Chapter 9. Social Inequality

Tesla Chairman Elon Musk driving a Tesla
Figure 9.1 Tesla founder Elon Musk was the richest person in the world in 2021 (Pendleton, 2021). The car a person drives is a practical transportation technology but also a symbol.  What does a Tesla signify about the class, status and power of its owner? Why? (Photo courtesy of kqedquest/Flickr.) CC BY-NC 2.0

Learning Objectives

9.1. What Is Social Inequality?

  • Analyze social differentiation and social stratification as components of social inequality.
  • Define the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of condition.
  • Compare caste and class systems.
  • Distinguish between Marx and Weber’s approaches to class and status.

9.2.  Social Inequality in Canada

  • Distinguish between relative and absolute poverty.
  • Analyze trends of inequality in wealth and income in Canada.
  • Describe characteristics of social classes and social mobility in Canada.

9.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Social Inequality

  • Understand and apply functionalist, critical sociological, and interpretive perspectives to social inequality.

Introduction to Social Inequality in Canada

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Figure 9.2 The Ted Rogers statue with Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research in the background. Who gets monumentalized in Canada, and who gets forgotten? (Image courtesy of Oaktree/Wikimedia Commons.) Free Art License

When he died in 2008, Ted Rogers Jr., then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Rogers Communications, was the fifth-wealthiest individual in Canada, holding assets worth $5.7 billion. In his autobiography (2008) he credited his success to a willingness to take risks, work hard, bend the rules, be on the constant lookout for opportunities, and be dedicated to building the business. In many respects, he saw himself as a self-made billionaire who started from scratch, seized opportunities, and created a business through his own initiative.

The story of Ted Rogers is not exactly a rags-to-riches one, however. His grandfather, Albert Rogers, was a director of Imperial Oil and his father, Ted Sr., became wealthy when he invented an alternating current vacuum tube for radios in 1925. Ted Rogers Sr. went from this invention to manufacturing radios, owning a radio station, and acquiring a licence for TV broadcasting.

However, Ted Sr. died when Ted Jr. was five years old, and the family businesses were sold. His mother took Ted Jr. aside when he was eight and told him, “Ted, your business is to get the family name back” (Rogers, 2008). The family was still wealthy enough to send him to Upper Canada College, the famous private school that also educated the children from the Black, Eaton, Thompson, and Weston families. Ted seized the opportunity at Upper Canada to make money as a bookie, taking bets on horse racing from the other students. Then he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, where his secretary reportedly went to classes and took notes for him. He bought an early FM radio station when he was still in university, and started in cable TV in the mid-1960s. By the time of his death, Rogers Communications was worth $25 billion. At that time, just three families — the Rogers, Shaws, and Péladeaus — owned much of the cable service in Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Aboriginal gang members in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, who were discussed in Chapter 1. Introduction (CBC, 2010). The CBC program noted that 85% of the inmates in the prison were of Aboriginal descent, half of whom were involved in Aboriginal gangs. Moreover, the statistical profile of Aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan in 2010 was grim, with Aboriginal people making up the highest number of high school dropouts, domestic abuse victims, drug dependencies, and child poverty backgrounds. In some respects, the Aboriginal gang members interviewed were like Ted Rogers in that they were willing to seize opportunities, take risks, bend rules, and apply themselves to their vocations. They too aspired to get the money that would give them the freedom to make their own lives. However, as one of the inmates put it, “the only job I ever had was selling drugs” (CBC, 2010). The consequence of that “job” was to fall into a lifestyle that led to joining a gang, being kicked out of school, developing addiction issues, and eventually getting arrested and incarcerated. Unlike Ted Rogers, however, the inmate added, “I didn’t grow up with the best life” (CBC, 2010).

How does one make sense of the divergent stories? Canada is supposed to be a country in which individuals can work hard to get ahead. It is an “open” society. There are no formal class, gender, racial, ethnic, geographical, or other boundaries that prevent people from rising to the top. People are free to make choices. But does this adequately explain the difference in life chances that divide the fortunes of the Aboriginal youth from the Rogers family’s youth? What determines a person’s social standing and privileges? How does social standing direct or limit a person’s choices?

Habitus

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) defined habitus as the deeply-seated schemas, habits, feelings, dispositions, and forms of practical know-how that people hold as a result of living in a specific social milieu or context (Bourdieu, 1990). It is the way a person of a particular background perceives and reacts to the world. More technically, it is “the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel, and act in determinate ways, which then guide them in their creative responses to the constraints and solicitations of their extant milieu” (Wacquant, 2004). Bourdieu referred to it as one’s “feel for the game,” to use a sports metaphor. Choices are perhaps always “free” in some formal sense, but they are also always situated within one’s habitus.

Depending on one’s location in society, habitus can vary markedly across a country like Canada. The Aboriginal gang members display “street-smarts” that enable them to survive and successfully navigate their world. Street-smarts define their habitus and exercise a profound influence over the range of options to consider — the neighbourhoods they know to avoid, the body languages that signal danger, the values of illicit goods, the motives of different street actors, the routines of police interactions, and so on. The habitus affects both the options to conform to the group they identify with or to deviate from it. Ted Rogers occupied a different habitus, which established a fundamentally different set of options for him in his life path. How are different life worlds or habitus distributed in society so that some reinforce patterns of deprivation while others provide the basis for access to wealth and power?

As Bourdieu pointed out, habitus is so deeply ingrained that people take its reality as natural rather than as a product of social circumstances. This false sense of universality has the unfortunate effect of justifying social inequalities. It allows people to believe that the Ted Rogers of the world are uniquely gifted and predisposed for success, when in fact it is success itself that is “predisposed” by underlying structures of power and privilege.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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