Video Interview with Göran Therborn

Video Interview with Göran Therborn, Professor of Sociology, University of Cambridge

Advisory Board Member of

Berlin, December 2010


Video production team





At what point in your life did you think about studying social inequalities?

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I wrote my first article on comparative issues in international inequalities as a young student in the early 1960s. But for a long time after that I was primarily interested in the power structures which maintain inequalities, and looking for the forces which might attack the inequalities. The more specific focus on the scholarly study of inequalities is something of the last ten, twelve years I would say.



What is the difference between “difference” and social inequalities?

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When you talk about inequalities, you have two foci which you don’t have when you are interested primarily in differences. One is the commonality of the two phenomena, groups, forces, countries, units, etc.  And the second one is the implicit violation of a norm of basic inequality. For instance, apples and pears are different, but executives and workers are unequal.



What is the difference between social injustice and social inequalities?

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Injustice is a broader concept. Inequality is perhaps the most important and the largest component of social injustice. But it is not the only one; you can think about other social injustices, including the equal treatment of unequal units. For instance, if you make an evaluation of the intellectual capacity of two students, one coming from a professional urban background and another one from a peasant background of the Andes, if you compare their intellectual capacity on the basis of the same middle-class cultural code, you treat unjustly the person from another cultural code or another cultural milieu.

Or to take another very important example of social injustice in Latin America: You have the phenomenon of landowners and capitalists having trade union activists murdered. The murderers are usually protected by the state or parts of the state, not the official government, but parts of the state. This is very frequent in Colombia, rural Brazil and Mexico. That is another form of social injustice, but we would not really call it an inequality.


So, injustice is somewhat broader, but most injustices of the world have their roots in inequality.



Who decides how inequality is defined?

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In the last instance the disadvantaged, the discriminated and the subordinated. But that should not prevent us as scholars from looking into the possibility of inequalities which are not recognized by the disadvantaged as such. There are here too some kinds of religious or paternalist, clientelist kind of ideologies. On the whole, from the Enlightenment onwards there is not a universal but a general norm, a norm quite widespread across continents and across ideologies of a certain basic human equality, not just an equality of souls but also an equality of bodies, and that is the platform of modern scholarship on inequality. But in the last instance, who will finally decide what is an inequality (or what it is not) are the disadvantaged themselves.



What importance do cultural elements have in determining inequalities?

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They are very important in many ways; the basic one is that inequality is rooted in certain cultural norms, and basically in a cultural norm of equality which has been violated by inequality. But there are also other elements; in all kinds of inequalities, education and knowledge, and the distribution of knowledge, are extremely important.



What is the relationship between your concepts of “mechanisms” and “modes” of inequality?

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Each of the three basic modes of inequality (vital inequality, existential inequality and resource inequality) is produced by one or more of four different social mechanisms: distanciation, exclusion, hierarchisation and exploitation. The mechanism may be of different relative importance with respect to the different modes of inequality, but we should always expect that all four mechanisms are at work in the production and reproduction of each of the modes.



What is the significance of Marxism in your approach?

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Marxism has been a background to many of my social studies and investigations, but the concept of exploitation here is not bound up with the Marxian theory of value; it is used in a more general sense. The word “exploitation” is actually used in common language, by many people who will never regard themselves as Marxists.  

Exploitation refers to a relationship between two units or persons or groups or classes or countries where the benefits of “A” derive from the labor and/or the subjection or submission of “B”. And that is something you find not only in the economic sphere, you can also talk about sexual or emotional exploitation.

With regard to your other question about the importance of Marx to my current work, I would say, that one of the most important lessons I have drawn from many years of study of Marx is the importance of dialectics. And whenever you look at inequalities or social injustice you will have to look for the conditions under which the exploited or the disadvantaged will rise. Because it is the disadvantaged themselves who in the end will have to emancipate themselves to freedom from inequality or oppression. That is a basic insight and actually a core of Marxist social theory and perhaps Marx’s most important contribution to social science.



