Ordinary cities between modernity and development

Robinson J., 2006, Ordinary cities between modernity and development, London, Routledge, 204p.

“Ordinary Cities” is now thirteen years old and it features in the reading list of many urban geography university courses, from UCL (where J. Robinson is professor of Geography) to SOAS, LSE and McGill. Its concepts and messages have diffused largely in academia (cf. for instance the 1899 citations of the book in scholarly publications at the time when this post was written), yet the predominance of western cities and western scholars in mainstream urban studies is still patent and renewed with each wave of urban ‘modernity’ (if we think of smart cities, connected cities, etc). This late review of the book content thus provides a yardstick of what it has achieved (or not achieved) since its publication in 2006.

I have first encountered the idea of Ordinary Cities while reading my friend SolĂšne Baffi’s thesis on rail transportation in South African cities. The proposition was of course well indicated in the context of Robinson’s home country of South Africa, but it resonated also with my own thesis on post Soviet cities, supposedly singular and specific, where general urban models would not apply and where mordern urban theory was not made. The whole argument of J. Robinson in this book was thus extremely attractive. It can be summarised as follow: cities are diverse, and therefore so should be urban studies. More than a scientific requirement to better understand cities and urban processes around the world, this objective of diversity is deeply militant, as argued by the author in the preface to the book: “Theories of modernity, just like South African cities, have often reserved experiences of dynamism and innovation for a privileged few, and especially for those wealthy cities and their citizens who have laid claim to originating modernity. Theories of urban modernity, then, have drawn a stark line between ‘modern’ cities and other kinds of cities, variously described as Third World, perhaps African, perhaps developing / underdeveloped, perhaps colonial. At best these ‘other’ cities have been thought to borrow their modernity from wealthier contexts, presenting pure imitations rather than offering sites for inventiveness and innovation. This book is a contribution to the task of ensuring that as scholars of cities we end our complicity in such dispossessions.” (p.x). Further along in the book, she illustrates this claims quite eloquantly: “Once New York’s urbanism has been understood as just another cosmopolitan and provincial form of modernity, any anxiety on the part of other cities about lagging behind or mimicking a modernity that is always ‘elsewhere’ (Johnson 1999) becomes less plausible.” (p.73).




The book consists in six chapters, which take the reader from the deconstruction of the concept of modernity (chapter 1) to the exposition of cosmopolitan ways of being urban and modern through comparative urbanism (chapter 2 and 3). A whole chapter (#4) is dedicated to the critique of city ranking, hierarchizing and labelling, arguing that world cities and global cities are more than centres of control for finance and management. The fifth chapter argues that urban studies need to put the (ordinary) city back to the centre instead of classifying them into modern or developing. Finally, chapter 6 looks at the possible and diverse futures of cities through policy and planning.

In introduction, the author clearly sets the two ambitions of the book. Firstly, she states: “it is an argument of this book that all cities are best understood as ‘ordinary’. [
] Instead of seeing only some cities as the originators of urbanism, in a world of ordinary cities, ways of being urban and ways of making new kinds of urban futures are diverse and are the product of the inventiveness of people in cities everywhere.” (p.1). The change in perception is supposed to provoke a change in perspective at the world scale, by considering cities in their simultaneous diversity rather than in a sequence of modernity adoption. Secondly, J. Robinson suggests that “we need a form of theorising that can be as cosmopolitan as the cities we try to describe. This would be a form of urban theory that can follow the creative paths of urban dwellers – across the city or across the world – as they remake cities (Simone, 1998) and that can draw on the transformative potential of shared lives in diverse, contested – ordinary – cities to imagine new urban futures.” (p.3). Therefore the dual objective of scientific understanding on the one hand and militant repossession of urban studies on the other hand appears to structure the book from its start. The way Robinson chooses to tackle this dual objective in the introduction is by exposing the parochial nature of modernity claims made by Western cities and Western scholars. The appropriation of modernity by “the West” is important because it creates a universal standard of city life and innovations with which other cities are supposed to catch-up. Debunking this claim allows the identification of urban modernity outside western cities in a contemporary and cosmopolitan manner. Robinson argues that it also provides urban planners and decision makers with a wider panel of policy options, inspired from a diversity of experiences around the world that can also be more adapted to their cities, instead of applying the same past “western” recipes. This theoretical articulation of ideas is the core contribution of the book. The following chapters then consist in illustrations of the workings of the appropriation and in research strategies to avoid the dispossession.

The first chapter, “dislocating modernity”, highlights the paradox of modernity: i.e. a concept initially related to temporality which has been diverted and perverted into a spatialised assessment of who is “in” and who is “out of time”. The way in which this diversion was achieved, according to J. Robinson, is through a constant editing/re-writing of the Western urban story to remove all contributions from other cultures: “A reconceptualization of urban modernity might begin by interrogating Western forms of modernity. For these are as much a product of dynamics from beyond the West as its own ingenuity, including primitivist-inspired borrowings, actual resource extraction and political innovations learned in colonial governance (see, for example, Stoler, 1995; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). But western modernity’s projection of itself as the generative source of creativity relies on forgetting these circulations and borrowings.” (p.19). Cities are central to this process, since they connect people, combine ideas and inspirations at a larger scale and at a faster pace than anywhere else. The rest of the chapter explores how urban studies themselves have embedded the western conception of urban modernity. She cites the Chicago School of sociology as a powerful vector in that process, in particular by noting how Park and al’s conception of the city in opposition with “primitive” and “folk” qualities of community and emotions has imposed a very specific way of urban living as the standard for city identification. This then made it hard for cities with strong community ties and non-anonymous relationships to claim their cityness, as examplified by J. Clyde Mitchell’s struggle to have (now) Zambian cities recognized as such by urban scholards, not discounting but accounting for tribal elements of culture and social relations. Robinson’s argumentation also makes use W. Benjamin’s work on Parisian arcades as urban signals of alternative and possible futures of the western city itself: “a future where the public and the private might be intermingled and where the utopian fantasies through which technological innovations were often represented harkened back to a pre-class and pre-commodity society of plenty” (p.29).

