Introducing: Unequal Lives
In this, my first piece of writing on this webpage, I want to tell you a little more about my current research project. Entitled ‘Unequal Lives’, it is a four-year piece of work that takes me to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. My topic of study: inequality—or, more specifically, lived inequality. Below, I want to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the work, the case study, and future projections of the project.
What do Barack Obama, the Pope and former head of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz all have in common? They all believe (and have publicly declared) that inequality is the biggest challenge of our times.
In the United Kingdom, the geographer Danny Dorling (of Oxford University) argued in 2007 that our life chances are now more determined by where we are born than at any other time in the past 650 years. And, if that wasn’t enough to encourage you to take note, a growing raft of evidence has pointed to how the impacts of inequality make all of our lives worse—even those most affluent members of society (see in particular Wilkinson and Pickett’s seminal work ‘The Spirit Level’).
It is therefore not surprising that inequality is increasingly finding prominence in popular and policy debates. But this object we call inequality is a very particular problem—it has been framed through certain ideas, rationalities and indicators. Take a recent study by the charity Oxfam, released in 2017. They report that the richest eight people now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the global population—approximately 3.6 billion people. Accompanying this headline: a photograph of an empty golf buggy (a nod, of course, to the lifestyle of the rich individuals identified here).
The headline and its accompanying image are startling, and no doubt grab the imagination. But—and this is a big but, I believe—we cannot truly consider inequality in this numerical, disembodied fashion alone. If they’re not in this golf buggy, then where are the people behind these statistics? What are the processes through which one group has gained wealth, whilst others have fallen behind? How are these forms of becoming unequal taking place? And how do people feel about being made unequal, and strive for acts of resistance through equalisation?
The point I am making here is that we need to do far more than simply describe inequality as an economic notion. In order to think further about this object we call inequality, and its drastic increase of late, we need to go further than the numbers. We need to think about how people live in increasingly unequal times and spaces; how these broader shifts in the politics of difference percolate into their everyday lives; and how people contest these encroachments through acts that fashion a space for equality.
The case study: The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London
It is with these questions in mind that I find myself in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This is a place that may be familiar with many readers: it has a central place in the popular imagination through television shows such as Made in Chelsea, and Hollywood blockbusters including Notting Hill. These representations portray a borough that is as affluent as it is privileged and exclusive.
But it is a borough that is full of contradictions—when it comes to statistics, at least. Whilst Kensington and Chelsea has the highest average household annual income, 16% of its residents are classified as low paid. The average salary in the borough is £123,000, but the median is only £32,700. Tellingly, life expectancy differs by over ten years across the borough.
As the example of Kensington and Chelsea reveals, inequality not only exists between different spaces, but also within places. At this intimate, local scale, inequality must be interrogated beyond the renderings allowed by statistics alone. Unequal lives are reproduced through a continual politics of difference, bordering and encounter—a politics that is never without contestation.
To pick up on these micro-scale inequalities, I will be working in two neighbouring wards of the borough. Through engagements with local organisations and communities, my aim is to understand inequality as a process through which unequal lives are distributed but also reworked, reproduced and negotiated. Through sustained ethnographic work, the qualitative characteristics of lived inequality can be brought to the fore in order to make a meaningful contribution to academic and policy debates.
A second aim of equal importance is to fulfil the role of an ‘activist scholar.’ For those not familiar with this term, it refers to an imperative first distilled by Karl Marx (in 1845): that the purpose of research and scholarship is not just to interpret the world, but to change it. From start to finish, this research is about participation. It is about finding ways to use research as a means of and weapon for contestation in its own right. My endeavours in this context are about a commitment to opening spaces for fostering equality in the face of such intense inequalities.
The purpose of this blog and webpage is to share the ongoing findings of the project, and to produce a space for reflecting on unequal lives as I delve into the research. Stay tuned for more!
Works cited above:
Dorling, D. 2007. A think-piece for the commission on integration and cohesion. Available here: http://www.dannydorling.org/wp-content/files/dannydorling_publication_id2020.pdf
Marx, K. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach
Oxfam 2017. An economy for the 99%. Available here: https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/an-economy-for-the-99-its-time-to-build-a-human-economy-that-benefits-everyone-620170
Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. 2009. The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Allen Lane.
(The statistics cited throughout are from Office of National Statistics release)
If you are interested in hearing more and/or being involved with the research, please do get in touch with me via the ‘contact me’ page. I’d love to hear from you.