What is your concept of interdependence?

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I am not using the word “interdependence” very much. But I think of the current world as largely a product of a series of historical waves of globalization, or of large-scale social processes which may not have been literally planetary, but at least have been transcontinental and intercontinental.

The first one which is still there with us today--which occurred 1300 - 1700 years ago--was the spread of world religions. In a few centuries time, the heartlands of the main religions of the world – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism – were established and set up. I distinguish six or seven such historical waves of globalization. Each of them has left sediments in the current world and in order to understand how the current world operates; you have to be aware of its historical production, through these historical waves.



What are the origins of the term “entangled modernities” you use?

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The origin lies in critical analysis of colonialism and imperialism. And it is originally a reaction against the idea of multiple modernities which the late and great Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt launched in the early 1990s. The entanglement approach focuses on how modernities in different parts of the world became entangled, interconnected and interacting, through the prism of colonialism and imperialism. The word was originally coined in Berlin by Shalini Randeria, an anthropologist of Indian descent. And we made it a topic of, of two conferences which we actually organized together. But apart from its “ideengeschichtliche” background, the crucial thing is the focus on the central role of colonialism and European imperialism in the rise of modernity.



How should we approach the entanglements of local and supra-local inequalities?

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I think it is wise always to suspect that any kind of inequality you encounter is both local and supra-local. Not necessarily global, but certainly supra-local. Consequently, a bi-scalar or multi-scalar perspective is something we should be prepared to apply as a rule. There may be exceptions, but on the whole we should expect it to be important.

In Latin America this is even more important than in many other parts of the world, particularly in comparison with contemporary Europe. because of the weak integration of the Latin American nation-states, and the enormous inequalities and differences which exist between different parts of almost all Latin American countries, particularly in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Mexico.

And there you have to have both a global and a national perspective, because even though nation-state integration is weak in Latin America, it still makes a difference whether you are a citizen in Mexico or a citizen in Chile. And there is a local or a subnational/regional component. All these scales have to be borne in mind when you study inequalities in Latin America.




What is the role of family and gender as units of analysis in the study of social inequalities?

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The gradual discovery and critique of patriarchy was a major advance in the understanding of inequality. This had its early beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft in England and Olympe de Gouges in France, but on the whole it was not really part of the Enlightenment and came later. The family is interesting for social, political and ideological history, because bourgeois individuals, for instance, and the whole liberal tradition, managed to hide the family under a male, patriarchal individualism. The bourgeois individuals were in many ways ruling family collectives, and still are in the United States, and that is why the U.S. Congress has always adamantly refused to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance.

Patriarchy and unequal gender relations then later on acquired another very important role as an intellectual trading place, because they have opened, or should have opened, our eyes to the broader concept of existential inequality of which patriarchy and gender inequality are extremely important components. Of course there are other important components like ethnic ones and, for instance, cultural minorities or people with various kinds of handicaps, but there is a crucial role of the family and gender relations in the analysis of inequalities.

We should also not forget that family also bears upon the standard mainstream and conventional studies of income inequalities. The differential fertility, for instance, in Latin American countries, where the rich tend to have much fewer children than the poor, is a family mechanism which reinforces economic inequality. It is also noteworthy that even though patriarchy as an explicit social structure has been largely dismantled in Latin America, like in Europe in the last two decades, the average Latin American woman still has fewer degrees of freedom than the average Western European or North American woman. The differences in this respect between Latin Europe and Latin America are particularly significant. So gender inequality in Latin America is still an important issue.



Could you explain your thesis of the “stateless city” and the relationship between state and city for an analysis of class struggle?

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What you refer to was actually a critique of the idea of “stateless cities” rather than a a thesis of mine. It was a critique of the approach to urban studies which was developed by the American urbanist John Friedman and later elaborated and popularized by Saskia Sassen and Peter Taylor, who located cities only in the world economy.