The second chapter in the book is intitled “Re-imagining the city through comparative urbanism. On (not) being blasĂ©”. It starts from the classic contribution of L. Wirth, “Urbanism as a way of life”, which Robinson shows as a claim/attempt at explaining cities everywhere based on a North-American XXth century experience (of Chicago). For instance, she notes that the high demographic growth fueled by a diverse immigration at a time of booming industrial economy on which the theory relies is a very situated moment in the world geographical history rather than a universal path for urbanisation around the world. The scientific antidote to this appropriation lies, for Robinson, in relaying the accounts of urban research from other contexts. She especially relies on the work made by the Manchester School of anthropologists in the zambian Copperbelt. “Like the Copperbelt anthropologists and many other comparative urbanists, Oscar Lewis observed that the blasĂ© attitude of Western urban dwellers, which Simmel, Park and Wirth had seen as a cornerstone of urban sociability, was not representative of urbanism elsewhere. [
] He did not stop, though, at simply noting differences from the US analysis and with J. Clyde Mitchell, Epstein, Gluckman and South African anthropologist Philip Mayer, he went on to suggest that ‘there are many ways of life which may coexist in the same city’ (1973: 130). He insisted that his observations from Mexico should make a difference to how cities in other places are understood.” (p.57). The chapter concludes with J. Robinson advocating for a post-colonial urban theory which “establish[es] conversations because of, and across, strong empirical and theoretical differences” (p.63) and, more importantly, lets ideas flow both ways between locations “from Chicago to the Copperbelt, but also back again” (p.63) .

Ordinary cities make their appearance in the third chapter as the primary material from which a postcolonial comparative and cosmopolitan urban studies might come about: “Ordinary cities, then, exist in a world of cities linked through a wide range of circulations – of people, ideas, resources – in which cities everywhere operate both to assemble diverse activities and to create new kinds of practices. This chapter therefore introduces a new tactic for a post-colonial urban studies: a form of theorising in which the resources for thinking about cities are as cosmopolitan as the cities that are being theorised.” (p.65). Therefore J. Robinson embarks into an analysis of modernity from the perspective of a diverse pool of cities (yet mostly large state capital cities). She looks at the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, which signal the city’s modernity to the rest of the world while excluding poor malaysian residents from it. She looks at the early Saint Petersburg where the Nevsky perspective provided the street decorum for individual performance and recognition in a context of poor infrastructure and peasant economy. She also draws from Zambian cities and how the second-hand clothing trade allowed citizens to express their modernity through styling at a time of post-structural adjustment. All these examples participate in showing that “the experiences of poor people, or cities in poor contexts, do not stand for the ‘past’ of Western urbanism – either as sites of tradition or economic backwardness – but are contemporaneous social formations that have produced diverse and distinctive ways of being urban. With inventive traditions and appropriated copies, urbanisms in poor places stand alongside other ways of being modern and can illustrate experiences of city life in other contexts. But, as we will consider briefly in the conclusion, if poor cities are not the ‘past’ or simply ‘copies’ of Western urbanism, neither, I suggest, are they its future.” (p.90).

In chapter 4, “World cities, or a world of ordinary cities?”, the author introduces the concepts of world-cities and global-cities and how their success moved the attention from the dynamic processes they were supposed to describe (the globalised economic relations between cities and concentration of command over some of these relations in a limited number of nodes) to a fixed hierarchy of cities from which poor cities are excluded, deemed irrelevant and relegated from urban studies to development studies. She offers an interesting alternative to this view, first by considering the “key sectors involved in managing the global economy” as just another form of industrial district (p.97), and second by considering the other sectors of the world network of cities, i.e. “commanding” cities as well as cities involved in other trades and flows. Considering all cities as ordinary enables such integration. “First, ordinary cities can be understood as unique assemblages of wider processes – they are all distinctive, in a category of one. [
] Second, and learning much from global- and world-cities approaches, ordinary cities exist within a world of interactions and flows. However, in place of the global- and world-cities approaches that focus on a small range of economic and political activities within the restrictive frame of the global, ordinary cities bring together a vast array of networks and circulations of varying spatial reach and assemble many different kinds of social, economic and political processes. Ordinary cities are diverse, complex and internally differentiated.” (p.108-9). The added-value of this change of perspective is argued to be found beyond urban studies and theory building, in the practice of urban planning, as it would provide decision makers with a wider diversity of inspirations for policy rather than the restricted example of so-called world cities to catch up to.

“Bringing the city back in” in the fifth chapter means considering cities in their diversity and internal inequalities. “Rather than theories of world cities, which encourage competitive behaviour amongst cities and focus on a very small segment of the urban economy or developmentalist accounts, which zoom in on the poorest and least well-provisioned areas of the city, urban studies will need to explore the dynamics of socially and economically diverse cities. Both globalising economic sectors and the needs of the poorest citizens will have to be considered, bringing the ordinary city, in all its complexity and diversity, firmly into view.” (p.117). In short, the analysis Robinson recommends at this point of the book thus comprises various sectors of city life and the economy, within cities and city-regions as well as between them, in rich as well as in poor cities. This vast program is illustrated with a very specific analysis of Johannesburg metropolitan governance within the iGoli project, although not necessarity laid out in terms of generic research tools and methodology.

Chapter 6 (“Cities futures”) implements the ordinary cities perspective into urban planning. It looks at economic prescriptions maybe by western urban economists in western contexts regarding the desirability of industrial diversity (or specialisation in the case of clusters). For example, in a section devoted to discussing J. Jacobs’ theory of diverse cities, J. Robinson notes that “Jacobs’s overall argument is that it is the everyday, tolerant coexistence of social difference and economic diversity that enables cities to bring together different people and different talents, to generate new activities and to enable innovation. Cities that encourage segregation – physical or social – from the ‘ordinary’ city, with its jumbled mixtures of uses and people, she suggests, will lack vitality and perhaps die. [
] Clearly, diverse neighbourhoods, the physical coexistence of a range of business environments and the spatial concentration of diverse activities can have the generative social and economic effects she described. But cities do not always get to be like that, and yet they remain sites for economic growth and innovation.” (p.159). However, she finds room to accomodate Jacobs’ theory within the ordinary cities framework by switching the scale of analysis from the neighbourhood to the city. “This chapter [shows] how keeping in mind the ordinary city – diverse, contested, connected – brings into view a range of potential strategies for enhancing economic growth that could encourage redistributive investments in infrastructure, as well as expand access to employment and support different kinds of livelihoods. Reinforcing the broadest agglomeration economies of cities, it has been suggested, along with encouraging diverse urban economies, might be more useful strategies than pouring scarce public resources into already successful clusters of globalising firms.” (p.164-5).

The conclusion summarises the content of the book and reinforces the double message that the author has been communicating throughout: the fact that all cities are distinctive and diverse, and that urban studies need to reflect this diversity. She adds a warning about the scientific status quo: “Facing a world of ever-expanding cities, more likely than ever before to be home to poor people, urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few wealthy cities: this would doom it to irrelevance.” (p.167).


Towards the end of the book, I must admit I was a little disappointed by the gap between the ambitious program set in introduction and the resulting implementation in the last chapters. The book is more of a manifest in my opinion, and I completely adhere to the core ideas of ordinary cities as the diverse material of a diverse urban studies. However, I found that the applications seemed too restricted in their scope to adequately prove the author’s point rather than just claim it. The message I take home is that we need to keep in mind, while we are studying cities, that they and their residents are diverse, connected and contested. This does not make a recipe on how to actually study cities, let alone design inclusive policies, but it is a significant step forward. A second point of critique I have towards the author’s method is that, although she acknowledges and celebrates diversity in cities and within cities, her resources remain very biased towards the dominant model when it comes to academic and theoretical references on the one hand, and to the type of city considered here on the other hand (. Regarding references, it is a pity that the only theories which are discussed (and criticised) are the dominant paradigms originating from prestigious US and UK scholars (the Chicago school, the GaWC, Louis Wirth, Jane Jacobs, Scott & Storper). Non-english writers are left entirely out of the schope, and so are less well-known scholars who have advocated for diverse urban studies before 2006. It leaves a false impression that ordinary cities are a theoretical greenfield emanated exclusively from an opposition to dominant english-speaking western references, which is probably not true. Regarding cities themselves, I wondered if it was a choice to restrict the analysis to large metropolises and national capitals (New York, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Johannesburg, Chicago, Singapore, Saint Petersburg, Mexico city, etc.), or just an ambiguity related to the fact that nowhere are cities defined. It seems however that smaller cities have a very important role to play in the promotion of the ordinary in urban studies. To paraphrase Robinson: “urban studies cannot continue to base its theoretical insights on the experiences of a few [large] cities: this would doom it to irrelevance”.

With respect to my project about the scales of urban inequality, I have found interesting ideas about the relationship between industrial clusters and social segregation in chapters 4 and 6, which is mediated by J. Robinson through scale: “The benefits of proximity for networks of learning, cooperation and competition in dynamic clusters and specialised concentrations in some cities would be very relevant examples of innovation through single-use neighbourhoods, a kind of ‘segregation’. But, in many cases, strong concentrations of certain kinds of activities in cities do not translate into close spatial clustering, or into close interactions amongst similar firms, or even into stable ongoing interactions with actors […]. So, in economic terms, Jane Jacobs’s ‘ordinary city’ is perhaps best thought about at a city-wide scale where the diversity of activities that she identified as crucial to economic expansion and innovation coexist and have opportunities for the interactions she saw as crucial for generating new activities.” (p.160). I also keep her overall message about diverse, connected and contested cities in mind to draw inspiration, examples and illustrations from the most diverse pool of cities possible, large and small, from across the world when approaching urban studies.



Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in Belgeo, the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Justice Spatial / Spatial Justice (in French), the Journal of world-systems research, Research in African Literatures and Cultural Geographies.

Géographie des Inégalités

George P., 1981, Géographie des inégalités, Paris, Que Sais-Je, Presses Universitaires de France, 127p.

Alors que je dĂ©marrais un projet Ă©ditorial sur le thĂšme de la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, j’ai cherchĂ© les ouvrages existants (en français) sur le sujet et trouvĂ© en premiĂšre place ce petit volume de Pierre George datant de 1981. Je ne connaissais pas le travail du gĂ©ographe sur ce sujet, ayant plutĂŽt cĂŽtoyĂ© ses Ă©crits sur l’URSS, les villes et la gĂ©ographie Ă©conomique. Au moment oĂč je cherchais ce Que Sais-Je devenu rare (seuls 15% de l’ouvrage peuvent ĂȘtre lus sur Gallica), Denise Pumain en trouvait une copie dans une bibliothĂšque familiale et m’envoyait un scan de la conclusion, sans concertation mais Ă  point nommĂ©. J’ai depuis empruntĂ© le volume et lu ce texte datant de presque quarante ans. Il me conforte dans l’idĂ©e de renouveler l’exercice aujourd’hui, car certains faits et processus ont changĂ©, mais j’ai Ă©tĂ© aussi Ă©tonnĂ©e de son actualitĂ© et de la prĂ©sence dĂ©jĂ  ancienne de questions toujours non rĂ©solues dans la gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, et en premier lieu celle, sur laquelle je reviendrai, de l’importance de l’Ă©chelle gĂ©ographique dans la prĂ©sentation, la comprĂ©hension et la reprĂ©sentation des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

PubliĂ© chez PUF dans la collection Que Sais-Je, cet ouvrage est vu par P. George comme une actualisation de son opus GĂ©ographie de la Consommation dans la mĂȘme collection vingt ans plus tĂŽt, et qui abordait les diffĂ©rences nationales en termes de niveau de consommation, contrastant des espaces de sous-consommation et des espaces de sur-consommation. “Il a paru plus conforme aux circonstances de reprendre la question en amont et de proposer Ă  des recherches plus approfondies une prise en compte des facteurs de diffĂ©renciation des consommations Ă  l’Ă©chelle de la gĂ©ographie gĂ©nĂ©rale, mais aussi des espaces plus concrets de la vie quotidienne, Il en est issu l’idĂ©e d’une GĂ©ographie des InĂ©galitĂ©s.” (p.4). Cette approche des niveaux de vie par les conditions matĂ©rielles de leur rĂ©alisation est un point important de l’ouvrage et n’est pas Ă©tranger aux propositions d’A. Sen sur les capabilitĂ©s, mais il peut surprendre dans le contexte actuel oĂč la majoritĂ© des ouvrages sur les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques prennent pour acquis l’usage des variables de revenus, de salaires et de patrimoine pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s. Dans cet ouvrage, l’auteur aborde aussi bien les niveaux de production agricole que ceux de la consommation alimentaire pour dĂ©crire les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux situĂ©s sur des espaces diffĂ©rents (diffĂ©renciation internationale, opposition urbain-rural) mais aussi les inĂ©galitĂ©s entre groupes sociaux d’un mĂȘme espace (les grandes villes notamment).



