The most recommended books about social inequality

Who picked these books? Meet our 11 experts.

11 authors created a book list connected to social inequality, and here are their favorite social inequality books.
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Book cover of Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality

Douglas S. Massey Author Of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

From my list on how neighborhoods perpetuate inequality.

Why am I passionate about this?

My mother was the child of immigrants from Finland with grade-school educations who grew up in a small Alaskan town with no roads in or out. She came down to the “lower 48” during the Second World War to work her way through the University of Washington, where she met my father. He was a multigenerational American with two college-educated parents. His mother graduated from Whitman College in 1919 and looked down on my mother as a child of poorly educated immigrants. She was also openly hostile toward Catholics, Blacks, and Jews and probably didn’t think much of Finns either. Witnessing my grandmother’s disdain for minorities and the poor including my mother, I learned about racism and class prejudice firsthand. But I am my mother’s son, and I resented my grandmother’s self-satisfied posturing. Therefore I’ve always been on the side of the underdog and made it my business to learn all that I could about how inequalities are produced and perpetuated in the United States, and to do all I can to make the world a fairer, more egalitarian place.

Douglas' book list on how neighborhoods perpetuate inequality

Douglas S. Massey Why did Douglas love this book?

In addition to neighborhoods, Americans also experience rampant inequalities across other social settings such as families, schools, and peer networks. These settings define the ecological context within which humans develop and each “sphere of influence” determines the development trajectories of people as the move from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. This book examines how each of these spheres affects human development at different stages of the life course among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian young people in the United States to produce the racial and class inequalities that characterize contemporary American society.

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spheres of Influence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The black-white divide has long haunted the United States as a driving force behind social inequality. Yet, the civil rights movement, the increase in immigration, and the restructuring of the economy in favor of the rich over the last several decades have begun to alter the contours of inequality. Spheres of Influence, co-authored by noted social scientists Douglas S. Massey and Stefanie Brodmann, presents a rigorous new study of the intersections of racial and class disparities today. Massey and Brodmann argue that despite the persistence of potent racial inequality, class effects are drastically transforming social stratification in America. This data-intensive…


Book cover of World Brain

Alex Wright Author Of Informatica: Mastering Information through the Ages

From my list on forgotten pioneers of the Internet.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a researcher, writer, and designer who has spent most of the past twenty-five years working in the technology industry, following an earlier career as a journalist and academic librarian. I've developed an abiding interest in the history of knowledge networks. I've written two books on the history of the information age, as well as a number of newspaper and magazine articles on new and emerging technologies. While the technology industry often seems to have little use for its own history, I have found the history of networked systems to be a rich source of inspiration, full of sources of inspiration that can help us start to envision a wide range of possible futures.

Alex's book list on forgotten pioneers of the Internet

Alex Wright Why did Alex love this book?

Wells’s incredibly prescient 1937 collection of essays on the future of information predicts the emergence of a global knowledge network – a “world brain” – that promises to transform the human experience.

Though better known today as a science fiction writer (War of the Worlds, The Time Machine), Wells was also a prolific essayist, political activist, and social polemicist. He believed that humanity could take a great leap forward by creating a new kind of connected information network, “a permanent central Encyclopaedic organisation” that would be freely available to everyone on earth.

Such a system would enable citizens to become more informed, ensuring that societal disparities in education levels and access to information would slowly disappear - paving the way for a more egalitarian, enlightened society.

By H G Wells,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked World Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

World Brain is an article written by H. G. Wells and first contributed to the new "Encyclopédie Française" in 1937. It explores the idea of a "permanent world encyclopaedia" that would contain "the whole human memory" and that would be "a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world." Fascinating and arguably prophetic reading, "World Brain" will appeal to fan Wells' work. Herbert George Wells (1866 - 1946) was a prolific English writer who wrote in a variety of genres, including the novel, politics, history, and social commentary. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for…


Book cover of The Relational Teacher

Charlene Spretnak Author Of Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World

From my list on dynamic interrelatedness among people and with nature.

Why am I passionate about this?

