The best books about social inequality

1 authors have picked their favorite books about social inequality and why they recommend each book.

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The Relational Teacher

By Robert Loe (editor),

Book cover of The Relational Teacher

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. 

Who am I?

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. 

I wrote...

Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World

By Charlene Spretnak,

Book cover of Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World

What is my book about?

Relational Reality is the first overview to connect the dots among the relational discoveries made in various areas of human biology since 2004—and to focus on the societal and personal implications of these findings. These discoveries change our understanding of how humans are structured and how we function, revealing what we actually need. This is why practical applications of the new relational knowledge have been so successful in numerous fields—education and parenting, health and healthcare, architecture and community design, and the structure of economic activity. Many of the ways modern society habitually does things (based on the mechanistic worldview) are out of sync with our deeply relational nature, but now a vast, grassroots redesign project has begun. The Relational Shift is on!

Le Grand Meaulnes

By Alain Fournier,

Book cover of Le Grand Meaulnes

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…

Who am I?

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. 

I wrote...

Peculiar Ground

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett,

Book cover of Peculiar Ground

What is my book about?

It is the 1660s and a wall is being built around a great house. Wychwood is an enclosed world, its gardens adorned with fountains and its park bisected by avenues, a world where everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war. Three centuries later, as another wall goes up overnight, dividing Berlin, there is a house party at Wychwood. It is 1961: the times they are a-changing. 

From the award-winning author of historical works - including The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, which won the Costa Biography Award, the Duff Cooper Prize, and the Samuel Johnson Prize - comes an ambitious, beautiful, and timely novel. Game-keepers and witches, gardeners and property-owners, 17th-century dissidents and 20th-century refuge-seekers people this compelling story about the passage of time, about migration, and about how those who wall others out risk finding themselves walled in.

Mortal Questions

By Thomas Nagel,

Book cover of Mortal Questions

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.

Who am I?

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.

I wrote...

The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

By Scott Soames,

Book cover of The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

What is my book about?

Western Philosophy, as it has been done for more than two millennia, is the partner of all advancing disciplines. My book is about the contributions philosophy has made, and continues to make, to our civilization. Our natural science, mathematics and technology, our social science, political institutions, and economic life, our culture, religion, morality, and our understanding of ourselves have been shaped by philosophy.

Philosophy never advances against a background or rank ignorance. It flourishes when enough is known about some domain to make great progress conceivable, despite being temporarily stymied because new methods are needed. Philosophers help by giving us new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces.  Sometimes they do this when sciences are born, sometimes they do it as sciences mature.  As human knowledge advances there is more, not less, for philosophy to do. Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves grows like an expanding sphere of light emanating from a single point. As light travels in all directions away from its source, the volume of the sphere, representing our secure knowledge, grows exponentially.  But so does the surface area of the sphere, representing the border, where knowledge blurs into doubt bringing back methodological uncertainty. Philosophy monitors the border, ready to help plot our next move.

Spheres of Influence

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Book cover of Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality

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.

Who am I?

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.

I wrote...

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

By Douglas S. Massey, Nancy A. Denton,

Book cover of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

What is my book about?

American Apartheid describes how Black residential segregation was created during the first seven decades of the 20th century by powerful white actors in the public and private sectors, who collectively worked to isolate black in-migrants within ghettos for purposes of exclusion and exploitation. As a result, high levels of segregation prevailed throughout metropolitan America as of 1980.

Public policies enacted during the 1930s institutionalized the discriminatory of realtors and lenders, ensuring that Blacks were confined to recognized Black neighborhoods and that these were cut off from capital and credit to guarantee their decline. As Black poverty rates increased during the 1970s and 1980s, segregation served to concentrate deprivation spatially to create a supremely disadvantaged context that acted to perpetuate black poverty over the life course and across the generations, giving rise to what in the 1980s was known as the “urban underclass.”

How Schools Really Matter

By Douglas B. Downey,

Book cover of How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

I discovered this book after struggling to convince skeptics that schools are by far the most equal part of childhood, not the bastions of inequality most people believe based on misleading news articles and (great) books like Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I didn’t seem to make much progress no matter how much data I showed people, so I found it cathartic to hear a top sociologist work through this exact problem in a different way. The book is rigorous but the author writes in a plainspoken, wry style that keeps things lightweight. I already agreed with him and he still greatly enriched my perspective. 

Who am I?

I’m an economist fascinated by the ways that early opportunities shape lifelong success. My interests go way back to the big public schools I attended in Southern California, where I watched some kids benefit from tutoring, counseling, coaching, and other private resources that most kids couldn’t access. I went on to get a PhD in economics, then taught at Brown University and advised Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign on child development policy. After years of research and teaching – and becoming a dad myself – I wrote The Parent Trap to expose the monumental challenges facing so many parents and the solutions most likely to make a difference.

I wrote...

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis

By Nate G. Hilger,

Book cover of The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis

What is my book about?

The Parent Trap is a mind-warping, research-driven tour of our nation’s largest and most important industry – parenting. By shining a light on the hidden complexity of everything parents do, it reveals the true origins of success and the monumental promise of public support systems designed to help families thrive. To build these systems, however, parents will have to join forces and tap into their dormant political power in new ways. The Parent Trap combines cutting-edge research, surprising case studies, and on-the-ground investigation to expose our society’s unrealistic expectations around parenting, and to lay out a profoundly hopeful blueprint for reform. 

A Concise History of the World

By Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks,

Book cover of A Concise History of the World

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. 

Who am I?

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.

I wrote...

The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

By J.R. McNeill, William H. McNeill,

Book cover of The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

What is my book about?

The Human Web compresses the story of humankind into 324 pages, emphasizing the connections among cultures.  Connections might mean trade, cultural exchanges, warfare, disease transmission or almost anything, intentional or unintentional. But connections were not random. They followed patterns, so that the world for at least 5,000 years has been organized in webs of interaction. And in the last 500 years, a global web has taken shape that now enmeshes almost everyone on earth. I wrote this book together with my father, which made it a better book, but is an experience I would not recommend as it can test family harmony. It has two separate conclusions, one by each author, because we thought we could not agree on what it all meant.

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