Modelling social inequality

Many years ago I subscribed to New Scientist, which in those days had a page or two of short science news items near the front of every issue. One of those items caught my attention at once and has stayed with me ever since. As I remember it, this is how it went:

Unequal societies may arise naturally

A small computer modelling research team [names] reports [journal name] that just one or two very simple rules are enough to mimic the evolution of an egalitarian society into a profoundly unequal one.

If, they say, individuals are represented by freely moving particles (like gas molecules in a container) and every collision between any two of them results in the smaller one losing a small percentage of its mass to the larger one, then larger particles continually grow at the expense of smaller ones. If, further, larger particles tend to rise towards the top of the container and smaller ones to sink towards the bottom, interactions between particles of different size become less and less frequent.

Eventually, the team says, a stable pattern develops: a few very large particles at the top, a larger group of mid-sized particles beneath them, and a very large group of small particles at the bottom. At this stage, most interactions are within one of these strata, rather than between them, and it is extremely rare for (e.g.) a small particle to gain enough mass to rise into the middle layer.


And that was about all. It was a lot, though, in terms of understanding our stratified society – ruling class, middle class and working class – because it just made so much sense. People with power do gain more from interactions with people without it: the bully steals food from his victim, the shopkeeper makes a profit from his sales, the employer makes a profit from his workers, etc.

It also implies that all forms of society – anarchist, communist, oligarchic, democratic, theocratic or anything else – will tend to follow a similar path. Further, that avoiding such a trend will require conscious effort, mainly from government and mainly by way of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

egalitarian to privileged
From random egalitarianism to stratified privilege

But this is “as I remember it”, as I said, because I couldn’t find it when I looked for it again, weeks or months later. That issue of the magazine may have been tossed out and in those days, perhaps 25 years ago, New Scientist wasn’t online. Internet searches at the time did not bring up any hits on that research, and nor have any of my sporadic searches since then.

Naturally does not equal good

In case of doubt, I should say very clearly that the ‘natural’ course of development is not always desirable. In this case, in fact, it leads to misery for the great majority of people. Historically that misery has fuelled revolutions which, essentially, stirred the pot and re-started the process from a more egalitarian stage; but we only need to look at Russia and China to see the pattern repeating – and within a single lifetime, at that.

Where to from here?

At this point I welcome comments about how this (presumed) universal rule does or does not play out in societies, and about similar theoretical perspectives from anywhere at all.

And I would absolutely love to find that original research and see what came of it, or for someone to replicate the modelling (it was pretty simple even 25 years ago and should be very easy now).

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