inequality, social inequality
Unequal rewards or opportunities for different individuals within a group or groups within a society. If equality is judged in terms of legal equality, equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome, then inequality is a constant feature of the human condition. Addressing the question whether it is also a necessary feature of modern societies brings to the fore a number of long-standing debates between liberals , Marxists , functionalists, and others.
Taking power as being distributed along the dimensions of material reward, and differing life-chances as determined by the market , status position, and access to political influence, then according to liberals such as Friedrich Hayek , inequality is the price to be paid for the dynamic economic growth that is characteristic of capitalism . The societies of real socialism (the then actually existing communist states of the Soviet Bloc), committed as they were to the historicism of the class struggle, sought to ameliorate if not abolish these inequalities, but in fact merely generated novel forms of their own, which were in turn less productive of economic growth and social welfare , and subsequently collapsed under the weight of social discontent. However, the arguments propounded by functionalists provide a rationale for inequality, but not (as is sometimes claimed) a proof of its universality and inevitability. In fact, many of the functionalist tenets may now have to face up to a form of egalitarianism which is no longer hampered by the odium of its communistic connotations. It will not be unstated competition between socio-economic systems which defines the agenda as regards inequality, but rather an investigation of what inequalities are justifiable on their own terms, rather than in comparison to some utopian-based alternative. The realities of social-class-determined inequalities of educational achievement, morbidity and mortality rates, and more generally of social mobility , will have to confront the growing problems of the underclass , of generational inequalities, and inequalities produced by the globalization of capitalism, all of which will be seen as part of the social consequences of the ‘peace dividend’. As societies in the post-Cold-War era come to be graded along the criteria of the political democratic audit, so also will the ‘quality of life’ scale be applied both internally and externally, and the extent and nature of inequality will be scrutinized.
Currently, the existence of inequality, its causes and consequences, particularly as they relate to social class , gender , ethnicity , and locality, continues to occupy the sociological foreground. See also functional theory of stratification ; income distribution ; justice, social ; stratification.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.