The study of inequality and politics are intertwined – but how?

In its government programme, Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s government sets the reduction of inequality as a guiding principle for all decision-making. On 26 August three researchers and the Finnish minister of the interior led a discussion at Think Corner on the actual meaning of inequality and the role of researchers in mitigating it.

The event was organised by the multidisciplinary Helsinki Inequality Initiative (INEQ).

For a long time, the Ministry of the Interior has highlighted the importance of curbing inequality also from the perspective of national security. In her opening address, Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo (Greens) explained how authorities involved in safety and security perceive the context of disadvantage: its origins lie in the lack of opportunities to have an influence on society as well as a lack of prospects. In addition to these, the creation of various shadow societies, potentially linked with violent extremism, should be prevented.

According to the minister, scientific research forms part of the foundation for all good politics. She considered it important for politicians to make time for sitting down with researchers as well as reading research findings related to their personal areas of responsibility. Ohisalo herself has a doctorate in sociology on the topic of breadlines.

Inequality is a complex research area – and an amorphous concept

Antti Kauppinen, professor of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki, approached the theme from the point of view of relational, or social, inequality, a concept developed by him: the most important form of equality is relational equality, with relational inequality as its opposite. In relationally unequal situations a hierarchy exists between individuals, in which some are placed higher than others, having supremacy over them. In such situations, the interest or voice of those subjected to the exercise of power is less important in terms of the actions of those wielding the power, which makes exploitation and humiliation possible. Favouritism and discrimination regardless of merit are also evidence of relational inequality. Statistics, which are commonly used as indicators of inequality, are blind to the phenomenon. The Gini coefficient, for instance, does not measure the relational equality of treatment afforded to individuals.

“The more market-oriented society becomes, the more things are for sale, the more likely it is that economic inequality will lead to relational inequality. For example, being forced to sell your work contribution at practically any price constitutes relational inequality. Approaches based on universal income are one way of tackling the issue,” Kauppinen noted

University Lecturer Lauri Kokkinen from the University of Tampere has been investigating the working group on inequality appointed by the government of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and headed by Professor Juho Saari.

“The group found that an accurate situational overview of inequality is expected from scientific research. In terms of the group’s work, it was problematic that researchers have not reached a consensus on the definition of the concept, thus being unable to attain any shared situational overview of the issue. In research, the concept of inequality is used alongside, among others, marginalisation and poverty,” said Kokkinen. He went on to add that researchers should take into account not only the effectiveness of their proposed solutions but also their applicability: how well the proposed measures fit mainstream thinking and other politics.

Assistant Professor Sonja Kosunen from the University of Helsinki approaches increasing inequality from the point of view of upbringing and education.

“We are talking about availability, access and results. In other words, whether all children have a daycare place close to home, who has access to various types of education and what kind of learning outcomes are being achieved.”

Kosunen pointed out that researchers’ duty is to determine and demonstrate what happens, for example, in the everyday life of schools and how this phenomenon manifests more generally. Once situations of increasing inequality have been identified by research, it is down to politicians to make the ideological decision whether to step in or not.

“Among the factors underlying socioeconomic differentiation between schools is the opportunity to choose your school, something which the upper middle class and upper class take advantage of in choosing their children’s school based on the specialist subjects and advanced language syllabi available at particular schools. By the same token, Kosunen noted, socioeconomically disparate groups can develop within schools, as schools form classes on the basis of these choices. As further examples of developments resulting in increased inequality, she highlighted the private school market in Sweden and the streaming carried out in Belgian schools, the latter of which was found to cause negative attitudes towards school among children placed in the lower education streams.

Are politicians making sufficient use of researchers?

In its programme, the Finnish government has committed to making decisions on the basis of knowledge, in support of which the re-establishment of preparatory committees is under consideration. Minister Ohisalo also expressed support for the experimental culture instigated by the previous government. In fact, the current government is allocating funds to experimenting with a negative income tax.

“It can be said that politicians’ initiatives have better chances of being accepted when they propose an operating model that has already been trialled somewhere and whose impact has been assessed, with numerical data already available on the effects,” Ohisalo stated. Evaluation research is another key link between politics and research: it investigates how and why implemented reforms have succeeded. Research designs based solely on impact do not necessarily provide information on why certain measures work or do not work.

Antti Kauppinen brought up the information policy report completed during the previous government term, to which he also contributed, as an example of successful dialogue between research and politics.

Sonja Kosunen pointed out that communications and media are intermediary parties that make politicians aware of research, making communication skills useful for researchers.

“Personal contacts by officials and politicians are also welcome. You can write to researchers or call them,” Kosunen encourages.

Event recording. The event is part of Think Corner’s "Crazy World" series of programming which looks for causes of and solutions to a world of inequality and division.