L’ouvrage se compose d’une introduction et d’une conclusion, sĂ©parĂ©es par trois chapitres : un premier chapitre est consacrĂ© au “pays industriels”, un second Ă  “la pauvretĂ©” et un dernier (“une nouvelle donne?”) au dĂ©veloppement Ă©conomique et ses consĂ©quences en termes de nouveaux Ă©quilibres mondiaux des inĂ©galitĂ©s.

DĂšs l’introduction, la question des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la perception, la comprĂ©hension et l’analyse des inĂ©galitĂ©s apparaĂźt comme centrale. Selon P. George, “l’espace est fait d’unitĂ©s prĂ©sentant certains caractĂšres d’homogĂ©nĂ©itĂ©, emboĂźtĂ©es les unes dans les autres. A l’intĂ©rieur de chacune d’elles se diffĂ©rencient des secteurs d’inĂ©galitĂ©s. Une gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, comme toute gĂ©ographie, s’articule donc suivant diverses Ă©chelles. Il y a autant de nĂ©cessitĂ© Ă  prendre en compte dans une ville ou dans une rĂ©gion les diffĂ©renciations sociales de l’occupation et de la maĂźtrise de l’espace qu’Ă  mesurer les Ă©carts entre de grands ensembles continentaux.” (p.8). La dĂ©finition des inĂ©galitĂ©s est ici rendue par l’idĂ©e de diffĂ©renciation entre zones homogĂšnes. Le parti est pris dĂšs le dĂ©but de l’ouvrage de s’intĂ©resser avant tout aux inĂ©galitĂ©s (et donc aux diffĂ©renciations) de niveau de vie Ă©conomique: “Quel que soit le caractĂšre choquant des discriminations liĂ©es Ă  la naissance ou Ă  l’appartenance Ă  une collectivitĂ© ethno-culturelle, les grands contrastes de conditions de vie et mĂȘme, Ă  la base, de chances de survie, reposent sur la rĂ©partition des moyens d’existence. [
] ConcrĂštement, les clivages les plus perceptibles des inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques et sociales se projettent sur l’utilisation de l’espace.” (p.7). L’objectif de cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s est donc de prĂ©senter les inĂ©galitĂ©s Ă©conomiques mondiales Ă  travers la lecture des diffĂ©renciations spatiales produites par les sociĂ©tĂ©s Ă  diffĂ©rentes Ă©chelles.

Le premier chapitre brosse une gĂ©ographie de la richesse et des inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays industriels – c’est-Ă -dire principalement de l’Europe, du Japon, de l’AmĂ©rique du Nord et du bloc socialiste de l’Ă©poque – en deux Ă©tapes. La premiĂšre partie du chapitre dĂ©crit le niveau de richesse absolu des Etats concernĂ©s, en se rĂ©fĂ©rant Ă  leur niveau de vie et de consommation, mais aussi Ă  la structure sociale de la sociĂ©tĂ©, qualifiĂ©e “de classes moyennes”. L’ouvrage a cette qualitĂ© de ramener systĂ©matiquement la distribution des richesses Ă  leur projection dans l’espace. Par exemple:

“En France, l’Ă©cart officiel est de l’ordre de 1 Ă  7 entre le salaire minimum garanti et les Ă©moluments d’un cadre supĂ©rieur. La hiĂ©rarchie des revenus rĂ©els et sa rĂ©partition sont en fait toutes diffĂ©rentes – autant du fait des inexactitudes Ă  la base que des sous-Ă©valuations au sommet – et se projette sur une Ă©chelle beaucoup plus Ă©tirĂ©e et gĂ©nĂ©ralement dĂ©calĂ©e dans l’ensemble vers le haut. En premier lieu, les conditions d’une famille peuvent varier sensiblement suivant qu’il est possible ou non dans un mĂȘme lieu de rĂ©unir plusieurs salaires par mĂ©nages. Les rĂ©gions ou les villes qui n’offrent qu’un type d’activitĂ©, et notamment que des activitĂ©s masculines, sont pĂ©nalisĂ©es par rapport Ă  celles oĂč tous les Ă©lĂ©ments d’Ăąge actif d’une famille peuvent exercer un emploi rĂ©munĂ©rĂ©. C’est notamment le cas des pays miniers ou des rĂ©gions d’activitĂ©s industrielles Ă  forte majoritĂ© d’emplois masculins (sidĂ©rurgie en particulier).” (p.24)

L’auteur opĂšre ensuite une dĂ©clinaison scalaire de ces niveaux de vie au sein des pays industriels. “On doit prendre en compte toute une hiĂ©rarchie de situations qui se projette dans l’espace Ă  des Ă©chelles diffĂ©rentes: inĂ©galitĂ©s entre villes et campagnes qui engendrent l’exode rural, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre petites villes et grandes villes, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions rurales Ă  forte productivitĂ© (et Ă  population relativement nombreuse) et rĂ©gions rurales Ă  basse productivitĂ©, inĂ©galitĂ©s entre rĂ©gions Ă  intĂ©gration industrielle multiforme assurant diversitĂ© et relĂšve d’emplois et rĂ©gions mono-industrielles exposĂ©es aux crises conjoncturelles et techniques” (p.34-5). La seconde partie du chapitre Ă©voque les dĂ©fis de ces Etats pourtant privilĂ©giĂ©s relativement Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, au travers de l’injonction Ă  la croissance illimitĂ©e et des crises successives. Une mention est faite aux pays socialistes, qui ne sont pas pour autant fondamentalement distinguĂ©s des pays industriels dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s. “Le principe organique de la sociĂ©tĂ© [socialiste] est une rĂ©partition Ă©galitaire des revenus sectoriels modulĂ©e en fonction de la qualitĂ© de l’activitĂ© exercĂ©e. Dans la pratique, des avantages non comptabilisĂ©s privilĂ©gient la ‘classe politique et administrative’, communĂ©ment appelĂ©e la Nomenklatura, mais ils ne se transposent pas dans le paysage comme les diffĂ©rences sociales des pays d’économie libĂ©rale. Les structures urbaines sont uniformes, et discret l’impact gĂ©ographique des privilĂšges de fonction – dans les zones de ‘datchas’ ou les aires rĂ©servĂ©es aux loisirs des hauts fonctionnaires et des responsables politiques.” (p.43).