Now, within an academic division of labor you can of course very well  focus on cities as economic nodes. In some cases this is getting a bit caricatural when cities are treated as no more than the postal code of business headquarters.

What is dangerous about that is that you not only lose the sense of other aspects of the city, but you extrapolate from your methodological concentration on cities in the world economy to arguments concerning the relationships between states and cities. I think this idea of cities becoming independent of states, the whole global cities idea, was punctuated by the recent financial crisis. When the financial crisis broke out on Wall Street and in London City, to whom did the bankers run to for help and cover? They did not run to other banks or other cities in the world, they ran to their respective national states, and they did this in New York and in Washington.  And in the London City they ran to Westminster, to 10 and 11 Downing Street.

There it became obvious, that when the chips are down, the state is the only actor with sufficient resources to intervene and the role of the Mayor of London or the Mayor of New York in this crisis has been pathetic. They have not done a bad job. Particularly Bloomberg in New York is a very capable figure, politician and capitalist as well, but a city mayor does not have any power to cope with a financial crisis. And in the case of New York the argument about how New York could hoist anchor and sail away from the United States is ridiculous also in another aspect: Most of the New York City budget is actually controlled by the New York state government.

So that article of mine, which has now been published in the British Journal of Environmental Planning, was a critique of the idea of the “stateless”, global city.



What significance would you give to informality and the crisis of power? How does informality strengthen the ruling elites?

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You are absolutely right in stressing the complementarity of formal and informal rules. All kinds of institutions normally have both explicit formal rules and more or less tacit informal rules. The point here is, I think, to be aware that the role of informality or irregular practices outside the rules differs in different power systems. For instance you have one case where the formal rules are basically for purposes of legitimacy in the world and to some extent to naïve citizens, whereas the actual practice is something different. You may have for instance the rule of elections including the rule of multi-party elections, but de facto these elections don’t decide anything. They are decided in advance, as the latest Mubarak Egyptian election showed for instance. That’s one case.

Then you have another example where you have the relationship between informality and the ruling elite. This again may differ, in one sense in some political systems, a ruling elite is more or less defined by the people who have the power to break or to violate all the rules. That is the “Big Man” kind of power, which you find very often in new political systems and “nouveau-riche” kind of regimes, like you have in many places in Africa for instance or which had for a very long time in Latin America in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.


There is another quite different kind of operation of informality and that is where there is a cultural code, where it is not the “mestizos” or the “nouveau riche”, the new big men who are ruling, but where there are old aristocracies and the old oligarchies. There is a tacit cultural code, which is not put in print, but in which a member of the elite always knows how to behave, and where people outside are lost, because they can’t operate. That is in some ways how more hegemonic and more aristocratic or oligarchic systems of power operate. So yes, the different kinds of combinations, the “combinatorik” between formal rules and informal practices of power are extremely important and interesting, and intriguing to the study systems of power.



Where can we find the formation of subjects and what is their scope of performance?

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First of all, we shouldn’t forget that, social  mechanisms are always run by subjects. I am not talking about these mechanisms in any kind of anonymous mechanical system of power like Foucault did in some of his work. Each of these mechanisms is actually run by subjects, by people. There is no contradiction between the subject and the mechanism,.

The other important thing here is a kind of dialectical approach. On the whole I think we can say that as a rule, inequalities--established inequalities--rest on an equilibrium between privileges and capacities, between the privileges and the powers of the advantaged or the privileged. And to look out for possibilities of change is primarily to look out for changes in the power base of the privileged. The power base of patriarchy was undermined on the one hand by proletarianization, when the father didn’t have any property to transmit to the next generation, and secondly, it was undermined when girls and women got an education outside the patriarchal home. In the same way, we should look out for changes in the system of ethnic power, of gender power, of capitalist power, for changes in ethnic structures and gender structures and labour or property markets, for instance.

