Mike Savage is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Director of the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. The III, founded in 2015, builds on LSE’s leadership in the study of social and economic inequality, and brings together scholarship and expertise from across its many departments and research centres.
Professor Savage has a long-standing interest in analysing social stratification and inequality. In addition to class analysis, his recent research has focused especially on the study of the elites. INEQ interviewed him in April 2019 about the importance of foregrounding inequality in the field of social sciences. The original interview was revised in August 2020 to include a few updates and some reflections over the current state of inequalities in the world.
Q: A focus on inequality—or even a shape of “discipline” of inequality studies—has emerged during recent years, with programmes, initiatives, institutions or centres emerging around the world. You have been leading one of the prestigious ones at LSE. How and why do you think this emerging field has come about? How is it related to academic trends and how to social, political factors?
MS: That is a very interesting question. I am a sociologist who has mainly worked on social class, and particularly the cultural aspects of class and their intersection with issues of gender and (more recently) race. But although those issues are all about inequality, I have only thought about foregrounding inequality only quite recently. It was always kind of assumed that we lived in unequal societies and that as scholars we should just focus on more targeted questions. Inequality did not in itself seem a banner to mobilize around.
When I came to the LSE in 2012, I quite rapidly became head of the Department of Sociology. At that point inequality was not really talked about as such. I did not arrive with a vision for being part of an International Inequalities Institute at that point. However, there were lots of things bubbling under. I think, just to name a few of the key works in the UK, the Spirit Level (2010) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett had a very large readership. It was a popular Penguin book, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and it was on everyone’s agenda. It seemed to be saying: “Let’s not think economic growth will solve the world’s problems. Actually inequality is the key thing.” It reminded people that you can have a prosperous society like the USA, but if it’s highly unequal, it won’t be a good society in a deeper sense. But that book also got kick back, not everyone liked it. Some people did not like the statistics, some people thought it was too ideological. So, it partly opened the door but didn’t really completely ram through the door.
From my perspective Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2014 was crucial. I remember being Head of the sociology department at LSE at the time. Usually, heads of department meetings are full of people arguing for resources, and so on, but there was one particular meeting I remember very well where actually a head of another department said: “Have you read this book? It is really, really important.” And it inspired a wider discussion amongst different Heads about genuinely intellectual issues. There was a sense of shared concern here. Some of that energy was captured in the British Journal of Sociology special issue in 2014 that was devoted to the book.
Why was that the case? The fact that an economist was doing it is really important. Economics has this prestige position and the fact that the debate was led by top economists who—although some were critical Piketty—nonetheless rated it highly, was very, very important. For a long time economics had seen inequalities as not very important and then Piketty put it back on the table, that really opened up the possibilities.
Also, the fact that it was a book with lots of data made it important. Thinking about inequality carries all these normative aspects, and you are never really going to get people to agree on those. Some people will defend inequality as part of a free market system, other people will say “We have got to have complete egalitarianism (though what that might mean involves another intractable discussion).” And there is no resolution, only interminable and intractable debates about the first principles of what inequality is, what the main axes are, and so on. Indeed, if I think if we would have had, say, a centre on inequality 20 years ago, it would have defaulted to various kinds of political disputes, without a sense of there being a possibly shared set of concerns in common.
By emphasizing data and trends rather than political positions—even though Piketty of course does have political views, as his recent Capital and Ideology (2020) makes clear—there was the strategic possibility that people with different perspectives could work together. Also, of course, a trend towards data-based social science rather than theoretical argumentation has become a general trend. So, certainly in sociology we can see that earlier people like Ulrich Beck or Anthony Giddens used to command attention, but this kind of macro-sociology of ‘great’ theorists has receded. Social sciences is now a much more empirical, data driven field. Piketty very effectively turned this to advantage, and numerous people had to be impressed by the historical and geographical range of what he did and new empirical work with taxation data. And thus inequality was a very powerful way of actually getting people from different areas think ‘Oh yes, this means things to me.’ So, I think that was very important.