My formative immersion in nature during eleven summers at a girls’ camp in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio showed me that everything in the physical world, including humans, is dynamically interrelated at subtle levels. As an adult, I’ve followed post-mechanistic sciences that explore this invisible truth, a theme that runs through several books I have written. Since the early 2000s, a new wave of discoveries, this time in human biology, reveals that we are composed entirely of dynamic interrelationships, in and around us, which affect us continuously from conception to our last breath. These discoveries are quickly being applied in many areas. I call this new awareness the Relational Shift. 

Charlene's book list on dynamic interrelatedness among people and with nature

Charlene Spretnak Why did Charlene love this book?

As in other areas of modern life, the role of relationships in education has been considered of minor consequence. However, the Relational Schools Foundation in the UK has found, after years of research, that a focus on improving the quality of relationships in schools improves a broad range of educational and social outcomes and can overcome disadvantages as well. The book the Foundation has published, The Relational Teacher and the accompanying film, begins with some framing by social scientists, but the body of the book consists of six case studies and the insightful reflections of the teacher involved with each study. The relational dynamics in a classroom—particularly the motivational relationship created by the teacher—are closely related to a student’s effort in learning and developing. 

By Robert Loe (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Relational Teacher as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Relational Schools works to put relationships at the core of school life, on the principle that supportive relationships between all members of a school are pivotal. Strong, secure, relationships can, they say, surmount social inequality. Weak or fragile relationships reinforce educational disadvantage. It is only in a secure relationships that the most difficult learning can take place and such relationships can have a powerful and positive influence on children’s wellbeing, mental health and academic progress.

What’s shocking is how far we have allowed our focus to move from these basic premises. This book, and the film that accompanies it, focus…


Book cover of Wandering Souls

Irfan Shah Author Of Sigh For A Strange Land

From my list on displaced people.

Why am I passionate about this?

A combination of things led me to this topic: My father was forced to leave his home in northern India during partition and was therefore a child refugee. In 2016, I was filming in Ukraine and became hugely interested in what was happening there. I have looked for a way to help ever since then. Discovering Monica Stirling’s novel about refugees from East Europe, I realised that here was an opportunity to help give voice to the refugee experience; to help raise funds for Ukraine, and to help bring back to life an incredible story written by an author who deserves to be rediscovered.

Irfan's book list on displaced people

Irfan Shah Why did Irfan love this book?

A brutal but beautifully told fiction based on true events, it explores the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam – folding into the narrative, such horrific events as the Koh Kra massacre. 

The protagonists are 16-year-old Anh, her 13-year-old brother Minh and their 10-year-old brother Thanh. During an ill-fated sea crossing to Hong Kong, they are separated from their parents and siblings. After passing through camps and detention centres, they find themselves in the Britain of the 80s.

What follows is a clear-eyed, often heart-rending look at the immigrant experience. Pin’s writing style is precise and understated – and perhaps the more powerful it. Among the many elements that make the book so beguiling is the addition of Dao, one of the siblings’ lost brothers narrating parts of the story from limbo.

By Cecile Pin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wandering Souls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2023

“A deeply humane and genre-defying work of love and uncompromising hope.” ―Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Time Is a Mother

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies―everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Minh, and Thanh journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.

In…


Book cover of Mortal Questions

Scott Soames Author Of The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

From my list on western philosophy: what it is and how to do it.

Why am I passionate about this?

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I was educated at Stanford and MIT. I taught for four years at Yale and 24 years at Princeton before moving to USC, where I am Chair of the Philosophy Department. I specialize in the Philosophy of Language, History of Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Law. I have published many articles, authored fifteen books, co-authored two, and co-edited two. I am fascinated by philosophy's enduring role in our individual and collective lives, impressed by its ability to periodically reinvent itself, and challenged to bring what it has to offer to more students and to the broader culture.

Scott's book list on western philosophy: what it is and how to do it

Scott Soames Why did Scott love this book?

This book presents ethics as both a theoretical and personal enterprise. Because it aims not only at what we should believe, but also at what we should want and how we should act, it starts not with pre-reflective ideas about the world, which we hope to make more accurate, but with pre-reflective ideas about what we want and how we want to live, which we hope to improve. Among the most gripping in contemporary philosophy, Nagel's essays -- on death, meaning in life, equality, the power of sex, limitations on our understanding of other beings, and morally evaluating people vs. morally evaluating their actions -- are informed by a unique cconception of objectivity, subjectivity, and of how the two must be combined if we are to progress.

