in some areas. Similarly gender inequalities could also have wider social consequences. If women do not have sufficient access to health services then they may not be healthy enough to take care of other members of the family.


Clearly there are inequalities in this country and it would certainly appear that these inequalities may not seem to be of great social consequence but if they are left to carry on unaddressed could have wider ramifications. The introduction of the Community Care Act in 1990 for example relies on family members to take care of those people who may not be able to look after themselves as a result of mental health problems, or simply due to age. Members of the upper and middle classes may well have the resources to pay for care but working class people do not. If health inequalities are not addressed then there may be no-one who is fit enough to look after those people who are unable to look after themselves. This could have serious consequences for the health system, the benefits system, and Government policy making in general.

1250 words


Abbott and Wallace, 1997 An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. London, Routledge

Acheson, D. 1998. Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report London, HMSO

Doyal, L. 1995 What Makes Women Sick London, Macmillan

Giddens, A. 2001 4th ed. Sociology, Cambridge, Polity Press

Pollert, A. 1996. “Gender and class revisited or the poverty of patriarchy” Sociology vol. 30 no. 4

Provincial Health Of. cer’s Annual Report (1995). Report on the Health of British Columbia.

BC Ministry of Health and Ministry Responsible for Seniors.

Townsend, P. Davidson, N. and Whitehead, M. (eds) 1988. Inequalities in Health, the Black Report and the Health Divide Harmondsworth, Penguin

Turner, B. 1987.Medical Power and Social Knowledge. London, Sage.

Walby,S. 1990. Theorising Patriarchy. Blackwell, Oxford.

Walsh, M. Stephens, P. and Moore, S. 2000 Social Policy and Welfare. Cheltenham,

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