‘Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists’ reviewed by Ian Sinclair

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists

Policy Press, Bristol, revised edition 2015. 473pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9781447320753

Reviewed by Ian Sinclair

About the reviewer

Ian Sinclair is a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. His thesis, entitled On Being …


Danny Dorling invites us to consider a simple premise: particular forms of inequality are a distinct mark of social injustice and should be altered. At the outset of the book, Dorling notes that “no one claims to be on the side of injustice” (2), and sets himself the task of excavating the beliefs that enable and sustain the relevant forms of inequality that are otherwise taken to be reasonable beliefs or assumptions about the world that we inhabit. Dorling nominates five tenets of injustice that also form of the chapter structure of the book: elitism is efficient; exclusion is necessary; prejudice is natural; greed is good; and despair is inevitable. These tenets, so Dorling contends, are the beliefs that make inequality persist and are at once “unfounded” and “false justification for those who benefit most from injustice” (3).

One can read Dorling’s approach as at once rhetorical and epistemic. Rhetorically, Dorling wishes to convince us that these beliefs are not innate predispositions of human cognition but socially bound convictions, belief in which is “widespread among people in power” (5). Thus, we are to be persuaded that belief in these tenets does in fact constitute an implicit claim to be on the side of injustice. Epistemically, Dorling summons an array of sociological data to show that whether or not such beliefs are taken as a symptom and cause of social injustice, they are nevertheless untenable and false. Thus we are exposed to the vacuity of arguments that would otherwise attempt to demonstrate the validity of these beliefs.

This twofold character shows the absence of a third potential aspect that is perhaps unhelpfully absent from the overall argument. That is, it is not altogether clear through what conceptual framework or lens Dorling’s analysis is being made. In the book’s opening we are left in the dark as to how one might identify injustice as in fact injustice. Instead, we are to take the five tenets as sufficiently indicative as to what injustice is and does. These five tenets echo Iris Marion Young’s ‘five faces of oppression’: exploitation, marginalisation, cultural imperialism, violence, and powerlessness. Young, however, provided an account of what oppression is and does; one can then trace the way in which the five faces are derived from that account.

This is not to suggest that Dorling’s text lacks force, only that one has to be clear from where that force derives. This is not a text offering a philosophical exposition on the concept of inequality and how that concept then applies to ‘the real world’, but a politically charged book that attempts to marshal as much evidence as might convince us to interpret pertinent social facts as injustice. If one accepts the gambit, the cartography of inequality that Dorling offers becomes a map of extensive injustice that intersects and loops showing that the five tenets, far from being distinct regions are associated landmarks on a shared terrain.

One of the difficulties with the text is the exhaustive, and at times exhausting, quantity of facts and figures that Dorling corrals in plotting the map, and the way in which this evidence is then related to the narrative exposition accompanying it. At times, there is a reliance on the sheer volume of evidence to make the argument. This, in itself, is not necessarily problematic; however where the text darts to a new point of reference having concluded an analysis of data, the otherwise determined trajectory of Dorling’s argument can be delayed by a detour to a new, and sometimes seemingly unrelated, item.

For example, chapter five opens with an overview of various prejudices, with racism being the undercurrent theme (159-63). But a few pages in, the tone alters as a statistical analysis of household debt and income is initiated (164). The section is reconciled by an consideration of how the indentured come to be castigated as undeserving: “A myth of our times is that people fall to the bottom because they are undeserving (lazy)” (172). Although the discussion that follows in the text neatly ties indebtedness and prejudice together, a signpost indicating the destination of discussion would at least inform the reader as to why certain routes are pursued.

This is, however, not necessarily Dorling’s fault. One of the impressions that the book produces is how thoroughly imbricated the five tenets of injustice are, so that their separation is really for the purposes of analytic clarity, rather than a reflection of actually existing separations. It is, therefore, not uncommon to feel that one is treading on familiar ground at certain points in the book, albeit from a different angle than before. For example, Dorling’s excursus on ‘celebrity culture’ (276-89) appears in the chapter examining ‘greed is good’, yet the points made in that section could have been used to demonstrate the paucity of reason to believe that ‘elitism is efficient’, which is discussed much earlier (27-98).

This, I would suggest, is one of the overwhelming strengths of the book: Dorling wishes to leave as few stones unturned as possible, and detail as rich a map as possible. Even if the information is not always organised in the clearest or most coherent fashion, it is certainly to Dorling’s credit that he has seemingly made every effort to be comprehensive. That this is a fully-revised edition might makes one ponder how many more additions and revisions could actually be made to further the cause for which Dorling battles, but it must be remembered, as Dorling does in opening the text (2-3), that terrain shifts and changes; what Dorling can provide is a snapshot, and a startling one at that. But what is captured in this snapshot is at once far-reaching and detailed.

That Dorling’s analysis is primarily based upon sociological and statistical data does, unfortunately, mean that, at times, the narrative exposition that accompanies the data can appear thin, if not outright unsubstantiated. When Dorling claims that prejudice today is “less about skin colour and more about suspicions and feelings […] Prejudice is more about genes than pigment” (164), it is concerning that such a strong claim should remain asserted, rather than argued, with no references to bolster it.

This means that sometimes the threads that Dorling weaves together have to be taken at face value, however convincing or appealing they might be at first sight. But, depending upon how one reads the text, this does not necessarily undermine the overall thrust of the text. If one understands Injustice as a piece of rhetoric aimed to incense by showing up the deeply embedded rivers of inequality and injustice, Dorling’s discourse becomes powerfully effective. If, however, one is anticipating a careful conceptual analysis of the terms of debate, Injustice can fall short of the mark.

It is to Dorling’s credit that out of the facts, figures, statistics, and data, he attempts to draw conclusions that avoid the pessimistic negativity that sometimes accompanies philosophical critique. This results in underscoring a crucial strength of the text. In trying to uncover the practices that support the five tenets of injustice, however tendentiously done, Dorling attempts to offer us ways in which we can attempt to undermine, if not eliminate, these tenets in our everyday routines and practices.

Whether or not one agrees with Dorling’s attempt to inspire social change, the means by which he sees this occurring need to be carefully debated. Despite showing that the networks and relations of inequality and injustice interrelate, Dorling is hesitant to designate an overriding system that is responsible for this structuration. A mention of capitalism appears very late in the text (339), yet one can easily read it as the spectral target of much of the text. Despite this, Dorling is a reformist, and not a revolutionary. Instead of advocating an overhaul of the system that provides the main structuring principles resulting in the inequality Dorling so decries, what is recommended is a piecemeal challenge to the numerous unjust practices that become transposed into the statistical reality detailed in the book.

Without a more thorough analysis, and accompany conceptualisation, of social formations and social structures, there is a risk that Dorling’s conclusions are hopeful platitudes, not subversive practices that follow from an examination of the weakest points of a system to which we all ought to be opposed. As Dorling writes, “[S]lowly, collectively, with one step back for every two taken forward, we inch onwards to progress; we gradually undo the mistakes of the past, and recognise new forms of injustice arising out of what we once thought were solutions” (392).

In conclusion, Dorling’s text is an invaluable reference that anybody and everybody concerned with inequality, social (in)justice, and the underside to the world in which we live ought have on their bookshelf. Its abundance of facts and figures can usefully be deployed to show the extent of inequality that people might otherwise claim is negligible. The conceptual and theoretical limitations offer little by way of examining the terms of debate, and clarifying or refining the words that we are to use as weapons. But, there are worse texts from which to begin a consideration of inequality and injustice, and for that reason one ought not too quickly dismiss Dorling’s project.

1 April 2016

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