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World Social Science Report 2016


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Questions and Answers

1. What is the World Social Science Report 2016 about?
2. Why does inequality matter?
3. Has inequality risen or fallen around the world?
4. Is inequality about more than just income and wealth?
5. How significant is global inequality?
6. How big is the “gap” in social science research into inequalities?
7. What role does social science play in reducing inequalities?
8. What can be done to close the “gap” in social science research into inequalities?
9. What impact does inequality have on sustainable development?
10. Who published the report?


1. What is the World Social Science Report 2016 about?

The World Social Science Report 2016 examines the harmful impact of inequalities on citizens, communities and countries.

The Report warns that unchecked inequalities could jeopardize the sustainability of economies, societies and communities, undermining efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The report highlights significant gaps in social science research into inequalities and calls for more robust research into the links between economic inequality and other inequalities, such as social, political, and environmental inequalities, to create more inclusive societies.

The report has six objectives:

  1. To look beyond economic inequality to the interactions between multiple dimensions of inequality. This is why the report often refers to “inequalities” rather than simply “inequality.”
  2. To document the trends in inequality in several countries and in all world regions, and to provide data and information on less well-researched nations, notably low-income countries in Africa and Asia.
  3. To analyse the consequences of inequalities in different countries and regions and for different groups of people.
  4. To identify strategies to reduce inequalities.
  5. To provide contributions to the study of inequality from a large range of social sciences (such as economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, legal studies and development studies), as well as other sources.
  6. To identify critical knowledge gaps and propose a global research agenda on inequality.

2. Why does inequality matter? 

Reducing inequality is, first and foremost, a question of human rights, fairness and social justice.

It is also key to eradicating extreme poverty, fostering sustainability, promoting civil progress, reducing conflict and violence, and developing inclusive governance.

3. Has inequality risen or fallen around the world?

Global inequality between country averages has declined in recent decades. Nonetheless, it remains at a very high level.

This positive trend is largely due to the decline of inequality between countries, following rapid economic growth in China and India.

At the same time, economic inequality within many countries has increased, and today threatens to reverse the trend of declining global inequality.

While several countries – both developed and emerging – recorded high rates of economic growth following the liberalization of their economies, inequality, and especially economic inequality, increased rapidly within countries.

The report highlights the considerable increase in economic inequality in northern countries such as the United States of America, the UK and Canada over the past three decades.

Even countries with low levels of economic inequality before the 1980s, such as Sweden, have recorded substantial increases.

In emerging economies data is scarcer and time series are shorter, but countries such as Colombia, Brazil and India register even higher levels of economic inequality than in the North.

Today South Africa has the world’s highest economic inequality, despite a decrease in recent years.

While reducing inequalities is important everywhere, a clear priority for action lies in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. This is the region in which poverty will be concentrated in the coming decades if inequalities remain as high as they are.

4. Is inequality about more than just income and wealth?

The report makes this very clear. Inequality is about much more than income and wealth.

The report identifies seven dimensions of inequality: economic, political, social, cultural, environmental, spatial and knowledge-based.

It explores how these overlapping inequalities can create and reinforce division, marginalization, exclusion and poverty.

5. How significant is global inequality?

Various evaluations have concluded that in 2015, almost half of all the world’s household wealth was owned by 1% of the global population, and that the sixty-two richest individuals owned as much as the bottom half of humanity.

6. How big is the “gap” in social science research into inequalities?

While there was a fivefold increase in studies of inequalities and social justice in academic publications from 1992-2013, many studies have paid too little attention to the overlapping inequalities that go beyond economic, such as social, political, and environmental.

The report highlights that the focus of social science research into inequalities tends to be in developed countries for which reliable data exists, to the detriment of developing countries without similarly reliable data.

North America and Western Europe accounted for more than 80% of social and human science publications – including from the fields of economics, psychology and social studies – on inequalities and social justice from 1992 to 2013.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America contributed 3% and 2% respectively.

7. What role does social science play in reducing inequalities?

Social science research has a critical role to play in identifying the causes, extent, impact and most effective policy responses to inequalities.

8. What can be done to close the “gap” in social science research into inequalities?

Too many countries are investing too little in researching the long-term impact of inequality on the sustainability of their economies, societies and communities. Unless we address this urgently, inequalities will make the cross-cutting ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ‘leave no one behind’ by 2030 an empty slogan.

The report calls for a step change towards a research agenda that is interdisciplinary, multiscale and globally inclusive, creating pathways towards greater equality, sustainability and inclusion.

The report highlights the need more cooperation across disciplines, borders and inequality specialisations to help governments to develop more effective polices to create more inclusive societies, North and South.

International networks, open data sources, open access to publishing and software are vital to achieve this.

9. What impact does inequality have on sustainable development?

Inequality not only erodes our collective efforts to achieve economic growth, reduce poverty and increase social mobility. It also increases political tension and all too often fuels conflict and instability.

Reducing inequality is an economic, environmental and ethical imperative.

The United Nations’ 193 member countries adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, an ambitious global undertaking to end poverty, address inequalities and tackle climate change over the next 15 years.

The SDGs, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aim to improve lives in all countries worldwide, committing both rich and poor countries to achieve a series of interconnected goals, including the reduction of inequality.

10. Who published the report?

The report is prepared by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) in Paris in cooperation with the UK-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, and co-published by UNESCO.

The report is based on contributions from more than 100 experts, from over 40 countries.

It was overseen by a Scientific Advisory Committee which included the Nobel-Prize laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

The World Social Science Report is published every three years. The report addresses important social science challenges, takes stock of social science contributions and capacities, and makes recommendations for future research, practice and policy. The first report was published in 2010.