Le second chapitre est dĂ©diĂ© Ă  la pauvretĂ©, que P. George aborde par sa mesure, discutant tout d’abord les indicateurs les plus appropriĂ©s, notamment aux Ă©conomies agricoles d’auto-subsistance. L’auteur distingue ainsi les indicateurs (PNB par exemple) des rĂ©vĂ©lateurs (espĂ©rance de vie, Ă©tat de santĂ© et d’Ă©ducation notamment). “Dans la mesure du possible, il est souhaitable de dĂ©passer [la] premiĂšre approximation [du quotient de PNB] en Ă©valuant des revenus rĂ©els Ă  partir d’enquĂȘtes locales. La difficultĂ© majeure est que cette Ă©valuation ne peut se faire en signes monĂ©taires que pour des populations urbaines qui ne reprĂ©sentent que des minoritĂ©s, et dont une partie au moins est dans une situation relativement favorable par rapport Ă  la masse de la population qui est une population rurale. Or, la transposition de quantitĂ©s de produits agricoles en valeurs monĂ©taires, quand il est question de produits qui ne sont pas commercialisĂ©s, n’a guĂšre de sens.” (p.55-6). La seconde partie du chapitre met en relation les succĂšs apparents du dĂ©veloppement avec les preuves du maintien de la pauvretĂ©, notamment dans les pays de forte croissance dĂ©mographique. Cette discussion introduit l’importance de considĂ©rer les inĂ©galitĂ©s intra-nationales, par exemple dans le domaine de l’alimentation: “Ces donnĂ©es d’ordre gĂ©nĂ©ral ne fournissent qu’une image imparfaite des insuffisances alimentaires, en ce sens qu’elles ne font pas apparaĂźtre les privations affectant particuliĂšrement certaines catĂ©gories et certaines classes d’ñge de la population, et confondent dans une mĂȘme moyenne, mĂȘme gravement insuffisante, la succession de pĂ©riodes au cours desquelles elles sont susceptibles de varier dans des proportions importantes. Une grande partie des disponibilitĂ©s alimentaires est absorbĂ©e par les minoritĂ©s privilĂ©giĂ©es rĂ©sidant en ville et consommant les nourritures les plus riches souvent fournies par l’importation. Les moyennes recouvrent de sensibles diffĂ©rences d’un lieu Ă  l’autre.” (p.57-9).

Le troisiĂšme chapitre enfin Ă©voque la situation des Etats intermĂ©diaires. Ces Etats incluent les pays pĂ©troliers (“la fortune sans richesse”) ainsi que ceux que l’on qualifie aujourd’hui d’Ă©mergents (Chine, BrĂ©sil, Mexique par exemple). A propos des sociĂ©tĂ©s des pays pays pĂ©troliers et de leurs disparitĂ©s sociales et spatiales, P. George note que “le contraste est probablement un des plus forts qu’on puisse observer dans le monde” (p.88). A propos des pays Ă©mergents, caractĂ©risĂ©s par la vitesse de leur dĂ©collage tout autant que par leur niveau de vie intermĂ©diaire, l’auteur tente d’identifier les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques communes qui les diffĂ©rencient des Etats restĂ©s pauvres ou en dĂ©veloppement. Selon lui, et sans dĂ©terminisme, “les Ă©lĂ©ments principaux peuvent ĂȘtre ramenĂ©s dans une approche prĂ©liminaire au nombre de quatre : la dimension, les facteurs naturels de production, la maĂźtrise de la dynamique dĂ©mographique, les structures de production. […] Les conditions gĂ©ographiques et historiques favorisent, sinon imposent, certains choix. Ceux-ci incombent Ă  la classe politique gĂ©rant les affaires d’Etat et qui se confond, sous des formes variĂ©es dans la structure et l’idĂ©ologie retenues, avec la classe Ă©conomique. Il en rĂ©sulte des clivages dĂ©cisifs Ă  l’intĂ©rieur de la sociĂ©tĂ©, dont il sera fait Ă©tat au titre des inĂ©galitĂ©s dans le dĂ©veloppement.” (p.93-8). Si la situation moyenne des Etats dĂ©crits ici est intermĂ©diaire Ă  l’Ă©chelle mondiale, P. George consacre la fin de ce chapitre Ă  montrer Ă  quel point cette moyenne masque les inĂ©galitĂ©s les plus extrĂȘmes entre classes aisĂ©es et dĂ©munies, entre quartiers riches et quartiers pauvres, entre capitales nationales et villes secondaires notamment. Loin d’ĂȘtre un effet secondaire, ces inĂ©galitĂ©s font partie selon lui du processus mĂȘme de dĂ©veloppement de ces pays. « Les grandes Ă©conomies libĂ©rales en voie de dĂ©veloppement rapide sont les plus inĂ©galitaires du monde. Les inĂ©galitĂ©s se projettent sur deux plans, celui de l’échelle sociale globale et celui de l’espace gĂ©ographique dĂ©multipliĂ© Ă  son tour en unitĂ©s rĂ©gionales et en subdivisions locales. Le fondement de l’inĂ©galitĂ© est l’armature mĂȘme du dĂ©veloppement. » (p.105-6).

Dans la conclusion, P. George retourne Ă  son argument de l’imbrication des Ă©chelles gĂ©ographiques dans la lecture des inĂ©galitĂ©s au travers des diffĂ©renciations spatiales: “les ‘disparitĂ©s rĂ©gionales’, l’inĂ©gal dĂ©veloppement des Ă©conomies urbaines et des Ă©conomies rurales, la hiĂ©rarchie des villes, les sĂ©grĂ©gations intra-urbaines sont les thĂšmes gĂ©ographiques de l’inĂ©galitĂ© Ă  l’échelle des Etats, des rĂ©gions, des agglomĂ©rations. » (p. 122-3). Il met en relation les sociĂ©tĂ©s mondiales analysĂ©es sĂ©parĂ©ment durant l’ouvrage, en notant par exemple que les inĂ©galitĂ©s des pays en dĂ©veloppement au moment de l’Ă©criture sont incomparablement plus Ă©levĂ©es que celles qu’ont connu les pays industrialisĂ©s, sur lesquels sont pourtant fondĂ©s les figures typiques de la sĂ©grĂ©gation en gĂ©ographie (l’opposition ‘beaux quartiers’ / ‘quartiers ouvriers’ dans les villes par exemple). Le rĂŽle des indicateurs statistiques, utilisĂ©s tout au long du livre pour prĂ©senter les ordres de grandeur de la richesse et de la pauvretĂ© des pays, rĂ©gions, villes et quartiers, est relativisĂ© par l’auteur qui  les traite de “moules vides” et recommande de leur adjoindre des Ă©lĂ©ments d’explication issus de l’observation et du dialogue. Enfin, il plaide pour une gĂ©ographie “utile” qui dĂ©crit les inĂ©galitĂ©s pour dĂ©noncer leurs consĂ©quences nĂ©gatives et contribuer Ă  “la prise de conscience de la nĂ©cessitĂ© d’une certaine forme d’action rĂ©paratrice” (p. 123).



