American Historical Association Presidential Address

Friday, January 6, 2017: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom D (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)

Inequality: Historical and Disciplinary Approaches

Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh


Inequality is a contemporary social dilemma of growing concern. Has it been constructed through human agency or is it a simple fact of nature? Ancient philosophers and modern analysts, in their debates, have been critical of inequality without being able to resolve it. For the past two centuries, human thought has pursued social equality and democratic governance, while the realities of social change have brought new economic and social inequalities.


Understanding inequality in society will require a large-scale research project. The hypotheses articulated and tested must be the strongest and most relevant. What is the social function of inequality? Can regulation limit inequality? Do patterns of inequality connect up worldwide? Is social prejudice more basic than economic inequality? Does inequality come from the top or bottom ranks of society? Have there been cycles in inequality? We need to explore such questions with data on the full range of human activities, at levels from the family to big regions (e.g., the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa) and to the planet.


This presentation surveys recent research on inequality and proposes a design for an interdisciplinary campaign to clarify the history, trajectory, and influence of inequality. While economic analysts have shown that the top 1% of individuals hold the majority of today’s wealth, how does that relate to the hierarchies of gender, race, nationality, health, and nutrition? Historians, to guide this work, will build on the growing comprehensiveness of historical studies—in narrative, collaboration, theory, and disciplinary alliances. Researchers must assemble archival data, field research, simulation of missing data, and reach for the great new potential of information science to locate relationships within both data-rich and data-poor domains. The outcome will not end the debate on inequality, but will raise it to a new and evidence-based level.

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