Australia, the income inequality of a given country.

Australia, like many
other nations in the world, has an ill-fated problem with income inequality.
This analytical essay address topic one by discussing the effects of income
inequality in Australia. The issue will be discussed through the lenses of the sociological
perspective of conflict theory by looking at how the struggle between people in
power and those who are unprivileged can explain patterns seen in income
inequality. Further, it will go on to explain why conflict theory may provide a
superior explanation of patterns seen in income inequality over functionalism.
Other forms of disparity such as health care and education will also be
discussed and how inequality may affect these issues.  

Income inequality is
defined as the extent to which income in distributed unevenly in a group of
people or society. Often, the Gini index is used to measure the income
inequality of a given country. The scale measures from 0 which is complete
equality and 100 being complete inequality (sometimes given from 0-1). Australia
has a coefficient of 30.3, by comparison the United States has a coefficient of
45.0 while a country such as Sweden has a coefficient of 24.9. While Australia
does not have the worst problem with income inequality, it is still a
deep-rooted issue within Australian society which has further implications.  

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A great method of
understanding the patterns seen in income inequality is through the
sociological perspective of conflict theory. Karl Marx, the father of conflict
theory, states that inequality is perpetuated because it benefits those in
power at the expense of the poor due to competition over limited resources.
Social stratification, the idea by which groups of people are ranked in a
hierarchy is deeply frowned upon by conflict theorist, with the belief that it
is harmful for society. Instead, conflict theory focuses on the conflict
between two classes; the proletariat which is essentially the working class
(poor), and the bourgeoisie who are those with wealth and power. The theory
suggests that those in power dominate those with less power, in today’s society
this is done primarily through the process of cultural hegemony. This leads to
those with less power ending up with little resources and in a disadvantaged
position.

In which way does income
inequality influence the day to day lives of those disadvantaged and do they
really have less resources? A 2014 study found that “large income differences
have damaging health and social consequences…narrowing the gap will improve the
health and wellbeing of populations”. A conflict theorist may point out that
this shows how the poor in economically unequal countries would be severely
disadvantaged due to poor health programs. Similar negative influences of
income inequality are also seen through a 1993 meta-analysis which concluded
that “…Poverty and income inequality are each associated with violent crime.”
Through the perspective of conflict theory, it can be concluded that bad health
care, more proximity to violence, and a perceived unfairness and a lack of
trust are forms of disadvantages to those in lower classes. While those who
belong in the bourgeoisie are likely to have the wealth to afford good health
care and live in low violence neighbourhoods, those in the proletariat do not
have nearly as much resources, or wealth to move up in society. Those at the
bottom of the social stratification have little opportunities to improve their
situation, since those at the top tend to have far more political and economic
power.

Another perspective seen
in sociology when discussing forms of inequality is the structural
functionalist perspective. Functionalism states that not only is inequality
inevitable, but also desirable. The theory argues that certain positions or
jobs in society require more rigorous training and arduous work and therefore
the rewards in terms of wealth, power, and prestige should be given equal to
the effort it took. Unlike conflict theory, functionalism promotes social
stratification, according to the theory this leads to a meritocracy based on
capability. Therefore, all parts and jobs in society are interrelated and must
work together to ideal functioning.

Functionalism argues that
the poor play a vital role in society. “Dirty” and low paying jobs must be done
in order for society to function properly. Public toilets need to be cleaned,
our work and study spaces need to be vacuumed or mopped and our garbage needs
to be collected; factories need workers to produce the goods we buy and farms
need workers to raise the animals we eat. Despite these jobs being central to
our daily lives, it includes jobs that most in society do not want to partake
in. This creates a vacuum where only the poor and those most in need are
willing to fill such roles. Therefore, according to functionalism, someone who
goes to university and trains to be a lawyer or a doctor should have an income
which reflects the skills and hard work needed for such professions. On the
other hand, someone who drops out of high-school and takes on jobs such as
cleaning, garbage collectors, or becoming a janitor makes less of a direct contribution
to society, have put in less effort in getting to the position they are at now
and therefore deserve an income reflective of those facts.

Critics of functionalism
point out that it neglects the negative implications of social order. It places
limitations on groups of people from being active participants in changing
their social environment. The theory does not take into account the way some
people have more access to wealth, higher status, and power; essentially
ignoring social structures. One could argue that higher access to wealth and
power could benefit you in achieving a career which hard work and training
alone could not. Therefore, even if those in lower classes worked equally as
hard they may never reach a certain status that someone from a higher class
could achieve nor does it take into consideration other forms of inequalities such
as gender, race, ethnicity and class. Another issue with functionalism is that
it is difficult to determine the functional importance of any job while also
assuming that the current system of stratification is fair and judicious. While
it is agreed upon that teachers, doctors and engineers are all esteemed jobs; a
world class athlete may make more money in one year than all 3 of those
occupations combined would in a year. However, which job is more functional and
serves to be more important in society?

When comparing conflict
theory and functionalism side by side we see starkly different ideologies and
perspectives on the issue of income inequality. Unlike functionalist, conflict
theorist does not see high income and prestige’s jobs as a reward for an
individual’s talent and time, instead they point out that many of those in
unskilled jobs are there due to social inequality. Lack of quality in education
in low-socio economic areas is affected negatively due to income inequality.
Those who are affected, are stripped of opportunities, further hindering their
likelihood of overcoming the obstacles simply from hard work.