L’analyse critique de cet ouvrage trente huit ans aprĂšs sa publication a la tache impossible de distinguer les incongruitĂ©s dus aux parti-pris de l’auteur de celles rĂ©vĂ©lĂ©es a posteriori par les changements advenus dans le monde en gĂ©nĂ©ral depuis 1981 et dans celui de la gĂ©ographie en particulier. Notons donc simplement quelques faiblesses de l’ouvrage pour le lecteur contemporain, notamment liĂ©es Ă  la prĂ©-Ă©minence de l’Ă©chelle des Etats, malgrĂ© les efforts importants de l’auteur pour offrir une analyse multiscalaire. Ainsi, les Etats Ă©tant l’Ă©chelon premier qui divisent le monde dans cette gĂ©ographie des inĂ©galitĂ©s, il n’est fait usage nulle part (ou trĂšs peu) des ensembles territoriaux plus larges (tels que l’Union EuropĂ©enne, l’URSS ou l’ALENA) qui non seulement permettrait une classification plus homogĂšne des espaces au regard des inĂ©galitĂ©s (au lieu de la dichotomie pays industriels / pays en dĂ©veloppement) mais aussi constituent pour certains des espaces de redistribution de la richesse (le Fond EuropĂ©en pour la Politique RĂ©gionale par exemple, crĂ©Ă© en 1975, qui existait donc dĂ©jĂ  au moment de l’Ă©criture de l’ouvrage). Cette absence de considĂ©ration pour les institutions supra- ou sub-nationales s’accompagne d’une faible attention portĂ©e aux politiques de rĂ©duction des inĂ©galitĂ©s en gĂ©nĂ©ral. Enfin, la description des niveaux de vie par pays et de leurs disparitĂ©s gĂ©ographiques telle qu’elle est mise en oeuvre dans le livre de P. George masque un aspect important des inĂ©galitĂ©s et de leur dynamique, Ă  savoir les interactions entre espaces (par le commerce, la finance ou les investissements, mais aussi les relations politiques et militaires dans un contexte post-colonial).

La prioritĂ© donnĂ©e aux Etats et au processus de dĂ©veloppement face aux relations internationales reflĂšte peut-ĂȘtre l’anachronisme d’une lecture biaisĂ©e par l’idĂ©e actuelle de mondialisation, mais suggĂšre que l’actualisation de ce travail doit dĂ©sormais incorporer cette dimension. Ce petit Que Sais-Je mĂ©rite toutefois d’ĂȘtre lu aujourd’hui, ne serait-ce pour son attention au caractĂšre multi-scalaire des inĂ©galitĂ©s et pour sa projection systĂ©matique des diffĂ©renciations sociales dans l’espace gĂ©ographique.


Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyĂ© mon compte rendu. Il est constituĂ© d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considĂ©rĂ©s comme importants. Chaque citation est accompagnĂ©e d’un ou plusieurs mots clĂ©s (ou tags), prĂ©cĂ©dĂ©s d’un # afin d’effectuer des recherches thĂ©matiques dans le document. Les passages en gras ne le sont pas nĂ©cessairement dans la version originale.

A short history of inequality

Alacevich M., Soci A., 2017, A Short History of Inequality, Agenda Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 232p.

I have purchased this book in the hall leading to a Regional Studies Association conference in London last year. The promising title and the short format (232 pages including a 50-page appendix on the measures of inequality) suggested a quick read and a useful textbook to keep at reach for future reference. It has kept its promises and also delivered some surprises.

The first surprise is that the book is more a history of the economics of inequality than a history of inequality itself. Indeed, the title suggests that the reader will find at some point a collection of historical evolutions of inequality indices. There are some of such graphs, but they do no make the core of this book. Instead, the place of inequality within economics as a discipline and its main contributors are exposed and explained. This history of economics includes accounts of how measures of inequality came about and how they were used to support theories about the social distribution of economic resources. This approach can be explained by the profile of one of the authors, Michele Alacevich, who is an Associate Professor of Economic History and the History of Economic Thought at the University of Bologna. His collaboration with Anna Soci, Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna, dates back from their concomittant stay at Columbia University  in the early 2010s.

The second surprise of the book is an additional focus on dialectic relationships (inequality and globalisation in chapter four, inequality and democracy in chapter five) which brings insightful reflexions about the causes and consequences of inequality, even though it is sometimes detached from the main narrative. The biggest contribution of this book in my perspective is its general information on the history of inequality studies (for example the biographies of Lorenz, Pareto and Gini which were new to me) as well as the wide (yet digest) presentation of how inequality can be approached, in terms of scales (global, international and national accounts), of content (income, wealth, production, capabilities) and of rationale (equity, welfare, democracy). Obviously, some aspects and discussions (especially on data sources) are missing but the authors have compensated this by deeper analyses in the dialectic chapters, so that the small book does not cover only superficial categories. I think all in all, the book falls short of telling the history of inequality (which is fine since other books had done it already anyway), yet it provides an original and reflexive contribution well worth the (quick) read.



The book is structured around an introduction, six chapters and an appendix. The introduction and chapter one set the frame and incentives for studying inequality, recalling why it is a social issue that economists should address. Chapter two and three present how and why inequality has been sidetracked from mainstream economics until very recently, because of its object (individuals) and methods (distributional statistics). Chapter four deals with inequality and globalization, and chapter five with inequality and democracy. The last chapter opens on the future of inequality, including sectoral politicies expected to reduce economic inequalities. The appendix details the statistics of inequality through a more in-depth presentation of the main measures of inequality (Gini, Theil, P10/P90, etc.).