By Thomas Nagel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mortal Questions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book aims at a form of understanding that is both theoretical and personal in its lively engagement with what are literally issues of life and death.


Book cover of A Concise History of the World

John Robert McNeill Author Of The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

From my list on world history from the Paleolithic to the present.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian who wants to understand the big picture as best I can. And while occasionally I can clear my schedule enough to read a 1,000pp book, realistically that won’t happen often so I am always on the alert for short books that aim to provide what I am looking for: a coherent vision of the whole of human history. That’s asking a lot of an author, but these five do it well.

John's book list on world history from the Paleolithic to the present

John Robert McNeill Why did John love this book?

This one is a polar opposite of Cook’s, in that it has a strong chronological structure to it and presents the story in five chapters, each devoted to a segment of time. It is the only world history that is really strong on gender, family, marriage, and women. But it also tackles the more traditional subjects for historians. A strength that it shares with Cook’s and Manning’s books is attention to the history of social inequality, a subject that more and more historians have taken up. At 376 pages, this one is not the briefest on my list. 

By Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Concise History of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book tells the story of humankind as producers and reproducers from the Paleolithic to the present. Renowned social and cultural historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks brings a new perspective to world history by examining social and cultural developments across the globe, including families and kin groups, social and gender hierarchies, sexuality, race and ethnicity, labor, religion, consumption, and material culture. She examines how these structures and activities changed over time through local processes and interactions with other cultures, highlighting key developments that defined particular eras such as the growth of cities or the creation of a global trading network. Incorporating foragers,…


Book cover of Le Grand Meaulnes

Lucy Hughes-Hallett Author Of Peculiar Ground

From my list on houses.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m fascinated by houses and the memories that haunt them. I grew up on a private estate in rural England where my father worked. When I was little I knew a witch. She rode a bicycle, not a broomstick: she cured my warts. The trees I played under were planted when the big house belonged to the 17th-century statesman and historian, Lord Clarendon. I knew storytellers who performed in the local pubs – part of an oral tradition that goes back millennia. I moved to London, but I kept thinking about those rural enclaves where memories are very long. I set my novel in that beautiful, ghost-ridden, peculiar world. 

Lucy's book list on houses

Lucy Hughes-Hallett Why did Lucy love this book?

Clumsy peasant schoolboy, Meaulnes, and his friend – the narrator of this haunting story – get lost, and happen upon a great house, deep in the woods, where a phantasmagorical fancy dress party is underway. Everything at ‘the lost domain’ is topsy-turvy. Children are in charge. The passage of time is suspended. Social inequality has been erased.   The time the boys spend there is dream-like, disconcerting, life-spoiling because nothing can ever be so strange and marvelous again.  

Later, after much searching, Meaulnes make his way back, but the domain is like youth itself. If you return, it will be to find everything drabber than you remembered,  and the people you adored merely human. 

This book is even greater than its reputation.  Generally thought of as one of the last works of romanticism, a celebration of illusion, it is actually clear-eyed, tough-minded, bracingly truthful about the inevitably of disillusion. Alain-Fournier was…

By Alain Fournier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Le Grand Meaulnes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Le Grand Meaulnes est le seul roman de l'auteur français Alain-Fournier qui a été tué dans le premier mois de la Première Guerre mondiale. Il est un peu biographique - en particulier le nom de l'héroïne Yvonne, avec qui il a eu un engouement condamné à Paris. François Seurel, 15 ans, raconte l'histoire de son amitié avec Augustin Meaulnes, dix-sept ans, alors que Meaulnes cherche son amour perdu. Impulsif, imprudent et héroïque, Meaulnes incarne l'idéal romantique, la recherche de l'inaccessible, et le monde mystérieux entre l'enfance et l'âge adulte.


Book cover of Durable Inequality

Paul Ong Author Of Uneven Urbanscape: Spatial Structures and Ethnoracial Inequality

From my list on the underlying foundation of racialized spaces.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an engaged scholar fighting racism. As a person of color, an Asian American raised in Chinatown and a low-income Black neighborhood, the fight is personal. My parents and those before them suffered from and struggled against discriminatory immigration laws that fractured and separated family members. My research and publications as a university professor are tools for exposing and redressing racial injustices, producing and sharing knowledge that leads to reconciliation and restorative justice.  

