A report in The Observer earlier this year1 had the headline: “Official: inequality is natural”. The article began: “Inequality is the result of ‘natural differences’ between the sexes, according to a controversial new survey carried out by Britain’s top equality watchdog”.
More accurate reporting by the newspaper would have stated that the research found that inequality is perceived by some people to be “natural” -Ênot that it is natural.
The research report2 focused on attitudes to inequality not causes of inequality. It was based on focus groups and interviews with a small sample of people and carried out by the think tank the Future Foundation for the Equal Opportunities Commission. The survey was intended as exploratory research rather than anything approaching definitive. With this in mind we must consider the findings critically.
The research says that some people attribute social inequalities to psychological or “natural” factors.
The report informs us that there was a great deal of confusion about terminology used to discuss equality issues: pay gap, work-life balance and even well-established terms such as “gender”.
One man claimed never to have heard of the word gender, while other respondents equated it with sexual orientation. The research argued that the language of equality needs to be changed to be more in line with public understanding.
The use of language is a complex issue that is often oversimplified and needs a much fuller treatment than the report gives it. As the survey suggests, many people feel alienated by what they see as dogmatic political correctness and we need to move beyond the over-simplifications associated with much equality work.3 Language use is rightly a focus for positive change but needs to be analysed carefully, rather than reduced to simple pleas to alter the language we use.
A section in the report From Sociology to Psychology argues that psychology has taken over from sociology as the “dominant popular ‘ology’”. However, the report is wrong to suggest that sociological explanations of inequality have ever been dominant in terms of public opinion.
Sociological concepts of ideology are useful in explaining why it is to be expected that dominant ideas and cultural assumptions will be based on notions of “naturalness”.
This research seems to reinforce that expectation, although the authors present their findings without theorising their relationship with ideology. Research has an important role to play in informing practice, but research needs to be theorised – that is, it needs to be interpreted and made sense of within a conceptual framework.4 The facts do not speak for themselves.
This research gives us a great deal of food for thought and, as such, it is a valuable contribution. However, the report itself has significant limitations in terms of helping us to develop our understanding of these complex but vitally important issues.
1 The Observer, 29 June 2003
2 Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs, Talking Equality: What Men and Women Think about Equality in Britain Today, Equal Opportunities Commission. See www.eoc.org.uk.
3 Neil Thompson, Promoting Equality: Challenging Discrimination and Oppression, 2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
4 Neil Thompson, Theory and Practice in Human Services, 2nd edition, Open University Press, 2000.
Neil Thompson is an independent trainer and consultant with Avenue Consulting (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk ).