Structural Inequality

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

Click for Rahman paper

Concept description

K. Sabeel Rahman (2018, reference below, pdf on right) describes structural inequality as the “[m]any forms of economic, social, and political inequality [that] are the product not of individual actors but of larger systemic and structural arrangements.”

Rahman writes:

“The question of such systemic or structural inequalities often stump courts and lawmakers alike. What does it mean for inequality to be “systemic”? Can any single actor be held responsible for such systemic or structural disparities? If these disparities are so diffuse, so baked into the background patterns of social and economic activity, how would they even be redressed or counteracted?

“And yet, structural inequalities are of increasing concern in social science and legal
scholarship, as well as public policy debates. Today, we can see the concern with systemic and structural inequality manifesting in many different literatures from the renewed interest in law, inequality, and political economy, to scholars working in fields as diverse as labor law, financial regulation, racial and gender discrimination, law and technology, local government law, and more. This scholarship indicates how inequality has much deeper roots in the way our political economy channels flows of income and resources, and how it allocates opportunities, wealth, and access. Inequality, on this view, emerges as a product of systemic transformations in the background rules and dynamics of the modern economy. Thus, empirical measures of widening income or
wealth inequality reflect the results of the accumulation of legal rules operating in the background; it is through law that these seemingly natural “market forces” are constructed. These inequities are manifest not only on economic dimensions, but also on racial and gendered lines, intersecting, exacerbating, and further codifying these disparities. …

“A structural lens on inequality helps uncover the ways in which background legal rules
facilitate disparities in economic income, opportunity, and wealth. Furthermore, this
approach helps diagnose the ways in which law helps concentrate economic power, which is often obscured behind, and operating through, layers of background legal regimes. Law facilitates these dynamics, and makes regulation difficult because new forms of twenty-first-century private power operate by exploiting legal structures and forms effectively. Thus, much of today’s inequality crisis is not just the product of technological change or natural evolution of modern-day capitalism; rather, it is the product of legal systems that are themselves subject to change and potential reform. Furthermore, diagnosing these structural inequalities highlights the degree to which reform efforts will have to take a structural, rather than meliorist, orientation.”

“There is a growing economic literature documenting the problem of low wages,
precarious and insecure work, and declining upward economic mobility, despite years of growing corporate profits. These inequalities are largely the product of background
structures around how law constructs the nature of the firm and of modern work – and
how private actors, such as investors, financiers, and managers, are able to exploit these structural rules to capture a larger share of economic gains. …

“Just as the work and corporations are exacerbating inequality through the
exploitation of background legal structures, the same can be said about the ways in which geography structures access to economic opportunity and basic needs. In recent years, a growing literature has documented the massive effects of economic and racial segregation in the modern city. Where someone is born can have decades- and generation-long impact on wages, mobility, health, and well-being. The chances of being born in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods is not equally distributed: racial minorities and poorer families are both dramatically more likely to live in such neighborhoods – and thus the geography of opportunity plays a large role in sustaining racial and economic hierarchies. These disparities are produced by the interaction of law, urban planning, and architecture itself.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Income Inequality and Poverty (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


K. Sabeel Rahman (2018), Constructing and Contesting Structural Inequality, Critical Analysis of Law, 5.1 (28 pages), at, accessed 13 December 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 13 December 2018.

Image: K. Sabeel Rahman (2018), Constructing and Contesting Structural Inequality, at, accessed 13 December 2018.