At the same time, politically, we are still living in a world after the 2008 financial crash and austerity. And there is this paradox of the austerity age. In the developed world, many people in the lower half of resource distribution are doing badly, possibly seeing their situation decline. There is also talk about decline in social mobility. But despite all this, there is no evidence of a move to the (political) left, if we put it bluntly. We are seeing powerful and inspiring movements, notably Me Too and Black Lives Matter, but these did not arise out of socialist or social democratic politics (even though many on the left are surely disproportionate supporters of them). In terms of electoral and party politics, we see a move towards nationalism and xenophobia. So, how do we make sense of growing inequality leading to the political dominance of these forces. I think that is where focusing upon issues of inequality rather than, say, class alone is actually more powerful. It offers you a way of thinking about, how—in unequal societies—you need to think intersectionally, and should not prioritise class.
And I also think “inequality studies” does allow social sciences to be more problem-focused rather than be driven by a disciplinary agenda. This has allowed new kind of conversations. Obviously, we have a lot of paradigms: Marxist, Bourdieusian, various feminist, antiracist, postcolonial paradigms, and so on. But I think we are also recognising that those single paradigms by themselves are not enough really. You have to think about things more creatively and more openly.
Q: Inequality studies generally tends look at its object in an intersectional framework, which puts special emphasis on developing interdisciplinary skills. You have particularly pointed to the interaction between economics and other social sciences. How do you see the current landscape of interdisciplinary research?
MS: I think we are a long way from disciplines breaking down. They remain powerful, and economics is the paramount, most powerful social science discipline—like it or not. It retains a very strong paradigmatic and methodological expertise, which it is not going to let go of quickly. The big argument about inequality has opened things up, but we need to do more work to actually pull us through in terms of concrete research projects and findings.
I am a sociologist, but since moving to the LSE, I have obviously enjoyed and benefited from working with economists in different kinds of ways. And clearly, they too are having to rethink how they see the world. Since 2008, a lot of the economic models have been shown to be problematic, and many economists are quite left-wing and quite critical of free markets. Many of them actually feel they want to work around these questions in a bigger and more interdisciplinary environment, and it has been good to draw them into the International Inequalities Institute. I am delighted that my successor as Director will be Francisco Ferriera, who has a wealth of experience as an economist of inequality.
There are some people who think that economics is at least part of the problem as it has constructed a world in which markets are dominant, and where economists can regulate and play a clear role in banking sectors and in most corporations and governments. Some political economists—like Kate Raworth, for instance—tend towards this anti-economics perspective. I take the view that we should not dismiss economics as such. We need to actually engage with economics and think about and recognise that economics are very important. There are very clever people working in it, and actually if we try to develop new kinds of economics attuned to inequality, there could be some very exciting developments there.
A key figure in this kind of work was Tony Atkinson who helped advise Piketty, among other things. I have also been very interested in the work led by Wendy Carlin (amongst others) at University College London in the teaching inititative called CORE Econ. This is an attempt to develop a new kind of first-year, economics 101 course, which is designed to be an interactive e-book, and can therefore be taught across the world. It is an attempt to break down the macro-micro divide and bring issues of justice back into the economics curriculum. Some people would say it is still too mainstream, but I think it is an important intervention. Although clearly I am not an economist and cannot contribute, I think it is a very exciting time to be in this space and to think about how we can get economics more into debate with the rest of social sciences.
Another key perspective I would point to (affected by the fact that I was originally an historian)—and again, Piketty is very clear on this—is that you have got a long historical range there and an attempt to get away from a presentist bias. My critique of much sociology would be that is it very presentist, declaring that “postmodernism”, “globalisation”, or X has “arrived”, claiming that wow, this is all happening and there will be changes again in a few years’ time. I think that a more historical framing, which recognises how trends are slow but pervasive, is important. I have been personally very influenced by Piketty’s (provocation) that actually in some respects we are returning to a 19th century society of elites, which goes against completely the way we think about things, given all the emphasis on new things like technology. I have tried to bring out this approach in my new book, 'The Return of Inequality: Social Change and the Weight of History' which will be published in 2021.
Q: Can you highlight some recent fruitful examples of inequality research?
MS: In sociology one important strand of work has been the work in the Bourdieu tradition. Bourdieu died in 2001, and clearly at that point he was very powerful in the French academy and had strong international links. Yet you would have thought his work would have faded away: it is very French-based, national-specific. But it is interesting how it has recharged and persisted. It is interesting that he has continued to be very prominent. I would situate my own work there too, but as part of a critical engagement with him. And we can also see within the Bourdieu camp, if you like, that there are the true believers who want to apply the original model presented in La Distinction (1979) and show how it still works in different countries, in different time periods.
I find that less attractive than thinking more creatively about, for instance, how the nature of cultural capital is changing and how it is moving away from a highbrow cultural capital towards a more technologically, digitally informed cultural capital. Some of the work I have done, but also my colleagues such as Andrew Miles or Sam Friedman at the LSE, looks at forms of emerging cultural capital. Sam Friedman has done this work on comedy, how stand-up comedy which used to be seen as lowbrow is now a field of prestige and distinction. Andrew Miles has done this work on what he calls vernacular or ordinary cultural capital in different locations. Broadening out of our assumption of what might count as cultural capital has, I think, been important.
There is also a kind of re-emergence of the sociology of elites. Studying elites used to be a big area of sociology but in the ’60s it fell out of fashion because it was seen to be elitist, and there was a shift of focus towards ordinary people and countercultures. But because elites are powerful and because they are getting more wealthy, it has been really important to study them. There is a growing body of work, people like Shamus Khan and Lauren Rivera, which is unravelling the contradictions and complexities of elite culture. They are making the point that instead of old ascribed highbrow we now have these performative elites. They are elites who are formed alongside meritocratic cultures, which makes them more difficult to challenge in a way. That is very important.
So, I think that looking at the top end of social distribution is important. This is partly because the economists are focused on the rich. But in sociology there are always crucial questions of understanding the constructions of class categories. Again I find Piketty’s lead useful here, as he shows that, okay, we have got the superrich who have done very well, but we have also got a larger, what he called a patrimonial, middle class. They can be a quarter of the population, who are doing very comfortably, and they can expect to inherit money. This is an important feature, I think, of many advanced, wealthy countries. Obviously, there has been a lot of important work around questions of racism and postcolonial studies, but sadly in the field of sociology, there has been a bit of a standoff between people working on class, and people working on questions of race, racism or immigration, despite the fact that we know that you cannot really separate those things. We only need to think about the way that a lot of the issues around, anti-immigrant sentiment is to do with issues around class and resentments and feelings of marginality. I think there are important advances being made here in work by scholars such as Nicola Rollock, Ali Meghji, and Tariq Modood and Satnam Virdee.
Q: What kind of disciplinary challenges or tensions—inside the field of social sciences—stand in the way of developing a more nuanced understanding of the current dynamics of inequalities?
MS: Well, I think there can be a tendency to think we ourselves know best. If you are very strongly rooted in particular paradigms, say a Marxist one, you might think we do not really need this specific inequality stuff because we know what we think anyway (about capitalism and surplus value). In my own work too, questions of capital accumulation are very important, but I also think that if people are too focused on their particular paradigms, it can be a problem.
Within cultural sociology, which is one of the areas I have worked in, 20-30 years ago the linguistic turn was very powerful. There was a lot useful of poststructuralist work around meaning and signification, but I think there is an increasing recognition of the need for a material turn. So, that leads towards issues like inequality. Also within sociology, there is a thread of kind of positivistic quantitative sociology where you see different inequality variables—class is measured in a particular way, gender, race, and so on. This has produced some very important work, but that also can be a bit dry and reductive, trying to boil down to outcome, inequality outcome related to certain kinds of factors. They have emphasized the need to think about inequality in more general terms that rise above specific case studies and instances. But I suspect the direction of travel is towards a more paradigm crossing approach. This is the argument I am making in my new book, anyway.
Q: You have recently written about the need for more analytic conceptualizations of inequality as a necessary step for social scientists to be able have a stronger voice in the interdisciplinary debates. With Paul Segal you have coined the idea of “inequality diversions”. One of the examples is that meritocratic societies (with more social mobility and thus less inherited inequality) might actually be quite fertile ground for elites that are quite tolerant of higher inequality (as they believe they have achieved their positions by their own merits). Can you elaborate the meaning of this for inequality studies?
MS: You refer to a working paper we had on the LSE website. The argument there is that absolutely we should be thinking about inequality not just in terms of categories or groups but thinking about the intersections between them. For me, one of the key arguments is to say that you can focus upon addressing inequality in one sphere, but that can have unintended consequences in other spheres, and these can actually enhance inequalities for other people in other ways you may not be aware of. So, you can end up chasing the dog around the room rather than actually addressing inequality in a more fundamental way. Our aim there is get us to think about all the bundles of inequality working together.