Generally speaking, social movements are crucial to change. They are the ones running the mechanisms of equality. I should perhaps mention that in my work I have always emphasized that all the mechanisms of inequality had corresponding opposites in mechanisms of equality and they are also run by subjects, are usually run by collective forces which more often or not are social movements.



Is there nowadays a specific place or social struggle where we can find a dialectic movement of equality?

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One of the most interesting cases in Latin America is the mobilization of the Quechua and the Aymara populations in Bolivia, with an interesting historical background. The Cocaleros (the coca growers) learned from the miners to organize politically and socially. Traditionally the latter were the core of a very strong, very militant and ideologically and politically articulated labor movement. Then when the mines closed, many former mineros had to find another way of supporting themselves and became coca-growers and they provided the experience, the organizational culture, and even a large amount of the ideology which provided the base for the rise of Evo Morales as the leader of the Cocaleros, which was then broadened into an explicitly socialist movement.

In Latin America, I think one of the most significant events of the last decades has been the rising consciousness and the mobilization of ethnic groups, which can be found basically from Mexico down to Chile. The outcome, of course, differs, because the relations of power and the relative size of the groups are different, but that is one crucial example.



What is the responsibility of investigators in contesting and reproducing social inequality?

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There are three things we are responsible for: The first one is to seek the truth, to find the facts of the case, the facts on the ground. The second one is the protection of vulnerable sources, which means the protection of their anonymity. And third, it is also our responsibility always to listen to the people we study. But not necessarily to accept their arguments or their abuse, neither of the disadvantaged nor of the privileged. That’s something we can respect and further use. But as social scientists and scholars, it is our primary responsibility to find the truth of the cases, and to do that while respecting the people we study.



Do you think there is a pattern of social hierarchies reproducing inequalities of health and life expectancy in Latin America?

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As far as I know there is no equivalent study of the effects of status hierarchies in Latin America to the one that was done on in Britain on the central governmental bureaucracy in Whitehall in London, where it was shown that the life expectancy of the people studied over a period of two decades completely followed in a stepwise development. At the lowest you had the janitors, the porters, and the secretaries and so on, and then the most long-lived were the people at the highest rung in the civil service. And it turned out that this scale was robust in the sense that even if you took into account the consumption of tobacco and alcohol and so on, it was still there.

We should expect this kind of hierarchical effect on life expectancy to be stronger in Latin America than in Britain, because of the more hierarchical system in Latin America. But so far nobody has done such a study of the life expectancy of the people of the different levels of the state bureaucracy, say in Brazil or in Argentina or in Mexico or in Chile. It would be very interesting to do so.

In other respects, we do know quite a bit about different life expectancy in Latin America. We know that there are enormous differences in infant mortality in different regions, different classes. We know that the rural-urban differences of life expectancy are very wide in Latin America, more so than in Europe. And I think we also have studies of infant or child mortality rates in different parts of big cities. It is fairly easy to study, for example in some parts of Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires or Mexico City. There are very important differences--very important inequalities--of life expectancy in Latin America. The relative role of hierarchies in this is still unknown. And it is up to a new generation of scholars to look into that.

On the other hand, Latin America is, in terms of income inequality, still the most unequal part of the world. Latin America is changing, and we are seeing how life expectancy has actually increased, quite considerably in many Latin American countries, while child mortality,  which is still the most important factor for life expectancy, has gone down considerably. In the last 20 years, Latin America is actually the only region in the world in which most countries have a slightly lower rate of income inequality than they had in 1990. So there is hope, and there is certainly space for change. The difference for instance, in child mortality between Cuba on the one hand, and much richer countries like for example Brazil or Argentina or Mexico, is still enormous.



Video production team:



Tabea Goldboom

Frank Müller

Conrad Müller

Jan Wörlein



Gabriel Caballeros Gálvez

Johannes Heeg

Simón Ramírez Voltaire


English Language Quality Control:

Paul Talcott


Production and Direction:

Simón Ramírez Voltaire


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