Paul's book list on the underlying foundation of racialized spaces

Paul Ong Why did Paul love this book?

This book provides a grand sociological theoretical framework to explain how society creates and maintains persistent inequality through grouping.

The author does not anchor his explanation in individual biases and discriminatory acts, which are manifestations of larger fundamental structures and dynamics. The division and organization of the population into categories produce systemic group advantages and enable hierarchical exploitation.

Several organizational mechanisms within and between groups make categorical inequality durable. Race is one of the fundamental ways society is fragmented into enduring and unequal groups.

By Charles Tilly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Durable Inequality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Charles Tilly, in this eloquent manifesto, presents a powerful new approach to the study of persistent social inequality. How, he asks, do long-lasting, systematic inequalities in life chances arise, and how do they come to distinguish members of different socially defined categories of persons? Exploring representative paired and unequal categories, such as male/female, black/white, and citizen/noncitizen, Tilly argues that the basic causes of these and similar inequalities greatly resemble one another. In contrast to contemporary analyses that explain inequality case by case, this account is one of process. Categorical distinctions arise, Tilly says, because they offer a solution to pressing…


Book cover of Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood

Yuha Jung Author Of Transforming Museum Management: Evidence-Based Change through Open Systems Theory

From my list on encouraging readers to question the status quo.

Why am I passionate about this?

My areas of expertise are museum management and arts administration. More specifically, I study structures of arts organizations and how they are connected or disconnected to their communities and larger societies using the systems theory and concept of mutual causality. In the process, I point out where the systems (i.e., museums) become stagnant and find a leverage point to address that stagnation by bringing in new input and different ways of thinking about the culture and structure of the organization. In most of my research, I try to find blindspots of following or doing “what was just there (i.e., status quo)” instead of evaluating what it did and how it can be improved. 

Yuha's book list on encouraging readers to question the status quo

Yuha Jung Why did Yuha love this book?

This book illustrates how difficult it is to break out of one’s social structure and status because of the stubbornness and injustice reflected in our larger, societal structure that is reproduced from generation to generation. This book is successful in that MacLeod demonstrates how social inequity and immobility based on race and poverty play out in real people’s lives over a lifetime and how difficult it is to break out of the “status quo” that keeps people disadvantaged and out of reach for opportunities for social mobility. 

By Jay MacLeod,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ain't No Makin' It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic text addresses one of the most important issues in modern social theory and policy: how social inequality is reproduced from one generation to the next. With the original 1987 publication of Ain't No Makin' It, Jay MacLeod brought us to the Clarendon Heights housing project where we met the 'Brothers' and the 'Hallway Hangers'. Their story of poverty, race, and defeatism moved readers and challenged ethnic stereotypes. MacLeod's return eight years later, and the resulting 1995 revision, revealed little improvement in the lives of these men as they struggled in the labor market and crime-ridden underground economy. The…


Book cover of The Way of a Serpent

Per Molander Author Of The Anatomy Of Inequality: Its Social and Economic Origins - and Solutions

From my list on (in)equality and why it is a problem.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was trained in physics and applied mathematics, but my mother—a teacher of literature and history—secured a place for the humanities in my intellectual luggage, and I finally ended up in the social sciences. One of my first encounters with economics was John Nash’s theory of bargaining, illustrating how a wealthy person will gain more from a negotiation than a pauper, thus reinforcing inequality and leading to instability. Decades later, I returned to this problem and found that relatively little had still been done to analyze it. I believe that a combination of mathematical tools and illustrations from history, literature, and philosophy is an appropriate way of approaching the complex of inequality. 

Per's book list on (in)equality and why it is a problem

Per Molander Why did Per love this book?

Torgny Lindgren’s short novel (100+ p.) is a tersely written tragedy from 19th-century northern Sweden, describing how an originally neutral relationship between a landowner-tradesman and a family develops into a nightmare of economic and sexual exploitation.

This is fiction but nonetheless a brilliant illustration of the origins of inequality. Lindgren was one of Sweden’s most eminent writers, a member of the Swedish Academy, and well-known for his characteristic, biblically tainted language (a challenge to the translator).

This is a dark story, although there are some rays of light—from art (represented by music) as well as from hope in an intervention from some benign providence.

By Torgny Lindgren, T. Geddes (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Way of a Serpent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English (translation)