The paper you refer to is still a think piece and I really enjoyed working with an economist here: it is an example of what we should be doing more. I think it is a good example of Paul coming from an economics point of view and me coming from a sociology point of view, just sitting down and thinking how do we think about intersectionality, how do we think about the difficulties of dealing with inequality by pushing on only one dimension. I think it is important to begin to develop a capacity to take part in discussions where arguments for “diversion” from inequality as a real problem are commonplace. Social research can play an important part in helping us at least unpack the arguments.
Q: How do you see inequality studies developing from forward? We now see programmes of “inequality studies”, and certainly a lot emerging institutions and forums. Where do you think we will be in five years?
MS: Well, of course, events of 2020 have proven more than ever just how deep the inequality challenge and how desperately it needs to be addressed. Black Lives Matter has brought out so powerfully the entrenched nature of racism and the need for radical solutions to address this. Recognising how racism straddles so many aspects, ranging from policing and the state, through to wealth inequality, social mobility, racist attidudes and representations, makes it possible to see how inequality needs to be put in an multi-dimensional way.
There is surely going to be a bigger general reaction against inequality. This came well out in the recent Davos conference where a historian Rutger Bergman told the elites; “You should be paying taxes.” Hence, in a strange but symptomatic way, an interest in inequality is driven by elites. I have myself given talks to bankers and people who are not my normal audience, shall we say, and once you start talking about inequality, they are very interested in this. So we are tapping something which interests people and concerns them. Despite the arguments that there is a danger of inequality studies being then driven by elite interest, I think this is also an important chance to actually communicate with elites, or bankers, or people working in government, to force it further.
It is clear that just saying "We study inequality" is extremely big and baggy. Therefore, we need to focus upon particular areas of pushing through where the inequality matters. For me, what is striking is—if you want to put it in these terms—the spillover of inequality from economics to political and cultural divisions. So, again, I think economists have done some very important work, and actually some of the more dystopian views that inequality is bound to increase and it is getting worse everywhere have been proven to be a bit simplistic. It is a bit more of a nuanced picture than that now.
But I do think that the crucial issue then to ask is how is inequality driving political change, populism, the remaking of elite cultures, racism and sexism, people feeling left out, feelings of belonging. What it means to belong when you live in a very divided country? What is the link between national boundaries, global capitalism, and inequality? That is an important example of how inequality straddles these different domains, and how political debates and how, linked into that, cultural debates and social issues are linked into the issue of inequality.
Another big issue is wealth. I think inequality studies should be focused not so much around income. Yes, of course, economic inequality, income base is important—that is what economists have studied for many many years. But actually, the door which Piketty opened was the one looking at wealth questions, recognising that wealth accumulates more and is thus more unequal than income. Wealth is organised around households and families rather than individuals, and it is in some ways more concerning. So, if you have income inequality, you can defend it in meritocratic terms. You can say well, it is fair enough if someone gets paid lots of money to do a very difficult job. You can contest that, but there is a logic there. I think it is very difficult to defend wealth inequality in those terms because a lot of it is inherited. My sense is the issue of the meritocratic defence of inequality is going to come under strain once we start looking more into wealth inequality.
 Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Penguin Books.
 Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Piketty, Thomas and Arthur Goldhammer (2020). Capital and Ideology. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
 Raworth, Kate (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. Vermont: White River Junction.
 Carlin, Wendy (2015). Macroeconomics: Institutions, Instability and the Financial System. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Friedman, Sam, Mike Savage, Laurie Hanquinet, and Andrew Miles (2015). "Cultural Sociology and New Forms of Distinction." Poetics 53 (2015): 1-8.
Miles, Andrew, and Lisanne Gibson (2016). "Everyday Participation and Cultural Value." Cultural Trends: Everyday Participation and Cultural Value. Part 1, 25(3): 151-157.
 Friedman, Sam (2014). Comedy and Distinction: The Cultural Currency of a 'Good' Sense of Humour. London: Routledge.
 Khan, Shamus (2011). Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Rivera, Lauren (2015). Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Segal, Paul and Mike Savage (2019). Inequality Interactions. Working paper 27 January, 2019. http://www.lse.ac.uk/International-Inequalities/Assets/Documents/Working-Papers/III-Working-Paper-27-Segal-and-Savage-Inequality-Interactions.pdf