As the introduction recalls, despite the sizeable place that economics of inequality hold in the public debate in recent years, it has long been an issue relegated to the side of mainstream economics, which were far more interested in the dynamics of growth and production than in the individual distribution of income and wealth. This is especially true for early industrialised countries. “Whereas economic inequality per se cannot be said to be a new issue, its catalytic power in terms of political discourse is indeed novel. […] While we have been used to consider inequality as a basic characteristic of many less developed countries (except perhaps the very poor countries, whose low inequality is mainly attributable to everybody being poor), only in recent years have pundits, the economics profession at large, and public opinion awakened to the fact that inequality has become a fundamental problem in countries that have long considered themselves immune from it – mainly the advanced countries” (p.4). What has changed to push the issue of inequality to the forefront of political economics, according to the authors, is the post-crisis increase of domestic (within-country) inequality in ‘advanced economies’ as well as a bigger focus on individuals (in part through democracy) and their capabilities. The  processes of globalisation and democratisation are intertwined with inequality at various geographical scales, and according to the authors: “Wether we succeed in giving globalization a human face and keeping democracy a credible and truly representative political system will depend in greatest part on how we resolve the problem of inequality” (p.10).

The first chapter is entitled “Why inequality is the real issue”. It aims to show how inequality differs from the related issues of poverty and growth, and why it should have precedence in this book. This take opposes the views of scholars like Nozick, Toqueville and Mc Closkey, for whom poverty is the real issue to resolve, for example by fostering a general enrichment of society (of the like of industrialisation), regardless of the further enrichment of the already rich. By contrast, the authors argue that the gap between rich and poor is important itself, on an economic as well as political level, because “while poverty may be smoothed as a nonantagonistic question, inequality will always, sooner or later, trigger a discussion about the structure of power and social disparities in a given society” (p.15). In this first chapter, inequality is also related to its counterpart: equality, a much bigger subject in social philosophy and the first contributors to classical economics, whereas it became a strong deterrent in neoclassical economics, increasing the acceptability (and even desirability) of inequality in this body of work. For the authors, inequality is everything but a desirable outcome: “not only does structural inequality undermine the functioning of global and national economic systems, its disruptive power in the economic sphere also merges with other dimensions of inequality in a society, such as racial and gender inequality; inequality in education, opportunities, and other social attributes such as class and status; inequality in life expectancy; and, in less lucky countries, inequality in access to much more basic necessities, such as food and potable water. These inequalities reinforce each other (though not always in a linear ways) to produce visious circles, through a process called “cumulative causation”, that entrap most disadvantaged individuals or groups and make them increasingly behind the privileged ones. Social scientists have insisted on ‘self-reinforcing mechanisms’, ‘critical thresholds’, ‘dysfunctional institutions’ and other forces that perpetuate existing stratifications and work against social mobility” (p.22). One further argument against inequality in this chapter is that “Inequality deeply penetrates the social fabric, shapes it, and remains engrained in it, possibly for generations. Inequality, in other words, is inherited. […] It imperils the mechanisms of a healthy democracy” (p.23-4).

In view of this opposition of arguments, the second chapter contextualises “the long neglect of inequality” within the history of economic thought. The inter-individual inequality of wealth and income has been neglected in mainstream economics until recently for three reasons according to the authors. Firstly, “whereas a theory of personal income and wealth distribution, which is vital to the study of inequality, has been prominently absent from the economic literature, another kind of distribution has played a very important role, name functional distribution. […] Thus the distribution of production, central to the classical economic thought, is ‘functional’ since it pertains to the distribution of the product to the groups that contribute to production.” (p.27-31). The groups in question (workers and capitalists, or producers and consumers) are taken as homogenous units, leading the way to the ‘representative agent’ of neoclassical economics. This way of thinking excludes the possibility and necessity for a “complete theory of personal distribution because there are no person” (p.36). Secondly, the lives of individuals were not viewed as legitimate objects of economic analysis until recently. “Even during the French Revolution, the bourgeois favored political equality but not social or economic equality. The time was not ripe for a social revolution that would make the individual its center. Much time would elapse before the individual became the true focus of societal studies” (p.32-3). Thirdly, the study of inequality to inform the opportunity of state intervention lies on normative grounds, and presupposes the adoption of an idea of social justice, which mainstream economics (including the New Welfare doctrine) have rejected, focusing instead on “the problem of efficient allocation of resources in the form of so-called Pareto optimality, according to which an allocation is Pareto optimal whenever it cannot be reorganized so to improved the condition (utility) of somebody without worsening that of other” (p.38). Finally, the authors note that as a result, a complete and consistant theory of the personal distribution of income does not exist in the discipline. “Regrettably, at least for the construction of a theory of size distribution of revenues, twentieth-century economics has been occupied in diatribes between the two competing Keneysian and neoclassical theories, leaving no space for other ideas or for contamination from other disciplines, such as sociology and politics” (p.44).

Chapter three complements the picture by describing “the statistical drift of inequality studies”. Indeed, as a consequence of the absence of theory, the authors suggest that economics of inequality resorted instead to present factual observations and to design ever more sophisticated ways of summarising them (i.e. statistics and inequality measures). They review in details the landmark measures of inequality (Pareto’s alpha, Lorenz’s curve, Gini’s coefficient), highlighting their strength and weaknesses. For example, compared to the descriptive fitting of Pareto to a power law distribution, Lorenz introduced the idea of concentration of wealth/income with respect to the share of population holding it. “As Lorenz put it, the purpose of his 1905 article – apparently his only publication in a scientific journal – appeared to be rather humble: to discuss some techniques used thus far in distribution analysis, and to suggest ‘an additional one’ in order to ‘take account simultaneously of changes in wealth and changes in population’. In particular, Lorenz insisted on the benefits that a graphical representation of distributional data would offer” (p.51-2). By integrating over this curve to produce a bounded index, Gini popularised Lorenz’s curve and allowed for the scale- and population-independent comparison of spatio-temporal units with respect to inequality. “Contrary to Pareto’s outcome of a uniform distribution of wealth across countries and time, he found that total income distribution differs geographically” (p.53). The drawbacks of the Gini index are well-known (uni-dimensionality, low sensibility to extremes, non decomposability). The latter one was alleviated by Theil’s entropy index, which allows to measure “how much of the inequality is due to difference showed by the groups of observations in relation to each other and how much, conversely, is due to differences within each group of observations.” (p.55), distinguishing for example the within-country and between-country inequality. The presentation then turns to Kuznets’ theory and the inverted-U-shape curve that bears his name (although he never traced it apparently). The authors recall the principle of this theory: “During the process of economic development – that is, as the society as a whole comes richer – inequality rises, but eventually it reaches a plateau and starts to decrease while economic development proceeds” (p.61), its reliance on between-sectors processes (agriculture and industry in the original version) and how it might have been misinterpreted as an explanation for the differences in inequality between countries (non-ergodicity). The final developments detailed in chapter three regards Atkinson’s work of translating the Lorenz curve into welfare functions and vice versa and Sen’s introduction of the capabilities approach.

