On September 16th we had a very fruitful research seminar with Simon Reid-Henry and Mikkel Thorup. Both had great, useful suggestions and comments (that we continue to ponder about). One of the discussion points from our seminar in mid-September has certainly proven its high relevance recently: that the conceptual history of global inequality has to be done ‘by proxy’. The word itself did not exist in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was barely used up until the last three to two decades. Currently, we are thus reading up on conceptual history (in the tradition of the German historian Reinhart Koselleck) to try to think through this point.
Moving backwards in time, the word ‘global inequality’ does not appear much. Our studies show that the word did not emerge until the beginning of the early 1970s food crisis. When the word emerged, it had different meanings than it has today. Perhaps obvious, the word means different things to different people and in different contexts. Today, people often use the notion ‘global inequality’ in vague and abstract fashions, with no indications of what kind(s) of inequality we are talking about, and where. One the other hand, however, parts of the reasons why the term has become more widespread in research literature and public debates in the recent decades, we think, is that it also got a stricter definition and meaning (see Branko Milanovic). Global inequality in this regard refers to economic inequality between individuals in the world, often measured by the Gini-coefficient, and carefully distinguished from within-nation inequality as well as from between-nation inequality (average GDP per capita). Compared to this contemporary meaning of the word (economic and person to person inequality), the word had very different connotations in the early 1970s. Back then, it often referred to a broader set of inequalities between ‘North’ and ‘South’, between rich and poor nations, and global inequality was as much about political inequality as about economic inequality (the two could often not be separated from each other). In some studies from the 1970s and 1980s, the word ‘global inequality’ was often used interchangeably with what we in current usage of the term might call ‘international inequality’. Comparing the 1970s with the present day, the word changed its meaning, and it was relatively late that it became what Koselleck would call a ‘key concept’.
So where does ‘by proxy’ come in? Or, in other words, how do we study the intellectual and conceptual history of global inequality before the term ‘global inequality’ saw the light of day?
In the conceptual history literature, we are reminded of not only studying the meanings and changing meanings of a word (semasiology), but also asking questions about how one thing may be expressed through different words (onomasiology). Exactly how to do this is a bit tricky, but what we can definitely say is that the post-war era, up until the 1970s’ invention of ‘global inequality’ as a term, was much concerned with a new discourse on what we, analytically, could call ‘an unequal world’. Whether we look at early post-war comparisons of national incomes, at the human rights declaration, at theories of development and of modernization, at dependency theories of the world being divided into a ‘center’ and a ‘periphery’, at racial discrimination seen as a transnational world phenomenon, at the metaphor of a ‘widening gap’, lots of people were engaged in discussions about the reality of ‘an unequal world’. Hence, studying the intellectual and conceptual history of global inequality by proxy means the following: uncovering historical discourse about an unequal world before the word ‘global inequality’ saw the light of day in the 1970s (and until the 21st century when ‘global inequality’ became a key concept).
A point we also discussed at our workshop in September is that the history of the term ‘global inequality’ is a history of data. It is a history of research infrastructure, of the coming into being of new data, new databases, digitalization and other factors, which were crucial in creating the more recent accounts of ‘global inequality’. But even before that, new data in the post-war era on national incomes contributed to a new discourse on ‘the gap’ between rich and poor nations in an unequal world.