Video Meet TEDx in a Box version 2.0

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/30656539 w=525&h=294] TEDx in a Box is a toolkit with all the gear needed to host a TEDx event in the developing world — projector, speakers and more, packed in a shippable box. The TEDx in a Box program launched last year with 10 boxes, powering events in India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Brazil and … Read more

We quite suddenly realized that we were looking at a general pattern QA with Richard Wilkinson

In 2009, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published the book The Spirit Level, making a bold case that economic inequality within a society, the size of the gap between rich and poor, has corrosive effects from the bottom of society right up to the top. Wilkinson spoke about their book and research this summer at TEDGlobal (watch his TEDTalk); earlier this week, he talked to the TED Blog about how he and Pickett came to this insight … and what Occupy Wall Street might mean for the future of fairness.

When did your research start heading in this direction? What made you look at broad inequality within societies?

I’ve been involved in research on health inequalities — the huge social class differences in death rates — for more than 30 years. And the work I talked about at TED really came out of that. I began to work on the contribution that income might make in the differences in health between rich and poor, and then started wondering whether more equal societies, with smaller differences between rich and poor, would have smaller differences in death rates and maybe better health overall. There were things about the nature of the relationship that made me think that more equal societies would be healthier.

I worked on that for quite a long time, before discovering that criminologists had shown that violence was also more common in more unequal societies. And then, in trying to think of the mechanisms that led from greater equality to better overall population health, I began to think about social cohesion, levels of trust and things like that. I may say, the more-equal societies had very much better health than I had expected. I found the correlation was much larger than I had expected. That’s why I started to think it couldn’t just be a matter of the direct effects of individual income, but that there must be wider social processes, maybe involving social relationships, social cohesion, things like that.

But still, it was quite a few more years before I realized that actually, the pattern I was looking at was common to many other social problems. In fact, problems which, like ill health, are more common at the bottom of society, all these sorts of problems seem more common in more unequal societies.

So you started from a perspective of health …

Yes, and then discovering this work on violence showing the same patterns. We also had measures of trust, such as Robert Putnam’s early study on the Italian regions. His measures of social capital were strongly related to income inequality in the regions of Italy. And I also had some qualitative evidence that more equal societies were more cohesive.

In a way it’s obvious. People have had an intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive for a very long time, and seeing the data on trust and social capital really confirmed that. But still, I didn’t look at things like mental illness, obesity, child wellbeing, proportion of the population in prison, drug problems, teenage birthrates — all that has come in the last five years or so while Kate Pickett and I have been working together. We quite suddenly realized that what we were looking at was a general pattern.

Something that doesn’t come up in your talk, and I’d love to explore for our audience, is what you did once this data started becoming clear to you. At what point did you and your colleagues set up the The Equality Trust?

I think writing the book really made us aware of how coherent the picture was. Taking the same group of countries, the same measures of inequality, whether amongst the American states or internationally, we found one problem after another was more common in more unequal societies — and that was true comparing rich countries or the 50 states of the USA.

And although I’d had doubts about whether I’d got things basically right about 10 years ago, I think that writing the book made us absolutely clear that the basic structure, the basic picture we’re putting together, must be right — and at the same time hugely important. If inequality does affect so many health and social problems, you can’t just leave it in an academic journal that nobody reads and forget about it.

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