Chapter four dives into the relationships between inequality and globalisation. It starts by illustrating the relation with the phenomenon of international migrations: “the current Mediterranean migration underscores that migrations are a fundamental factor directly affecting and affected by inequality dynamics at the global level. People’s ability to migrate is not only an unmistakable sign that globalizing forces are at work; it is also one of the principal mechanisms for individuals to raise their standard of living and increase their position in the global income distribution” (p.73). The analysis is then split into within, between-country and global inequality. Within-country inequality is shown to have decreased after WWII, then reversed to increase again after the 1970s. “The downward trend of the Kuznets curve [in a number of countries] was due to a number of factors, some positive and some negative, such as the closing gap between rural and urban wages; the reduction in return on capital; destruction of capital; higher taxation, and inflation caused by the two world wars; and major political shifts in favor of inclusive and redistributive policies” (p.92). Since then, between-country (or international) inequality has increased and stagnated while population-weighted between-country (or global) inequality has decreased, especially thanks to the economic development of India and China. Thus, between-country is  becoming a less prominent contributor to the levels of global inequality (i.e. population-weighted between-country inequality). Therefore, to which family one is born is becoming more important than a few decades ago to explain their level of wealth and income, compared to which country they were born in (which explained the bulk of global inequality between WWII and 1980). To summarise “the combination of diminishing within-country inequality in large Asian countries and increasing within-country inequality in a number of rich countries, especially the United States, has important global consequences. The richest 1 per cent of any country’s population has obviously benefitted everywhere, taking an increasingly larger slice of the pie. Among the beneficiaries of this beneficiaries of this phenomenon, however, is also the emerging middle class in China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where, of course, the middle class would be considered poor if compared in absolute terms with the middle class of Western economies. The great losers, in this global reshuffle, are those belonging to the lower middle class of rich countries, whose real incomes, in the last tweny-five years, have grown slowly or remained stagnant” (p.103).

In chapter five, the authors address the ‘open issue of inequality and democracy’. They recall the absence of univocal causal links between political equality and economic equality beyond the obvious: “the absence of political equality makes the issue of economic equality irrelevant” (p.109). However, the authors present arguments as to how economic inequality threatens democracy. For example “A substantial degree of economic inequality may corrupt political equality or slow the realization of its potential, even in a democratic regime. […] There is evidence that the rich have great influence on the behavior of elected officials while people in the bottom third of the income distribution seem to have no impact, and, in general, political leaders apprear to react to what middle- and upper-income citizens prefer.” (p.109-16). Economic inequality is shown to have negative consequences on other social features praised by democratic societies, such as health,  education opportunities, and intergenerational social mobility.

The ‘future of inequality’ concludes the book as a sixth chapter. It presents policies aimed at reducting inequality at different scales, based on four arguments: “first, inequality, though present in nature, is not inevitable in human societies. Second, values, ideologies, and institutions play an fundamental role in how and to what extent a society adopts policies that curb inequality. Third, excessive inequality is socially disruptive and lowers the standard of living of all members of a community, including the well-off. Fourth, policies are needed to redress inequality [
 because] the market alone is unable to address complex social issues like inequality” (p.130). To curb within-  ‘advanced’ country inequality, the authors recommend fiscal policies (inc. tax rates, brackets and thresholds), corporate institutional reforms (transparency of financial operations, anti-trust legislation, minimum wages, social security), educational policies (in touch with the current technological needs) and social mobility programs. To curb within- ‘developing’ country inequality, the authors advocate for economic, social and institutional reforms, yet “gradualist and selective reforms, consensus building, the creation of an institutional infrastructure (which cannot happen overnight), phased restructuring, room for policy latitude – in sum, a sensitivity to the dynamics of change and transition – are equally as important if not more important” (p.140). To curb between-country inequality, they push for growth (to help alleviate international poverty) and between-country redistribution through international aid and a substantial contribution of rich countries towards ecological sustainability.



“As Nobel laureate Jan Tingergen noticed more than fifty years ago, the statistical description of income distribution was much more advanced than its economic interpretation. [
] Today the situation is not substantially different, notwithstanding a flourishing new body of research. Some ‘building blocks’ – such as skill-based technical progress, human capital formation, and wealth accumulation – are recognized as among the main mechnisms operating on economic inequality, but a complehensive theory is still lacking” (p.60). Despite this brief in-passing note of the authors about building block mechanisms, I have not found this book to provide a comprehensive account of the dynamics of inequality. Similarly, despite some elements in the appendix, I found that the authors brushed aside the data question very quickly. However, what type of data is available, curated and used to apply the measures of inequality is a strong determinant of the quality of resulting analysis (especially when increasing/decreasing trends are not very stark). When crude and ‘dirty’ data is thrown at slick and sophisticated statistical apparatuses, unfortunately it tends to produce crude and ‘dirty’ rather than slick and sophisticated results. A deeper inquiry around data sources and quality could have also raised some questions about collection boundaries and the meaning of expressing inequality only in terms of between- and within-country. Inter- regional, continental, urban, local inequality are almost absent in economics of inequality, and potentially so because of the dominant use national accounts data (i.e. individual data aggregated at the state level). Survey data or other aggregations of individual data could offer a renewed vision of the state of inequality in the world, distinguishing the class (within-) and place (between-) terms for different types of spaces (and accessibility between them).

All in all, this small book does a good job at providing a thorough summary of the main contributions to economics of inequality, of statistics and scales involved, on policies proposed to curb inequality. It constitues a perfect introduction to the subject and points to a diversity of potential paths to explore further.


Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Another review of this book has been published in the Journal of Economics.

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